clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The intense competition among 2020 Democrats to be like Jay Inslee, explained

The failed presidential candidate who focused almost exclusively on climate change has set the tone for the Democratic field.

Former Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee walking with a group of students down a New York City street.
Former Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has become the go-to lawmaker on climate for 2020 Democrats.
Atilgan Ozdil/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Democratic presidential candidates are clamoring to get a blessing from Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee, the Democratic Party’s patron saint of climate policy.

Inslee has been in high demand since late August when he ended his presidential campaign — one that put out more than 200 pages of climate change policy, all of it ambitious and detailed.

Inslee sat down with Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) in Seattle last week as she was crafting her climate plan. He’s chatted with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN).

Former housing secretary Julián Castro has been “looking for me,” Inslee told Vox, but they haven’t yet been able to connect.

Warren unveiled a plan Wednesday that adopted one plank of Inslee’s six-part platform, a proposal that focused on decarbonizing electricity, vehicles, and buildings through higher regulatory standards. Harris, too, has echoed Inslee’s “climate Justice” plan. And Castro’s climate plan, released Wednesday, followed Inslee’s timeline, to replace all coal-fired power generation with zero-emissions sources by 2030.

The candidates didn’t hesitate to give credit where due at the CNN climate town hall Wednesday night.

“I also want to give a shoutout to governor Jay Inslee who did a fantastic job of bringing this issue to the forefront of this campaign,” Castro said.

“I’m going to steal a line from Governor Inslee,” Harris said. “Donald Trump said wind turbines cause cancer. And Jay said no, they don’t cause cancer, they cause jobs.”

But while Inslee has become Democrats’ climate policy gold standard by name, few candidates have been as ambitious as the Washington governor in their actual proposals. And Inslee himself wants to see the candidates lay out clearer and faster timelines for achieving emissions reduction goals.

“You cannot have a love letter to 2050,” Inslee told Vox. “Just saying we are going to have clean air by 2050 isn’t going to cut it.”

Inslee put forward a very detailed climate platform

Before bowing out of the presidential race, Inslee created an ambitious, six-part climate proposal that has been lauded by almost every Democratic candidate still in the field.

His “100 percent Clean Energy for America” plan to get to 100 percent clean energy in electricity, new cars, and new buildings, which was later adopted by Warren, established a clear timeline: clean energy standard (CES) where all utilities must be carbon-neutral by 2030 and be 100 percent “clean, renewable and zero-emission” electricity by 2035.

His proposal for an “Evergreen Economy” was a 10-year, $9 trillion investment plan. He covered foreign policy in his “Global Climate Mobilization” plan. His “Freedom From Fossil Fuels” proposal called for an end to fossil fuel subsidy, a national fracking ban, a ban on “all new fossil fuel leasing on federal lands and offshore waters, including coal, oil, gas, oil shale and tar sands,” and a carbon fee. His “Community Climate Justice” plan emphasized addressing a current “system of economic exclusion and environmental racism.”

Now on the sidelines, Inslee said he is looking for two things: a clear timeline to get the United States on the path toward a fully green economy and the political will to fight for it to actually happen. Closely tied to his plan is his belief in getting rid of the filibuster, the Senate rule that essentially requires a 60-vote majority to pass any legislation, he said.

“We are going to have to mobilize the US economy behind a major national mission. It’s like winning World War II,” Inslee said. “It’s not just the plans on paper, it’s whether you put the muscle behind it.”

We are seeing the beginning of a fight to fill Inslee’s role as “the climate candidate”

Senator Bernie Sanders speaks from behind a podium draped with a sign reading, “Good jobs.”
US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks during a rally at Howard University May 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. The Sunrise Movement held an event for the final stop of the “Road to a Green New Deal” tour.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Few Democrats have come close, in terms of investment and detail, to Inslee’s climate proposal. But the race to be seen as the next preeminent climate candidate is on.

Warren, who has endorsed the Green New Deal framework, has adopted the first proposal in Inslee’s climate platform, to decarbonize electricity and transportation by 2035. She has proposed a $3 trillion investment so far — about $6 trillion short of Inslee’s comprehensive proposal. So far, Warren has also incorporated climate policies in five plans around public lands, the military, trade, climate risk disclosure, and US manufacturing.

The Warren campaign says there is more coming.

“Gov. Inslee’s ideas will be central to talking about how we take on climate crisis,” a spokesperson for Warren’s campaign said. “We are continuing to look at the important plans he has put out.”

