Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday became the first major candidate in history to officially launch a White House bid centered entirely on combating climate change, entering a crowded field of Democrats vying to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020.
In a video that opens with shots of storm clouds gathering over the Seattle skyline, Inslee, 68, vowed to transition the nation to 100 percent renewable electricity and generate “millions of good paying jobs” in “every community across America.”
“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change,” Inslee said over images of the charred rubble California’s unprecedented wildfires left behind last year. “And we’re the last that can do something about it.”
It’s a remarkable, if longshot, bid that says as much about the rapidly changing nature of American climate politics as it does about the two-term governor’s political ambitions.
Not a single question about human-caused global warming came up during the 2016 presidential debates.
Scientists warned that emissions from fossil fuels could increase average global temperatures more than a century ago. NASA researcher James Hansen first testified that global warming had begun in 1988. Yet decades of misinformation financed primarily by oil and gas companies stoked partisan divides over the very reality of climate change, and no serious effort to scale back emissions ever took form.
Yet the Trump administration’s all-out assault on the meager suite of federal regulations President Barack Obama put in place generated a new focus on the issue. Then, in 2017, a series of catastrophic wildfires and hurricanes that scientists said offered a glimpse of life in a warmer world made the climate crisis tangible to many Americans for the first time.
By 2018, a new movement, championed by a cadre of left-wing populists like Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), began calling for a Green New Deal, a sweeping plan to dramatically cut emissions and provide secure, union-wage clean energy jobs to any American who wants one.
The issue surged from near the bottom of Democratic primary voters’ priorities to the No. 2 concern behind health care in a poll released last month. A Yale University survey published this week found 85 percent of registered voters ― including 95 percent of Democrats and 71 percent of Republicans ― support requiring utilities in their states to produce 100 percent of their electricity from clean sources by 2050. About half said they were more likely to vote for a candidate who supports that policy.
Inslee is by no means the only contender seeking to woo those voters. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spent the last three years proposing clean energy legislation and making climate change a key issue for his devoted base of activists. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) refashioned her trademark rhetoric attacking corporate power to demand an end to the roughly $20 billion the United States dishes out in fossil fuel subsidies each year. Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) ― along with nearly every other 2020 contender ― endorsed the Green New Deal.
Inslee hopes his singular focus will set him apart.
“I’m running for president because I’m the only candidate who will make defeating climate change our nation’s No. 1 priority,” he said in the video.
Inslee’s record on the issue stretches back to 2006, when, serving as one of Washington’s then-nine U.S. representatives, he led an effort to set a renewable portfolio standard in the Evergreen State. The next year, he co-authored a book called Apollo’s Fire: Igniting America’s Clean Energy Economy, which, as the title implies, laid out a vision for bolstering the renewable-energy and electric-vehicle industries.
In 2009, Inslee helped start the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition in the House of Representatives. Later that year, he co-sponsored the failed federal cap-and-trade bill known as Waxman-Markey, the last major federal effort to cut planet-warming emissions.
In 2016, Inslee became the first governor to issue an executive order capping carbon dioxide emissions. A year later, he founded the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan interstate club aimed at maintaining the country’s climate negotiations with other countries after Trump announced the United States’ plan to withdraw from the Paris climate accords.
A glowing profile published in January in The Atlantic described Inslee’s array of state-level policies as “arguably the most progressive and greenest agenda in the country, with fields of solar panels, fleets of electric buses and massive job growth to show for it.”
That same month, Inslee pledged to reject donations from the fossil fuel industry, though this week his allies announced the formation of a super PAC, Act Now On Climate, to support his bid. The group is led by former Democratic Governor’s Association political director Corey Platt.
Inslee took firm stances against major fossil fuel infrastructure projects. In January 2018, he personally intervened to reject permits to build what would have been the country’s largest oil-by-rail facility at the Port of Vancouver. He signed a bill last March putting a new tax on pipelines, requiring the operators to fund a state program to safeguard against oil spills. In May, he blocked construction of a $680 million coal-export terminal on the Columbia River.
But his signature climate effort ― a plan to put a price on carbon emissions ― failed three times in Washington. The most recent attempt, a proposal called Initiative 1631 and widely considered a state-level version of a Green New Deal, lost in a November referendum after the oil industry spent a record $31 million pressuring Evergreen State voters to reject the ballot measure. E&E News in January dubbed the vote the latest in a series of “spectacular failures while achieving just a few minor victories.”
Inslee has faced some climate critics, too. In February 2018, 13 young people in Washington, aged 7 to 17, sued the state, alleging Inslee and his agencies violated their constitutional rights to a safe climate by failing to curb emissions. One plaintiff ― Jamie Margolin, a 17-year-old activist in Seattle who founded the youth climate group Zero Hour ― railed against Inslee in a series of tweets last week accusing the governor of fighting “tooth & nail” against the lawsuit, which a state judge tossed in August. As evidence, she pointed to the continued fight over a liquified natural gas terminal in Tacoma, Washington, which the Puyallup Tribe and leaders from 14 other Northwest tribes pleaded with Inslee to reject. In January, Inslee told HuffPost he couldn’t comment on ongoing state negotiations, but his spokesman warned that the project “doesn’t have final permitting yet.”
Climate won’t be Inslee’s only issue. Last week, the governor became the first likely 2020 candidate to promise to end the filibuster, which is seen as a likely impediment to enacting sweeping Green New Deal legislation.
“This is the 11th hour,” Inslee told HuffPost in January. “But it should be our hour to shine.”
This story was updated to clarify how many representatives Washington had in 2006.