Jay Inslee Set the Standard for Presidential Candidate Climate Action

U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee (center) gets a firsthand look at progress made on Sound Transit’s light rail expansion in February 2008.

As someone who spends her waking hours working to accelerate the clean energy transition, I disagree strongly with critics who suggest that Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s aborted presidential campaign was a flop.

Inslee ran to make sure that the Democrats didn’t ignore climate change during the 2020 campaign as they did in 2016; to elevate his national image; and possibly to pave the way to be appointed to a well-deserved climate-related position in the Democratic administration that all of us who work on climate fervently hope will be in place after Inauguration Day 2021.  

Inslee achieved the first two goals and is well-positioned to attain the third. I accept the primary motivation for his quixotic run, which is a deep-seated, passionate commitment to addressing climate change—something he and his team have considerable expertise in—and I commend him for making the effort.

Inslee’s six-part Climate Mission Agenda (see below for links to each section) is the best of the lot and its breadth and nuance thrust the issue of climate change onto the debate stage and forced the other candidates to up their games significantly.

Inslee released his detailed and ambitious first installment on May 3, calling for the closure of all US coal plants by 2030 (the first of the then 21 presidential candidates to do so), and net-zero emissions by 2045, offering a plan with the smart tactics that the first plan out of the gate by Beto O’Rourke lacked.

Inslee’s climate ambition caused clean energy expert Jigar Shah, co-founder and president of Generate Capital and member of the Energy Gang, to tell BuzzFeed News: “Gov. Inslee is setting the standard for what it’s going to take to become the Democratic nominee on climate issues.” (Listen to the Energy Gang’s June 3, 2019 podcast on the Democratic presidential candidates’ climate plans.)

The Rest of the Plans

Bernie Sanders’ plan is easy to criticize as it hews so closely to the Green New Deal (GND); has such a big price tag ($16 trillion); and is so unrealistically aggressive with its targets—100% renewable energy for all electricity and transportation no later than 2030; complete decarbonization by 2050 at the latest and the creation of 20 million jobs.

While Sanders' decarbonization targets are in keeping with what the climate crisis requires, they are quite challenging to achieve with current technology and economics.

Elizabeth Warren revealed her climate change policies in bits and pieces through the Medium this year—public lands (April 15); the military (May 15); American manufacturing (June 4); climate risk disclosure (July 10); and trade (July 29).  

Warren is also in the Green New Deal camp, and her plans offers some intriguing details, such as a Green Apollo Program, a Green Industrial Mobilization, and a Green Marshall Plan that would create a new federal office dedicated to selling American-made clean energy technology abroad and a $100 billion commitment to assisting countries to purchase and deploy clean technology.

Joe Biden’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice has interesting elements that show his and his seasoned staff’s keen understanding of how to use executive orders and agencies to take meaningful action in the event that a Mitch McConnell-run Senate is still in place in 2021 (which Inslee’s also does). Biden oversaw The Recovery Act, the largest single investment in clean energy in U.S. history, so he understands firsthand how investing in clean energy reaps climate as well as economic rewards.

On April 29, Beto O’Rourke called for $5 trillion in funding and net-zero emissions in the country by 2050. However, his plan caused Kevin Drum of Mother Jones to accuse him of using “voodoo accounting” because he would “mobilize” the $5 trillion by “leveraging” $1.5 trillion in direct investment. O’Rourke’s plan is the shortest of all the plans and, according to Drum, has a “jargon quotient so high that it’s hardly possible to say what O’Rourke really means.”

Kamala Harris and Cory Booker lag far behind the others with their climate initiatives and Mayor Pete Buttigieg's initial responses to the The New York Times back in April were not encouraging.

Climate on the Ballot in 2020

Inslee’s dropping out does not make the case that climate is a non-starter in today’s politics. Polls show that the GND has enormous appeal to Americans: A Yale Program Climate Change Communication poll conducted in December of 2018 found 81% of registered voters either strongly support (40%) or somewhat support (41%) the GND, although support drops considerably, especially among Republicans, when it is attacked as socialist and exorbitant.

Another Yale climate program ppoll released in April found climate change ranking third among 29 important issues for registered voters among liberal Democrats and eighth for moderate and conservative Democrats, up from last year’s Yale poll, where climate change ranked fourth out of 28 issues for liberal Democrats and 16th for moderate and conservative Democrats.

There are farmers in red states, where soil soil quality is diminishing due to climate change and yielding fewer and lower-quality crops. Many red state voters live along coastlines where the seas are rising and reside whewhere fires are raging and waterwater tables are dropping. Activists calling for action aren’t going away any time soon, and no one should underestimate the power of AmAmerican youth who will vote on climate.

It's quite possible that the Democrats will blow this and the Republicans will outsmart them on climate with their messaging about the cost, the risks to the economy, and the “end of the American way of life as we know it”—and there is no question that addressing climate change is very costly and will involve disruption with winners and losers.

But the obvious impacts of a warming world have many voters across the political spectrum concerned. The Republicans know this, which is why they no lonno longer try to deny the reality of climate change and why they mounted such a strong attack on the GND.

We have Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to thank for making sure that climate change is front and center among the issues the 2020 Democratic candidates debate.

Links to Jay Inslee’s six-part Climate Mission Agenda:

For additional analysis of Jay Inslee’s climate plan and presidential campaign, please see these excellent stories by ace climate and clean energy reporter, Vox’s David Roberts:

A version version of this article first appeared in Post Alley on August 27, 2019.

Eileen V. Quigley

Founder & Executive Director
Eileen V. Quigley is Founder and Executive Director of the Clean Energy Transition Institute. Eileen spent seven years at Climate Solutions identifying the transition pathways off oil and coal to a low-carbon future in Washington and Oregon. She built and led the New Energy Cities program, which partnered with 22 Northwest cities and counties to reduce carbon emissions. As Director of Strategic Innovations, she oversaw New Energy Cities, as well as Sustainable Advanced Fuels.
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