There’s an old saying in rock 'n' roll that only 5,000 people bought the Velvet Underground’s epic 1967 debut album — but every single one of them started a band. In a weird way, that reminds me of Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee’s 2020 presidential campaign that’s largely based on the issue of global warming and is only getting a composite of about 0.8 percent in the early polls — and yet it feels like every one of that 0.8 percent is a well-known climate scientist.
Michael E. Mann, the prominent Penn State climatologist who runs the university’s Earth System Science Center, told me this week that “Inslee has certainly put forward the boldest, most ambitious and aggressive climate change plan among all of the current candidates vying to be the Democratic nominee for president.” Mann hasn’t endorsed a candidate but he sees Inslee as the one right now who really seems to understand the urgency of the crisis — right at the moment that carbon dioxide (CO2) levels in the earth’s atmosphere have hit an all-time record.
“He (Inslee) really gets climate change and doesn’t want millions to die,” Genevieve Guenther, founder and head of EndClimateSilence.org, said by phone from New York, praising Inslee as that rarest of presidential candidates who’s running not because of ego but because of his long-time passion for the idea of beating back climate change.
OK, I know what everyone is asking at this point.
Who the hell is this Inslee you’re writing about?
I totally get that. At this very early stage of the most over-populated presidential primary in American history, even an avid Democratic super-voter would be hard-pressed to pick the 68-year-old Inslee out of a police lineup that also included 2020 White House hopefuls John Hickenlooper, Tim Ryan, John Delaney, Seth Moulton, Michael Bennet, and Eric Swalwell (and don’t even ask me who they are.)
Inslee, the fairly popular governor of his tech-booming Pacific Northwest state since 2013 and a former congressman, has the resume and the gravitas that a presidential candidate would die for — back in the 20th Century, when governing a mid-sized state propelled Democrats like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton to the White House. In the 21st Century, Inslee’s biggest seeming deficit — lack of charisma, or star power — is exactly the thing that many Democrats are demanding to be considered as a serious challenger on a debate stage with President Trump. And so for now Inslee’s campaign is struggling for oxygen in a Milky Way of not-well-known and not-very-dynamic white dudes.
Just this month, I wrote a column mocking this rising white tide of mediocrity, but here’s the thing: If you want to jump into a field of nearly two dozen candidates, you better show us something. And unlike some of his rivals, Jay Inslee is showing us something.
“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. And we’re the last that can do something about it,” Inslee said in March as he announced his campaign with the goal of making a war to stop planetary warming America’s No. 1 priority. “We can do this. Join our movement. This is our moment.”
Just this month, a poll conducted by CNN found that — for the first time ever — likely Democratic voters are naming climate change as their top issue, ahead of even health care or the economy. Much of that surge is fueled by the under-30 generation, which overwhelmingly sees rising temperatures caused by human pollution — and the floods, droughts, and other catastrophic impacts that result — as our biggest crisis. Pretty much every Democratic candidate is at least paying lip service.
Last weekend, I watched the frontrunner, Joe Biden, formally kick off his campaign in Philadelphia. The former vice president made sure voters knew he’d reverse Trump’s environmental policies to get America back in the Paris climate accords and invest more in solar and wind power, but there’s no specific blueprint yet. Biden said "the first, most important plank in my climate proposal is, beat Trump.”
Jay Inslee has an actual, detailed plan — and there’s more to come. So far, he’s outlined proposals for getting America out of the coal business over the next 11 years (with a “GI Bill” for retraining coal workers), part of a move to an energy grid that relies on renewable energy and zero carbon emissions by 2035. There’s a ReBuild America initiative that aims to make all of our residential and commercial buildings energy-efficient over 25 years (and creating millions of construction jobs in the process), aided by a $90 billion Green Bank for clean energy projects.
A President Inslee would look to dramatically boost funding for public transit (this daily SEPTA rider can only say, 'Whoo hoo!"), a Clean Water for All initiative (because Flint, like many other towns, still doesn’t have clean water), a slew of investments in clean-energy manufacturing that would hopefully help America catch up to rivals like China, and of course, moving to all zero-emission vehicles by 2030 with an updated “Cars for Clunkers” to get polluting 4-wheelers off the streets.
I’d call this a Green New Deal with some meat, except meat is bad for climate change. Maybe better, a Mueller report for the environment, because (like the Mueller report) you shouldn’t rely on a short summary but read the entire thing.
Did I hear you say that there must be a catch? Yes, it’s expensive — a $9 trillion proposal that heavily leverages private investment but would still cost taxpayers an estimated $300 billion a year. And Inslee has been less specific — so far — about the, ahem, funding mechanism. Mann, the Penn State climate expert, told me he believes there needs to be a price on carbon but that Inslee may be a little gun shy after a proposed carbon tax failed in his home state.
Jared Leopold, who grew up in Philly’s western suburbs and is now communications chief for the Inslee campaign, told me that the candidate wants to roll back the Trump tax cuts weighted toward big corporations and billionaires, which by itself is about $150 billion a year, and end government subsidies for Big Oil and Gas. “And a big part of this is the investment in the future,” Leopold added, citing the added revenue from creating jobs in clean energy and construction.
“Defeating Trump isn’t enough, as a climate policy,” Mann said. “It isn’t enough to just get back to where we were two years ago. In the meantime there has been too much water under the bridge—or, rather, carbon pollution added to the atmosphere—for that to be adequate.”
Inslee won’t be the one defeating Trump, though, if he stays below 1 percent in the Democratic polls. That could change after next month’s free-for-all initial debates in Miami — assuming that the Washington governor makes the cut. Young voters seeing Inslee for the first time might decide that charisma is trivial when compared to a detailed plan for making sure that, in Guenther’s words, millions of people don’t die in floods, drought and the ensuing upheavals.
That campaign lift-off probably won’t happen, but Inslee has already produced an open-source document that any 2021 president who’s not named Donald Trump can crib from. I’m sure Inslee wouldn’t mind that, nor would he likely object — with his term in Olympia set to expire at the end of 2020 — to a call to become climate “czar” in any Democratic administration. There may be 23 candidates in the Democratic field, but Inslee’s the only one who can make a case that he’s already won.
This month’s action: No, really, cut out meat! In 2019, I’ve pledged to write at least one column on climate change every month (five for five!) and also propose small changes in our daily routine that could make a big difference toward saving the planet — if a lot of us actually did them. I know it seems early in the process for a repeat tip but since I wrote in January about curbing meat consumption, the world of not-eating-beef got a whole lot better.