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How 2020 Democrats plan to fight climate change

The climate crisis is a top issue for Democratic primary voters. Here’s where the candidates stand.

Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaking onstage.
Democratic presidential candidate Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks on June 1, 2019, in San Francisco, California. Inslee has made climate change the heart of his campaign
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tonight and tomorrow, two groups of 10 Democratic candidates for president are sparring over two nights in the first debates in the 2020 race.

When it comes time to discuss climate change, the NBC moderators would be wise not to waste any time asking the candidates whether it is real. The science is well established and we already know that all the candidates believe in (and care about) it.

The candidates should also not expend precious time bragging that they “believe scientists” or taking potshots at climate deniers. The greatest thing the right accomplished on climate change over the last 30 years is to stall action by prolonging the discussion of whether it’s real, long after scientists had put that question to rest.

Instead, both moderators and candidates should focus on policy specifics. These debates are an opportunity to finally open up a serious policy debate about the most difficult problem we face.

Voters are ready for serious climate discussions. A CNN survey earlier this month found that three-quarters of Iowa Democratic caucus participants said that their candidate must treat climate change as the greatest threat to humanity. (For now, climate-minded voters, like Democratic primary voters generally, are sticking with the familiar Biden brand. We’ll see if the debate changes that.)

This is a critical moment of converging political will and voter anxiety about the climate emergency. And in the last month, we’ve seen how activists and lawmakers have managed to pressure candidates into more ambitious climate policy proposals.

It is no longer enough for candidates simply to voice support for the Green New Deal, the 14-page resolution that lays out targets for cutting greenhouse gases. Democratic presidential hopefuls now have to demonstrate how they aim to put meat on the bones of the resolution, or provide a credible alternative.

Most of the Democratic candidates agree that the United States must reach net-zero emissions by at least the middle of the century, if not sooner. (That’s what the latest IPCC report says is required to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, the “safe” level of climate change.) Most have said they would rejoin the Paris agreement immediately. Eighteen of them have signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, a commitment to forgo contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industries.

A few have also been talking about how to help frontline communities, those most hurt by the effects of climate pollution, and fossil fuel communities, who are vulnerable to dislocation by the clean energy transition. (Republicans are noticeably silent on this point.)

But beyond that, their favored policies diverge, as you’ll see below. Tonight and tomorrow, the candidates will have the chance to make the case for their preferred path.

(This is not meant to be a comprehensive list. We’re focusing here on the frontrunners and others who have substantially contributed to the conversation around climate policy.)

Here’s what 2020 candidates have laid out on climate so far

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee: Inslee has made climate change the heart of his campaign and established himself as the clear leader of the pack on climate policy. His climate plan is not one proposal, but four (and counting) giant packages of proposals, each longer and more detailed than the entire plans of the other campaigns.

Part one is about getting to 100 percent clean energy in electricity, new cars, and new buildings. Part two is a 10-year, $9 trillion investment plan. Part three is about how climate change would reshape foreign policy under Inslee. And part four, out earlier this week, is about cutting off the flow of fossil fuels from the US — “keeping it in the ground,” as the kids say.

The campaign promises more to come, including “strategies to promote farmers, sustainable agriculture, and thriving rural economies” and to “achieve greater climate, economic and environmental justice in building our clean energy future.”

All together, it amounts to more than a campaign document: It is a blueprint, an ambitious plan the next president, whoever it may be, can use to hit the ground running on climate change.

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke: O’Rourke was the first 2020 Democrat with a comprehensive climate change plan, released on May 1.

The proposal starts by setting a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the US economy by 2050. It gets there by using executive powers to do things like re-enter the Paris climate agreement, limit methane leaks from oil and gas drilling, and set new energy efficiency standards. O’Rourke also wants to mobilize $5 trillion over 10 years to invest in clean energy and prepare vulnerable parts of the country for the changes in the climate we can’t avoid.

His plan was criticized by some environmental groups, who argue that it doesn’t move fast enough, that the United States should reach net-zero emissions by as soon as 2030. (Inslee, who targets economy-wide net-zero emissions by 2045, largely escaped the same criticism.)

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO): The Colorado senator has laid out not just an agenda but an “enforceable timeline” for climate action. Building on the net-zero by 2050 goal, Bennet wants to have a global climate summit in his first 100 days to set even more ambitious goals. (He does not explain what the summit will accomplish that dozens of similar summits haven’t.)

He also calls for the creation of a climate bank to drive private sector financing of clean energy and climate resilience projects, to the tune of $10 trillion in the US and around the world. For utility customers, Bennet wants to establish the option of buying clean electricity.

However, Bennet’s record on climate change might be tougher for environmental activists to support. He has backed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” and supported new pipelines. On the campaign trail, he has been circumspect about the Green New Deal, declining to support or criticize it outright. However, he has pledged not to take fossil fuel money or funding from corporate PACs.

Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has tackled climate change in three key proposals.
Democratic presidential candidate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) speaks with Raymond Defenbaugh during a visit to the Big River United Energy ethanol facility during a campaign stop on June 10 in Dyersville, Iowa.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Warren’s focus is on corruption in politics. She believes that big-money fossil fuel donors who are vested in the status quo are putting up roadblocks to curbing emissions and deploying cleaner energy.

Warren’s policy proposals on climate change reflect this ethos, aiming her opening salvo as president against lobbying. And rather than making climate change the foundation of every policy, like Inslee, she’s tackling climate change under the umbrella of other issues. So far, Warren has dealt with climate change through her policy agendas for public lands, the military, and domestic industrial development.

