Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has staked his 2020 campaign on climate change – and here, in America’s heartland, he looked to test whether the floodwaters of Iowa could prove to be fertile ground for his bid.
It’s a place that demonstrates how the Great Floods of 2019 – brought on by wild temperature swings bringing rapid snow melt and “bomb cyclone” rains in mid-March swelling the Missouri River and its tributaries – have set the worst kind of record.
Floodwaters topped with ice floes tore through farm country, ripping open silos full of last fall’s harvest and leaving entire towns like Hamburg under ice cold water.
But, as he led a disaster tour through the town where the utilities are shattered, toxic mold is spreading, and the baseball field is still submerged, Inslee finds as much opposition as support.
“We know, unfortunately, that what we see here today is just a precursor to many, many more intense floods in the future because of climate change,” Inslee tells a small gaggle of reporters. “It’s a scientific fact.”
The Washington State Governor is the first person to focus a presidential run on fighting the carbon-burning causes of a global climate in crisis. He shares his refrain with those around him: “We are the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. And the last generation that can do anything to stop it.”
Inslee sounded this alarm in 2002 when he called for a “a new Apollo project” to convert America to clean energy. Six years later, the Great Recession helped vaporize all hints of bipartisan climate action, including a “cap and trade” proposal to reduce heat-trapping pollution, favored by Republicans.
President Barack Obama opted to tackle the challenge with increased fuel efficiency standards and international agreements like the Paris Accord, among other initiatives. Still, the existential threat of a rapidly warming planet was discussed in 2016’s three presidential debates for a total of five minutes and 27 seconds.
But, after years of ambivalence from voters putting the issue near the bottom of their priorities, recent polls show that Iowa Democrats list climate change next to health care as a top concern. In a packed field of 2020 candidates, Inslee is betting that his record, most recently as a governor who launched a Clean Energy Fund for his state, will gain new relevance with every unnatural disaster.
“This is very personal with me because I’ve got three grandkids and I know that their lives are going to be seriously degraded unless we elect a president this next go-round that understands the risk,” he says. “The forests I’ve hiked in for six decades are gonna be gone, because of the fire risk. We can’t grow baby oysters in Puget Sound right now because the water has become so acidic. I met a couple in New Hampshire whose daughter lost two years in college because of Lyme disease, which is increasing because of these bugs moving north. So this is personal and it’s real and it’s happening right now.”
Under President Donald Trump, the government has revoked some policies that had partially addressed climate change and the President himself dismissed a study from his own administration warning of the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change because, he said, “I don’t believe it.” With such actions from the White House, climate hawks are hoping even skeptical Republicans will join the ranks of the alarmed.
But as his disaster tour of Hamburg brings him inside Risky Business Auto Repair, Inslee comes face to face with the climate change pushback.
“No, no, no!” says owner Ron Perry, when asked if he agrees that Hamburg’s flooding is a result of climate change. “I blame it totally on the Army Corps of Engineers. And so does everybody else around here.”
The Corps is responsible for the federally maintained levees along the Missouri, many of which were breached this spring. But Inslee says that organization is not the root cause.
“You can’t expect the Army Corps to solve this problem if the President of the United States is telling them to ignore clear science,” Inslee responds. “Now, if Ron spent some time at the science lab at Hamburg High School, he would learn from the science teachers about what is going on here. Now, he’s busy taking care of cars, but people who are in public leadership positions have a responsibility to share scientific information with their citizens.”
At the local high school, where volunteers stand at folding tables brimming with donated food and clothing, longtime Hamburg resident Marilyn Gude also questions the Army Corps’ flood management, but says she worries for her grandchildren’s future. “I think we should be very aware that this is gonna happen (more often),” she says. “Because we are warming up and you see it all the time.”
“I consider myself a climate refugee,” says John Davis, a former climate analyst who once worked for Al Gore and who is a Hamburg resident. After years of warning neighbors of a grim future, he says he is moving his 90-year-old mother to higher ground after the flood destroyed their home. He admits that “about zero” of his conservative neighbors would ever vote for a candidate like Inslee. When asked what it will take to convince them of the threats, he gestures to the flooded prairie. “About five of these. It worries me a lot because Gov. Inslee is the only person speaking up on climate of the 18 candidates and he needs to be on that (debate) stage in June, otherwise we will have absolutely no voice again.”
Inslee needs to earn at least 1% support in several polls or get 65,000 individual donors across 20 states to guarantee a spot in this summer’s crowded debates. “We got a ways to go,” he laughs, and acknowledges the setback that came last November when Washington State voters rejected a ballot initiative that would have taxed his state’s biggest emitters of carbon.
“We were up against the biggest special interest in the world, that’s your oil and gas industry. They spent $32 million to try to deceive people about what was really in this initiative, OK?” he says. “That’s the bad news. The good news is it hasn’t daunted us at all. We built a $6 billion wind turbine industry. We have 50,000 electric cars. We’re spinning off businesses from my Clean Energy Fund and I have discovered that the most powerful and renewable fuel is perseverance.”