US Climate Hawk-in-Chief? Washington Governor Eyes Presidential Run
On a recent winter beach walk, Washington state Governor Jay Inslee's 5-year-old grandson beamed with delight as he spotted a crab.
Protecting such moments of connection with nature are one of the motivations driving Inslee to consider running for the U.S. presidency, with action on climate change as his major campaign platform.
"That type of experience in nature is what is so threatened, and I want my grandkids to continue to have those experiences," Inslee told Reuters in a telephone interview.
The Washington Democrat, from one of the country's greenest-leaning states, would likely face a tough uphill climb to the presidency, and plenty of analysts are skeptical of his chances to win the Democratic nomination, much less the Oval Office.
But Inslee, 67, believes fighting climate change should be the top priority for the White House — a dramatic shift from the views of the current occupant, who has called global warming a hoax and plans to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
"It requires a concerted national will and the political capital of the President of the United States to put their shoulder to this wheel," he said. "We have to do climate first."
A host of Democratic challengers to Republican President Donald Trump are expected to join the political fray this year, from U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts to former Vice President Joe Biden.
How much any of them would make action on climate change a priority in a new Democratic administration remains unclear.
But Inslee believes there is an economic as well as environmental case for embarking on a "Green New Deal" that would transition the U.S. economy off fossil fuels and toward cleaner, renewable power.
He likens such a change to other major historical shifts, from the United States' buildup of World War II industrial might to the research and development program behind the Apollo space program that landed Americans on the moon.
"We have to change our economy so it does not run on oil and diesel and instead runs on clean energy," Inslee said. "That is the largest economic transition perhaps in human history, since we went from pulling a travois to having a wheel."
If done well, the governor said, decarbonizing the U.S. economy could spark plenty of new jobs in emerging clean energy industries, a view he outlined in his 2007 book Apollo's Fire.
"The number one job growth rate in America today is for solar installer and number two is for wind maintenance engineer," he said. "These jobs are growing twice as fast as the rest of the economy."
Inslee sees his state, which he has governed since 2012, as a model of combined environmentally-friendly legislation and strong economic growth.
In recent years, Washington has reviewed its energy portfolio to boost renewables and encouraged cities and towns to buy electric buses.
The state has also installed a network of electric vehicle charging stations and seeded a clean energy research and development fund.
Home to major companies such as Amazon.com, Microsoft and Starbucks, Washington state had the strongest economy in the United States last year, according to an analysis of 28 indicators by personal finance website WalletHub.
In the current state legislative session, Inslee is pushing for 100 percent clean electricity statewide by 2045 and a clean fuel standard in line with other West Coast states.
But efforts to put in place carbon pricing in the state have failed three times under his watch.
Inslee has not yet officially announced his candidacy for U.S. president. But in October he started a political action committee and has raised $112,000 through November for a potential run, according to federal election filings.
Last year, he also made multiple visits to early primary voting states as chairperson of the Democratic Governors Association.
He believes support for clean energy was a successful campaign issue in the seven governerships that Democrats won from Republicans in the 2018 midterm elections.
Inslee also points to a September poll of likely Iowa Democratic caucus voters, who said restoring U.S. leadership on climate change is one of their top three issues.
But a Yale University poll from last March suggested global warming still ranks 15th out of 28 issues of importance for U.S. voters nationally.
Political scientists say that is likely to hinder Inslee's prospects for taking his green campaign national.
"The brutal reality is that the electorate does not care about environmental issues," said Aseem Prakash, director of the University of Washington Center for Environmental Politics.
Prakash gives Inslee little to no chance of winning the presidency but believes a bid would boost his national visibility and make him a viable candidate for a cabinet-level post, such as head of the Environmental Protection Agency.
In such a role, Prakash said, "he would be able to translate a lot of policies he has been talking about into concrete outcomes."
An Inslee candidacy on a climate change platform also could encourage other Democratic candidates to talk about the issue.
The former congressman remains undeterred about his likely slim chances of winning the top job.
"Pollsters be damned," he said. "You've got to go with your gut."
He believes combatting climate change could help unify a fractured country — and that he could be the one to push ahead the action needed now to help avoid the worst impacts of climate change and take advantages of new clean energy opportunities.
"Unfortunately, we're at the eleventh hour" in terms of addressing climate change, Inslee said. "But it can be our hour. It can be our shining hour where my state and, eventually, America leads the world in a clean energy economy."