Jay Inslee is writing the climate plan the next president should adopt

Jay Inslee.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

Washington governor and presidential candidate Jay Inslee is out with his second package of climate policy proposals. It is dense, ambitious, and long. At 38 pages, it is longer, I would venture to guess, than the complete climate agenda of any other candidate, for any elected position in the US, maybe ever.

And it’s only Part 2! The campaign says at least three or four more rounds are coming. (I wrote about the first round here.)

Viewed in the context of the Democratic presidential primary, it all seems a bit like overkill. If Inslee wanted to make the point that he is the candidate best prepared to tackle climate change, I’m pretty sure he made it several thousand words ago. The bar, after all, is not particularly high. Beto has his plan, which is ... fine. Biden promises a big speech soon. Warren has a few sectoral policies.

It’s not a crowded battlefield, and Inslee seems to have brought a nuke to a knife fight.

But I think there’s more going on here than campaigning, and more significance to the plan than how it might play in Iowa. To put it bluntly, Inslee’s campaign is writing a Green New Deal.

The problem with the discussion around the GND so far is that the only substance at the center of it is a non-binding resolution, a set of aspirations and goals. People have projected all sorts of things on it, good and bad, but no one really knows what the GND is. At least in nuts-and-bolts policy terms, there isn’t one yet. So it’s easy to dismiss the whole thing as a “green dream,” as Nancy Pelosi put it.

Inslee’s campaign is systematically translating the GND’s lofty goals — to decarbonize the economy sector by sector, in a way that creates high-quality jobs and protects frontline communities — into policy proposals, focused on an immediate 10-year mobilization. This isn’t just a campaign play, it’s a document the next Democratic president is going to want in-hand when the time comes to get to work. (And if that president needs some kind of climate czar ...)

Hey activists, I found a plan!
Sunrise Movement

I’ll get into that more in a moment, but first let’s take a look at Inslee’s latest proposal: the “Evergreen Economy” plan.

An investment plan that would marshal $9 trillion over 10 years

The headline of the plan is investment: roughly $300 billion in public investment per year, which would leverage an additional $600 billion in private investment, adding up to a total of $9 trillion over 10 years. Inslee’s campaign claims the plan would create 8 million good jobs over the same time frame, by repealing anti-union right-to-work laws and linking federal tax incentives to job quality standards.

(Interesting side note: The campaign has not yet said how, or whether, it intends to include some mechanism to “pay for” all these investments. Carbon pricing fans are on the edge of their seats.)

The investments — meant, in part, to achieve the ambitious targets that Inslee laid out in his first round of policy — are divided into five areas. There’s no way I can begin to do them justice (again, 38 pages, each replete with itemized lists of policies), but let’s run through them quickly.

1. “Igniting America’s clean energy economy”

This would involve, among other things, a ReBuild America Initiative to upgrade existing buildings. (You will recall that Inslee’s last round of policy addressed new buildings; this is the other side of that coin.) It targets energy retrofits for 4 percent of existing residential and commercial buildings a year, each year for 25 years, eventually upgrading 100 percent.

The campaign calls the initiative a “win-win-win-win” that will “reduce pollution; save customers on their energy bills; put millions of construction workers, electricians, and mechanical contractors to work; ​and result in a large economic boon for local businesses and domestic manufacturers​.​”

In case you’re wondering about the details, there are six sub-policies underneath that get into the nitty gritty (utility on-bill financing, woo!).

Alongside the ReBuild America Initiative are a range of other programs meant to accelerate and spread clean-energy-led economic development to every area of the country. They include: “a $90 billion Green Bank for clean energy deployment; a Next Generation Rural Electrification Initiative; programs to support energy democracy and community-led energy transformation; and grants in lieu of tax incentives for clean energy installation.”

And, yes, each of those has many sub-policies.

2. “Building sustainable & climate-smart infrastructure”

The plan would direct roughly $3 trillion of investment over the next 10 years to a large-scale upgrade of America’s crumbling infrastructure.

The infrastructure investments would go to five areas:

“Smart grid” stock art is some of my favorite stock art.

3. “Leading the world in clean manufacturing”

These investments, about $2 trillion in public and private money over the next decade, are targeted at building up the US domestic clean-energy manufacturing economy. There are five key elements here.

The first is a series of policies aimed at bolstering advanced manufacturing, including skills training, tax credits, and a Quadrennial Industrial Review​ (​QIR) to identify which industrial policies are working and which are not.

The second is a federal “buy clean” program that would put the government’s considerable purchasing power to use in driving down emissions and bolstering domestic industries. The third is a series of policies targeting “super-pollutants” like hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) and methane, which have severe short-term climate impacts.

The fourth — a personal favorite of mine — is a “top runner” program for industrial efficiency and carbon-intensity standards, which would steadily increase standards over time as the industry average improved, without further intervention from lawmakers.

The fifth is a series of policies focused on clean-energy exports and global trade, meant to ensure that US trade deals and institutions like the Export-Import Bank are aligned around the clean energy transition.

4. “Investing in innovation and scientific research”

The plan would increase federal funding for clean energy R&D to $35 billion a year over the next decade (roughly five times current funding), expanding existing programs like ARPA-E, partnering with state research institutions, and targeting hard-to-decarbonize sectors of the economy.

