Smells Like Inslee Spirit

Eugene Weekly talks with presidential hopeful Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee about his plan to save America and the planet

Time is running out to do something about climate change. Last year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that, to keep a global temperature change below 1.5 degrees Celsius, carbon dioxide emissions will have to be cut by 45 percent by 2030. 

And it’s been two minutes to midnight since 2018, according to the Doomsday Clock, a project by The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that has monitored global threats from things like imminent nuclear war during the Cold War.

That’s one minute closer to midnight compared to 2016.

Dealing with climate change is big on the mind of Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, whose presidential platform is focused on reinventing the U.S. economy to fight our biggest existential crisis.

In fact, Inslee is determined to beat it, especially since it’s affecting his basketball performance.   

While on the campaign trail, Inslee tells Eugene Weekly, he was shooting hoops and went five-for-21 in front of a CBS reporter. Rather than admit he was off his game, he jokingly blamed it on a scapegoat.

“That’s climate change at work,” he recalls telling the reporter.

Inslee is one of 25 candidates hoping to receive the Democratic nomination to face off against President Donald Trump. It’s a pool of possible first-ever presidents: gay, Asian American and a black woman. 

Inslee wants to be the first-ever climate change president. He’s put forth plans to save the U.S. — and the world — from ecological devastation.

“We’re going to fund it by avoiding the disaster costs of not doing anything,” Inslee tells EW. “We want to avoid those trillions of dollars of damages we’d otherwise have to pay for.” 

The Democratic hopeful field is very crowded — to say the least. And more-favorable polls put Inslee at around one percent. By focusing on the economy and fighting climate change, he believes he can beat Trump, whose economic numbers look good on paper.  

Standing Out in a Battle Royale

As of press time, at least 27 candidates want to be president in 2021. More have filed, but 27 accounts for the more notable ones. That’s a lot of noise for Inslee to shout over. 

But climate change has become a bigger issue for U.S. voters. A poll conducted for CNN released in April shows 82 percent of registered Democratic Party responders say they support a candidate who would take aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change.

Another poll conducted May 17-19 shows 38 percent of registered voters think the top priority of Congress should be addressing climate change.

Although Inslee received an “A” on climate change from Greenpeace — the highest mark among the rest of the Democratic presidential hopefuls — presidential polls show Inslee at the bottom, with support in the single digits. 

Sticking to a single issue when candidates like Sen. Elizabeth Warren are pushing for several issues and Sen. Bernie Sanders is proposing a plan for everything is a wise political strategy, says University of Oregon political science associate professor Craig Kauffman. 

“The reality is that most voters need to have some label to apply to each candidate to try and label them to keep track in their mind about who is who,” he says. 

Kauffman is a political scientist who studies climate change policies. He says the window is narrow — and closing — to put forth a solution to prevent the worst effects of climate change. 

“The sooner we do it, the less costly and less painful it will be,” he adds. “We’re experiencing the onset of climate change, and the symptoms will become more severe over time.”

After Oregon Senate Republicans played hooky to rob Senate Democrats of a quorum, and the Democrats were unable to unite the party, it grows uncertain whether legislators can do anything about climate change. 

Inslee tells EW he’s confident that politicians can get the job done and that some local and state governments have solutions.

First, Inslee tells me he wanted to sic Washington State Patrol on the missing Oregon Senate Republicans if they were in his state, but adds that Oregon shouldn’t give up on climate change — and commends Gov. Kate Brown’s work performance. He says he sees other options out there. 

Inslee knows what it’s like for plans to change. Washington state had to find alternatives to a carbon tax measure rejected by voters in 2018. 

“A pricing mechanism isn’t the only game in town,” he says. “We had a pricing mechanism that didn’t pass. We didn’t give up and got back in the saddle.” 

This year, Inslee signed four clean energy bills intended to compensate for voters’ rejecting a carbon pricing mechanism.

HB 2042 intends to advance green transportation in Washington state. It makes electric cars more affordable by offering a rebate of $2,500 on new cars priced under $45,000, and $1,600 for cars under $30,000.

The law also intends to find ways to provide financing assistance so lower-income residents can buy electric cars. 

