Presidential candidate Jay Inslee fears the climate crisis will kill us all

Salon spoke with Gov. Jay Inslee, the only Democratic presidential candidate to make global warming his main issue

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 31, 2019 6:00PM (EDT)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (AP/Getty/Salon)
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (AP/Getty/Salon)

As I interviewed Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington and one of the nearly two dozen Democrats running for president in 2020, I realized that this wasn't really an interview with a politician. This was a conversation about the end of the world.

That statement only seems extreme if you don't understand the threat posed by global warming — or, as Inslee puts it, the climate crisis. If human beings don't stop emitting greenhouse gases into our atmosphere, within decades we will be unable to grow enough food, obtain enough drinkable water, construct habitable buildings, or stave off diseases. We will see massive heat waves, horrific superstorms, the submerging of cities into the ocean. Even if human beings survive here and there on the planet, civilization, as we know it, will not.

One would assume that Americans and their presidential candidates — presented with such a dire existential threat — would prioritize this issue above all others. Yet Inslee is the only Democrat who has made fighting global warming into the centerpiece of his campaign agenda; although his fellow Democrats acknowledge that this is a crisis (to varying degrees), Inslee alone says that addressing it comes before all other considerations.

And considering we're discussing not matters of values, but our survival as a society, Inslee's campaign — which focuses on a comprehensive plan he developed for addressing climate change — is about more than standard political issues.

After speaking with Inslee, I reached out to three of the world's top climate scientists. I did not directly ask them to comment on Inslee's campaign (none of them discussed it with me), but I did ask about how humanity is spiraling toward its own extinction. We are maniacal consumers, buying more and more and causing increasing ecological destruction in order to fill greedy needs that can never be truly realized. That rabid consumerism is what makes the wealthy destroy our world in the name of ever-increasing profit — and without ever-increasing profit, they cannot indulge in their own consumerist impulses — regardless of the fact that most Americans recognize global warming is happening and want to address it.

"In George W. Bush's own words, we are 'addicted to fossil fuels,'" Michael E. Mann, a climatologist and geophysicist who is currently director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, told Salon by email. "Carrying the metaphor one step further, fossil fuel interests and the politicians and front groups who do their bidding are the drug pushers, while we are the victims. Let's point the finger at those who are to blame!"

Ken Caldeira, an atmospheric scientist at the Carnegie Institution for Science's Department of Global Ecology, told me by email that our obsession with profits and products is analogous to individual addiction experiences.

"The promotion of consumerism is as dangerous at a global level as the promotion of heroin is at an individual level," Caldeira explained. "It is one thing to be in poverty, and meeting real needs with increased consumption (shelter, food, clothing, etc). It is another thing entirely to be living a life of affluence, attempting to get another shot of dopamine through impulse buying."

Kevin Trenberth, who is part of the Climate Analysis Section at the US NCAR National Center for Atmospheric Research, argued that one solution is to find ways of using human beings' demonstrated impulses to achieve positive results.

"My own observations are that people tend to do what is easy and comfortable, but with incentives they may change," Trenberth told Salon. "Certainly this applies to the private sector. A carbon tax provides the right incentive to change and I think we could be amazed at the entrepreneurial developments that would occur from the private sector once the setting is established by the governments. But the latter are essential to pull all countries in the same direction because otherwise countries cheat and undermine efforts from those who don't. Such is human nature. Where are the carrots and sticks?"

This, in a very real sense, is the kind of question that every presidential candidate needs to answer. Gov. Inslee is the first one to make trying his foremost priority, even if the interview which follows must be viewed as about something far more than mere politics.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.

I would like to start with the fact that you've focused your campaign on the issue of global warming and you are the only presidential candidate to make that the centerpiece of your message. I'm going to be blunt. I feel like this issue is incredibly important because there are literally apocalyptic stakes here. Do you feel the same way, that if we don't address this now, we could be facing the end of civilization?

Yes, we are facing the conclusion of a place to live that would be unrecognizable, and what year or decade that actually becomes the cliff is unknown, but it is out there and we are now facing very severe damage already today. This is not an issue of tomorrow. This is an issue of damage and pain today, and I've seen that from the people whose homes burned down in Seminole Springs, California, to the people whose nonprofits were flooded in Davenport, California.

So I think one of the points I'd like to make is that yes, there is an apocalypse out there where things become unrecognizable to us. But this is about our injury today and that's one of the reasons that people are recognizing the necessity of action today. It's one of the reasons why people in their polling have said this is now a top issue for them as it is with Democrats in Iowa, and it's one of the reasons we've had a surge of support for my candidacy since I announced what is the most substantive, robust, and comprehensive energy plan, I think clearly of anyone in the field.

What made you decide to focus on global warming as being your central issue? Other candidates have brought it up and are concerned, but you are the anti-global warming candidate. What made you decide to take that approach?

