The landmark Inflation Reduction Act isn’t even a month old, and though internecine fights continue about its estimated value and likely impact, at the policy level the climate saga appears to have already moved on. Last week, California announced a ban on new gasoline-powered car sales by 2035. The White House has declared it is planning a series of executive actions to add to the gains of the new legislation and bring the country as a whole closer to its stated targets: a 50 to 52 percent reduction of carbon emissions from those close-to-peak levels observed in 2005.
That whole bundle of stuff, including the new law, probably won’t get us all the way there. And yet it represents a pretty astonishing step forward from the state of play a couple of years earlier, when a popular Democratic governor running a presidential campaign focused on climate couldn’t break into the ranks of the top-shelf contenders.
Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington wasn’t just a novelty candidate in the 2020 primaries, but he did become something of an instrumental one: bringing debates again and again back to climate issues and pushing the green growth opportunities of decarbonization closer to the center of the Democratic policy vibe space. (When Joe Biden started saying, again and again on the campaign trail, “When I think about climate change, I think about jobs,” he might as well have been cribbing from Inslee.)
I spoke to Inslee in mid-August, just after the bill was signed, about both how far the country had moved and crucially what lies ahead: implementation challenges and obstacles, fights of all kinds at the state and local levels and perhaps a reckoning with a Republican Party still recklessly indifferent, in the governor’s eyes, to the fate of the climate. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
The first time we met was in May 2019, relatively early in your presidential campaign — that itself was a significant landmark in climate politics in the U.S., that a major-party candidate was running on an issue of climate.
I didn’t end up in the White House, but I do believe that my policies have, which is a thrill.
How did that happen? How did Biden, open-minded and progressive in certain ways, but not a single-minded climate hawk, come to focus his domestic agenda largely around this issue? What changed?
Well, obviously a lot. No. 1, the public is now experiencing firsthand, on a daily basis, the ravages of climate change, rather than just seeing CO₂ parts per million on a chart. And what has been an abstraction for years is now our reality: flooding in Kentucky and massive fires in Yosemite, Yellowstone National Park shut down. I do believe that fundamentally changed the ability to move climate policy.
I also believe that during the presidential race, there was a change. During the arc of the campaign, all of the candidates, including President Biden, sharpened their focus and raised their ambitions. I think my campaign did play some role in that, by creating a bar that we really expected other candidates to get over.
It now sounds like there’s a lot to come even after the signing of the I.R.A.
I remember during a debate, I kind of pushed Biden on how we were going to move off of coal. He said something like, “Well, we’ll work it out,” and I just kind of blurted out, “We cannot work it out.” I said, “We cannot work this out. The time is now. Our house is on fire.” It was an impromptu moment — not during my allotted speaking moment, I remember that. But he raised his game dramatically and I think that’s fantastic. I think he has played his hand about as well as he possibly could during this period.
An improbable triumph, given where things looked just a few weeks earlier.
Yes. Another thing that has changed — the advocacy of groups has been more successful. The Sunrise Movement, the BlueGreen Alliance, Evergreen Action, the other advocacy groups. Don’t leave them out.
Among other things, the way they’ve raised the salience of the issue has been remarkable, to me.
Yes, another macro element is just the success of the industries that I wrote about in 2007 — they are just exploding. The problem now with electric cars is you can’t make them fast enough to meet demand. The public loves them, the public wants them. They’re safe, they’re quiet. Solar continues to come down and expand. Battery storage continues to increase in its efficiency and cost competitors.
And then the job creation opportunities. Everybody can point to economic growth associated with that. It’s all come together in the nick of time.
But of course the problem isn’t how much green energy we produce; it’s how much of the dirty stuff we continue to use.
I think we have to think of ourselves as world-class athletes. These folks who win a gold medal — the next day, they go back into the weight room. That’s just the way they do business. And we have to do the same thing because clearly we’re going to have to do so much more.
This bill may be finishing the foundation, but we’ve got to build a house now, and building that house require a host of additional efforts, starting with implementation of this bill, which depends significantly on state and local action — because if we’re going to use these solar incentives, we have to find a way to site the facilities and the transmission lines and the battery storage units. If we’re going to actually realize the full potential of electric cars, we’ve got to get the charging stations sited and built, and that depends a lot on local action. Governors, states are critically important in the ability to actually realize the potential of this bill. So all of us are going to have to really double down on those efforts, even if no further federal legislation passes, No. 1.
No. 2, I do believe we need some additional regulatory effort and energy behind this in addition to just the incentive program, and I think that the nature of the challenge makes that clear. This is in some sense low-hanging fruit. When you do incentives, you get the low-hanging fruit, but the harder things that are rooted in the economy require regulatory action. If you ever root out blackberries, you can cut them off above the ground — that’s the easy part. But getting the roots — it’s harder.
So where does that leave us?
