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Beto O’Rourke now has the most robust climate proposal of any 2020 presidential candidate

But some activists think the plan doesn’t go far enough.

2020 presidential contender Beto O’Rourke toured Yosemite National Park on Monday, where he announced his $5 trillion plan to fight climate change.
2020 presidential contender Beto O’Rourke toured Yosemite National Park on Monday, where he announced his $5 trillion plan to fight climate change.
Beto O’Rourke/Twitter
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Former Democratic Texas representative, 2020 presidential contender, and table-stander Beto O’Rourke on Monday released a new policy proposal, what he called “the most ambitious climate plan in the history of the United States.” While not entirely aligned with the Green New Deal resolution, the broad framework introduced to Congress in February, it’s the most comprehensive climate policy proposal put out by any 2020 contender to date.

O’Rourke is pitching big numbers and ambitious targets: $5 trillion in new investments, halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, and net-zero emissions by 2050. It’s his first major policy proposal and it’s a stab at distinguishing himself from the crowded field of 2020 presidential candidates on a major issue for Democratic primary voters. An April Monmouth University poll of Iowa Democratic voters showed that climate change was the second-most important issue to voters after healthcare.

But getting more specific with his policies also opens him up to scrutiny and criticism. The plan has already drawn a scolding from activists who claimed right off the bat O’Rourke should have offered more aggressive goals. And Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a fellow 2020 presidential contender, responded to the new plan by attacking O’Rourke’s record in Congress. These reactions are revealing a fissure between candidates and environmental activists who keep pushing further, a gap that could haunt both sides come election day.

O’Rourke’s climate plan brings more specifics and a narrower scope

The proposal lays out a four-pronged approach to how an O’Rourke administration will tackle climate change. That includes 1) executive action, 2) mobilizing $5 trillion over 10 years to invest in a clean energy transition, 3) guaranteeing net-zero emissions by 2050, and 4) preparing vulnerable communities for the impacts of climate change.

O’Rourke pulls no punches in laying out the stakes.

“Climate change is the greatest threat we face — one which will test our country, our democracy, and every single one of us,” he writes on his website.

Among its provisions, O’Rourke’s framework attaches dollar amounts to some specific line items, like $250 billion to research and development. It include grants for job training as part of its path to a cleaner economy, but for the most part, it’s narrowly focused on climate and energy — cutting emissions and creating alternatives.

Out of the top-line $5 trillion number, roughly $3.5 trillion in O’Rourke’s climate plan is allocated through tax incentives, loans, and other financing mechanisms for infrastructure, research, resilience, and clean energy deployment. The $1.5 trillion outlay would be funded by “structural changes to the tax code” that end tax breaks to fossil fuel companies and raise rates on corporations and top earners. Of that, $1.2 trillion would to grants for sustainable housing, transportation, public health, farming, and start-ups.

In that sense, O’Rourke’s climate plan actually looks quite a bit like the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 in that it leverages a big chunk of public money and tax incentives to finance public infrastructure projects and spur innovation. In O’Rourke’s case, the aim to curb energy consumption and boost cleaner fuels and electricity sources.

However, it takes more than wind turbines and solar panels to fight climate change; you have to cut greenhouse gas emissions from existing fuel sources. And despite the attrition of coal, overall energy use, including fossil fuels, is still rising in the United States.

But rather than a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, O’Rourke is anchoring a legally binding net-zero emissions standard by 2050. “This standard will send a clear price signal to the market while putting in place a mechanism that will ensure the environmental integrity of this endeavor — providing us with the confidence that we are moving at least as quickly as we need in order to meet a 2050 deadline,” according to O’Rourke’s proposal. This doesn’t rule out pricing carbon but instead focuses on setting definitive goal posts.

While there is some funding allocated for job training, O’Rourke doesn’t include a federal jobs guarantee, a key element in the Green New Deal. And O’Rourke counts on market forces and incentives to move the needle toward cleaner energy to greater extent than the authors of the Green New Deal.

The backlash to O’Rourke’s proposal, explained

The Sunrise Movement, an activist group promoting the Green New Deal, immediately criticized the new proposal, not for its provisions, but for its timeline.

“Unfortunately, Beto gets the science wrong and walks back his commitments from earlier this month in Iowa to move to net-zero emissions by 2030,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise, wrote in a statement Monday. “Beto claims to support the Green New Deal, but his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action that scientists say is necessary to take here in the United States to give our generation a livable future.”

It’s true that O’Rourke said he wanted net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 during a campaign stop in early April. But that’s not in line with what scientists say is necessary. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported last year that in order to keep global warming limited to 1.5 degrees Celsius this century, the world must halve greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 2030, get to zero net emissions by 2050, and go negative thereafter.

Getting to net-zero emissions by the middle of the century is already an incredibly ambitious target. Getting there in 10 years is damn near impossible.

Back in March, Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist and analyst with Carbon Brief, ran through, sector by sector, the extraordinary list of things that would need to happen in a 10-year mobilization to net-zero emissions vs. a 30-year mobilization.

And even the Green New Deal’s framers aren’t aiming for net-zero emissions by 2030. My colleague David Roberts directly asked Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), one of authors of the Green New Deal resolution, if this was the target. The senator emphatically said no.

Yet Sunrise at first said that the Green New Deal calls for a 10-year mobilization to meet 100 percent of US power demand with zero-emissions sources.

Update, Wednesday, 2:21 pm: Prakash released another statement acknowledging that the Green New Deal cited the IPCC target of net-zero emission by 2050, but that “2050 is too late.”

Other environmental groups had a more favorable read of O’Rourke’s proposal. “This plan to confront the climate crisis is the kind of leadership we need from our next president,” Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, wrote in a statement.

O’Rourke isn’t counting on Congress to drive climate policy

Should O’Rourke take the oath of office in 2021, he says he will reenter the Paris climate agreement, implement rules to cut emissions of super-potent greenhouse gases like methane and hydrofluorocarbons, set tighter clean air rules, ramp up appliance efficiency standards, demand clean energy procurement from federal contractors, and end new fossil fuel leases on public lands.

Some states might sue to block these changes, but they are grounded in existing legal authorities and are likely the most feasible parts of his climate agenda, especially if Congress remains just as gridlocked after the next election.

Still, a comprehensive, enduring climate policy would still have to go through the House and Senate at some point. Lawmakers pushing the Green New Deal show no sign of letting up so far, but with the Senate filibuster in place, most meaningful climate policies have grim prospects barring a massive sweep in the next election. (O’Rourke has broached getting rid of the filibuster.)

O’Rourke deserves credit for going beyond simply giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on the Green New Deal like other presidential contenders. And it’s likely other candidates will soon weigh in with more robust climate proposals of their own. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) as already taken a stab at climate policy through her plan for public lands released in April, which also calls for ending new leases for fossil fuel extraction. Her proposal adds a commitment to generate 10 percent of US electricity from renewables on public lands.