Jay Inslee, Potential 2020 Contender,
by Oliver Milman
Washington state's Democratic governor wants to 'put the pedal to the metal' to save the planet
The US stands virtually alone in the world in having a leader who openly dismisses the reality of climate change. But amid growing concern among Americans about the overheating planet, one potential 2020 presidential candidate is aiming to hoist climate to the top of the agenda.
Jay Inslee, the gravel-voiced governor of Washington, is poised to enter the throng of Democrats vying to dislodge Donald Trump as president in the 2020 election. He's made some exploratory moves, visiting Nevada and New Hampshire, and said a definitive decision on running will be taken in "weeks".
"He's embarrassing. Even Republicans are embarrassed about him," Inlsee said of Trump in an interview with the Guardian. "To fail to mention the greatest existential threat in the world is pathetic. He's a blip in history we need to get over, and quickly."
Climate change will be the cudgel that Inslee will use in the ballot box fight, an issue he considers perniciously overlooked by America's leading political figures even as the US is tormented by more powerful hurricanes, scorching wildfires and submerged coastlines.
"We need a fundamental shift in our national priorities. There's too much to risk to belittle climate change," Inslee said. "You cannot overstate the scope of what needs to be done. We literally have to decarbonize our economy in the next few decades. That's a huge transition. It's the largest economic change in history.
"I think there's only one potential candidate who views this as the paramount issue, one candidate who wrote a book on it, only one candidate who has experience as an executive doing these things. That's me. I sense timidity from others because it hasn't been done before, but we need to go pedal to the metal."
Twelve years ago, as a US congressman, Inslee co-authored a book that compared the effort of eliminating planet-warming emissions to the Apollo space project launched by John F Kennedy.
He's since attempted to distill these ambitions into policy in Washington -- he has been governor since 2013 -- by pushing forward plans to expand renewable energy, cut emissions from buildings and promote electric cars. In a state stuffed with progressives who savor their lush forest surrounds, this agenda has by and large received nods of approval. Inslee was comfortably re-elected in 2016.
The governor is now looking to an outsider's run in 2020, centering his campaign on tackling the unfolding disasters of climate change while the worst can still be averted. He hopes that growing public concern over climate change will encourage people to view it as an existential emergency that requires a vast national mobilization.
A record proportion of Americans -- 59% in a recent Yale poll -- say they are alarmed or concerned by climate change, having recently seen colossal hurricanes hurtle into Texas, Puerto Rico, Florida and the Carolinas, record wildfires raze vast tracts of California and a string of warm years spawn unbearable heatwaves across the country. Clear majorities, when asked, also support levying a carbon tax on fossil fuel companies and agree that protecting the environment is more important than economic growth.
Despite this, many Republicans continue to ridicule climate science and paint any sweeping remedies as fanciful. Many Democrats, meanwhile, have been galvanized by the idea of a Green New Deal, headed by the new congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, although the leading presidential contenders have yet to make climate change a central issue.
"We need to blow the bugle on this," Inslee said. "The Green New Deal is exciting. It raises ambitions and alerts people to the scale of the problem, the scope of it. This wouldn't be a one-note candidacy; it touches on everything from national security to asthma."
Inslee is attempting to drape the monumental challenge posed by climate change in comforting, familiar garb, pointing to his love of hiking, gulping in clean air gazing at snow-capped mountains and enjoying salmon fishing. These homespun enjoyments are under threat.
"The forest fires were so grotesque last year that we had the worst air in the world in Washington," Inslee said. "We were choking. It's a very personal thing for me."
Inslee, 68, hopes Americans will be similarly inspired by the moon landings when contemplating a scenario in which, scientists say, the world must completely revolutionize the way we farm, transport ourselves and generate electricity within a few decades to avoid catastrophe.
"This is about the American character as much as it is about chemistry and physics," Inslee said. "It's about igniting core convictions of Americans, that we can be innovators rather than anchoring ourselves to old industries."
It's still unclear, however, whether Americans will want to vote for policies to enable this vision. In November's midterm elections, voters in Washington state rejected a fresh attempt to implement the country's first carbon tax. The Inslee-backed initiative lost following a hefty campaign against the measure funded by the oil industry.
A separate cap on carbon is in place but may be removed by the state supreme court in March. Another setback in this green, economically robust state would raise further questions over the national viability of bold climate policies.
Inslee is a "kind of a square peg in a round hole because he wants to be a carbon warrior", said the Washington state senator Doug Ericksen, a Republican. "Washington state already has an extremely low carbon footprint."
Perhaps a more realistic goal for Inslee than capturing the Democratic nomination would be to help shift focus on to climate change following years of political and media inertia on the issue.
"There will be a lot of lip service to climate change but a lot of the candidates won't be able to tell a toaster from a solar panel," said Nick Abraham, who campaigned for the carbon tax and now works at the Washington Environmental Council. "Jay Inslee has been nothing but consistent that this has been his No 1 priority. He's walked the walk."
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