Maybe this takes us 30 to 40 percent where we need to go — and those estimates might be optimistic. But you’ve got another 60 or 70 percent to go, and those are the things that are harder. They’re the more costly changes that require additional investment and additional change, which is hard for all of us. I do believe the regulatory approach is absolutely necessary in that, and that’s why I’m glad we’ve adopted those in our cap-and-invest bill and our low carbon fuel standard on our energy efficiency standards. All of those things are necessary. The kind of things we do in Washington State I believe will be necessary on a national level.
Let’s talk a little bit about state regulation, permitting, Not In My Backyard issues — this whole bundle of obstacles that are managed by state and local leadership. For these bills to actually produce the promised gains requires an absolutely massive infrastructure rollout. What have you learned about handling that at the state level?
What I’ve learned is, it’s tough. It’s really hard work. It’s just finding a way to appeal to the communal interests of people and to get those who think of the community rather than your individual preferences, and hope that those folks can outvote the NIMBYs. And you’ve got to mobilize those people and mobilize the political will.
But it’s hard work. I’ve not had total success on it, even in my state. I haven’t won a battle yet to have more housing in the urban core, for instance, which is an energy efficiency issue, as well as a homelessness issue. I didn’t win that battle last year. We’re going to be back at it this year in the legislature.
But we’ve also had that proliferation of new energy into the movement. People are now voting on the climate issue. I’ve been arguing for this for several years — that as a party we need to make this a voting issue, not just a peripheral one. And we’re winning races on this.
From my perspective, it’s another thing that’s just changed with astonishing speed — that climate has become one of the issues that really holds the Democratic coalition together.
I think the reason for that is because it is such a powerful job creator — a good-paying-job creator. I mean, I can’t turn over a rock in my state where I can’t point to good jobs being created, in Moses Lake, where battery companies are coming in and Lind, Washington, where a solar plant went in and Arlington, where there’s electric planes that are in development. It’s just an explosion and it’s a welcome one.
It’s gratifying to me for a couple of reasons, because some things that I was once mocked for saying — in 2009 or 2010, I brought a Chevy Volt, the prototype for the hybrid electric, to Capitol Hill because I wanted to show my colleagues, “Look what’s coming. Electric cars are coming.” They brought it in a U-Haul truck and they rolled it down. I had a bunch of my colleagues there, and they rolled it down the ramp and then we popped the hood, and there’s nothing in it. My buddy said, “Well, what’s the deal here?” I said, “Well, this is just kind of a mock-up.” I was just being teased mercilessly by my friends — “This is ridiculous. This isn’t even a toy at this point.” Now people have a waiting list for the F-150, the Lightning, 10 miles long. In a decade. It’s just very gratifying to see that.
But I also have to tell you, just on a personal level, I went hiking up in both Comet Falls and Mount Rainier the other day. I looked at the Alpine Meadows and thought about how they are at such risk right now. These are places my mom and dad worked on, Alpine Meadows and Mount Rainier, during summers. And I know that we’ve lost 45 percent of our glaciers — Olympic National Park, and the same thing’s happening on Rainier. It’s just great to see action today, knowing that Alpine Meadows might have a chance for my grandkids. Feels pretty good.
We talked about how this has become so important to the Democratic coalition. But I wanted to ask you how you see that playing out on the other side of the aisle. Personally, I’ve been really struck by how little response there’s really been to this bill from the right. It feels like they’re so much more focused on critical race theory and pandemic policy and inflation. Five years ago, a bill of even this size, even as compromised as it is and even as focused on subsidy as opposed to taxation, I think it would have been a huge rallying cry for Republicans across the country to oppose it. And now what I see feels much more like acquiescence.
I think there’s a clear reason for that. They know they’re wrong. They know climate change is eating us alive. These people know how to read and they know this is a disaster. And when you know you’re wrong, all you can do is hush up, and that’s what they’re doing.
It’s pathetic and it’s alarming and it’s sad. But it’s the reality.
It’s true of course that the I.R.A. got no Republican votes. But I think also about the infrastructure bill, which was not talked about in climate terms, but packed a fair amount of climate punch in it, and which was passed on a bipartisan basis. Does a growing silence about climate on the right open up more opportunities like that, do you think?
Absolutely not. There isn’t a single Republican in my state who has lifted a finger on climate change. And until the Republican Party starts to develop a positive effort, the only solution is for them to stay out of public life — to remain in private life, where they can’t do any harm.
It doesn’t matter what sort of bland statements that they issue saying, “Oh yeah, I know climate’s a problem.” It’s how they vote. There are no votes, zero votes. There’s no votes in the Senate for climate action from the Republican Party. Zero. So they need to remain in private life. We need to do everything we can to ensure that until they change their stripes, and there’s no sign of that at the moment.
I hate to say that. It’s painful to say that because here you have this national catastrophe and you only have one party working. Until that changes, we need to elect Democrats. It’s the only game in town.
David Wallace-Wells (@dwallacewells), a writer for Opinion and a columnist for The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Uninhabitable Earth.”