‘This is the most consequential time for humans on the planet’: Governor Jay Inslee on climate change

Source: By ADELE PETERS, Fast Company • Posted: Wednesday, May 24, 2023

We talked with Washington governor Jay Inslee about the climate crisis, the debt ceiling, and why he owns an induction stove.

‘This is the most consequential time for humans on the planet’: Governor Jay Inslee on climate change

[Photo: Jacob Kepler/Bloomberg/Getty Images]

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee is known for his never-ending fight for climate action. The state will run on 100% clean electricity by 2045. It’s phasing out new sales of gas and diesel cars and trucks by 2035. A cap-and-invest bill puts a limit on emissions and makes big polluters pay to help support cleaner tech and transportation. New homes and large buildings now need to use heat pumps, not fossil-powered heat. A new Climate Corps will train people in green jobs. The list goes on.

Inslee has been in office since 2013, and was previously a member of Congress—beginning with a campaign that argued for climate action in 1992. When he ran for president in 2020, his outspokenness about climate change helped push Joe Biden to also focus on the problem—and later influenced some of Biden’s policies. Inslee recently announced that he doesn’t plan to seek reelection next year; we talked with him about what he thinks needs to happen next in climate action.

Fast Company: You’ve fought to put ambitious climate policies in place in Washington. Is the state on track now for its goal of net zero by 2050?

Jay Inslee: There’s much that will need to happen in the future that’s not online today. We clearly need to develop significant new renewable energy sources. We still have about 30% of our grid on fossil-fuel-based sources, and we need to replace that with zero carbon energy. We obviously need to decarbonize our transportation sector. We’re off to a screaming start on the electrification of our cars and our buses. We have started this process, but we have a long way to go to actually finish it. I think we have in place the structure necessary, including our cap-and-invest bill, which has been very successful at generating billions of dollars that we can put back into helping people get access to heat pumps and electric-charging stations. We’ve built a foundation, but we need to continue to build the house, is the way I would describe it.

FC: Some politicians give climate change lip service but don’t actually act. Why is it a true priority for you?

JI: [It should be] the top priority for humanity because we are seeing such major changes in our lives that can increase fatalities. I was just reading a report that this may have caused already 2 million premature deaths. In India, people are having heat emergencies and blackouts because of the increased heat. When I went snowshoeing with [Secretary of the Interior] Deb Haaland on Mount Rainier, the ranger pointed out that the glaciers lost half of all of their ice during my lifetime. A few days ago, we had a cloud of smoke from the Canadian forest fires over Washington State. Lives are being changed dramatically everywhere. And so it’s hard to think that there is a greater threat to our lives—and one that is also unifying, in that everybody on the planet is experiencing this in some way.

I do believe this is the most consequential time for humans on the planet because we’ve never had a situation where our actions or inactions will change, on a rather permanent basis, our civilization. And I’m glad my state has decided to lead a clean energy decarbonization effort. It’s been very successful.

FC: It seems like even as the impacts of climate change get more and more obvious, the world isn’t doing enough. You’re making progress in Washington, but the world needs to do more to tackle the problem. What do you think it will take for climate action to speed up to meet the urgency of the situation?

JI: The fact that we are on the precipice of disaster is obvious, and it’s been quite obvious for some period of time. I actually believe that the thing we need now is a sense of optimism that we can build a clean-energy economy. That’s the thing that we have succeeded in in Washington—building this vision that we can have a successful economy, we can build thousands of new jobs, we can give our children an economic future. Firm conviction that we can do this is the part we need right now. If people have confidence we can do it, there’s no reason not to. And that’s where I think the Washington experience is important. Because it definitely does demonstrate that this vision is a successful one—that we shouldn’t fear decarbonizing our economy, we should embrace it as a real positive future for us.

FC: When you think about climate technology, is there anything that especially excites you right now?