I think we should call it "the climate crisis" because I believe that's what it is. And what made me do this is reality and science. And those are things you can't negotiate with. And the reality is that this is all the issues, not a single issue. And all of the things that we would like to achieve — which are better health, a better economy, a more secure nation — cannot be achieved unless you are victorious over this one problem. So everything else depends on this. And by necessity we have to win this or other victories are not possible.

Now this is not the only thing I've done as a governor or will do as a potential president, because I've had an extremely successful governorship — having the best family leave, and the best minimum wage, and the first net neutrality, and the best gender pay equity, and a huge teacher increase, and elimination of the death penalty and some of the best gun control laws in the country.

So I have a very rich record of success that I'd like to bring to the nation. I think Washington is a template for a progressive future for the country, but unless you don't solve this one, those other things become moot, and the reality is very clear. It's something I've realized for a long time. I've been working on this issue for a couple decades now and anyone who looks at the science has to reach the same conclusion. So this is a pretty easy decision. Now it's also fortuitously the best economic growth message and opportunity for the United States. That's something I've long believed. I just coauthored a book in 2008 about that. So it is both a method of survival and a method of huge economic growth and we need to recognize both.

I was actually about to discuss about your policy focus on economic growth, reading the 38-page document that you released last [month]. Reading just in general what you've been focusing on, it seems like you're trying to bring about, in concrete policy terms, the underlying premise of the Green New Deal. Would you say that is a fair statement?

Yeah, I think we've complimented the aspirations of the Green New Deal... which, by the way, I think has been very helpful to the cause. I'm very appreciative of the leaders who brought that into the national discussion. And the way I sort of look at it is, I think this is the Green New Deal said we're going to the moon, and I think my really comprehensive plan designed the rocket ship, and I think both are important. Both are pushing the 'Go' button on the mission, but also designing the systems that will get you there. And I think anyone who will spend some time looking at our plan will conclude, like most reviewers have, that it is by far the most rigorous comprehensive plan. It's really not a campaign document, it's a governing document, and we're ready to go on Day One because we have the plan in place with everything from a green new bank, to quintupling research and development, to whole new systems of buildings.

And certainly eliminating coal by 2030 is clearly the most, I think, scientifically realistic and appropriately ambitious goals for the United States, but it all starts with the prioritization to make this Job One. I'm the candidate who is saying that, and that is perhaps the most important thing to do, to say this has to be the top priority, it has to be the Job One, or it won't get done. This is going to take enormous political capital and we have to have a president who recognizes that prioritization. To govern is to choose. I'm a governor. Other people have not had that experience, and I recognize priorities. So that's the first order of business. I'm the candidate, singularly, who has made that statement.

Now I would like to discuss the global warming deniers, because while the science on this issue is settled — I think you and I would agree that there is no dispute that the earth is warming and that it is due to manmade causes — there are many people who deny this. How do you plan on breaking down the science to the general public in terms that a layperson can understand? If you had to explain how global warming works, how would you do so?

Well, a couple things. First off, I believe this is a climate crisis. Global warming was last decade. It is now a crisis and I use those terms because I believe it's most appropriate. Global warming was such a benign thing, like a cuddly blanket. The climate crisis is when your town has burned down or it's flooded out, and that's what we're experiencing right now.

I would say two things. Number one, we simply can't wait for the last climate denier to pass. We can't wait for Donald Trump to try to figure out that wind turbines don't cause cancer, they cause jobs. We don't have enough time for him to catch up with the laws of physics and gravity. And that's a reality. Unfortunately, the large majority of the American people do recognize that we have to respond to the climate crisis. Polling bears that out, both Democrats and Republicans. It's just that, unfortunately, the president and his party politicians are in the pocket of big oil and gas companies right now and just can't shake their masters.

And that's the real problem here. The American people are with us on this. But to those few deniers that exist, it's just a real simple concept, which is a greenhouse. Anybody who's walked into a greenhouse should understand the climate crisis, which is energy can pass through a pane of glass when it comes in as ultraviolet light, and it's been refracted back as infrared. It's trapped, it can't go through the pane of glass, and carbon dioxide works essentially like a pane of glass. It traps heat. It can come in but it can't go out... because of the nature of light and heat.

And so it's a pretty simple concept and it shouldn't be shocking to people that if you warm up and heat your atmosphere, it's going to change profoundly your whole system. And that's why we're getting massive floods in the Midwest. It's why we're having fires in the West. And that's why Miami Beach has had to build up their main street a foot-and-a-half so it's not flooded. And why that is so hard for Donald Trump to understand, I don't know, but for a man who doesn't understand what a cover up is, perhaps it's hard to understand what the climate crisis is.

My question now is about fixing the damage that's been done to the atmosphere. Do you think that could even be possible? It's something I wonder about because one of the things I keep reading is there's so much damage that's already been done that, even if we start cleaning up our infrastructure and changing the way we use different technologies, it still wouldn't reverse the damage. Do you think that damage can be reversed?

Well, I would first, before I answer that question, I would say that it's a bit irrelevant to ask that question. Because if your house is burning down, you don't spend a lot of time sort of figuring out what the remodeling project would be. You've got to put the fire out. That's what you've got focus on. So I don't spend a lot of time debating that subject because we've got to put the fire out and that's what we've all got to work on together.

