“There are not many days that pass with a plausible claim to genuine, planet-wide existential significance,” I remember thinking on the night of March 3, as Joe Biden, long derided by environmental activists as hopelessly retrograde on climate issues, effectively secured the Democratic nomination for president. The nomination had seemed, for a moment, securely in the hands of Bernie Sanders — whose plans were roughly ten times more generously funded, who talked openly about the existential threat of global warming, and who had been enthusiastically endorsed by the country’s leading next-generation climate advocacy organization, the Sunrise Movement. In its grading of the Democratic candidates, Sunrise, famously, gave Biden an F.
That grade was always a bit misleading — even Biden’s primary climate plan, which called for $1.7 trillion in spending over ten years and set a net-zero emissions target of 2050, was dramatically more ambitious than anything Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama had proposed or entertained as candidates. In fact, it was light-years better than anything any Democratic politician in any position of real power had ever put forward on climate before — not to mention how much better it was than anything being proposed on the other side of the aisle.
The problem, as the Sunrise grade was designed to illustrate, was that we can’t judge ambitions on the basis of what has been considered achievable in the past, but at how well they meet the challenge at hand. And on this metric, Biden’s primary proposal was hopelessly inadequate, at least according to consensus science (which suggests that to give ourselves a good shot at avoiding catastrophic warming, the planet as a whole needs to get to net-zero by 2050, meaning a much faster path for advanced countries like the U.S.)
But if Biden looked to activists in the fall and winter like an uninspiring, milquetoast throwback, unlikely to run on anything more than a restoration of the Obama years, his pivot to the general election has quietly turned him into something much more interesting, and exciting, for those on the left — a kind of fuddy-duddy Trojan horse for a suite of genuinely progressive policies. They aren’t quite as ambitious as those of Sanders or Elizabeth Warren, but they’re a hell of a lot closer than seemed even dream-able in the primary season, when, for instance, Biden would yell at climate activists when they confronted him on the trail. Once he secured the nomination, he put the head of Sunrise, Varshini Prakash, on the climate-policy team he formed jointly with Sanders, and which was led in part by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The plan also bears the fingerprints of Jay Inslee, the heroic (if perhaps quixotic) climate candidate of the 2020 primary, and the Inslee campaign alumni who formed the group Evergreen earlier this spring. The upstart lefty wonks at Data for Progress, the progressive polling and policy shop run by Sean McElwee, also advised.
Inslee’s plan set the bar for seriousness and ambition in the fall; now, it has become the basis for Biden’s. The dollar figures are a little smaller, and the scope somewhat, too. But Biden’s plan, announced Tuesday, draws enough from the Washington governor and Sanders and Warren that at least some commenters have described it, plausibly, as the Green New Deal without the name. It calls for spending $2 trillion over just four years, sets a net-zero target of 2035, and invests heavily in both tech R&D (the “centrist” climate policy) and in climate justice (the touchstone goal of the environmental left).
Spending isn’t a perfect measure of climate ambition, or even close, since many of the things that are most important to do aren’t matters of direct investment. But it does tell you something. Obama’s biggest green-energy investment was the $90 billion he sort of snuck into the 2009 stimulus package. Biden’s new plan calls for investment more than 20 times that size. It isn’t perfect, or sufficient, but it is much more ambitious than I thought was possible from a Democratic nominee as recently as when Inslee started campaigning on some version of it last year. On Wednesday, I spoke with Inslee about just how far the party — and its candidate — has come.
Yesterday was a big day. This climate plan seems to me to really be a major step forward for the party and the movement. Six months ago, nine months ago, I think this kind of thing would have seemed almost hard to believe. How did it happen? How has the center of gravity in the Democratic Party moved so much in so little time? What do you attribute that to?
I attribute it to Joseph Biden. He has exhibited real openness to new, ambitious ideas, and he has embraced them, big time. That’s the source of this.
Others played some role, of course — the movement, the activists. And seeing the ideas of this movement going to the White House is a thrill. But it’s happened because we’ve had a candidate who is willing really to seize the moment with bold ideas. And who understands that anything less than bold ideas are not up to the task of the moment, which is to create an economic revival and put millions of people to work in good-paying union jobs.