JI: It’s very difficult to answer that because I have a new one every single day. On Friday, I was in the Tri-Cities looking at a new technology for treating industrial wastewater that can capture methane and make renewable gas and green fertilizer, and it was technology I was unaware of. A week before, I was in Everett where we unveiled the largest hydrogen-fuel-cell plane, a 76-seater Bombardier Dash-8, being developed. Three weeks before that, I saw another hydrogen-powered airplane. The week before that, I was in daily, permitting decisions to start a new solar farm over in the Yakima Valley. This morning, I woke up and read about an EV co-op. I got a call last week that we had a first power purchase agreement in world history for fusion-based electricity. Long term, that could be most exciting—giving us unlimited energy from seawater. That’s a pretty sweet vision.

FC: Your presidential campaign arguably helped push Biden to focus more on climate, and now we have major climate funding from the infrastructure law and especially from the Inflation Reduction Act. What impact do you think the IRA will have?

JI: I’m hugely excited about the IRA. Obviously, having $360 billion of clean energy investment is a game changer. I think it was comprehensive, and its approach is going to help our state dramatically. But at the moment, we have to make sure to preserve it. Unfortunately, we have a party that still doesn’t get climate and still doesn’t get paying your bills either. And [the IRA has been threatened] in the debt ceiling talks. We are adamant that we not give up those hard-won gains and yield to this sort of economic terrorism that the Republicans want to threaten us with. Protecting that is of the highest priority for us nationally right now. It’s just insane that the Republicans want to be willing to default on the debt—and at the same time, default on our ability to build clean energy jobs. We’re hopeful that the president will be successful. He pulled a rabbit out of the hat getting this bill passed. Now we’ve got to preserve those wins.

FC: In an ideal world, if the whole Congress really recognized the threat of climate change and how quickly we needed to act, what more do you think the federal government should be doing?

JI: I think they should be doing everything Washington State has done. All the great things this president has been able to achieve, we’ve been able to go faster in Washington State on any number of measures. Having a cap-and-invest bill to to put a direct cost on carbon is is a great utility in this effort. [We’ve banned new] hookups with dirty gas. When you’re in a hole, stop digging. Third, being more aggressive on our usage of electric vehicles. As you know, we are phasing out [fossil-fueled vehicles by 2035]. We’re actually endeavoring to break that deadline. People are snapping up electric cars, they love them. We’re building charging stations like crazy. Then there are the permitting efforts—we have to improve our siting and permitting processes nationally. We need to build something like twice as much transmission capacity, serving our states the next decade or two. Having the ability to actually make those decisions in a timely fashion is absolutely critical. I just signed two bills this year that will accelerate our siting and permitting. The national government needs to do the same. This is one of the big holes in our national effort at the moment.

FC: What’s the role that states can play now in climate action?

JI: The states are, in some sense, where the next game will be played. Under the current situation in Congress, it’s unlikely that you’re going to be able to see major strides forward. But we can in our states. [A group of states called the U.S. Climate Alliance] represents 60% of the whole U.S. economy. So this is the place we can make major steps forward. The action is in governors’ races and state legislative races now. I commend people to think about it in those terms, to support people that can really help.

FC: Washington became the first state to require all-electric heat in large buildings, and then in all homes. How did you put that in place as the fossil fuel industry fought attempts at legislation?

JI: Our Building Code Council embraced it under the statutory authority given to the [council], and they had a public process and made this decision. It’s legally binding just as a statute would be, and it’s based on health and efficiency and the availability of these technologies. So they carefully considered that and made that decision. It’s good for the health of our kids. It’s good for the health of our larger environment. It’s good for consumers. Electricity is very reasonably priced in the state of Washington. I think the whole nation needs to move in this direction. When you’re in a race, you try to shed those things that slow you down. And increased hookups to gas is slowing us down dramatically.

FC: Is it right that you have an induction stove?

JI: I do. I fried a couple of eggs this morning. The induction stove is so precise, when you cook an egg you can hit exactly the temperature [that you want]. Plus, it boils water in about 65 seconds. And we’re not using a gas stove for our grandchildren to breathe. Asthma rates are higher for children in homes with gas ranges. It’s toxic, dangerous, and there’s no reason to use it right now.

FC: After you leave office, what do you want to do next?

JI: I would hope to find a way to still remain active in building a clean-energy economy. I don’t have a plan on what that may be. But the passion I have for this is pretty pronounced. I’ve got two grandkids and went to see one of them yesterday and, you know, that kid deserves a decent place to grow up. So I will remain in this fight in some capacity.