Jay Inslee may be out of the presidential race, but he’s not out of the minds of climate policy campaigners.
The two-term Washington state governor won high praise from his Democratic rivals as well as experts on global climate change after he acknowledged on Wednesday night that he would not be “carrying the ball” in the presidential campaign, largely due to his failure to attract sufficient support in political polls.
One of Inslee’s problems on the campaign trail was that he didn’t have a “unique selling proposition” for his climate policy initiatives, said Aseem Prakash, founding director of the University of Washington’s Center for Environmental Politics.
He said Inslee’s clarion call on climate was “pioneering” – but easily co-opted by other candidates.
“So, in some sense, Jay Inslee is a victim of his own success,” Prakash said. Other issues, ranging from immigration to Medicare for All, have become more significant differentiators in the early stages of the Democratic presidential campaign.
Prakash said Democrats will have to devote even more attention to the implications of climate policy for President Donald Trump’s traditional supporters if they hope to keep the Inslee campaign legacy alive.
Inslee announced Thursday that he’ll be running for a third term as governor. He also vowed to keep the spotlight on his signature issue: the urgent need to respond to the climate challenge.
“I will continue to lead, to demand bold action, and to do everything in my power to ensure the fight to defeat climate change stays at the top of the national agenda,” he wrote on Twitter.
Hours before Inslee left the race, his campaign released a position paper on helping rural communities cope with climate change – targeting a part of the electorate that played a big role in putting Trump in the White House in 2016.
Other candidates are keeping the climate issue in play. Today, for example, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders issued his $16.3 trillion plan for a Green New Deal.
Prakash said the candidates’ climate plans still lack key elements, however. “These numbers mean nothing, because no one is talking about how they’re going to be funded,” he said.
More importantly, Prakash said the position papers don’t address “how to protect the interests of the people who will pick up the tab.”
“The ‘war on coal’ shouldn’t turn into a war on coal miners,” he said.
Unless climate policy campaigners address the social impacts of what could be the nation’s biggest industrial transition in decades, they’re not likely to make much real-world headway, Prakash said.
“At the end of the day, politics has to talk about jobs,” he said. “Climate policy without a social policy has no legs to stand on.”
Despite his exit from the presidential race, Inslee garnered praise across the country for his focus on climate change. One of the nation’s most prominent and outspoken climate researchers, Penn State University’s Michael E. Mann, cast his vote for Inslee to continue taking a national role in climate policy.
“Jay has been tireless as an advocate for climate action,” said Mann, who first encountered Inslee when the governor was a member of Congress in 2006. “He’s informed on the issues, deeply thoughtful and an effective spokesperson for the climate movement at the same time.”
Today Inslee insisted that he wouldn’t give up the governor’s mansion for a Cabinet post in a future Democratic administration, but Mann isn’t giving up hope.
“I think Jay would make an excellent EPA administrator, but I could equally see him heading up Interior or Energy, given his range of knowledge and expertise,” Mann told GeekWire in an email. “Of course, he would make a great ‘Climate Czar’ if that were to become a thing in a future administration!”
Other climate policy experts were similarly effusive.
“I have tremendous respect for what Jay Inslee did with his campaign,” University of Oregon law professor Greg Dotson, who specializes on climate law and policy, told GeekWire in an email. “I think his focus on climate change will be historically significant.”
Before Inslee put climate change front and center, it “existed as a somewhat siloed issue,” Dotson said.
“He really made the case that we’ve reached a point where climate change touches, shapes and bleeds into almost every issue,” he said. “Due to its defining characteristic as a global issue it must be central in our foreign policy. Given that infrastructure we build today could last for decades, it must be incorporated into those decisions as well.”
There’s no question that climate change is becoming a bigger blip on the radar screen, not only because of Inslee’s campaign, but also due to developments such as this summer’s widespread fires in the Brazilian Amazon.
Speaking of Amazon, the Seattle-based retailer is working on a set of corporate initiatives to lower its carbon footprint. Other tech giants such as Microsoft and Google are even farther down the road when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
In a blog posting, Prakash and his wife, Nives Dolsak, a UW professor focusing on marine and environmental affairs, sketch the outlines of a plan they call the American Rust Belt and Road Initiative – a title that pays homage to China’s Belt and Road Initiative for infrastructure investment.
The plan calls for companies such as Microsoft and Amazon to invest in counties that have traditionally depended on fossil-fuel extraction. “Imagine if Jeff Bezos had chosen Detroit, St Louis, Gary, or Youngstown for HQ2,” Dolsak and Prakash write.
Update for 3:47 p.m. PT Aug. 22: We’ve updated this report to highlight Prakash’s comments and add Mann’s comments. We also heard via email from UW atmospheric scientist Cliff Mass, who took issue with the accolades that other scientists have been sending Inslee’s way:
“Let me tell you something that might surprise you … one might argue that his run damaged efforts to deal with global warming. First, society needs accurate information about global warming, and Governor Inslee frequently hyped and exaggerated the impacts. For example, his claims that the big California wildfires (Wine Country and Camp Fires) were mainly the result of global warming. Simply not true. There are dozens more examples of this.
“Second, his strident partisanship – the ‘we versus they’ attitude – was highly destructive. Our nation can only make real progress on climate change if we work together on it. Governor Inslee alienated folks unnecessarily, questioning their motives and interest in the environment. There are moderate Republicans that want action.
“Fourth, packaging climate change as the only issue in his campaign and identifying it with one party undermined its attractiveness to a broad group of moderate Republicans.
“Finally, he displayed inconsistency by mounting a campaign with a huge carbon footprint, with the certain knowledge he would never be successful. One must walk the walk. In the end, Inslee did not move the needle. He did not convince many Republicans and moderates with his strident tone, and the Democrats were supportive before his candidacy.”