When Washington Gov. Jay Inslee ran for the Democratic nomination for president on a platform of aggressively tackling climate change, he didn’t get much traction with voters. But then the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 hit Washington state in January, and Inslee’s decisive science-based leadership suddenly seemed prescient.
Bloomberg talked with Inslee about the two potentially lethal crises and their weird but undeniable parallels. The interview has been condensed and edited.
Q: Before the pandemic you were perhaps best known for your committed stance on addressing climate change. Some of the first U.S. cases of COVID-19 were in Washington state and you’ve done a better job than most in containing its spread. Was there anything from your fight against climate change that prepared you for COVID-19?
A: They have a very different time scale, but there are a lot of similarities in the best way to address both. No. 1 is the most important: You’ve got to be aware of and accept the science and make decisions based on data – even if that is uncomfortable. The consequences are very dire for both if you don’t follow the data.
Another thing about both is that it is important to act early. I was talking to Anthony Fauci (director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases) about this in fact, and he basically said if you are not uncomfortable making a decision, you are probably too late.
The third thing I would say is that we have it in our power to actually do things about those problems. That’s important because both of them involve powerful – and at times, overwhelming – natural phenomenon. But we’re not powerless. We have the control to be able to affect our destiny. We made some wise decisions in this state and we bent the curve down on COVID.
Q: That brings us to another parallel. So far, leadership on COVID has come from the states. Can the states also exercise leadership on reducing carbon emissions?
A: States can act aggressively on both challenges and in many different ways. But it is also true that it would be much more effective if we had leadership from the White House instead of the current occupant, who at one time called both COVID and climate change hoaxes. He has an abject, conscious disregard of obvious science which every sixth-grader in Washington state understands.
Q: Why do you think that people are willing to make major lifestyle changes to stem COVID but not for climate change?
A: I think the people are willing to take action on climate change, it’s just that the political organizations have been captured by the oil and gas industry. They have shackled our ability to move forward. I think this is a case much more of special interests tying up progress as opposed to people not wanting change.
Q: Do you think COVID and climate change will eventually be explicitly linked?
A: I don’t think the science is entirely clear. But what I will say is that it is not surprising that the massive disruptions climate changing is causing in natural systems – desertification, dying forests, new animal migratory patterns – brings risks. We do know there has been an increase in the geographic scope of a whole host of infectious diseases, maybe not viruses, but malaria and Lyme disease because of climate change.
Q: The Earth has shown some ability to bounce back when humans step away. Air pollution is way down, and wildlife is returning to all sorts of unexpected places. Does this give you hope or is it a momentary illusion?
A: The wonderful thing about nature is that it is resilient if you give it a chance. In the 1970s we were down to 500 pairs of bald eagles in the United States, and now I see bald eagles all the time from our house just west of Seattle. But there is a big caveat. If you change the whole system that animal life depends upon, don’t count on them coming back. If all the ice floes disappear, don’t count on the polar bears coming back. You can’t turn on a light switch and bring back the Arctic.
Q: Governments are going to be spending billions on economic stimulus. Can you talk about your vision for how money can be spent on the stimulus and also combat climate change?
A: I talked about this a lot during the fall campaign and everything I said then is twice as true now because of the deep economic hole that we are in. In fact, the scale of investments needed are quite titanic. Yes, I am talking about making huge clean energy infrastructure investments such as building a new energy grid and building out infrastructure for electric cars as well as modifying our homes with insulation. But our municipal water and sewer systems are also crumbling. And we need bridges and roads but also to decarbonize transportation. There is no reason why we can’t kill two birds with one stone. It doesn’t all need to be clean energy.
Q: You recently endorsed Joe Biden. Once you doubted his commitment to climate change. What changed for you and do you think he shares your vision for how the stimulus should be used?
A: I think he is the perfect person. He was the point person on the $90 billion portion of the 2009 recovery package that was dedicated to clean energy. He personally shepherded those investments.
The only thing that will save us is action. On my desk I have a little plaque of the first order Winston Churchill issued in World War II. His first order was, “We shall take action today.” I do believe that should be our guiding principle when it comes to climate change.
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