Climate change presidential candidates need a record back home. Washington’s Jay Inslee now has stronger one

Gov. Jay Inslee, who is seeking a path to the White House on the message of climate change, signed a new law in Seattle last week that makes Washington the fourth state in the nation mandating carbon-free electricity by a targeted date.
Gov. Jay Inslee, who is seeking a path to the White House on the message of climate change, signed a new law in Seattle last week that makes Washington the fourth state in the nation mandating carbon-free electricity by a targeted date. AP

Gov. Jay Inslee gets most of the headlines, but Washington legislators deserve kudos for their recent action pledging a statewide shift to clean energy by 2045 and an even faster phaseout of coal power by 2025.

Weaning Washington’s electrical grid off fossil fuels, and speeding the transition to a so-called “green-collar” economy, requires a level of foresight that only a handful of states have demonstrated.

While signing Senate Bill 5116 into law this week, Inslee took a few minutes to savor it and several related pieces of legislation he requested to combat climate change. And who can blame him, given how long he’s waited for a breakthrough in his home state.

Case in point: His failure to win support for a carbon tax in recent years, from legislators and Washington voters alike.

The comprehensive climate package includes restoring a tax incentive meant to encourage consumers to drive electric vehicles, and it funds infrastructure to go with it. A Clean Buildings Act mandates large commercial structures reduce carbon emissions. And then there’s the statewide phaseout of hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs. These super pollutants are often used in commercial and industrial refrigerants and together with other short-lived pollutants contribute as much as 50 percent to the global-warming trend.

Credit for this long-awaited legislative win is due to Democratic majorities in both chambers, but memories of last summer’s wildfires also played a part. The intensity and frequency of cataclysmic storms and fires are proving to be more persuasive messengers than any scientist or politician could hope to be.

Heretofore, political efforts toward a statewide price on carbon emissions have yielded zilch. In fact, since Inslee’s tenure as governor began in 2012, Washington has seen an estimated six percent increase in greenhouse emissions.

In 2016, voters rejected a ballot initiative that could have raised gas prices 25 cents per gallon. In 2018, Initiative 1631 went down in similar fashion.

The succession of setbacks didn’t bode well for a presidential campaign like Inslee’s built on the KFC philosophy: Do one thing, and do it well.

But empirical evidence of global warming is starting to melt opposition almost as fast as the Arctic ice, which, according to the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, is projected to be gone by 2050.

There are even signs of progress in the other Washington, where climate change legislation historically gets less traction. The House voted last week to adopt the Climate Action Now Act, which would recommit the U.S. to the Paris Climate Agreement. It’s a hollow victory, however, without support from the Republican-controlled Senate and the Trump administration.

The threat to our planet is no longer an abstract theory relegated to an apocalyptic someday; it’s happening in real time, and every presidential hopeful should be on the campaign trail stumping about solutions.

It’s why Inslee’s message is starting to get co opted by higher-profile Democratic candidates. But not even an upstart like U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas has the vehemence of Inslee, who comes at climate change policy like all our lives depend on it. And maybe they do.

Distinguishing himself as the leading candidate on climate change might help explain his curious 180-degree turn this week on a planned liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma. Inslee the governor once called the LNG project “a transition to cleaner energy sources,” a far cry from what Inslee the presidential candidate is saying now, that he “cannot in good conscience support continued construction of a liquefied natural gas plant in Tacoma.”

If elected president, Inslee promises to cut the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030; he says he’d issue an executive order on Day One requiring all new residential and commercial buildings to be more energy efficient.

But who are we kidding? Inslee doesn’t have a snowball’s chance at the White House. Still, his fellow Washington state Democrats have given the longtime environmental advocate a sturdier platform to stand on.

We hope this big leap forward helps earn Inslee a spot in the first presidential debate, set for the end of June. If he gets enough donors and makes it to the stage, he’ll do his best to focus the discussion where it should be: on the very real peril of climate change.