Sen. Kamala Harris echoed the ideas of “environmental justice,” addressing existing inequities in the transition to a green economy. Similar to other 2020 candidates, she lays out a timeline with a 2045 deadline; she wants to get to carbon-neutral power by 2030 and carbon-neutral passenger vehicles by 2035. Other candidates, including Castro and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, have laid out similar deadlines. Buttigieg’s proposal sets a zero emissions standard for electricity by 2035, net-zero emissions from industrial vehicles by 2040, and net-zero emissions by 2050.

But plans put forward by Harris, Biden, Warren, and Buttigieg do not address fossil fuels in the same way Inslee does, like provisions to expand and restore the crude oil export ban to coal and liquified natural gas, reject new fossil fuel infrastructure, and revoke many existing permits. Warren does support a crude oil ban.

At the CNN forum, Buttigieg also echoed Inslee’s rhetoric that climate would be this generation’s “World War II.” Most of these proposals have relatively modest federal investments. Warren’s is proposing $3 trillion in federal investment, Buttigieg’s backed roughly $1.5 billion. Biden and Harris proposed a mixture of public and private investments to boost up the dollar signs in their plans.

Meanwhile, Sanders’ campaign is the only one in the field that has produced a comprehensive climate plan with an even more ambitious federal investment than Inslee’s: a Sanders Green New Deal. His campaign is calling for a $16 trillion federal investment in developing a fully green economy. As Vox’s Dave Roberts writes, it’s “the only plan so far that rivals Inslee’s in scope and ambition. And it contained a few provisions that no other campaign has touched, most notably a plan to semi-nationalize the nation’s electric utilities.”

The plan has an intermediate goal of decarbonizing transportation and utilities by 2030, which would lower US emissions by 71 percent, calls for civil litigation, increasing pollution penalties, raising taxes on emitters, and requiring fossil fuel producers to pay for disaster risk bonds.

Sanders’s staffers have been pointing out that he is one of the only candidates that included a national ban on fracking, like Inslee, as well as a moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure and expanding the fossil fuel export bans. Warren’s campaign had previously called for limits and regulations to fracking on public lands, but it told Vox she also supports a full ban on fracking, though it was not in the climate plan released Wednesday. Notably, however, Sanders does not support getting rid of the filibuster, and would rather call on Senate Democrats to push climate policy through budget reconciliation — a limited Senate procedure that allows one simple majority-passed legislation a year.

For now, Inslee, who told Vox he hadn’t read Sanders’ plan in full, said he isn’t looking at specifics as a judge of candidate’s plans.

Asked what he thought of specific litmus tests around federal investments and provisions, Insee said, “I don’t think we should be judging any of these plans by one specific policy. They have to be judged in totality.”

Democratic voters — especially young ones — really care about the climate

A man in a crowd of climate activists holds up a picture of flames with the words “climate emergency.”
Hundreds of climate activists gathered outside the CNN studios at 30 Hudson Yards where a Town Hall on Climate Policy was held on September 4, 2019
Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

Climate change has become among the most important issue to Democratic primary voters — and it’s of particular importance to young voters.

More Americans say climate change is a major threat than they did even six years ago — but most of that change is among Democrats, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. Among Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters, 84 percent say climate change is a major threat to the country as of July 2019; only 27 percent of Republicans said the same in 2019. A 2018 Pew survey found that it’s also a key issue motivating voters to the polls; 82 percent of registered Democrats said the environment was important in their vote.

This is particularly true for younger voters, who have a greater sense of urgency around the issue than their older counterparts and are a group Democrats are looking to energize come November 2020.

As Vox’s Umair Irfan reported, this is largely because the effects of climate change are getting harder to ignore.

“The United States saw billions of dollars in damages and dozens of deaths last year as rising temperatures increased the damages from extreme events,” Irfan writes. “These disasters helped make the somewhat abstract warming of the planet tangible in people’s minds.”

Democratic presidential candidates, eager to fill Inslee’s shoes as the climate candidate, are certainly taking this to heart.

Listen to Today, Explained

We watched seven straight hours of Democrats discussing climate policy so you wouldn’t have to.

Looking for a quick way to keep up with the never-ending news cycle? Host Sean Rameswaram will guide you through the most important stories at the end of each day.

Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, or wherever you listen to podcasts.