 Inslee also signed a law that Washington must be powered 100 percent by clean energy by 2045. California, Hawaii and New Mexico have similar laws, but Inslee says Washington’s law is the best in the country because it incorporates social justice values. 

Inslee adds that U.S. voters are starting to get the message about the importance of his climate change message and his commitment to take on Earth’s greatest existential crisis. The day after the first set of Democratic debates, he says, he raised the most money his campaign has received so far.  

Inslee doesn’t take credit for the increased interest in climate change. He says voters are witnessing the consequences of climate change, whether it’s the Midwest being underwater or cities like Paradise, California, burning up. Voters are paying attention. 

Breaking Down a Green Economy

Talking with EW, Inslee quotes hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been.”

By doing so, Inslee joins a million business owners, such as Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, who have used Gretzky’s quote to try to show how groundbreaking their ideas are. He also joins the ranks of The Office’s often-awkward branch manager Michael Scott, who famously quoted the classic Gretzky quote: “You miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.” 

 Inslee, however, is proposing something that could be as groundbreaking as Gretzky’s influence on hockey. He’s trying to transform the U.S. from being a fossil fuel-based economy to a green one.

On May 3, Inslee released his first major policy announcement: a 10-year plan to take on climate change and create green jobs.

Called the 100% Clean Energy for America Plan, Inslee’s plan would, by 2030, achieve 100-percent zero emissions in new vehicles and buses and 100-percent zero-carbon pollution in all new commercial and residential buildings. It would also call for 100-percent clean and renewable electricity generation by 2035.  

Among other actions, Inslee wants to shut down what he calls the increasingly uneconomic U.S. coal fleet by 2030, and repower with more clean energy. The plan also proposes using tax incentives to push for increased development of clean technology. 

Rather than publishing all of his policies at once, Inslee has been unveiling them slowly. The next plan he released was his clean energy plan, titled Jay Inslee’s Evergreen Economy Plan.

The 28-point initiative — built on the model that, according to Inslee, led Washington state to become the fastest-growing economy in the U.S. — would invest in clean energy research and deployment, create jobs in manufacturing, build green transportation infrastructure, support job-training programs, raise wages and protect workers’ rights and families. 

Inslee’s Evergreen Economy Plan is based on five strategies for economic growth. First, he would invest in an initiative to rebuild millions of buildings in the following decades.

Second, he would invest in infrastructure, including transportation, water, affordable housing and sustainable communities.

Next, the federal government would partner with the private sector to increase exports of clean technology made in the U.S. He’d also invest in developing future clean technology.

Finally, his plan would re-unionize workers to create a more inclusive future for all workers, including the elimination of right-to-work laws. 

The first impression that Kauffman has of Inslee’s plan is its level of detail. He says Inslee understands that, in order to fight climate change, you must propose systematic change. 

“It’s quite detailed to the point where you can see it as realistic,” Kauffman says. “By breaking it down and being specific, you can help people see how this is realistic and not just a grandiose plan — but it is a grandiose plan.” 

Reinventing an economy based on fossil fuels sounds expensive, but Inslee says money to pay for the plan would come from not having to pay for future climate change-related natural disasters. He wants to avoid the expenses “you’d otherwise have on the Trump Trail of Tears,” adding that the president’s willful ignorance and refusal to protect Americans from climate change is going to cost the U.S. a lot of money in the long run. 

Inslee adds that, by repealing Trump-imposed tax cuts, the U.S. could bring in an additional $20 billion from the “ill-gotten tax breaks for gas and oil industries” that could help shift from a fossil fuel economy. 

Kauffman agrees with Inslee, saying to pay for Inslee’s plan would be no harder than continuing the fossil fuel subsidies the U.S. currently pays for. 

Passing Inslee’s climate plan would require the Legislative branch being on board, a tall order considering President Barack Obama had to bring the Democrats together to pass his Affordable Care Act, which cut along party lines. 

Inslee cautions us not to underestimate the power of presidential leadership. When President John F. Kennedy said the U.S. would put a man on the moon, he made a difference. Obama made a difference when it came to health care.

Inslee says there hasn’t been any presidential leadership when it comes to dealing with climate change. 

And, beside presidential leadership, Inslee says that to get the Legislative branch on board, the U.S. Senate must abolish the filibuster. 

