Jay Inslee’s out, but let’s keep climate in

On March 1, at the headquarters of a solar-panel company in Seattle, Jay Inslee, the governor of Washington, jumped into the Democratic presidential primary as a climate-focused candidate. The following week, amid a flurry of interviews, Inslee went on Rachel Maddow’s show, on MSNBC, to make the case for prioritizing the climate crisis: “This is an economic issue, it’s a health issue… it’s a national security issue,” he said. On Wednesday, Inslee was back on Maddow to announce that he’s dropping out of the race. “I’m not going to be the president,” he said. Still, Inslee remains optimistic about the impact of his bid. “I think we have set the stage for a genuine debate about climate change,” he said in an interview with New York’s David Wallace-Wells. “It was a significant achievement to get this on the country’s radar screen.”

That cheerfulness may be misplaced. Multiple polls have shown climate to be a top concern for Democratic voters, yet so far in the campaigns the climate has been overshadowed by Trump, the economy, racism, and the horse race itself. Climate was notably downplayed during the first and second rounds of debates; during one, in July, CNN’s moderators only got to a climate question halfway through, right after a lengthy conversation about electability. During Inslee’s first debate performance, he got less speaking time than any other candidate, and failed to use the time he did have to drag the focus to the climate crisis. He performed better in the second debate, but it was too late for a breakthrough. Cable news channels barely mentioned his candidacy.

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Still, many observers—including David Roberts, of Vox, and Brian Kahn, of Earther—credit Inslee’s campaign with making an outsize impact: he managed to attract climate-focused coverage in The New Yorker; The New York Times, and other prominent publications that have scarcely reported on other low-polling candidates. The fact of his campaign forced higher-profile rivals to finetune their climate policies and encouraged journalists to assess candidates on those terms. HuffPost’s Alexander C. Kaufman wrote on Wednesday: “His emphasis on the climate crisis made it impossible for his competitors to deploy lackluster talking points such as recommitting to the Paris agreement or putting a price on carbon emissions.”

Inslee’s most important contribution to media coverage was his advocacy, early this summer, for a presidential debate focused solely on climate change. The Democratic National Committee said no, but Inslee’s push continued to gain momentum. At least 10 other candidates signed on to the idea, as did outside groups; one, the Sunrise Movement, organized a protest outside DNC headquarters.

The DNC has stayed firm, and just yesterday, it voted down a motion that would have allowed candidates to appear at an independent climate debate. But major networks have heeded the call that Inslee amplified. Next month, CNN will host at least 10 candidates back to back at a climate-focused town hall. And MSNBC, in collaboration with Georgetown University and Our Daily Planet, an environmental news site, will host a climate forum across multiple days, with each candidate who takes part promised an hour of airtime.

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These fora will help. But without Inslee in the race, it will be up to journalists to ask candidates their plans for confronting the climate crisis, press for specifics, and help persuade the DNC to approve a full climate debate in prime time. “I think we truly need a climate-centered debate,” Inslee told Maddow. “This is a complex issue. This involves mobilizing the entire United States economy. And you really can’t do that in just 60 seconds.”

Below, more on the climate crisis, and the 2020 race:

  • Covering Climate Now: Writing for CJR in June, Jason Plautz spoke to environmental journalists about the benefits of a climate debate. In partnership with The Nation and The Guardian, CJR is leading Covering Climate Now, a major initiative to increase the visibility of the climate crisis in media. So far, more than 100 outlets from around the world have signed on. You can get involved here.
  • #PrayForTheAmazon: The Amazon is burning. Its good health, Terrence McCoy writes for The Washington Post, is essential to curbing global warming—the Amazon “serves as the lungs of the planet, accounting for a quarter of the carbon dioxide absorbed by the world’s forests”—yet Jair Bolsonaro, the president of Brazil, has dismissed the problem and weakened regulations. Emmanuel Macron, who is hosting the Group of 7 nations in France this weekend, has called for the Amazon crisis to be at the top of the agenda.
  • Closer to home: Major wildfires are burning, too, in Alaska. Mike Dunleavy, the state’s governor, a Republican, instructed residents to “stay tuned to your radio” for updates. That’s tough, since, he also cut $2.7 million from the budgets of Alaska’s public media. KTUU has more.
  • The state of the race: Inslee was the third candidate to drop out of the Democratic primary, following Eric Swalwell, a California Congressman, and John Hickenlooper, the former governor of Colorado. (Inslee will now run for reelection as governor of Washington.) So far, only 10 candidates have qualified for the third round of debates, on ABC News; currently, that means we’ll only see one debate night, though a second will be added if more candidates qualify. On the Republican side, Joe Walsh, a radio-show host and former Congressman, could announce a primary challenge to Trump as soon as this weekend.


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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.