Opinion

Climate change issue will survive debates, with or without Inslee

Washington governor and presidential hopeful Jay Inslee is interviewed by the Voice of America before taking the debate stage in Detroit last week.
Washington governor and presidential hopeful Jay Inslee is interviewed by the Voice of America before taking the debate stage in Detroit last week. TNS

It seems likely that two of the most memorable proponents of action on climate change in the latest Democratic debates won’t make it onto the stage next time.

One of them, Andrew Yang, will be remembered chiefly for his blunt assessment that “we are too late” in addressing the issue and that “we need to start moving our people to higher ground.”

Raising the alarm is warranted, though my moderately developed political instincts tell me a slogan along the lines of “we’re all doomed” won’t turn out the necessary numbers on a cold Tuesday in November.

More consequential is the likelihood that Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, polling somewhere south of 1% heading into Wednesday evening’s circus, won’t be there for the next one.

He has made climate change the defining principle of his campaign, raising the alarm (“our house is on fire”) but also striking a more optimistic note on America’s ability to deal with it (provided it acknowledges the alarm, that is).

In doing so, Inslee ensured that more air time was devoted to the issue of climate change than in any debate before, both with his opening and closing remarks and when the climate question was posed to the candidates. He also forced the leading candidate, Joe Biden, onto the defensive by dismissing the former vice president’s climate plan as “middle ground solutions.”

Can climate change survive as a topic on the Democratic debate stage if Inslee isn’t there to push it? As I wrote here before 2016’s election, it can be tough to get Americans focused on energy-related issues when energy prices aren’t especially high (as is the case now).

A ballot measure to create a carbon fee in Inslee’s own state was voted down last November, despite Washington appearing to be particularly fertile ground for such initiatives.

Yet there is good reason to think the topic will remain alive even if Inslee’s campaign fades. That good reason is the Green New Deal.

The GND’s importance lies less in the chances of it being passed into law - not dissimilar to Inslee’s polling numbers right about now - but the fact that it exists at all.

In attracting criticism of being unrealistic, it implicitly raised the rejoinder: How realistic is it to simply absorb rising risks of flood, drought, migration and the rest of what climate change portends?

Above all, though, in taking both a very broad and radical approach, intended more to stoke passions outside Congress than necessarily push legislation through it, the GND has become the touchstone for proposals on climate change.

Earlier on Wednesday, former energy secretary Ernest Moniz delivered a speech to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce on his own plan for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, dubbed the “Green Real Deal” - a moniker that contrasts with the GND but in doing so piggy-backs on the branding. Even some senior Republican politicians, much as they loath the GND, find themselves forced to make their own proposals.

With regards to the Democratic candidates specifically, Kevin Book of ClearView Energy Partners, a D.C.-based analysis firm, puts it like this: “Campaigns emphasize difference, and thanks to the Green New Deal, Democrats can finally disagree about climate change.”

The ability to stake out different positions on an issue that polls highly with Democratic voters is why, even if Inslee isn’t there to bang the podium, climate change won’t fade away. It helps that, as Inslee noted, climate change and environmental stewardship cut across multiple hot-button topics such as healthcare and economic inequality, letting candidates define distinct positions centered on this or that axis of priority. It helps, too, that President Trump’s maximal position against doing anything to combat climate change means virtually any of those positions can also be turned against their ultimate adversary.

It was notable on Wednesday evening that Senator Kamala Harris of California, a GND sponsor, aligned herself with Inslee during the debate but focused on Trump pushing “science fiction instead of fact,” when it comes to climate change.

For fossil-fuel producers, the staying power of climate change in this campaign isn’t the only thing to note. The other dynamic set in motion by the GND is a leftward pull. For example, in the sometimes heated back-and-forth Wednesday evening, Biden appeared forced into pledging to end the use of coal and fracking of oil and gas.

Meanwhile, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, another GND-er, evoked the spirit of the Apollo program as she spoke of America’s opportunity to lead on combating climate change - stirring stuff, yet also strikingly interventionist as a policy framework.

Gillibrand also proposed a carbon tax to put “market forces” to work, but like many others on the stage Tuesday and Wednesday evening, the broad drift of climate policy appears to be centered more on regulatory forces. This stems in part from both the urgency of the problem and the time wasted already through ignoring or obfuscating it.

With or without Inslee, the “middle ground” is crumbling away.

Liam Denning is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering energy, mining and commodities. He previously was a Wall Street Journal editor and an investment banker.

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