By framing climate change as an issue of economics, public resources, and national security instead of just as an environmental issue, Warren is laying out a climate case for the general election, not just the primary. It would keep climate change as a front-burner issue, even in the event of a recession or an international conflict, while perhaps drawing in voters who don’t see climate change as a top-tier concern.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA): During her time as California’s attorney general, Harris launched an investigation into oil giant Exxon Mobil to see whether the company lied to investors and to the public about what it knew about climate change.

As a senator, she filed a brief supporting the cities of San Francisco and Oakland in their lawsuits against oil companies for causing climate change. The suits were dismissed from federal court last year, but the cities are currently filing appeals of the decision.

Harris was also one of the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution. But since launching her campaign for president, she has been largely quiet about what she intends to do about climate change if she takes the White House.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): Sanders has a long history of talking about climate change. You can find videos of him talking about it going back 30 years. In the Senate, he’s introduced carbon-pricing legislation and pushed for a carbon tax to be part of the Democratic Party platform.

On the campaign trail, Sanders has been strongly supportive of the Green New Deal. His campaign has called for more investment in infrastructure to deal with climate impacts like flooding and wildfires. In tandem, Sanders wants to ban new fossil fuel development in the United States and end exports.

Despite his head start, Sanders has been outflanked during the campaign by other candidates, who have laid out more detailed climate policy proposals.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ)
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a vegan, has warned of the climate impacts of eating meat.
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NY): Booker was an early backer of the Green New Deal; on his website, he writes that he is “committed to addressing climate change with an eye toward its impact on vulnerable communities.” He has also been a vocal proponent of nuclear energy, currently the largest source of zero-emissions electricity in the US.

During his time in the Senate, Booker co-sponsored Elizabeth Warren’s Climate Risk Disclosure Act, which would require publicly traded companies to tell investors about the risks they face from climate change. And as a vegan, he has warned about the climate impacts of meat production.

His campaign is still short on specifics of how he intends to fight climate change, but he has warned about the impacts of sea level rise on his home state. Booker also said that environmental justice will be a top-tier issue for his campaign and has pledged not to take fossil fuel money in his run for president.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg: Buttigieg’s status as the youngest candidate in the field (he’s 37) gives him a unique perspective on the climate crisis. He reminds young voters that he and they will be alive mid-century when the impacts of climate change will be dramatically more severe. “If this generation doesn’t step up, we’re in trouble,” he said in a speech in April. “This is, after all, the generation that’s gonna be on the business end of climate change for as long as we live.”

Buttigieg hasn’t yet released a climate-specific proposal, but his platform cites support for implementing a Green New Deal. And in a speech on June 11, he said he would rejoin the Paris climate accord and increase investment in renewable technologies by at least $25 billion.

“It involves empowering rural America to be part of the solution — helping to unlock the potential of soil management and other 21st-century farming techniques — and a new kind of support for cities and towns seeking to reduce their dependence on carbon,” he said.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden has the distinction of introducing the first climate change bill in the Senate, way back in 1987. Last month, Biden’s campaign teased a climate strategy that would be a “middle ground” approach to climate policy. He was then subjected to a torrent of criticism from environmental activists and some lawmakers, most notably, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez:

The proposal that was finally released earlier this month ended up roughly in line with those from other candidates, pegged to the 2050 deadline. The mechanisms for hitting the target include changes to the US tax code; job training and other equity provisions for those most impacted by climate change and the shift away from fossil fuels; and diplomatic pressure on other countries to reduce their emissions.

The agenda calls for $1.7 trillion in federal spending over the next decade on these policies. Biden has also pledged to refuse fossil fuel funding, backed the Green New Deal, and supported holding a climate change debate.

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper: Hickenlooper is one of the only candidates to come out against the Green New Deal, which he says, “would lead to needless tax increases, expansion of the federal government, and reduced chances of enactment.”

Instead, he has put out his own plan to fight climate change and move the US and the rest of the world beyond the targets set under the Paris climate agreement. This would involve more than $100 billion a year in climate financing for developing countries, enforcing greenhouse gas reductions through trade policy, and condition foreign and military aid on greenhouse gas reduction efforts in recipient countries.

Domestically, Hickenlooper wants to pour billions into upgrading energy infrastructure, use market-based methods to curb emissions, and to create a Climate Corps Program to encourage young people to pursue careers that address climate change.

But Hickenlooper, a former petroleum geologist, also thinks hydraulic fracturing could be part of the equation. During his time as governor, he oversaw the expansion of the state’s oil and gas industry. Before a Senate committee in 2013, Hickenlooper mentioned that he once drank fracking fluid from Halliburton as part of a safety demonstration. While natural gas produces half the carbon emissions of coal, some analysts say it’s not enough to fight climate change and may even make the situation worse.

Venture capitalist Andrew Yang: The 44-year-old Yang is perhaps best know for his edgy proposal for the government to allot a regular, monthly stipend to every US citizen, a scheme known as universal basic income. But he’s also distinguishing himself from the field with a call to launch a federal program for geoengineering, a controversial set of technologies that could potentially help mitigate global warming, as Alexander C Kaufman reports in HuffPost. Yang is a proponent of the Green New Deal, but in the “seven-bullet list of policy pledges on his website, the first two focus on developing a well-funded federal effort to study geoengineering,” Kaufman writes. We may learn more about his ideas Thursday, when he faces off with Biden, Sanders, and others in the debate.