"This is a compelling passion of my life," Inslee said Friday after making his announcement at a Seattle-based solar panel installer. "I'm the only person who's been working on this, literally, for decades."
Inslee, who is in his second term, received national attention in 2017 for helping to launch the U.S. Climate Alliance, a bipartisan coalition of governors, after the Trump administration announced it would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. He has also pushed back against other White House environmental policies.
But his track record at home has been mixed. Major proposals such as cap-and-trade and a fee on carbon pollution never gained traction in the Legislature, and the carbon tax failed twice at the ballot box.
Greenhouse gas emissions spiked about 6.1 percent under his watch, from 2012 to 2015, in part because of increasing fossil-fuel-generated electricity and a booming economy, according to a January report from the state's Department of Ecology.
Inslee blames the setbacks on oil companies that spent tens of millions of dollars against the most recent ballot measure and Republicans who controlled the Senate for the first five years of his tenure.
But GOP Sen. John Braun, ranking Republican on the Senate Ways and Means Committee, notes that the House never moved on many of Inslee's key pieces in the years Democrats controlled that chamber. "The governor loves to blame it on the other side, but the truth is he's had trouble building consensus on his own side," Braun said.
This year, the Washington Legislature is moving on measures that would advance Inslee's climate agenda. The same day he announced his presidential bid, the state Senate passed a bill that seeks to eliminate fossil fuels such as natural gas and coal from the state's electricity supply by 2045. Washington, which relies heavily on hydroelectric power, generates 75 percent of its electricity from carbon-free sources. Inslee's proposal would require utilities in the state to eliminate coal as an energy source by 2025, with a goal of having all clean-energy sources by 2045.
Another major effort would implement a clean fuel standard — similar to a program in California — that requires fuel producers and importers to reduce the carbon emissions associated with transportation fuels.
"This is not easy sledding," Inslee said during a recent interview in his office in Olympia. "But the reality is climate change isn't going away." Republicans have opposed the governor's latest plan, saying market incentives are a better plan than government mandates.
"I don't think there are any people out there who don't want a better environment," Braun said. "It's simply that most reasonable people think we should do it in a way that is sustainable." Inslee, who was a champion for the clean-energy industry while in Congress and wrote a book on the topic, said a clean-energy economic-development plan dovetails with national discussions on jobs, public health and national security. His "Climate Mission Tour" starts Tuesday in Iowa.
Barry Rabe, a professor in the Gerald Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan whose research examines climate and energy politics, said Inslee's consistency on the issue adds to his credibility on a national level. But "there's a big challenge, and that's matching his very strong concern and passionate rhetoric with his actual record on climate change in Washington state."
"It's really unusual to have a governor to declare for the presidency when he has a make-or-break year to deliver at home," Rabe said. "I think for him to be credible, he better be able to deliver on some major legislative advances when he's campaigning."
Inslee's optimism that this year may be different than previous years is because Democrats significantly increased their control of both chambers in the November election. Up to this point, "the Legislature has failed to meet the challenge, there's no question about that," said Democratic Rep. Joe Fitzgibbon, chairman of the House Environmental and Energy Committee.
In spite of that, Fitzgibbon said that Inslee has "raised the profile of this issue exactly the way I'd want a presidential candidate to do." The governor's watch has included adoption of a clean energy company development fund, investments in electric cars and a charging system to support them, and a growing portfolio of renewable energy, including solar and wind.
His biggest move is currently in litigation. After failing to persuade state lawmakers to pass climate legislation, the governor directed state regulators in 2015 to use existing authority to limit carbon emissions from Washington's largest sources. The Department of Ecology approved the so-called Clean Air Rule in 2016 requiring refineries, fuel distributors and dozens of other major industrial emitters to reduce their carbon pollution.
The Association of Washington Business, several utilities and others sued the state that same year, arguing that the agency exceeded its authority. A Thurston County judge agreed and invalidated major parts of the rule. The state has appealed, and the state Supreme Court is set to hear oral arguments in the case March 19.
In December, an Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found that Democrats were driving an increase in the share of Americans who name the environment and climate change as an important issue for the government to work on in 2019. In an open-ended question, nearly a quarter of Americans overall (24 percent) listed environmental issues among the top five priorities for the government in 2019, up from 18 percent who listed the issue as a priority for 2018.
Inslee said the devastation of last year's wildfires and hurricanes increased the urgency people feel about climate change. "This used to be something people thought was 50 years from now," he said. "It's today, and it's in their lives."