Is America Ready For A Climate Change Candidate?

16:57 minutes

close up portrait of jay inslee grinning against blue background
Governor of Washington and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

“Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” So goes the saying. And for Washington state governor Jay Inslee, that idea is climate change. He has staked his run for the White House in 2020 on what he calls “America’s Climate Mission,” and his campaign platform says “defeating climate change is the defining challenge of our time and [it] must be the foremost priority for the next president.”

For a little historical perspective, however, consider that climate change was practically a non-issue in the last presidential election. There were no specific questions about climate policy in the debates. And only five minutes and twenty-seven secondstwo percent of total talking timewere spent on climate change across all three presidential debates.

In this conversation, Ira discusses Gov. Inslee’s presidential ambitions, and the science issues that have defined his time as governor of Washington.

Further Reading

Donate To Science Friday

Invest in quality science journalism by making a donation to Science Friday.


Segment Guests

Jay Inslee

Jay Inslee is the governor of Washington and is campaigning to be the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. It’s been said that nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come. And for my next guest, Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, that idea is climate change, and that idea’s time has come. He’s staked his run for the White House in 2020 on what he calls “America’s climate mission.” 

And his campaign platform says that, quote “Defeating climate change is the defining challenge of our time and that it must be the foremost priority for the next president.” That’s a bold statement, considering that climate change was practically a non-issue in the last presidential election. There were no specific questions about climate policy in the debates. And, according to the environmental news site Grist, only five minutes and 27 seconds were spent talking about climate change across all three presidential debates. That’s 2% of the total talking time. 

So has the tide turned? Is the American public ready for a candidate who embraces this issue? That’s what we’re going to be talking about. And our question to you listeners, how important is climate change compared to other national issues when it comes to winning your vote in the next presidential election? Our number, 844-724-8255, 844-Sci-Talk. You can tweet us @scifri. Governor Jay Inslee is Governor of Washington State. He’s jumped into the pool of democratic presidential candidates for 2020. Welcome to Science Friday, Governor. 

JAY INSLEE: You bet. It’s the best day of the week. Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Thank you. 

JAY INSLEE: Everybody’s happy on Friday because of you. 

IRA FLATOW: Well, compliments will get you everywhere. You’ve been called a single-issue candidate. Would you disagree with that name? 

JAY INSLEE: Yes, because climate change is not a single issue. It’s all issues. It’s a matter of saving our economic assets, where we’ve had $1.6 billion lost because of flooding in the Midwest, on the downside. On the upside, it’s the number one potential job creator in the United States in the next several decades. Clean energy jobs today are going twice as fast as the rest of the economy. 

The number one fastest growing job today is solar installer. And number two is wind turbine technician. So it is as much an economic promise as it is an environmental peril. It’s a health issue. Look, it’s asthma that the kids are suffering from fossil fuel pollution, increasing the range of infectious diseases because of insect vectors, loss of life during hurricanes and heatwaves. It’s a national security issue. We know that Trump is trying to ignore the clear warnings from the Pentagon and our intelligence services, that this is a national security threat, because we know that increasing droughts have the potential to drive mass migrations with consequent political instability and violence. 

So it’s not just a single issue. It is all of the issues. And it is one that we have no more opportunities. This is our last chance. And what I’ve learned– and when you’re governor, as I’ve been for six years in the most successful economy in the United States, you need to make priority decisions. It’s one of the first functions of leadership. And what I am saying is, defeating climate change has to be the first, foremost, and paramount duty of the next administration, because it is our last chance. If you look at the clear science from the IPCC report, it is becoming quite obvious that we’ve got to move right now. 

IRA FLATOW: So much of the impacts of climate change that you were ticking off there also seemed to be included in the Green New Deal that is working its way– debating through Congress. If you were still serving in Congress, would you have your name among its co-sponsors? 

JAY INSLEE: Look, I think this has been a welcomed development. I wrote a book, or co-authored a book, in 2007 that basically set out a vision for economic growth around clean energy. And so I really welcome what this has done to light up interest in this. As you indicated, it’s really important to get climate change on people’s radar scope. And this has been very successful getting it into the national conversation. It’s also been very successful raising the scope of people’s ambition. This cannot be just a “check of the box” kind of issue. It has to be a dominant organizing principle of the United States. 

And third, it’s engaged more communities in this discussion– marginalized communities, front-line communities. There’s communities of color and poverty that are the first victims of climate change. And so it’s made clear something I believe that, as we go through this transition to a decarbonized economy and a clean energy economy, we have to make this not just a transition. It has to be a just transition so everyone can participate. So now, we start the heavy work and hard work of developing the policies that hopefully will follow what we’ve done in Washington. Right now, we’re leading the efforts in Washington state, and I hope we keep that ball rolling. 

IRA FLATOW: And so how do you answer people who say addressing climate change is too expensive, or they want to take your hamburgers away from you? 

