Tackling Climate Change? Governor Jay Inslee Has a Plan for That

Jay Inslee has made climate change the centerpiece of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. In an e360 interview, the Washington governor talks about why a full-scale national mobilization is needed to address what he calls an “existential crisis.”

Jay Inslee is often called the “climate change candidate.” The two-term governor of Washington state launched his presidential campaign in March at a solar panel installation company in Seattle. He said he was joining the crowded field of Democratic candidates because “we are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change, and we are the last generation that can do something about it.”

Inslee has since unveiled two major climate change proposals. One would require “zero-emission” electricity generation across the U.S. by 2035. The other calls for the federal government to invest $3 trillion over a decade to upgrade buildings, create “climate-smart infrastructure,” encourage “clean manufacturing,” and research “next-generation” energy technologies. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York, one of the authors of the Green New Deal, recently tweeted that Inslee’s plans were “the most serious + comprehensive” of any of the candidate’s.

Governor Jay Inslee.

Governor Jay Inslee. Credit: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Inslee spoke to Yale Environment 360 about his proposals for reducing emissions, about why efforts to impose a carbon tax in Washington state have failed, and about why he thinks the country is “at a tipping point right now.”

Yale Environment 360: You have built your candidacy around climate change, and that’s obviously an unusual strategy — to run on one issue, even an issue as big as this one. Can you just explain the logic of that?

Governor Jay Inslee: Well, I’m not running on one issue. But I want to make sure that we have a candidate and a president who can focus on this existential crisis, the success in dealing with which everything else depends upon. Because this is not a single issue, it’s all the issues. It’s economic destruction; it’s job creation; it is health care, with pollution killing tens of thousands of Americans. It is a national security issue. So it’s really all the issues, if looked at through the proper lens, and it’s the one that is the most urgent.

When you look at our challenges, this is the one where we will not get another chance. The next administration will either seize this opportunity and initiate a full-scale mobilization of the United States, or our goose is cooked. That’s just the scientific reality.

e360: Some of the other candidates in the Democratic field have now come out with climate change proposals. Would you consider it a victory if climate change becomes a major issue in the Democratic primary but you are not ultimately the candidate?

Inslee: I would consider it a victory if I’m elected to be president. I consider victory being in the White House and leading the country to a full mobilization into a clean energy future.

e360: You have issued two detailed sets of proposals to transform the U.S. economy and get us off fossil fuels. As I read the price tag on those, we’re talking $300 billion a year. Where are we getting that from?

Inslee: One of the places to get it from is, the place where we don’t have disasters. This is a small number relative to the large number, which is the damages that the climate crisis is going to wreak on our economy. That’s what costs a lot of money.

“Some people [in Washington state] didn’t like this particular carbon tax, in part because the fossil fuel industry spent $32 million lying about it.”

And as far as what we have proposed, it is dictated by two things that ought to be inarguable. One is science. You just can’t argue or negotiate with physics and chemistry. And that demands something of this scale. And two, this is a scale of investment that we know can succeed, as it did in World War II, when we mobilized the U.S. economy.

e360: One obvious source of revenue would be a carbon tax, but that’s not the proposal. Why not?

Inslee: Well, it may not be necessary to start with because we have multiple ways, we have 38 pages of proposals, all of which are proven to reduce carbon, and so we have all kinds of other avenues other than a price. And though it has been, lamentably, the focus, that’s not the only tool in the shed. It’s one of dozens of procedures and policies we can adopt – from a 100 percent [carbon-free] requirement, to the elimination of coal, to an investment in clean electrical grids. I mean we have tons of different measures, other than just the price, and we thought these things are much more attainable in the short-term and are adequate to the task.

e360: That brings me to my next question, because there have been two or three, depending how you want to count, campaigns in Washington state to institute a carbon tax, and they all failed. Could you talk about what happened and about what lessons people could maybe take from those defeats?

Inslee: You seem to want to focus on defeat, and I have a different view. We like to focus on victory, which we had this year. We had an enormous victory [with legislation passed] in the state of Washington in 2019. Eighty percent of all the things the carbon tax will attain, we attained through other measures. So, it was not a defeat if you look at our experience; it was an enormous victory.

Now, what we’ve learned is that some people didn’t like this particular carbon tax, in part because the fossil fuel industry spent $32 million lying about it, and telling the public things about it that were not accurate. When you spend $32 million trying to deceive the public, sometimes it works. But we also learned that the strongest renewable fuel in the world is the power of persistence, and that’s what we’ve brought to this. We were undaunted. We turned around and we introduced five bills that will achieve the same carbon reduction, and four of them passed, and the fifth [which caps carbon pollution from industrial emitters] is subject to a decision in the state Supreme Court that we hope will be forthcoming. And as soon as that is in place, we will be complete in doing more than the carbon tax would have done.

“You could walk into the White House on day one and hand this [climate action plan] to your cabinet, and they would know what to do.”

e360: Are you suggesting that we can get to the carbon reductions that we need without any kind of price on carbon?

