Over the past few years, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has repeated a memorable warning about climate change, using a line that has become practically a campaign slogan.
“We’re the first generation to feel the sting of climate change. And we’re the last who can do something about it,” Inslee said in his video launching his climate-focused 2020 presidential campaign. The sentence — or slight variations of it — has appeared regularly in Inslee’s speeches and TV interviews, and is prominently featured on his campaign website.
It’s become so associated with the governor that his campaign aides were miffed when virtually identical language showed up in a $5 trillion climate platform announced this week by Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman also running for the Democratic presidential nomination.
As part of a barrage attacking O’Rourke’s climate record as comparatively weak, Inslee aides complained O’Rourke had basically swiped Inslee’s phrasing: “We are the first generation to feel the climate crisis, and the last generation with the ability to avert its worst impacts,” is how O’Rourke’s campaign put it.
“Hmm … this sounds familiar,” Jared Leopold, an Inslee campaign spokesman, wrote on Twitter. Later in the day, the Inslee campaign fired off a news release that touted Inslee’s own record and blasted O’Rourke for “borrowed rhetoric.”
Inslee, a longtime climate hawk, has something to crow about, coming off a legislative session that delivered him wins on major climate legislation, including a plan to phase out fossil fuels in power generation by 2045, with coal-fired power eliminated by 2025.
His campaign’s main critique of O’Rourke is that the Texan is a relative newcomer on bold climate action. During his unsuccessful 2018 bid for the U.S. Senate, O’Rourke defended continued oil and gas development, and called deciding between renewable energy and fossil fuels a “false choice.”
But should Inslee’s aides claim ownership of his de facto climate slogan? On Twitter, some suggested the governor had swiped his “first generation … last generation” wording from President Obama.
That’s not true. Obama did use the phrase, but he also has attributed the quote to Inslee.
But it wasn’t Inslee’s originally. The governor’s speechwriters lifted the sentence from a 2013 letter then-Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn wrote to the president of Harvard University, urging divestment from fossil fuels, as a conservative politics blog, Shift WA, reported back in 2014.
Emails obtained by the blog showed Inslee’s then-spokesman, David Postman (now the governor’s chief of staff), suggested that Inslee should credit McGinn if he used the line in an upcoming speech.
“I think we should either attribute it to say ‘as the mayor of Seattle said recently’ or find something else,” Postman wrote in an October 2013 email. But the line stayed in, without attribution.
The Inslee quote gained increased public attention, and the governor eventually acknowledged its provenance in a September 2014 tweet, crediting McGinn.
Since then, Inslee has essentially adopted the line as his own. Some McGinn loyalists have occasionally fumed about that over the years.
But McGinn hasn’t made a big deal out of it. He credits one of his own political advisers for suggesting the language to him years ago, distilling down the point after reading climate scientists’ warnings.
In an interview Monday evening, McGinn said he’s been flattered to see his wording picked up by politicians, including President Obama and Inslee.
“It’s a line too good for anyone to keep for themselves, and no one should try,” McGinn said. “If that line is effective at getting people to take action, then I hope every candidate uses it.”
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