In what could be his final appearance on a presidential debate stage, Gov. Jay Inslee clashed with former Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday over the urgency of confronting a looming climate crisis, warning “our house is on fire.”
The exchange came after discussion of climate was delayed for more than an hour and a half at the Democratic presidental primary debate in Detroit, while candidates argued over health care and immigration, and beat up on one another’s records.
Entering the debate, Inslee pronounced himself “mad as hell” that the existential threat posed by rising global temperatures had not gotten the attention it deserved during the previous night’s debate featuring 10 other Democratic candidates.
When CNN moderators did turn to the subject Wednesday, Inslee made the case for swift action, citing his visits to families whose homes have burned to the ground in forest fires, and to a polluted Detroit neighborhood near a refinery, with elevated levels of cancer and asthma.
“We have to act now, climate change is not a singular issue, it is all the issues that we Democrats care about,” Inslee said. “It is health, it is national security, it is our economy.”
He called for a “national mobilization” to move to 100% clean energy, which he said would create 8 million union jobs. He criticized “middle-ground approaches,” like those proposed by Biden, as “too little too late.”
Biden defended his plans, saying he has called for the immediate rejoining of the Paris Climate accord, which President Donald Trump withdrew from, as well as $400 billion in spending on clean energy research and innovation.
Inslee responded: “Your argument is not with me, it’s with science. We have to get off coal in 10 years. Your plan does not do that.”
Biden again responded, saying his plan would end fossil-fuel subsidies while engaging other countries that account for the majority of greenhouse-gas emissions. In response to a moderator question, Biden said there would be no place for coal or fracking in his administration. “We would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated.”
That sparked Inslee, in his most animated moment of the debate, to turn to Biden, his voice rising to a near holler as he called for more immediate action. “We cannot work this out! The time is up. Our house is on fire!” Inslee said. “Get off coal. Save this country and the planet, that’s what I’m for.”
Positioned near the right side of the stage at Detroit’s Fox Theatre, Inslee found himself passed over early on as moderators turned again and again to Biden and other higher-polling contenders, including California Sen. Kamala Harris and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.
Inslee spoke for nearly 11 minutes, the fifth most of the 10 candidates on the stage, according to The New York Times. In the first debate in June, he spoke for only five minutes.
In contrast to his usual sunny demeanor, Inslee appeared frustrated and frowning for much of the night. Midway through the debate, with climate still not raised, his campaign Twitter account vented: “my head is going to explode.”
Inslee got a chance to weigh in on other topics, too, including a testy debate over whether to decriminalize border crossings, as some Democrats suggest. Biden opposed the idea, drawing attacks from Julián Castro and others who said more humane enforcement could happen in civil courts.
When asked to comment, Inslee didn’t say whether he’d decriminalize border crossings. He instead took aim at Trump. “We can no longer allow a white nationalist to be in the White House,” Inslee said, to cheers from the audience. He boasted of welcoming Syrian refugees to Washington state and of opposing Trump’s “Muslim ban.”
He returned to climate in his closing remarks, casting the stakes in apocalyptic terms.
“Under Donald Trump we face a looming catastrophe, but it is not too late, we have one last chance,” he said. “The survival of humanity on this planet and civilization as we know it is in the hands of the next president.”
Inslee has released a series of ambitious and detailed plans — totaling 169 pages — for how he’d marshal the authority of the federal government to swiftly draw down reliance on fossil fuels, and transform the U.S. into a clean-energy economy.
He has called for ending sales of new gas-fueled cars by 2030, phasing out coal-fired power plants by the same year, and achieving zero-emission energy by 2035.
His climate platform has been praised as the gold standard by environmental and progressive groups. But such praise has not translated into support among Democratic primary voters. As of Wednesday, he was not among the top 20 candidates in polling averages tracked by the online news site RealClearPolitics.
To qualify for the next Democratic debate in September, Inslee would have to register at 2% support in four polls — a mark he has never reached. He also needs 130,000 individual donors to his campaign, a mark his aides have said is within reach.
Seattle Times staff reporter David Gutman contributed to this report.