Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was remarkably one-note in his recently euthanized campaign to be 2020's Democratic nominee. Climate, climate, climate, he'd say. Climate, climate, climate! And—occasionally, if he really wanted to shake things up—he'd add: Climate! Climate! Climate!
Inslee never managed to get much support in the race, which remains dominated by Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders (feat. Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg). What Inslee did manage to do, though, was use a national platform—as limited as it was—to drive the political conversation toward what is, arguably, the only issue that currently matters: Climate. Climate. Climate.
"We have to understand if we don't solve the climate crisis, it will prevent us from dealing with all of our other hopes and challenges," Inslee told NPR in May—a strong statement that, incredibly, might not have been strong enough. ("We're all fucked if we don't work on this one goddamn thing," might have been a more accurate, if less diplomatic, way to put it.)
Climate change is, in fact, the biggest challenge humankind has ever faced—and it's a challenge, as noted by Naomi Klein, that gets bigger by the day. "The thing about a crisis this big, this all-encompassing, is that it changes everything," Klein wrote in 2014's This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, her powerful argument that free-market capitalism, and the very few who benefit from it, are the biggest obstacles to preventing the worst of climate change. "It changes what we can do, what we can hope for, what we can demand from ourselves and our leaders. It means there is a whole lot of stuff that we have been told is inevitable that simply cannot stand. And it means that a whole lot of stuff we have been told is impossible has to start happening right away."
Earlier this year, in The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, David Wallace-Wells wrote that the "best-case outcome" of climate change "is death and suffering at the scale of 25 Holocausts, and the worst-case outcome puts us on the brink of extinction." Like Klein, Wallace-Wells notes that nothing less than a complete cultural and economic overhaul will be enough to keep the worst from happening. This Changes Everything puts forth the Marshall Plan as a blueprint, and Wallace-Wells says avoiding the worst-case climate scenario will require "global mobilization at the scale of World War II."
Still, it's easy to see why a candidate who was single-mindedly focused on climate wouldn't gain much traction: Even thinking about climate change is a huge bummer, and there are other vital issues—like guns, healthcare, and getting an insane, senile, racist grifter out of the White House—at stake. Not only do each of those issues, however daunting, still seem more manageable than climate change, they also aren't the ultimate, existential downers of total planetary collapse. Other issues have solutions that don't require remaking the entire world, and it's easy to see how, in a still-crowded Democratic field, Warren and Sanders and Biden are better equipped to deal with, or at least pontificate on, broader platforms.
We'll see how much that ends up mattering: On each of those issues, the prevailing, cautious political wisdom seems to be that, should any Democratic candidates actually dare to take moral, well-reasoned positions on any of those issues, the party is doomed to lose in 2020 anyway, having scared away skittish moderates.
But skittish moderates, like everybody else on the planet, will have their lives affected dramatically by climate change. Despite decades of conservative efforts to brand science as a partisan issue, it isn't—and if most people can't get on the same page about something as fundamentally central to survival as climate, there's little hope that most people can get on the same page about anything.
Warren—presently the race's strongest overall candidate—naturally has a climate plan, as does Biden, and earlier today, Sanders finally unveiled the details of his plan. (In July, Sanders joined with Oregon Representative Earl Blumenauer and—your hero and mine—New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a resolution to Congress that would declare a climate emergency.) It's not that the other Democratic presidential candidates are weak on climate, but climate is just one element of what they're working toward.
Strategically, that makes sense. But it's still hard to see Inslee, the one candidate relentlessly focused on the biggest issue of our time, fail to find his footing. If nothing else, the presidential conversation going forward will have that much less talk about climate, which can only be a bad thing.
Shortly after Inslee announced his ill-fated, ambitious candidacy ("Jay Inslee Announces 2020 Presidential Run to Literally Save the World," wrote Vanity Fair), The Stranger's Rich Smith noted that bold action on climate—at least in polls—is popular, which could have dovetailed with Inslee's plan to run "on one issue and one issue only."
"But if a majority of Democrats agree that climate change is the biggest threat to the country, and yet the majority of us refuse to seriously consider the guy who wants to prioritize it," Smith wrote, "then maybe we deserve to melt."