It sounds like you believe he’s moved so much on this out of concern about the general state of the country, understanding that the brutality of the pandemic has made a kind of revitalization necessary, with climate investments being one useful path. Is that how you see it, that the pandemic has played an important role in moving Biden on climate?
Well, you should ask him that question, but I think that his plan evinces a recognition of the central challenge of restoring our economy, and a recognition that one of the best ways to do it is to simultaneously develop clean-energy jobs and fight climate change. That is a fundamental recognition that certainly escapes the current occupant of the White House.
But it’s one that has been clear to me for the last 10 or 12 years. I have believed this for a long, long time, and the collapse of the economy has just made that more apparent. So what has maybe been clear to me for ten years is now just more apparent, with so many folks unemployed right now. So we’re not rooting for COVID, but it’s a circumstance that has made the need for thinking big and thinking visionary and thinking about really changing the course of our energy world just that much more obvious and immediate.
I’ve been eyeing the convergence of his plans and the ones you put forward during the campaign for a few months now, but even so I found his embrace of climate-justice issues in this plan very striking. If you had said to me six months ago Biden would be running on energy standards and clean infrastructure investments, that would not have surprised me, though the scale of the proposed investments are impressive. But the environmental-justice aspects of this plan seem more remarkable to me, personally.
Well, for one thing, I think that the country has changed in the last few months. This is the reckoning with racial injustice part of this. The country has had consciousness-raising that’s extraordinary. And it allows and opens an opportunity to address these equity issues.
But there’s an economic equity issue here, too — it’s not just racial inequity that he has recognized. He has had a long-term commitment throughout his career to economic justice as well. And that’s why I’m so pleased that he has embraced the importance of union jobs, the centrality of having union representation to get workers reasonable wages and benefits. That is also part of his equity lens, and he’s embraced that throughout the plan.
During your campaign for the presidency, you often talked about the filibuster as being one major stumbling block to real ambition on this issue.
I think I was the first one of the hundreds of candidates that started the race to call for it to be retired as an ancient artifact of a bygone era.
How do you see that playing out? It seems at least possible, and perhaps likely, that there will be a Democratic takeover of the Senate in the fall. But there’s basically no scenario in which the party gets 60 seats in the Senate.
I think there’s been a very significant change of thinking about the filibuster. The ranks have dramatically swelled who’ve now joined that chorus to retire it. So I think there is a significant possibility that it can and will be retired, and that can be done with 50 votes in the Senate. And I do believe there’s a reasonable chance that Democrats will have 50 votes in the Senate. I think that would be the easiest route to enacting this plan.
But there’s a lot of work that can be done in this plan by executive action by the president as well. So there’s a lot that does not require Senate approval. And, you know, you’ll always hold out the hope that you have a few Republicans who will see the catastrophic losses that we hope that the Republicans suffer in November as a motivation to start helping a little bit on clean energy and climate change, rather than just saying no. But, you know, we can’t bank on that.
About the possibility of sort of catastrophic losses for the Republican Party — I see that possibility too. And I also see culturally so much changing so quickly in our country politically — you know, Mississippi changing its state flag, polls showing Black Lives Matter is now more popular in Texas than the NRA. Do you sense that 2020 could be a genuinely generational kind of realignment of national politics? How ambitious — not just in climate but across the board — can a Biden presidency be?
Well, what I would say is first off, you know, predicting the future is not a business I want to get into. These are all just possibilities at the moment, but I do believe that the underlying tone of the country has changed more rapidly than at any time in my lifetime. The recognition of the need for breaking systemic racism, the need to address COVID, the outright dismissal of Trump’s attitude of denying the existence of COVID in some sense, or at least its severity. The country has totally rejected that approach — at least the general population, if not Republican officeholders. The public has done the same thing on the situation and the need to address racial injustice. And the recognition of the need to fight climate change — I would put that as a trajectory that’s on the upward curve as well. So these have been amazingly rapid shifts in the American psyche. I believe it’s something I’ve never seen before. And so I think that does give opportunities that we may not ever imagined a year ago. And I think the vice-president sees the potential of this moment — that maybe this is 1932, where we have fundamental changes. Those things are possible, I believe.