JAY INSLEE: Well, I say baloney. You know, I was having a discussion with Megan McCain on the view a couple weeks ago, and she was saying exactly that, that Democrats will take away your planes, and your railroads, and your car. And I said, well, that’s interesting, Megan. Because as of this moment, I had a shiny blue General Motors all-electric bolt. It was made by the American workers in Oregon and Michigan. And that’s the type of destiny that we have if we will have a president to ignite the imaginations and the innate, can-do, optimistic spirit of the American people to grow our economy around clean energy. We know we are capable of doing this because we’ve done it so many times before. 

Whenever there has been a technological transformation, the United States has been able to lead if we have leadership to get us going. And if I’m given this high honor, I would intend to provide that spark of leadership, just like John F Kennedy did when I was 10 or 11 years of age saying, we’re on the moon. And I believe with the spark of creativity and ambition, America can do that kind of thing again. 

IRA FLATOW: I remember the Kennedy years. I remember the challenge to go to the moon. I remember Lyndon Johnson taking it over. I remember landing on the moon during the Nixon administration. This was a generational and a decade-long effort. Do we have that kind of political muscle now to see something through that we could change a whole society? 

JAY INSLEE: Yes, not only do we, but we have to have that. And I think victory is the only option here. [INAUDIBLE] asked Churchill in World War II, how can you be so sure of victory? And he said, it’s really simple. It’s the only option, because without victory, there’s no survival. 

And that is the situation that we have to realize today if we follow science. And we are a scientifically literate nation. We deserve a scientifically literate president. And we have a scientifically illiterate person in that office right now who, a couple days ago, said that wind turbines cause cancer for goodness sakes and that if we have wind turbines, you won’t be able to run your television. 

Here, we are a growing US economy. And in my state, we’ve developed the best economy in the United States, and in part because we focused on clean energy. We have focused on science. And when you do those two things, good things happen, not only to your health to prevent your forest from burning down. 

And by the way, this is very personal to me because I’ve met the victims of climate change. I was in Paradise, California a few months ago. And this is a town of 25,000 people that was burned to the ground. It looked like a post-apocalypse movie in Hollywood. 

I remember meeting a woman named “Marsha Moss” in Seminole Springs, a community of about 100 mobile homes that had burned. She lost everything. She wanted us to do something about climate change to reduce these forest fires, and I think we need a president that will do just that. 

So, yes, I do believe the country is ready. And I believe that, in part, because of polling. And, shoot, in Iowa, it’s the number-one priority of Iowa democratic voters. So I’m happy to be just in time at the right moment. 

IRA FLATOW: Yet a carbon pricing ballot initiative failed in your own state in the last election for the second time. Another pricing initiative failed in 2016. What do these failures mean to you? You know, are people still not getting it? 

JAY INSLEE: I think what they show is that we have to be willing to use the most powerful renewable fuel in the country, and that’s perseverance. And we have to use perseverance, and we have to use multiple tools in the tool box. A carbon-pricing system is one of them. But, fortunately, there are dozens of others. 

And so we are now addressing– and I’m promoting five bills in my legislature, all of which are moving forward, one of which would guarantee Washingtonians a 100% clean electrical grid, another that would provide us with a clean fuel standard. So we have cleaner transportation fuels, another that would require net zero commercial billing so we don’t waste energy; another that will have an incentive program so more people, not just you know wealthier people, but more people have access to electric cars and the like. 

So we know there’s multiple ways to go forward on this, and we’re doing this in my state. And I think we have to have the same attitude in our nation. And we can do that if we have a president who’s both knowledgeable about these things and has had a multi-decadal commitment, as I have had. 

I’ve been at this for over 20 years now and introduced some of the first legislation in 2003. I started the US Climate Alliance with Governor Jerry Brown. We now have 23 states that are moving forward. I think this is a good sign, by the way. For those who question our ability to move forward, this organization that I helped start now has 23 states that are committed to defeating climate change. And we did this, in part, because we wanted the world to know there’s still intelligent life in the United States. And we’ve demonstrated that. It’s one of the reasons that the rest of the world is continuing to move forward. So there is reason for optimism because we know there’s many ways to build a clean energy economy, and we’re doing that right here in my state. 

JAY INSLEE: Let’s go to the phones 844-724-8255.. Let’s go to Ames, Iowa. Joe, hi. Welcome to Science Friday. 

AUDIENCE: Hi, thank you. You know, I think this really points out a real flaw we have in our election system. Every four years, I say all of these politicians come to Iowa, and they speak at these forums put on by our agriculture powerhouses, and all of them speak in favor of everything that has to do with animal agriculture and ethanol– all of these things that really cause global warming, and all of them are scared to death to speak out against anything to do with animal agriculture, because they know that the Farm Bureau and these other powerful ag interests will sink them. It’s completely true for the Republican Party, but it’s even true for the Democratic Party. They’re scared to death to speak out against the interests that are huge contributors to global warming, including– 

IRA FLATOW: So, Joe, what are you suggesting? 