“We can’t sit down with Mitch McConnell,” he says. “As long as the filibuster exists, oil and gas industries will control the Senate.” 

Inslee is one of few presidential hopefuls to have suggested that. Other candidates, those also in the Senate, are too comfortable with senatorial privileges to take away the filibuster, he says. 

Green is the New Orange 

If Trump is the “first orange president” — as late-night TV show hosts describe him — then Inslee might just be the first green president. And he tells EW that his platform could beat Trump. 

In 2016, when Trump was in Eugene, I saw his speech at the Lane County Fairgrounds. At that point, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton emerged as the Democratic Party nominee, beating Sen. Bernie Sanders in a controversial Democratic primary. 

In his speech, while lamenting the loss of Oregon timber jobs, Trump said he really wanted to face Sen. Bernie Sanders in the general election. Some hindsight polls suggest that Sanders, whose platform focused more on jobs than Clinton, could’ve won. 

Inslee says he’s beaten Trump 22 times in a row already, adding that he was the first to challenge Trump’s Muslim ban. Alongside Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, Inslee has sued the Trump Administration over policies such as abortion obstacles, an emergency declaration on the U.S.-Mexico border and the forced separation of immigrant families at the border.

Kauffman says what partially affected Clinton in the 2016 election was her lack of focus on the economy. Inslee’s climate plan is more focused on ensuring jobs are available for those who have worked in fossil fuel industries. 

“Of all the candidates who I’ve heard talk about environmental policy, I think he has the best chance of breaking through because he does see it systemically,” he says. 

Inslee addresses climate change as a jobs-boosting endeavor, Kauffman says. 

“He rejects this idea that you have to have a trade off between environment and jobs,” he says. “There is a lot of evidence that suggests that is a false trade off.” 

Renewable energy has to be produced locally, he adds. A green economy still has to import some parts, but if the U.S. invested in it, the country could become a leader in clean technology of the future. 

The U.S. had a chance to secure its place as a leader in clean technology investment five to 10 years ago, Kauffman says. Because the U.S. hasn’t made a green economy its priority, other countries have jumped ahead.

It’s still possible for the U.S. to become a leader again, he adds.  

“One of the biggest critiques of Trump’s environmental and jobs plan is that he’s saving a dying coal industry of 6,000 jobs and foregoing the opportunity to build a tremendous new industry — that’s a manufacturing industry,” he says. “He’s supposed to boost manufacturing and, by rolling back the incentives for building that industry, we have allowed China and Germany to eclipse us.” 

Inslee tells EW he can beat Trump by putting forth a plan that isn’t based on trickle-down economics, which he says damaged the U.S. He adds that he’s not proposing some abstract ideas that simply sound good; Washington state has shown what works for spurring the growth of the middle class. 

The road to nomination for Inslee is a long one. On the way to the Democratic National Convention, Inslee has said he won’t accept any fossil fuel or corporate political action committee money. 

So far, according to OpenSecrets, 45 percent of contributions to Inslee’s campaign have come from small donations under $200, and 54 percent have come from large individual contributions. Most of his contributors are employed with Amazon or Microsoft, or they are Washington state public employees. 

If Inslee doesn’t receive the nomination, there could be some other alternatives for him in delivering his climate plan. Assuming a Democrat defeats Trump, one potential place for Inslee could be heading a brand new cabinet post focused on climate change, Kauffman says. 

For now, Inslee hasn’t shown any sign of backing down despite poor polling numbers. He’s still presenting new policy ideas. Inspired by FDR, he’s calling for a Climate Conservation Corps.

Inslee supports the right to collective bargaining. He wants to re-invest in the U.S. public education system. And he’s expected to continue publishing new policy proposals. 

He won’t say whether he’s jumping on board with Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders when it comes to student loan forgiveness, though. Rather, he supports financing debt relief. 

Inslee does tell EW that he wants to prevent people from getting into significant education debt in the first place by adopting a plan he signed into law in Washington state. Those who qualify for the state’s college grant — and aren’t wait-listed — can attend a public college and university without paying for tuition and fees if applicants receive the maximum award.

“The Washington plan is the most comprehensive student financing plan in the U.S.,” he says. “It’s free college for those who actually need it.” 

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