Even as he prepares to leave office, Jay Inslee is pushing for climate action

When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced this week he would not seek a fourth term in 2024, he listed multiple accomplishments he was proud of over the past decade. But atop that list, he said, was that his state had adopted “the nation’s best climate policies.”

Inslee’s relentless focus on climate change has influenced not just his native Washington, but also policies in D.C., in recent years. During his 2020 presidential campaign, Inslee’s ambitious climate proposals and outspokenness about the need to move away from fossil fuels forced other Democratic candidates to embrace the issue with more urgency.

President Biden’s climate policies have incorporated pieces of Inslee’s plan. Inslee’s former staffers have gone on to work for the White House and to form the climate advocacy group, Evergreen Action.

The Washington Post spoke with Inslee Wednesday about his role helping to shape state and national climate policies, how he plans to keep pushing for more aggressive action after leaving office and why his focus on slowing Earth’s warming is as much personal as professional.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

How do you think you and your state have led on climate?

First off, I think our state has been incredibly dynamic in developing a clean energy future. Today, I’m in the Tri-Cities, which has been a nuclear site where we’ve been doing cleanup for decades now. And now this community is going from clean up to clean energy. And that’s happening in every community in my state.

I signed seven more bills today focused on accelerating the ability to site clean energy projects and transmission projects, and to embrace climate goals in our local land use planning, and to develop the climate corps to train people for all of these new jobs. Literally, while I was driving to this [today], I got a call from one of my fellow governors asking about all this. There’s nothing more gratifying when you have other governors asking how we are getting these jobs done.

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How do you think your push for climate action helped shape Biden’s policies?

I am so delighted at President Biden’s leadership on this. Pulling the rabbit out of the hat on the Inflation Reduction Act was a miracle of modern democracy and is going to power so many jobs in my state.

I do think he went through some metamorphosis. He called me yesterday to note my going to some new climate adventure other than governor. And he told me, “What you did did have an impact on some of my thinking.” And I’ve frankly never had a larger accolade than that. How honest he was being, I don’t know, but I told him that him saying that would have gratified my mother and shocked my father.

I think that his grasp of the economic potential of this has been enormously successful. When I watched the development of his plans, I do think they did crystallize for whatever reason, and our nation has been extremely benefited by that.

Are there ways in which Washington has fallen short? And what are your biggest climate frustrations?

I will answer that question. But before I answer it, I want to tell you what I think are central challenges right now in this movement. I think we need to focus on messages of confidence and optimism and a can-do spirit. And here’s the reason I say that. Despair is just deadly. We know how challenging all of the climatic problems are that are now unfortunately baked into the environment. But we need to start every conversation with saying, “We can do this.”

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The good news is we can go faster even than Congress has gone. And fortunately, we have a federal system where states can go faster than the federal government. So my state is now going faster than Congress in developing a cap-and-invest program, which has generated billions of dollars. And putting the low-carbon fuel standard in place. And the thing I’m most proud of most recently is we’re the first state in the nation to effectively wean ourselves off fossil gas installations in our businesses and homes by requiring every new construction starting next year to use a heat pump.

Look, we’ve got to pedal faster. We are in a grand race for the survival of life as we know it.

What is it been like to preside over a state that has seen some pretty profound climate influenced disasters?

I look at this through a very personal lens.

A couple of years ago the [wildfire] smoke was so thick we had the worst air quality in the world for a few days. Literally, our kids couldn’t go outside and play because of it. We’ve lost the ability to grow the oysters, in part because of ocean acidification. The ski areas that we enjoy so much are under threat because the snow line is moving up.

I look at this very personally. I want my grandchildren to have the opportunities that I’ve had, to be able to go outside and not breathe smoke all summer, and go clamming and have salmon in the rivers and go skiing in the winter. This is a legacy I want to give my grandkids.

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We have developed what I would consider America’s best climate policies that are leading the Western Hemisphere. So, if I exit the stage, I’m going to be able to tell them: “Your granddaddy just didn’t sit around sitting on his hands. He did something about it.”

Have you thought about what the “new climate adventure” you mentioned after leaving office will look like?

I’ve not thought about it in any specific fashion, but I when you have the kind of passion that I do, it’s not going to be dimmed just because I’m out of public office. I think there’s got to be a place where I can use the Washington example and try to inspire more people to join us in this effort in some fashion.

I don’t know what that might look like, but I’ve got 20 good months ahead of us [still in office]. I think that all of us need to turn from the aspirational to the actual execution, and that means the plumbing. That means you’ve got to be able to find a way you can site these facilities. How are we going to site solar panels where some don’t like it? How are we going to site transmission lines?

So, I really have some more work to do in the next 20 months.

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