Jay Inslee’s Lonely Campaign for Climate Change Policy
Jay Inslee’s single-issue campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination was a quixotic effort from the get-go, noble but doomed, one of the longest shots in this electoral season. And on Wednesday, with his hopes of appearing in the next round of debates fast disappearing because of his poor standing in the polls, he accepted reality and graciously dropped out of the race.
Yet Mr. Inslee has much to be proud of. In retrospect, his efforts were less about actually winning than they were about pounding home the importance of one issue, global warming. The changing climate consumes him but has had little staying power with the public and the politicians in Washington, and Mr. Inslee dedicated his campaign to moving it closer to the center of the political conversation, at least among Democrats.
In this he has succeeded. One by one, the other candidates, most recently Bernie Sanders, have unveiled climate plans large and small, while the issue of climate change itself has steadily risen in prominence among Democratic voters. A survey from Yale and George Mason University in April found that while climate change ranked 17th on a list of 29 important issues among all registered voters, it ranked third among the liberal Democrats to whom many of the candidates have aimed their appeals and eighth among moderate and conservative Democrats.
The affable Mr. Inslee brought more than passion to the table. He also brought a wealth of experience in dealing with the issue on the state level as the governor of Washington, as well as a staggering appetite for detail. In the course of his campaign, he released six formidably researched position papers, more than 220 pages altogether, amounting to a blueprint for decarbonizing the American economy by midcentury, a goal that the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has urged on the world as a whole to avert the worst consequences of climate change.
The first paper addressed the three sectors of the economy — power generation, transportation and buildings — that together are responsible for nearly 70 percent of carbon emissions in the United States, and what must be done to clean them up. In the case of transportation, for instance, Mr. Inslee would mandate all-electric cars by the 2030 model year. The last paper, released only hours before his withdrawal from the race, dealt with agriculture and how farmers can improve land-use practices to reduce emissions from the soil. In between were detailed disquisitions on where he would invest $9 trillion over 10 years to retrofit older buildings, modernize the grid and build green infrastructure; how and when he would phase out fossil fuel production in America (beginning with a swift karate chop to hydraulic fracturing and all fossil fuel subsidies); how he would protect poorer communities and workers who lose their jobs in the decarbonizing process; how he would engage with the rest of the world to bring down global emissions.
If this sounds a bit like last winter’s Green New Deal, it is, but with two very big differences: The Green New Deal was a 14-page congressional resolution full of lofty goals. Mr. Inslee puts substantial policy meat on an aspirational bare-bones outline. Second, unlike the Green New Deal, Mr. Inslee offers a compelling international component that basically reimagines American foreign policy by putting climate change at its very center, and by using all the tools of foreign policy — trade, aid, robust diplomacy — to reward countries that adopt ambitious climate strategies and punish those that don’t.
As an exercise, try to imagine a President Inslee dealing with Brazil’s leadership, which is letting the Amazon burn out of control, or the Australians, who plan to enrich themselves by selling vast quantities of dirty coal to India. Of course, he would quickly reaffirm America’s commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change, which President Trump rejects, so that America could recapture the leadership role it had under President Barack Obama. But he would also demand much of others.
What’s Mr. Inslee to do now? Well, he plans to compete for the office he already holds and will run for a third term as governor of Washington in 2020. Should he win, he will remain, along with New York’s Andrew Cuomo and California’s Gavin Newsom, as one of the three most important leaders of the effort by America’s states and cities to reduce their emissions and compensate for Mr. Trump’s failure at the federal level. But for the moment, he can take satisfaction in what he has left behind: an actual Green New Deal, a guide that’s just waiting for whoever wins the White House (assuming it is not Mr. Trump) to read, to digest and to steal from.