Given all that, and given that this plan isn’t quite as ambitious as yours was during the primary, what are the next steps beyond this plan? What more do we need to start thinking about?
I know you’re giving me a wonderful softball question, but I’m going to defer, I’m going to let that one pass because I’m just so focused on the immediate future — winning this election and implementing these policies. But I would point out the giant step forward that this plan represents. I hesitate to even think about next steps. This is a really bold plan and it hits on almost all the cylinders, to some degree. And I think the thing that’s most impressive is its being comprehensive. I mean, it’s just not one policy, it’s a whole suite. I don’t think that there’s an avenue that it doesn’t address. I know that over time we’ll have to continue that effort, but I would not indulge in the luxury of thinking about next steps. These are big ones.
I want to finish just by asking a question or two about the pandemic, since you’ve been such a leader in fighting it in your state. And there are some parallels with the climate fight in the sense that, especially in your campaign, you talked a lot about what you were able to achieve on climate at the state level. When I look at our response to the pandemic, I see the obvious, complete federal failure and evacuation of leadership — it’s criminal. But I also look around the country and see failure on many other levels and in many other places — the CDC and the FDA and the governors’ mansions in many states around the country. I wonder why you think we’re having such a hard time mounting a response at the state level, especially given that you’ve done, given the circumstances, a remarkably good job in Washington.
Well, I lay the vast majority of responsibility at the feet of Donald Trump. And the reason is that he has suppressed any meaningful possibility of leadership in the Republican Party by attacking anyone who dared to actually recognize early the severity of this pandemic, or was willing to take strong measures against it, or was willing to even talk about the real science. He has attacked any Republican who dared to say that in any sense this demanded a response. So to some degree, I’m defending a little bit Republican governors who have made what I believe are the right decisions, because Donald Trump has almost made that impossible for them. When he tweeted out against Michigan and a couple of other states, that we need to liberate these states, it was really interesting. That immediately stopped any bipartisan efforts from the Republican Party — certainly in my state and I believe nationwide.
We had the start of some bipartisanship in my state from some of my Republican legislators, and the moment he tweeted that out, it was not just a dog whistle. It was a bullhorn saying I will come after any Republican who shows any real leadership against COVID. So Republican assistance dried up in my state and dried up nationwide. So, I mean, yes, I could be critical of some of my Republican gubernatorial colleagues. But I think that even if they had wanted to move, Donald Trump made it almost impossible for them.
Now it’s made a huge drag on us as well. This is like running a marathon, dragging a big, huge, deadweight anchor behind you, because every time we tried to do something in Washington state, he’s telling his acolytes something else, and his acolytes have just followed him off a cliff. So I think he is the factor in about 95 percent of the problem here.
Well, in that sense, what have you learned in running that marathon with that burden? What should other states be doing? California, to name one example, is fighting a resurgence right now. What advice would you give to other governors about how to operate in this environment, given the federal failure?
I hesitate to give advice because that would suggest that somehow I hold the secrets to the kingdom here and, you know, I don’t. I mean, we’re just all learning day by day on this. I don’t want to suggest that somehow Washington has the patent on the perfect response, right?
No, of course not.
We have had early success, at the start of the pandemic. And we have continued to decline on the roster of per capita cases, so we have had success to some significant degree. I think the reason for that is that we were relatively early on our orders. I think we have a very scientifically literate group of people in the state of Washington. And I think our message of asking people to see this as a moment of being in this together — that is messaging that has been successful. But we still have rising numbers right now.
The one other thing I would say is that being early to masking and emphasizing that is really, really vital. And we were relatively early. I was the first governor to impose a requirement that businesses not serve those who do not wear masks — if there’s another state that’s done that, I’m not aware of it. We’ve had a rapid acceptance of masking. Yakima County, for instance, where maybe a third of the people were wearing masks a month ago, now 90 or 95 percent of people are. We’re seeing declining numbers in what was one of the hottest spots in the whole country. So we really threw in our chips on what might be controversial. In part because of Donald Trump, you can’t be dissuaded by controversy. You’ve got to just go with science, and you have to go earlier than you then would be really comfortable.