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Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign is all about climate change

The governor of Washington wants to make climate change the most important issue of 2020.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks at the Battle Born Progress Progressive Summit on January 12, 2019, in north Las Vegas, Nevada.
John Locher/AP

Jay Inslee dropped out of the 2020 presidential race on August 21. Here’s the rest of the Democratic field.

Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington and a Democratic candidate for president, is trying to make the 2020 race all about climate change.

Elevating climate change and the existential threat it poses to the globe has been the entire focus of Inslee’s campaign, starting with his March announcement video. “Our country’s next mission must be to rise up to the most urgent challenge of our time — defeating climate change,” the video said.

Inslee has released multiple, detailed plans to combat climate change — the most recent of which is a proposal to phase out fossil fuel production in the United States and transition the country to clean energy. As Vox’s Dave Roberts wrote, Inslee is essentially laying out a path forward for a Green New Deal.

“Inslee is building a credible, policy-literate Green New Deal, piece by piece — a blueprint the next president, whoever it is, can use to hit the ground running.”

Of course, Inslee hopes that president is him. In a field where the biggest names are mostly US senators and a former vice president, Inslee is leaning heavily on his state executive experience and talking about how progressive politics can turn states like his into economic juggernauts.

“We are, according to CNBC, the best place to do business this year. And the reasons for that in part are because of our progressive policies,” Inslee told Vox last year. “We welcome computer scientists and geneticists who are helping to cure cancer instead of denying them because they’re Muslim. We have policies that protect our environment so we have a great place to live, clean water and clean air; as a result, it’s a great way to recruit people to come here.”

Inslee is making climate change his No. 1 priority, but he doesn’t want to be a single-issue candidate. Instead, Inslee is treating climate change like an umbrella issue under which other issues like the economy, health care, and national security also fit. He’s also been leading the call for the DNC to have one of their 12 debates focus specifically on climate change — a call they’ve so far resisted, saying they don’t devote debates to any single issue, whether it be climate change, health care, or immigration.

The Washington state governor plans to tie issues like health care to the broader theme of using the power of the presidency to dramatically lower America’s carbon output and scale up renewable energy.

“He’s going to use the full power of the presidency to defeat climate change,” an Inslee aide told Vox this spring. “This is different than saying you support the Green New Deal.”

Inslee is still low in the polls, but he’s continuing to plug an issue that is skyrocketing in importance for Democratic voters.

Who is Jay Inslee?

Inslee is originally from Seattle and has lived in Washington for much of his life. He’s held a number of roles in politics, serving in the Washington state legislature and a brief term in the US House in the early 1990s. After a failed run for governor in 1996, he served as a regional director for President Bill Clinton’s Department of Health and Human Services.

Inslee returned to the US House late in that decade, where he served until he was elected governor in 2012. He’s presided over a time of in-state economic growth; Washington is consistently in the top 10 state economies, according to rankings from US News & World Report and USA Today.

Washington’s governor argues this growth is tied directly to his progressive agenda, which he says attracts people to his state. That’s been an especially prescient argument during the Trump administration, when the federal government made its opposition to transgender people, Latinos, and Muslim immigrants well-known. Inslee has made it a point to push back against Trump’s policies and underscore that his state is a welcoming place for all, no matter their religion, ethnicity, or gender identity.

“A lot of people over the years have argued that environmental laws or laws involving equity and who you can marry are inimical,” Inslee said. “In fact, they’re actually crucial to economic development. Some of the hottest economies are places with these progressive policies.”

What are Jay Inslee’s policies?

Inslee has been focused on climate change issues for many years, but he wasn’t always intending to enter a presidential race focused on the issue.

His thinking shifted when he toured the devastation wrought by the Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and read through the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change assessment that countries around the world have just 12 years to cut global emissions by 45 percent or risk catastrophic effects, per the Atlantic’s Edward-Isaac Dovere.

Inslee told Dovere he sees “an appetite for someone who has credibility and a long track record and, most importantly, a vision statement. It’s changed to show an opening in a Democratic primary, I believe.”

There were already other 2020 candidates who listed climate change as a top priority when Inslee got in. But no one is trumpeting it as much as he is — and few candidates have put out as many, or as detailed, plans.

Inslee’s plans have gotten plenty of praise from the Sunrise Movement, the climate activist group close to Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the co-author of a Green New Deal resolution in Congress. The centerpiece of Inslee’s climate change strategy is a plan to rebuild America’s infrastructure and dramatically change US manufacturing in green, energy efficient ways. It’s an expensive plan; it would cost $9 trillion over 10 years ($300 billion in public investment per year, plus an additional $600 billion in private investment).

The Trump administration has pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord and tried to gradually undo President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan; as the governor of a blue state, Inslee has aggressively pushed back at the state level.

With both the Washington state House and Senate under Democratic control, Inslee recently signed into law a bill that would get the state fully off of coal energy and carbon-producing energy sources by 2045. An Inslee-backed effort to start a new carbon fee was shot down by a majority of state voters on a ballot initiative in 2018.

“The thing that stands out for me is the largest existential threat to our homes, and that’s carbon pollution and climate change,” he told Vox last year. “That’s the one that impacts us all the most severely, in the most places, for the longest period of time. Being able to advance climate change policies, which can’t happen under Trump — who’s called it a hoax — [states] are the only place we can make progress.”

Now Inslee wants to take that vision to the White House.

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