Can Donald Trump Be Defeated by Climate Change in 2020? This Democratic Candidate Thinks So

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee
Washington Governor Jay Inslee during a press conference after a deadly mudslide in Arlington, Washington. Inslee says he is not ruling out a run for president and would campaign primarily on a climate-change platform. David Ryder/Getty Images

The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned Monday that the planet had just 12 years to prevent irreversible, life-altering damage to the planet due to temperature increases. The Trump administration, meanwhile, has presented a labyrinth of convoluted views on climate change with a singular conclusion: Policy and regulation to protect the environment are unwelcome.

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee wants to counter that adjudication and play foil to President Donald Trump's climate change denial on a national scale.

Inslee, an advocate for climate change policy and the nation's first carbon tax, indicated that he could run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2020—on a climate change platform.

The chairman of the Democratic Governors Association has been in and out of Iowa this year, with stops along the way in Illinois, Nevada and Florida, swing states that will be essential to a successful presidential run. His crowded itinerary indicates that he's setting himself up for a big race. But the question remains: Can a candidate get far running on a climate change platform?

"Look, if I were to do this, I would make America's vision statement to defeat climate change. I think the country is deserving of that, and the country is ready for that," Inslee told Newsweek at a League of Conservation Voters dinner where he was receiving an award.

Still, the 2016 election process made it clear that climate change was not a priority issue. A total of 5 minutes and 27 seconds were spent discussing climate change and the environment in the three debates between Hillary Clinton and President Trump—about 2 percent of the total time. When environmental issues did come up, Clinton did the majority of the talking.

In a 500-page report last month, the Trump administration concluded that the Earth's temperature will rise 7 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of this century and that because our destiny is known, adding more pollutants and methane to the air won't change the situation. At the same time, Trump pulled out of the historic Paris climate accord and once said climate change was a hoax created by China.

"I don't want to seem too harsh, but there's only one thing, as far as I can tell, that he believes in, and that's the mirror... That's the only principle that I can figure out that he really follows," said Inslee of Trump. "He's arguing both sides, both that it's a hoax and that it's so bad that we ought to throw our grandchildren overboard. That's one of the highest derelictions of duty that I've ever seen by a presidential administration, that we should just give up and suffer these losses. It's not very American."

In May, liberal Democrats ranked climate change as fourth among issues that would influence their vote, but only 2 percent of American voters ranked global warming as the most important issue when voting (for a Congressional representative, at least).

When former Vice President Al Gore campaigned on climate change in 2000, the reverberations of his arguments actually set Republicans back on the issue. Anything Gore supported, in their minds, was toxic. "All I knew was that Al Gore was for it, and so I was against it," Bob Inglis, a six-term GOP representative from South Carolina's 4th District, told Newsweek last month.

"You can't win talking about climate change," said Brad Bannon, a Democratic strategist. "Democrats and Americans have a full issue plate already, and it's tough to add something to the list, even if it's important. People don't feel the same intensity about it as they do economic equality or gun rights or health care."

But Inslee said Democrats hadn't met the right salesman yet. "I think people in the past have not tied the message of climate change to the fundamental character of the American people, and if you do that, it's much more resonant," he said. "Things like optimism, American exceptionalism in the world, community response. So when you tie it to the health of our children, economic growth and American values, that's a great message. I believe that."

Some highly influential Democratic donors are buying his message. Billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has donated the maximum amount allowed to Inslee's campaign and pledged $1 million to support his carbon tax initiative. California billionaire Tom Steyer is also an ally and a frequent donor to Inslee.

"Climate change used to be a graph chart. Now it's the acrid smell of burning forests in Seattle, which we've never experienced before; the flooding and landslides," Inslee said. "At the same time, we're experiencing such a technological boom in the reduction of costs of alternative energy sources. We've seen the price of solar energy drop through the floor; wind is becoming incredibly expansive. I believe that combination calls for a candidate who makes climate change a central part of their message."

Inslee believes his call to prevent climate change is a uniting message, one he can persuade Republican voters to support. They are experiencing and acknowledging the effects of climate change, after all. The University of Michigan and Muhlenberg College found in May that 73 percent of all Americans believed there was "solid evidence" of climate change, and 60 percent thought climate change was "happening" and that humans were "at least partially responsible for rising temperatures."

The majority of Republicans believe climate change is real, that human activity is largely responsible for it and that reducing greenhouse gas emissions would help curb the process, according to a July 2018 study led by Leaf van Boven, a psychology and neuroscience professor at the University of Colorado Boulder.

"People's perceptions are changing rapidly because they're tasting their burning forests on their tongues," said Inslee. "I wish I could say Republican elected officials believed climate change were real. There's a gap between people in the Republican party and their officials."

Senator Bernie Sanders, also eyeing a 2020 run, recently integrated climate change policy into his stump speech. His solution to the problem, however, goes way beyond a carbon tax. "We must take the opportunity to reconceptualize a global order based on human solidarity, based on the understanding that it's not me against you or the United States against China, but that we as the world, especially with the threat of climate change, are in it together," he said at Johns Hopkins University on October 9.

Trump, meanwhile, remained unconvinced of the toll climate change will take on the world. On Tuesday, the president acknowledged that he had received a copy of the U.N. report but wanted to "look at who drew it, you know, which group drew it," because "I can give you reports that are fabulous, and I can give you reports that aren't so good."