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Can Jay Inslee Make Climate Change a Top Issue in the Presidential Race?

“Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic view of inaction doom us to sacrifice,” says Washington’s governor. “They doom us to sacrificing our clean air and to sacrificing the ability to walk in a forest that’s not charred down.”

David Sirota




Jay Inslee photo by David Ryder/Getty Images.

How important will climate change be in the 2020 presidential campaign? If Jay Inslee has any say over the matter, it will be front and center — he’s the Democratic Governor of Washington State who is running for president on a promise to make climate change his number one priority.

Capital & Main reporter David Sirota recently talked to Inslee, who as governor has championed legislation to force utilities to use renewable energy. Inslee most recently backed a carbon tax ballot initiative in 2018 — but it lost at the polls.

During the conversation Inslee discussed the ins and outs of his plans to confront climate change, and talked about whether tackling the problem will require major societal sacrifices. What follows is an edited excerpt of the conversation.

David Sirota: Climate change has been emerging as a global emergency for years, but it hasn’t been a central focus of presidential campaigns in the past. Why do you think that is — and why do you think that will likely change in 2020?

Jay Inslee: The problem has become more urgent. It was obvious to me a decade ago when I co-authored a book about it, but it has become more urgent. Therefore, the public is more willing and able and I think ready to take action against climate change.

For the public, what used to be just a chart on a graph is now a personal experience in their lives. It’s smoke in Seattle that made Seattle’s air quality the worst in the world last summer. We had to shut down swimming pools in parts of our state because the air quality was so bad. Kids couldn’t go outside and play. It’s the hurricanes, it’s the precipitation events in Houston, it’s the sea-level rise in Miami, it’s extreme weather precipitation events where Iowa farmers can’t get out and harvest. I was in Iowa a few weeks ago, and they literally couldn’t get out to harvest their crops because it was so muddy. It’s Paradise, California, where I was to see a town of 25,000 people burned out. Looking like Dresden in World War II.

It’s all of those things I think have changed the public’s eagerness for action on this.

I believe what people have missed is the power behind this, because this is consistent with the character of the American people, which is we are optimists. We are can-do people. We’re innovators. We see ourselves as world leaders. And that this scientific issue, if properly positioned, just supports the identity we have as our national character and people have failed to see that.

They have failed to realize that in talking about this, it is as important or more important to identify who we are and who the opposition is. We are the optimists who believe we can defeat climate change. Donald Trump is a pessimist who doesn’t believe we’re smart enough. We are the can-do advocates for a high-tech, clean energy economy and Donald Trump wants us to be stuck in something that was discovered in the 1700s or before that. Those are character issues that are winning issues and I think people have missed that fundamentally.

What is more important — demand-side climate policies that support solar panels and electric cars, or supply-side climate policies that seek to limit fossil fuel extraction?

I think both have their place, and the demand side has many, many tools [and] we’re proposing to use many of them in the state of Washington…We intend to do quite a number of them here in the state of Washington this year. On the supply side, I believe they are necessary as well, but the question is what they are and how they are and how fast that spigot is turned down. That’s an issue.

Clearly, the most obvious one is to not allow the misuse of public resources on our public lands where the Trump administration has attempted to turn our public lands into subsidiaries for the fossil fuel industry, and that’s perhaps the first place where supply side message or supply side policy is necessary for climate purposes.

What do you see are the big sacrifices that society will have to make in order to halt climate change?

I think there’s change, but there’s not sacrifice. That is different. Somehow, people can’t envision that. We changed a lot of things in our lives. We use cellphones instead of bulky landlines. We’re driving electric cars instead of internal combustion engines. We are using ultra-efficient heating and cooling systems. And those have been changes, but none of them have been sacrifices…

Look, this is fundamentally between the pessimists who want inaction and the optimists who want action. That’s the fundamental choice that our nation faces.

Those who would shackle us to the pessimistic, fearful view of inaction doom us to sacrifice. They doom us to sacrificing our clean air, and they doom us to sacrificing the ability to go for a walk in a forest that’s not charred down, and they doom us to have our subdivisions and our homes torched in fires like Paradise. They doom us to precipitation that’s actually drowned people. That’s sacrifice. Those who (are) pessimists who can’t see a vision of changing how we use energy are the ones who are asking us to sacrifice through the inertia and deadly fatalism of inaction. It’s like a guy standing underneath an avalanche that’s coming down and saying, “Hey, don’t ask me to sacrifice to move out of the way.” No, the sacrifice is when you get buried.