Now having said that, I think there are ways over time, and this might be centuries, to sequester carbon dioxide that is in the atmosphere through both high tech means and biological sequestration over the decades or century. But we just don't have time to draw hypotheticals about that. We've got to get to the business of putting the fire out here. So that's what I'm concentrated on.

I want to refer to something you said earlier. You said that you have respect for the different leaders who drew up the Green New Deal. Some of those leaders, like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have actually been brutally mocked for what they have done. Why do you think there is such a hostile reaction to leaders like herself and others who support the concept of a Green New Deal?

Well some people can't stand the thought of a successful, dynamic, intelligent young woman intruding into their country clubs. That's one of the reasons, frankly. But second, people who are farsighted are frequently mocked. Copernicus and Galileo went through it and I think Ocasio-Cortez has a better understanding of science by 10,000 miles than the fella in the White House right now. Third, we are proposing significant improvements in our economy and that threatens the status quo. It threatens the sort of monopoly of the oil and gas industry and transportation fuels and coal, and so you have multibillion dollar industries that are built on the concept that they can pollute our atmosphere in certain amounts at zero cost, and they feel threatened by that. So you know, change often involves that. But I just really appreciate her leadership and Sen. Ed Markey [D-Mass.]

I think that she has accomplished three things with the Green New Deal: One, it's got the climate crisis into the debate and the discussion, which is extremely important. Two, it has lifted the scale and the discussion of the scale that it has to take to really accomplish this goal. And third, it's brought whole new communities into this discussion. Low-income communities, communities of color, indigenous communities, people who are the most marginalized and frontline communities. So those three things have been really, really helpful. And so it's a team effort, and it's something I've believed in a long time as you know. So I think it's been great for the cause.

I want to go back to another comment you made earlier regarding how a lot of people who deny global warming do so because they are beholden to various business interests, that for personal financial reasons don't want this legislation passed. You received a B.A. in economics from the University of Washington. You've worked for a private law firm. And you've, as governor of Washington, been able to work with business leaders in order to bring jobs into the state. How do you explain to these business interests that oppose this legislation that all the money in the world is meaningless if we're all dead?

Well, sometimes you wonder if people are concerned about or care about that if it helps their stock options for 30 days. That's one of the problems of our current system. That's shortsighted thinking in some of our corporate boardrooms. Look, these companies ought to know that they have to find a new business model. Edward Teller in 1954 told them that they scientifically know that their business model is unsustainable over the decades to come. They know that. It's just, you know, people want that last drink, you know, and they want to have that last oil well, and that's what they care about, frankly. The only way I can explain this is that they aren't particularly caring about those years in the future.

Now we've heard some, you know, language coming out of some of these companies that they want to have plans to get to decarbonized future and the like, and that's great. But we need to see research dollars and real investment, and disinvestment in their otherwise stranded assets. That we have not seen from the industry. And that's what has to happen. So when that emerges, it'll be a great day. It has not, other than sort of sophistry at the moment. But these people, they know. They know what's coming. And at the moment they just don't care. You can't make somebody care, is what I'm trying to tell you. There's no way you can make people care. If people just don't care about their grandkids, there's no way to make them. So we've got to take over the decision making here and make some decisions for our grandchildren because we do care.

I think that's a very eloquent way of putting it, and here is why. There are people in my generation, millennials, who feel that these business leaders are fully aware of the fact that they're destroying the world, but they're not going to be around to see it, so why does it matter? And then they wonder why so many young people are furious...

Well they should. Young people should be furious. I marched with them during the climate strike a few months ago, a couple months ago. I sat with Alexandria Villaseñor who's leading the climate strike. She sits out in front of the UN every Friday on a bench holding a climate strike, and I sat with her. And she was a very kind of quietly serene and strong 14 year old, but fury ought to be what young people feel right now to be deprived of a future.

I met a woman who is a leader of the Democratic Club at Dartmouth who told me she had been in two conversations the day before about young women who were questioning whether it was right to bring a child into such a degraded world. And that's awfully disturbing to think, that people have to think in those terms. So my generation has got an obligation, in my view, to the next two or three or four or seven to get off the dime here. And I sort of look at it that the Woodstock generations ought to have a good legacy, which is to leave a place to live behind. And I'm certainly committed to that.

You said the Woodstock generation, would you consider yourself to be part of that baby boomer Woodstock?

I think that's a fair statement. And Jimi Hendrix is a living spirit to me.

Jimi Hendrix would probably support your political views from what I've gathered about about the man.

I think so. I was going to say his sister does, but I'm not sure she's endorsed them yet, so I better not say that.

I'll include your qualifier. Don't worry.

But Jimi Hendrix went to Garfield High School where my dad taught biology, so we claimed some lineage to that—that music.

Yeah. I will say, whenever I think of pop culture and [the] governor of Washington, I think of the Chris Farley movie "Black Sheep."

Thank you for the compliment. We consider that a big compliment.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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