Solomon Medintz: Jay Inslee and the future of climate politics

Sunday, April 7, 2019 - 5:11pm

There is a disconnect on climate change between Democratic voters’ priorities and the attention it is given on a national level. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, voters ranked the environment as their third most important issue. But that enthusiasm was not apparent during the 2018 midterms, where Democrats seldom talked about climate change, instead choosing to focus on health care, the Republican tax plan and corruption in President Donald Trump's administration.

I have been wondering for a long time when a Democrat would run for president primarily on climate change. In 2016, national media gave it little airtime, and candidate Hillary Clinton did not prioritize the stark differences between herself and President Donald Trump on the issue.

A possible explanation for the recent lack of national climate change conversation is the partisan nature of climate politics. The same Pew poll highlighted that climate change is the issue with the largest partisan prioritization gap. Another possibility is that climate change conversations seem too apocalyptic to be inspiring. Or perhaps many Americans think dealing with climate change means losing jobs.

Jay Inslee, governor of Washington and current 2020 candidate for the Democratic nomination, believes those obstacles can be overcome. By running as the climate candidate, he is trying to exploit the disconnect between the extent Democratic voters prioritize climate change and the attention candidates give it on the national stage. Coming from Washington, which has a sizable rural Republican population, he thinks he can make climate change an issue Republicans can get behind. And instead of prophesying doom as many climate advocates do, he is explicitly pushing a hopeful message, one centered on the potential jobs a transition to clean energy brings.

Though the rest of the Democratic field also calls for action on climate change, they do not make it a priority — it is just another on the laundry list of agenda items they have once in office. For Inslee, climate change should be the next president’s top priority.

Inslee’s message is especially significant because, for Democrats, prioritization shapes policy. In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama had an ambitious legislative agenda, but since he prioritized the Affordable Care Act and the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he was unable to expend more political capital passing comprehensive immigration reform or his cap-and-trade plan for carbon emissions. If climate action proposals are just another item on the long list of policies 2020 candidates need to prove their progressive credibility, I am skeptical we will see meaningful change.

Inslee’s bet does not seem to be paying off. While it is early in the campaign and Inslee does not have high national visibility, he has not been polling higher than one percent and often does not even appear in the top 12. He is not even the most popular issue-based candidate — entrepreneur Andrew Yang’s campaign based on universal basic income has been about as successful so far (and he certainly has more of a cult following).

Inslee’s low polling is not a condemnation for prioritizing climate action on the national level, but it underscores the need to integrate climate into other issues Democrats are passionate about.

In that capacity, he is losing out to the other, faceless climate candidate of the 2020 Democratic primary — the Green New Deal, which is the proposed framework for fighting climate change and socio-economic inequality from Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. Despite, or maybe because of, the right’s vilification of the proposal, it has polled well across the political spectrum, with more likely voters expressing support than opposition (including 71-percent of Democrats). Historically, Democratic climate policy has focused on wonky policies like cap-and-trade proposals or carbon taxes. When these were the headliners, voters were unenthusiastic, which limited how intensely the Obama administration wanted to put themselves behind climate legislation, according to David Axelrod, President Obama’s senior adviser. These efforts also ignored the ways in which climate change will first impact marginalized communities.

Even though Inslee’s climate messaging is more nuanced than the climate politics of the past, by branding himself as the climate candidate, he has sidelined economic and social justice issues important to the Democratic base. And it does not help that Inslee, a 68-year-old white man, looks like the people who have often advocated for technocratic climate policies.

The recent report issued by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells the world that we must drastically reduce our global carbon emissions by 2030 in order to mitigate the worst impacts of climate change. That requires the United States gets on board and prioritizes climate change. The Green New Deal’s popularity, and Jay Inslee campaign’s lack thereof, proves that we cannot talk about climate change by itself, but that it must be fully integrated into other efforts voters are passionate about.

Solomon Medintz can be reached at smedintz@umich.edu.