It would also establish an ARPA-ag program focused on innovations in agriculture, a whole series of programs focused on sustainable transportation, and another series focused on reducing industrial emissions. This latter effort would involve “transforming the DOE Office of Fossil Energy into the Office of Industrial Decarbonization,” a notion I find quite satisfying.

It would invest in federal climate science, focused on risks and impacts, attempting to undo some of the grievous damage of the Trump years.

And finally, it would invest in “climate literacy and STEM education,” a series of interesting proposals including “a student loan debt-forgiveness program for graduates entering clean energy, sustainability, and climate science-related jobs in the non-profit and public sectors,” along with a boost in STEM programs focused on minorities and historically black colleges and a boost in “school-to-work pipelines” like apprenticeship programs.

“Clean energy research” is also good stock art.

5. “Ensuring good union jobs with family-supporting wages and benefits​”

The headline here is a “G.I. Bill” for workers and communities impacted by the transition away from coal. It would secure their retirement benefits (which coal companies often try to avoid paying), vouchsafe their health care coverage, and offer education and job training stipends.

It would also create a “Re-Power Fund” to invest in communities impacted by changes in the fossil fuel economy and a “Restoration Fund” to invest in hiring local workers for environmental remediation and reconstruction.

Alongside the G.I. Bill, the plan would strengthen organizing and bargaining rights for workers with a whole range of reforms, including “repealing the provisions of the federal Taft-Hartley Act that permit so-called ‘right-to-work’ (RTW) laws in states.”

It would also tie all of the federal investments described above to community benefit agreements (which ensure that investments benefit locals through things like affordable housing and job training assistance), project labor agreements (which ensure fair wages), and prevailing wage laws (“by extending Davis-Bacon Act requirements to all federally funded projects”).

It would make a series of investments and reforms in skills-training and apprenticeship programs and create a “Climate Corps” program to give young people skills and experience in climate and clean-energy fields.

It would boost wages in a number of ways, first by raising the federal minimum wage and pegging it to inflation, but also by creating a “federal clean energy wage” of $25 per hour, the minimum that can be paid to “skilled workers for clean energy jobs created and supported with federal funds.” And then there are a whole series of reforms to protect “compensation transparency and worker mobility.”


This is what a Green New Deal looks like

Believe it or not, that was the short summary. And like I said, that’s only one piece of the puzzle. The campaign promises future policy proposals on “advancing environmental justice; supporting rural communities and sustainable, thriving American agriculture; ensuring resilient communities and disaster recovery; ending all manner of fossil fuel giveaways; and protecting public lands.”

I am a policy glutton, and even I am daunted by this buffet.

But this is what it looks like when the Green New Deal’s aspirations become concrete policy proposals. It’s a lot!

Inslee’s Climate Mission agenda does not tick all the Green New Deal boxes. It doesn’t target economy-wide decarbonization by 2030 (no campaign will, or could). It doesn’t have a federal job guarantee or universal health care. It’s not the whole socialist enchilada.

But it is getting at the most important stuff. It has aggressive decarbonization targets, sector-by-sector policies and a massive array of public investments designed to achieve them, and a focus on high-quality jobs and vulnerable communities. It is a vision of climate policy as progressive and expansive as we are likely to see our current political circumstances.

And best of all, it is not a green dream. It identifies the programs and mechanisms required to achieve its goals. Many of them already exist in some form, in federal programs and agencies. Many others have been tried and tested at the state level. (Inslee’s team contains several veterans of state-level fights.)

So ... many ... Democrats ...
Javier Zarracina/Vox

I get that this will never happen, but if you’re Harris or Buttigieg or Booker or — what’s his name? Swalwell? — why not just say, “Jay is this party’s climate star. I’m impressed with the thought he’s put into this plan, I support it, and if I’m elected I’ll bring him into my administration to help implement it.” Hell, all of them could say that.

I get that they want to distinguish themselves from one another, but they have other ways to do that, issues they have more personal stake and experience in. Climate is not their main thing. It’s Inslee’s main thing. Why not just embrace a good plan that’s there to be embraced?

It would be a way to get second-hand benefit from Inslee’s reputation on climate change, using it to improve the whole party’s image and expertise on the issue. Democratic voters may not care enough about climate (yet) to make Inslee the candidate, but I bet they care enough about it to appreciate seeing his agenda elevated by the other candidates.

Different candidates could focus on different parts: the strengthening of unions, the protections for impacted and vulnerable communities, the help for rural and agricultural communities, the cities and public-transit policies, or the investments in research and innovation. It overlaps with several other progressive priorities; it is flexible and expansive enough to integrate with other progressive platforms.

Who knows how the 2020 Congressional races will turn out. Much of Inslee’s plan would require help from Congress, but not all of it would. It is a policy menu, with enough choices that there will be something suitable to hand wherever and whenever windows of possibility open. Democrats would be smart to use it as a blueprint.

Vox’s guide to where 2020 Democrats stand on policy

Health care 16
Criminal justice 12
Taxes and economics 12
Immigration 6
Climate change 11
Identity and social justice 13
Education 8
Business, labor, and tech 12
Family issues 6
Foreign policy 8
Guns 6
Abortion 4
Government reform and anti-corruption 8
Poverty and inequality 4
Housing 3
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