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For the first time ever, a presidential campaign is putting climate change front and center

Washington Governor Jay Inslee announces his 2020 bid for president.

Jay Robert Inslee, governor of Washington, speaking at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC - COP23. (Photo by Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Jay Robert Inslee, governor of Washington, speaking at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change - UNFCCC - COP23. (Photo by Fotoholica Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

For the first time in history, a major presidential candidate is putting climate change center stage in their campaign.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) announced on Friday he will seek to challenge President Donald Trump in 2020. “This is our moment, our climate, our mission — together, we can defeat climate change. That’s why I’m running for president,” Inslee said on Twitter.

In a video announcing his presidential campaign, he called climate change “the most urgent challenge of our time,” adding, “we’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. And we’re the last that can do something about it.”

Making climate change the signature issue of a presidential campaign is unprecedented. And it shows how far the conversation on this policy issue has shifted. During the 2016 campaign, for instance, not a single question about climate change came up during the presidential debates.

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But calls for climate action have grown since the November midterm elections, and the Green New Deal introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) — which has strong support from youth activists — has required lawmakers to grapple with climate change as a top political issue.

The Green New Deal draws on decades of scientific findings. In particular, the resolution cites a 2018 report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that warns of catastrophic consequences — from mass migrations and deadly heat stress to economic losses — if global temperatures rise past 2ºC above pre-industrial temperatures.

Over the past two years, the effects of climate change have become more visible to the public, as people across the country have suffered devastating hurricanes and wildfires — weather events made more intense due to the warming of the planet.

At least six other presidential hopefuls have voiced support for the proposal to rapidly decarbonize the economy. This includes Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY), Kamala Harris (D-CA), Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), and independent candidate Bernie Sanders (VT).

Beyond voicing support for climate action, however, it’s unclear how the different presidential candidates specifically plan to tackle climate change on a policy level — a question they’ll need to address as their campaigns progress.

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Inslee has a long history of pushing environmental efforts, with mixed success. In 2006, for instance, as one of Washington’s 10 U.S. representatives, he helped lead an effort to set up a renewable portfolio in his state.

In 2009, he helped launch the Sustainable Energy and Environment Coalition in the House of Representatives. That year, he also co-sponsored the failed Waxman-Markey bill, an ambitious cap-and-trade proposal that marked the last time climate action was meaningfully pursued on a federal level.

Inslee also founded the U.S. Climate Alliance in 2016. The bipartisan coalition boasts 20 states and Puerto Rico, which have all committed to achieving the Paris climate goals despite Trump’s pledge to withdraw the country from the agreement. He has also worked to fight fossil fuel infrastructure including a local coal-export terminal and oil-by-rail facility.

And most recently in December, he announced an ambitious legislation package including eliminating fossil fuels from Washington’s electricity supply by 2045.

But Inslee isn’t without his opponents. During the 2018 midterm elections, Washington state’s proposal to put a price on carbon failed — it would have been the first in the nation to impose a carbon fee on polluters. The oil industry notably spent $31 million to oppose the ballot initiative.

And last February, 13 young people sued Washington state, alleging that by failing to tackle carbon emissions, Inslee and his agencies violated their constitutional rights to a safe climate.

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Inslee faces an uphill battle in a race that’s shaping up to include many candidates with high name recognition. To gain traction with voter’s across the country, he’ll have to also tackle other critical policy areas such as health care and the economy.

But he appears to be using the platform of a Democratic presidential candidate to further a consistent message about the urgent need for climate action. As he said earlier this year in his State of the State speech: “This is the 11th hour, but it is Washington’s hour to shine. It’s a time of great peril, but also great promise.”

Referring to climate change, he continued: “I don’t know of any other issue that touches the heart of things so many of us care about: our jobs, our health, our safety, and our children’s future.”