2020 Democratic candidates move to the left, become more progressive as climate change emerges as campaign issue

An ideological tug-o-war puts pressure on politicians to deliver policies.

June 07, 2019, 4:44 AM

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, in unveiling phase three of his Democratic presidential candidacy's climate agenda, has an eye cast towards the global stage - and is looking to reimagine American foreign policy through the lens of combating climate change.

“The United States and the world stand at a crossroads unlike any we have encountered before,” Inslee said in a statement on Wednesday. “Within the next decade, either inaction will set in motion a worsening global climate crisis that will lead to devastation, or our nation and the world will respond decisively to build a modern, green and just global economic future. The choice is ours.”

He detailed his policy during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, on World Environment Day – and timed close to the anniversary of President Trump pulling America out of the Paris Climate Accord.

Climate change is emerging as one of the 2020 election cycle’s most pressing issues. This weekend many in the Democratic presidential field, including Inslee, will descend upon Iowa to campaign – those events will include calls to highlight the perils of climate change and the importance of action.

PHOTO: Joe Biden, center, is applauded as he speaks during a tour at the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative on June 4, 2019, in Plymouth, N.H.
Joe Biden, center, is applauded as he speaks during a tour at the Plymouth Area Renewable Energy Initiative on June 4, 2019, in Plymouth, N.H.
Elise Amendola/AP

A recent poll conducted by Harvard Institute of Politics of young people, ages 18 to 29, found a substantial 14-point increase from the same poll they conducted in 2015 in those who said they believed "government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth."

Inslee, supported by a number of other 2020 presidential contenders, pushed for the Democratic National Committee to dedicate one of its presidential primary debates to the issue of climate change completely and he even wrote a letter to the DNC Chairman Tom Perez urging the party to "ensure that the climate crisis is on the agenda." However Wednesday, Inslee said that the DNC informed him it will not hold a separate debate on the issue. He said his campaign was told that the DNC will bar him from future debate should he participate in any other organization's climate change debate.

"...While climate change is at the top of our list, the DNC will not be holding entire debates on a single issue area because we want to make sure voters have the ability to hear from candidates on dozens of issues of importance to American voters," DNC Communications Director Xochitl Hinojosa said in a statement.

This decision comes as a flashpoint amongst the Democratic field and amid a furious push from progressives and environmentalists, as well as strong support across the Democratic spectrum, for climate change to be front and center in the minds of voters and on the debate stage.

Inslee squarely targeted President Trump for his "cowardly path of ignorance," and "foreign policy based on isolationism and xenophobia," and challenging America to lead by example on the vanguard of climate science.

PHOTO: In this May 6, 2019, file photo, presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to reporters following a roundtable discussion on climate change in Des Moines, Iowa.
In this May 6, 2019, file photo, presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke speaks to reporters following a roundtable discussion on climate change in Des Moines, Iowa.
Charlie Neibergall/AP, FILE

“This is the defining challenge of our time. If anyone thinks of us 100 years from now - we will be judged on this issue,” Inslee told the small crowd on Wednesday.

Inslee’s latest rollout came on the heels of former Vice President Joe Biden’s first climate policy rollout on Tuesday during which he called for a "clean energy revolution and environmental justice" in his new proposal to address "the climate disaster facing the nation and our world."

The most progressive wings of the Democratic party when it comes to climate change – chief among them, Inslee – have voiced criticism for what they view as Biden’s middle of the road stance.

“I have to express disappointment that the Vice President's proposals really lack teeth, they lack the ambition that is necessary to defeat the climate crisis,” Inslee said reacting to Biden’s rollout, contrasting Biden’s plan with his own.

“My plan puts up stop signs, and I’m afraid the vice president's plan does not. He has some wishes for thirty years from now, but we can't wait thirty years.”

It's not the first time Inslee has called out Biden for what he sees as a middle-of-the-road stance on climate: when Inslee unveiled the second leg of his climate plan in mid-May, he named Biden directly, saying that he needed to "step up his game."

PHOTO: Wash. Governor Jay Inslee speaks about climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations, June 5, 2019, in New York.
Wash. Governor Jay Inslee speaks about climate change at the Council on Foreign Relations, June 5, 2019, in New York.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

The latest portion of Inslee's plan rests on five tenets, meant to flow from the domestic examples that the U.S. would set under his administration, detailed in his first two portions of his proposal. This latest phase focuses on rejoining and expanding several commitments the U.S. has previously made in the international arena, including the Paris Accord - additionally, phasing out coal, and advancing international efforts to slash super pollutants like methane and black carbon.

It rejects the notion of “freedom gas” as put forth by the Trump Administration - promoting U.S. fossil fuels abroad - as well as forging more collaboration with sustainable land use, ocean conservation and clean air - addressing the fluidity of what knows no border lines: water, and the air we breathe.

Inslee also emphasizes studying the impact and treating the cause of climate migration including pledging to increase the number of refugees resettled by the U.S.; including enforceable climate and labor standards for new trade agreements; doubling the investment the U.S. will make in the Global Climate fund previously pledged by the Obama Administration, which President Trump's pulled out of; cutting fossil fuel subsidies as well as considering targeting climate deniers overseas with anti-corruption laws.

Other candidates’ plans also echo the need for America to reassume responsibility on the world stage – rejoining the Paris Accord – as well as investing in clean energy infrastructures. Former Vice President Biden’s also aims to make the U.S. a 100% clean energy economy, reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s asks similar with a goal of being halfway there by 2030. His four-pillar, $5 trillion plan would use executive and legislative action to “transform” the nation’s infrastructure and “empower our people and communities to lead the climate fight,” according to the campaign.

Biden also addresses “environmental justice,” holding polluters, like fossil fuel companies, to account for environmental damage. He has vowed to reject fossil fuel money – though has yet to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

As climate weighs more heavily as an issue in the 2020 campaign, it likewise becomes more fraught – an ideological tug-o-war putting pressure on politicians to ante up a cohesive policy; more ‘progressive’ notions from candidates and organizations like Greenpeace alike now seem to move the needle forward.

Experts agree that plans from Inslee and O’Rourke are significant motivators for more middling candidates who don’t want to get left standing out as the lone conservative.

“I think we’re seeing a lot of one-upmanship across the span of candidates with climate,” Dana R. Fisher, a professor whose work centers on understanding the relationship between environmentalism and democracy - most recently, studying activism and American climate politics.

“This is the first time that climate is legitimately going to be an issue on the campaign - and, candidates are now starting to realize that it may, in fact, be a voting issue. I think we’re about to see a tipping point - people like Gov. Inslee are on the vanguard - he’s pushing the conversation to the left, he’s making others look mainstream - and his position is being reinforced by polling data.”

Related Topics

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events