Inslee: I think that there is every possibility to believe that. Look, we passed a renewable portfolio standard [in Washington state] years ago that people thought was going to be a catastrophe. In fact, it is succeeding, creating a $6 billion wind industry. It hasn’t really resulted in any particular electricity price spikes. So we know these things work, and to some degree we don’t have to build a new mousetrap here. It’s been done; we know it works. And we just need the will to embrace those things.

e360: Some people have characterized your proposals as the actual legislation filling out the Green New Deal, which really doesn’t have any legislation attached to it. Do you agree with that characterization?

Inslee: I think that the Green New Deal has been really, really inspirational and helpful for three reasons. It’s gotten climate change into the discussion. It has broadened people’s ambitions on the scale of what’s really necessary. And it is broadening the communities involved — communities of color, indigenous communities, it’s been really successful in that regard.

Our plan is not a campaign document; it is a governing document. You could walk into the White House on day one and hand this to your cabinet, and they would know what to do, it is that comprehensive. And this is not an accident. This is something I’ve been studying, I wrote a book about it 12 years ago.

e360: The politics around climate change have become so partisan, it’s really hard to imagine a lot of progress being made unless there’s some sort of blue sweep of the country in 2020. I’m wondering if you see any change on the horizon, any way to change this partisan breakdown?

Inslee: The people of the country are not as divided as you might believe. Seventy-five percent of Americans of all stripes believe that we should have a good, realistic plan to protect ourselves from a climate crisis — that’s just a fact. It’s not reflected in the Republican politicians, who are refusing to buck their masters in the oil and gas industry or Donald Trump. They’re not listening to the American people. The people are moving very rapidly in our direction. It’s about a 12 point swing towards reality- and science-based decision making in the last 12 months.

Inslee announcing his run for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 1 at a solar panel installation company in Seattle.

Inslee announcing his run for the Democratic presidential nomination on March 1 at a solar panel installation company in Seattle. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

e360: What do you mean?

Inslee: When you ask Americans, “Should we act on the climate crisis?,” it was about 63 percent 12 months ago, and now it’s at 75 percent. So it’s moving. If you ask likely Democratic primary voters in Iowa, they’ll tell you this is their No. 1 priority. That’s a change. It’s a very high priority in other early primary states as well, and I would like to think the reason for that was the book I wrote 12 years ago, but that’s not the case. What has happened is that at that point, this [the impact of climate change] was a graph, it was a line on a chart, and it was an academic abstraction. Now it is Paradise, California burned to the ground. It’s the Iowa floods. It’s Miami Beach having to spend millions of dollars of taxpayer money to rebuild the roads a foot and a half higher. These are the real-world consequences of 30 years of kicking the can down the road, and people now want to see action.

To do that we need at least two things. We need a president to sound the bugle for action. If you think of the big strides in America, when have we ever achieved anything without presidential leadership? And we need to rid ourselves of the scourge of the filibuster. The filibuster would block any meaningful change in policies. We know Mitch McConnell believes himself the grim reaper, and we need to take that weapon out of his hands. That’s an undemocratic, antebellum artifact of a bygone age, and it needs to go by the boards. I was the first candidate to say that, and I wish others would join me.

e360: I’d like to back for a second. The idea that the oil and gas companies have bought themselves a party, many people would agree with that. But you saw the power these industries have to influence the public as well, so how do you combat that?

Inslee: By defeating people who stand in the hall, as Bob Dylan said [in “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”]. They need to fall, and they have fallen. Ten Republicans [in the Washington state legislature] lost last fall, in part because of this issue. We elected 10 Democrats. So until they get an epiphany, until the spirit of Teddy Roosevelt rises again, the only answer is to remove Republicans from office. I wish it was otherwise.

“We are making progress in our policies. We just need presidential leadership, and that’s what we lack.”

e360: People often ask me, “What is it going take to convince people we need to act?” So I’m going to ask you that question. Do you feel it is going to take some hideous crisis or do you think that people are now feeling climate changes in their lives and feel the need to act?

Inslee: Well, I just landed at the Las Vegas airport, and the first thing a local state trooper said is “Man, the weather’s really getting weirder out here.” And he didn’t say that because it was me – it was just an aside. You’re hearing this all over America, because it is getting weird. We had a test of this issue last November. Donald Trump said climate change is a Chinese hoax. He said that wind turbines cause cancer. But we elected seven Democratic governors saying wind turbines cause jobs, and we gained about 40 new members of Congress who believe clean energy jobs are the future, and we elected 10 legislators in my state. So, there is a rapidly moving dynamic here.

e360: Not to keep harping on the negative, but you’ve been at this a long time, and what actually happened last year is, yes, a lot of people were elected, but emissions went up in the U.S. That’s the only thing that counts in this game. So why would you feel we’re making progress here?

Inslee: Because we are making progress in our policies, we just need presidential leadership and that’s what we lack. And we need to get rid of the filibuster.

I think we’re at a tipping point right now. In every social movement there is a tipping point. You lose, you lose, you lose, and then you win, and you don’t go backwards from that point. And, by the way, there’s no other approach to this. I understand we’ve had setbacks in this for decades, but there’s no other outcome we can accept but victory. Because without victory there is no survival here, so I don’t spend a lot of time wringing my hands over past defeats.