AUDIENCE: Well, I’m suggesting, first of all, we’ve got to rotate who votes first. We’ve got to rotate Iowa out of first place. That’s critical. Because we’re warping the values of the politicians that the politicians speak to. And second of all, we have to be willing to say openly that animal agriculture is causing a huge amount of global warming in our country. 

IRA FLATOW: Let me get an answer. I’m Ira Flatow. This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Joe calling from Ames, Iowa, which is one of the windiest, electric-producing states in the Country. Jay, how do you answer that? 

JAY INSLEE: Well, first off, Iowa is a perfect example of what we can do in clean energy. We got hundreds of wind turbines that are going up like crazy. When I was driving up down the freeway from Ames the other day and going past Story County. There was trucks every half mile with new blades going up. So wind turbines are growing as fast as corn stocks in Iowa. That’s a good sign. 

Second, as far as the ag community, many of us think that there’s a way to bring the ag community into being a positive factor in this by finding a way to sequester carbon and topsoil. It can be a very good vector, if you will, for getting carbon out of the atmosphere into the topsoil. At the same time, we’re doing things that reduce erosion, with no and low-till technology. So there’s a way to bring ag in a very positive way. 

And, by the way, one of the [INAUDIBLE] things he indicated is that he’s concerned about implicitly dollars in politics and, big dollars dominating. Look, I agree with him. We need more individual voices speaking out. One way people can do that today, actually, is, you can go to jayinslee.com. I need to get 65,000 donors by the time Iowa rolls around this June. And anyone who wants to make sure that climate change is on the debate stage, you can go to Jayinslee.com. And if you send in a dollar, that’ll help with my 65,000 climate friends. 

We need to make sure that climate change is on the national agenda. And my candidacy is very important in making sure that that happens. So I was in Ames at Iowa State about a month ago. I will tell you that it was a center of climate change activity, where I met climate reality young people who, this is absolutely top on young people’s agenda, and so I look forward to getting back there. 

IRA FLATOW: It is interesting. Do you think that we have seen a paradigm shift from two years ago when no one would talk about it, to now it being spoken where you cannot not talk about it? 

JAY INSLEE: Well, I think it’s been a paradigm shift everywhere in America, except on Pennsylvania Avenue with Donald Trump, who continues to, according to Chuck Grassley– this is quoting a Republican senator, in his comments about wind turbines causing cancer, he just said it’s just idiotic. But the rest of the country is moving. The polling indicates this in Iowa and across the country. My candidacy shows that people, for the first time in American history, we have a person running on this. This has never happened before in American history. And so, yes, this is changing. 

I’ll note something that actually was interesting to me. I testified before Congress. I was the only governor willing to do that last week in front of the Commerce Committee. And the Republicans in their criticisms of me have changed dramatically. They no longer were willing to say, climate change is not happening and publicly denying climate change. And the reason is they realize that that just makes them look totally foolish. In a sense, that’s a good thing. Even they have understood that that is no longer acceptable, given the avalanche of scientific information. 

And more importantly, what people are now seeing with their own eyes– look, when you see a town burn like Paradise burned down, when you see the floods in Nebraska, when you see Seattle, where sometimes our kids couldn’t go out to swim because of the air quality because of our forest fires. People are now seeing with their own eyes. 

But here’s the bad news. The Republican party may no longer totally be the party of climate denial, but they’re still the party of climate do-nothingism. And that’s equally fatal, you know? We need to take action here. And right now, unfortunately, there is only one candidate running for president of the United States who says categorically, this has to be the number one priority of the United States. 

And the reason I firmly believe this is, if it is not job one, it won’t get done. And I think it’s great that other candidates are putting it on their list of things to do on their refrigerator, but this has to be the organizing principle of the next president, and we have a candidate, and that’s myself, who believes that. And I think it’s a good sign. 

IRA FLATOW: Thank you for taking time to be with us and allowing us to pick your brain on this. Governor Jay Inslee is Governor of the state of Washington, running to be the Democratic nominee for president. Thanks again. 

JAY INSLEE: Thank you. Go get ’em. Have a good weekend. 

IRA FLATOW: Have a good weekend.

Copyright © 2019 Science Friday Initiative. All rights reserved. Science Friday transcripts are produced on a tight deadline by 3Play Media. Fidelity to the original aired/published audio or video file might vary, and text might be updated or amended in the future. For the authoritative record of Science Friday’s programming, please visit the original aired/published recording. For terms of use and more information, visit our policies pages at http://www.sciencefriday.com/about/policies/

Meet the Producers and Host

About Christopher Intagliata

Christopher Intagliata was Science Friday’s senior producer. He once served as a prop in an optical illusion and speaks passable Ira Flatowese.

About Ira Flatow

Ira Flatow is the host and executive producer of Science FridayHis green thumb has revived many an office plant at death’s door.

Explore More

Head Of NASA Jim Bridenstine Answers Your Questions

The NASA administrator discusses everything from Mars to the Space Force.

Read More