And that’s what the inaction crowd and the Donald Trump climate hoax and climate denier crowd ask us to do. This is actually in our self-interest, both short and long-term. And so, no, I think we’re making something that’s clearly in our economic benefit, clearly in our benefit and health, in national security, and certainly the things we love, and in creating jobs. So, no, I don’t look at this as a sacrifice issue.

Yes, there are some investments that we need to make just like we make investments in other things we care about. When we buy a house, people don’t usually think of it as a sacrifice. But yes, you need to have some capital to make the investment. When you buy an electric car, yeah, it takes some capital, but you save on energy because instead of being a slave to the oil and gas industry, you get fuel that’s 80-85 percent less expensive. When you put up a solar panel, you do have an investment, but you save making a monthly payment for 30 years…Investment doesn’t mean sacrifice.

Where do the resources for those investments come from?

There’s a whole host of places where equity comes. Both private and public. One is that when we create the demand for these products, private equity flows into the economy. When we have a 100 percent requirement, which I hope to have of clean electricity in the state of Washington, private equity will come in and help finance some of these investments. That will give us, over the longer term, more reasonably priced electricity because we can use renewable sources rather than non-renewable sources. We can deal with free sunshine instead of monopolistic coal and oil.

Private equity is the largest source of capital that’s involved in this transition. To the extent that the public resources are used…that can come from a variety of sources starting with the Trump tax cut of the giveaway to the wealthiest folks that can help finance some of these measures, and there may be some others.

Now, you can have some carbon-pricing systems to also finance that. I don’t think that should be necessarily taken off the table. It’s not something I’m committed to proposing right now. We’ve decided to move forward on things we get done right now because urgency is important. Time is of the essence. This is the 11th hour. We don’t have time, so we’re moving on things right now that don’t have a direct carbon price in the state of Washington.

There’s a variety of ways of financing these things, but again, the more expensive route is to not finance them and let the economy be ravaged. Let us have to face again a $650 million hit on our agricultural economy in the state of Washington because of a drought. And our insurance rates going through the roof because of massive extreme weather events. And healthcare costs going up because their kids are getting asthma…No, these are wise investments.

What are the big lessons that you’ve taken away from Washington voters defeating the carbon tax ballot measure in 2018?

The number one lesson is you’ve gotta be undaunted and creative and flexible and if one route doesn’t work, you need to take another route.

Suffragettes worked on (voting rights) for decades. The gay marriage proponents worked for decades. The number one lesson is you don’t give up. Climate change isn’t going anywhere, so neither are we. We’re just back at it with a new tool.

The other thing I would say is you gotta realize whatever struggle you’re in with the fossil fuel industry, they are the most powerful special interest in human history. They spent $32 million against that initiative, and sometimes that can’t be overcome. There’s a couple lessons. The other is that any direct pricing system may be a little more difficult than a regulatory system. It’s easier to pass a clean fuel standard and 100 percent electrical grid standard and a net-zero building standard than it is perhaps in a direct pricing system. But all these things in my view need to be under consideration.

How can Democrats avoid having climate policies be portrayed and perceived as unfairly hurtful to people at the lower end of the income scale?

By telling the truth — and the truth is that marginalized communities, people who live in poverty, are the first victims of climate change, and they will be the first beneficiaries of these policies.

I was telling a story of a 14-year-old girl I met who lived next to a freeway and next to an industrial area near the Duwamish River in South Seattle. She told me that she was 11 years old before she found out some kids didn’t have asthma. Everybody else had asthma. She did some research on her own and found how asthma rates went up dramatically the closer you lived to pollution and diesel fuels. These are the people who are most benefited by anti-pollution policies, number one.

Number two, you can build into your policies all kinds of measures to help alleviate those concerns, including direct subsidies to people based on their economic status. You can build those into any carbon pricing system, and you can build them into non-pricing systems. You can build them into regulatory systems as well.

Number three, the thing that really is important…you need to realize that you can have massive carbon pollution reduction without a direct price. It is the investment side that gives you actually the biggest bang for your buck. In the carbon initiative here in the state of Washington, 90 percent plus of the carbon pollution reduction was achieved by the spending, by the subsidies, by the incentive, by the investments, not just by the price signal.

That’s really an important point. But you have many, many ways to move the ball on this to get carbon pollution reduction even without a direct price signal. And we’ve discovered that and that’s why I’m very excited about what we’re doing here this year. My sweep of proposals will get roughly the same carbon pollution as the carbon pricing system would have achieved in the initiative.

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