It was a long shot. Washington Governor Jay Inslee knew that. But Inslee had a mission that was bigger than winning the race for president of the United States: He wanted to drive climate change into the center of the roiling conversation about the country’s future.
And on that larger point, at least, he succeeded. Inslee was far from the only person pushing the climate agenda on the national stage, of course, but he played an important role by putting forward a climate plan spanning five volumes and a whopping 250 pages. It’s a plan that, two months after stepping out of the race, Inslee still considers the “gold standard.”
Grist Founder Chip Giller, who now leads the organization’s solutions lab, Fix, caught up with Inslee at a recent event in Manhattan called One Blue Dot, co-hosted by Grist, X, and Elemental Labs. They discussed lessons learned in Washington state, the national mood on climate policy, and how Inslee’s race for president changed him.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q.Jay, we’re fortunate to live in Washington state. How did the climate message play in places like Iowa or South Carolina?
A.Well, I think there’s a big misconception about this, because I found a relatively uniform belief about climate change in every state I went to.
I went to Hamburg, Iowa — this is a town, it was founded in 1858, it had never been flooded before. I met a guy whose mother got flooded out under eight or nine feet of water. So that’s in Iowa, where, if you’re a farmer, not only are you getting killed by the trade war, but you got killed ’cause your silos were full of soybeans and wheat you couldn’t sell anywhere, and then your silos collapsed because of the flood.
In Spartanburg, South Carolina, I saw a predominantly black community next to a toxic waste dump. They’ve been able to totally revitalize their economy and their culture by building solar farms, solar power on top of their roofs, and energy efficient buildings with a health clinic.
This is the No. 1 job-creation message in the United States. There is no place in the United States where I cannot show you how to grow jobs [with clean energy]. Clean energy jobs are growing twice as fast as the average economy. And this is a message that resonates — so I think this is a winner in every county, every zip code.
Q.The climate movement is becoming much more diverse, and much more youth-led. Did you see that change on the ground?
A.When I see Greta Thunberg give the stink eye to Donald Trump, I know we’re winning. The youth movement on this has been so incredibly effective in changing people’s perception about this, because they speak from a moral high ground. When a 12-year-old looks at a 70-year-old and says, “Hey, bub, you’re ruining my future,” the 70-year-old has no response but, “Yes ma’am, yes sir — I need to get off the dime and start doing something.”
But the most successful thing in changing public perception has been the slow-moving disaster movie that we have seen. When I started talking about [climate change, years ago], it was a chart on a graph, right? You’d graph how parts per million are going up. Now it’s watching the fires burn down California, and the floods in the Midwest, and Miami Beach underwater.
This is like an Indiana Jones movie. We’re in the moment where the big ball is rolling down the thing and it’s going to squish you.
Q.If you had Wonder Woman’s lasso, and you were asking the remaining Democratic candidates a question about their climate policy, what would you ask of them?
A.I’ve offered a plan that I believe remains the gold standard. I’ve been very pleased that other candidates have embraced major parts [of it] … I’m very pleased that Senator [Elizabeth] Warren has now added to her plan the regulatory provision that will insist that we get off of coal. I guess my question is, when are you going to put your name on all 250 pages of my plan and declare victory?
Q.What do you think is the central, most core component of that plan?
A.I think the most important thing that might’ve distinguished my position from some of the other candidates is my embrace of this idea that we actually need to have concrete, meaningful, regulatory prohibitions on using the material that is killing us … fossil fuels.
Q.When you think of what a president can do, a new president, how much can be accomplished in the executive branch, without the support of Congress?
A.A whole bunch. It may be over 50 percent — including in transportation, and in power generation, and in public lands, and in research and development. There are tons [of things] the executive branch is already allowed to do under existing statutes, particularly the Clean Air [Act].
Q.In Washington state, we’ve twice tried to pass, by popular vote, a carbon tax. Even in Washington, we couldn’t get this passed. What lessons have you taken from that? Has your thinking around carbon pricing evolved?
A.The lesson from this is that the most powerful renewable fuel in America is the power of perseverance. When those initiatives did not pass, we didn’t sit there with our chin on the ground. The next morning we introduced five bills with different systems of reducing carbon pollution. Four of those passed the legislature. We are achieving 80 percent of the carbon savings that would have been achieved by those initiatives. And now we’re moving forward and we may have the fifth element, a low-carbon fuel standard, and we’ll be at 100 percent. So there’s lots of tools in the toolbox here, not just a price on carbon.
Q.Has there been any bridge-building in Washington state? Have Republicans come across the aisle and approached you with ideas?
A.Uh, no. Republicans are still marching off the bridge into the water, unfortunately. It is extremely disappointing because this was a great party, once led by Theodore Roosevelt, who started this whole conservation movement. And there are many, many Republican voters who do want action on this. If you look at the polling, about half of the Republican voters in America do want action on climate change, but, by and large, at least in my state, the politicians have refused, on the Republican side, to put their shoulder to the wheel. Right now, the only solution to that problem is to make sure that they have nice positions in private life.
Q.Could you talk a little bit about how the campaign transformed you?
A.Oh, I aged years and years and years. No, it was a great experience. I’m glad I ran. I think it helped advance the conversation. I think it forced other candidates to raise their ambitions. But it was also very personally inspiring. I was so inspired, meeting Americans all over the country. The people out there are engaged, they’re positive, they really want to work in a united fashion … and make sure that Donald Trump is a blip in history.