The Candidates

Saving the planet one choice at a time. That’s the motto I’ve been following ever since I started writing about climate change and the choices I make every day. (Reference Why) We enjoy a pretty magnificent planet and I want it to be that way for generations to come. One important choice I have is who should I support to be our next president. Unless you’ve been under a rock, you know there are many individuals seeking that office. I expect the Republicans will nominate Donald Trump for second term. But the Democrats have many candidates seeking the nomination. So relative to the Democrats, I decided to examine where they stood relative to saving our planet.

The Democratic candidates for President are increasingly talking about climate change.  While all of the candidates agree on the importance of aggressively addressing climate change, their plans vary significantly in detail and scope.  Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, entered the race with a single signature issue – climate change – his signature issue as governor.   He proposes to close all coal-fired power in a decade.  By 2035, all power production would come from emissions-free renewable energy.  New passenger cars, medium-duty trucks and buses would have to be emission-free by 2030 (i.e., electric) and new commercial and residential buildings would be required to meet a “Zero-Carbon Building Standard”.  His “100% Clean Energy for America Plan” would put the U.S. on track to cut planet-warming pollution 50% by 2030 and reach zero emissions by 2045.  Inslee’s plan emphasizes the potential for millions of new jobs and pledges support for workers and communities affected by an energy transition. 

Governor Inslee dropped out of the race last week after failing to meet one of the criteria for participating in the next televised debate.  His plan for addressing climate change though, is impressive and will likely provide the playbook for some of the remaining candidates to draw from as we approach the election. 

Last week, Bernie Sanders, Senator from Vermont, announced a $16 trillion climate change proposal.  It declares climate change a national emergency; envisions building new solar, wind and geothermal power sources across the country; and commits $200 billion to help poor nations cope with climate change.  Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. has called for spending $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a $2 trillion green manufacturing plan. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas has proposed a $5 trillion plan.  And just yesterday, businessman Andrew Yang introduced a $4.87 trillion plan which includes a carbon tax as well as an aspect of climate change initiatives not included in other plans – adaptation. Adaptation involves planning for the anticipated impacts of global warming in addition to mitigating actions to reduce greenhouse gasses. Clearly, there is potentially a lot of money in play here.

A few months ago the New York Times conducted interviews with 21 of the then 22 democratic candidates and posed 18 identical questions to each individual.  These questions asked for their views on guns, health care, immigration, and other issues including Question # 3: “Do you think it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change?”  The videotaped responses for this question (about 2 minutes total time) were all generally favorable regarding the importance of addressing climate change and critical role the next president must take to make it happen.  Not a lot of detail here, but a sense of its importance.

The NY Times also collected more detailed responses to a climate survey from 18 of the democratic candidates.  These responses provide deeper insights regarding what initiatives the candidates would advance and, illustrated some differences:

1.  To tax or not to tax?  Seven candidates (Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang) favor a carbon tax.  (Reference All I Really Need to Know)  Many economists believe a carbon tax would be the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gasses.  Mr. Delaney, former representative from Maryland, co-sponsored a carbon tax bill in the House: a tax starting at $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, increasing by $10 each year. All of the revenue would be returned to taxpayers, he said, “with an option to invest the dividend into a tax-advantaged savings account.”

An additional five candidates (Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell) indicated they would be willing to consider a carbon tax. 

2.  How strict should regulations be?  All of the 2020 Democrats vowed to restore President Obama’s regulations and recommit to the Paris Agreement, the global climate pact that President Trump plans to abandon. But only nine of the 18 candidates (Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson) said that they would push for additional, stronger federal rules. 

Elizabeth Warren would end fossil fuel production on public lands and would enact a “total moratorium” on new federal fossil fuel leases if elected.  Tulsi Gabbard, a representative from Hawaii, proposals include a halt to major fossil fuel projects.  And Marianne Williamson, the self-help author, called for requiring zero-deforestation supply chains and regulating the waste produced by large agricultural operations.

An additional four candidates (Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell, Andrew Yang) would be willing to consider additional regulations. 

3.  Money for research:  All the candidates support more money for infrastructure projects and research.  And many of the candidates provided specific areas for investments (e.g., battery innovation, power grid modernization technology to remove CO2 from the atmosphere). 

4.  New nuclear development:  Seven of the candidates (Cory Booker, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Andrew Yang) favor new nuclear development.  Currently half of the emission-free power comes from nuclear plants and supporters of new ones believe other options such as wind and solar cannot close the gap to 100% emission-free energy without nuclear.

So while all the democratic candidates support climate change initiatives, the “how do we get there” questions remain and warrant a much more detailed understanding of the options, and costs. Recent polls indicate 84% of likely Democratic voters ranked “acting on climate change and moving the U.S. fully to clean energy” as essential or very important.  While there is general concern over global warming, another recent poll shows that almost 70% of Americans would not pay $10 per month to address the issue.  This apparent disconnect between concern and an unwillingness to pay to address the problem is something that warrants more study and may be part of the reason candidates may be reluctant to talk about potential “economic pain or trade-offs”.

Another possible reason for the disconnect is that climate change is some what “invisible” or abstract. During the 1970s, environmental legislation and initiatives (e.g., establishment of the EPA in 1970; Clean Air Act of 1970; Clean Water Act of 1972) were widely supported by the public and our leaders because people could see the dirty air and dirty water. In contrast, scientists provide the link between global warming and the occasional (but more frequently occurring) weather disasters, melting glaciers, rising sea levels, elimination of coral reefs, crop failures, (and I could go on). And even though 97% of scientists explain these events are occurring more frequently because of global warming caused by human activities, the message and the urgency to do something that may be costly isn’t catching on enough to prioritize ahead of other, also very important issues. 

So relative to choices, if a Democrat is elected President in 2020, we can expect to see some climate change initiatives.  But most steps, particularly the big steps, will likely meet significant headwind.  Change always does.  And since most states currently rely on oil and natural gas for their energy (not to mention some with coal) replacing these sources with emission-free sources is a pretty significant transition.  For example, what happens to the existing fossil fuel workers?  Relative to coal, the state of Colorado has addressed this problem by enacting legislation which allows coal mining to transition out while providing support to the miners for a period of time.  The labor union supported the initiative after a long period of education and discussion and provides an example of how job affecting transitions can be managed.

While campaigning, candidates have talked about climate change but the issue got only 15 minutes of discussion in the first two rounds of Democratic Party debates.  Those 15 minutes (out of 4 total hours), however, is more time than climate change was discussed during all of the 2016 presidential debates.  This will change soon. On September 4, 2019,  CNN is hosting a “Climate Crisis Town Hall” during which the candidates will discuss their plans.  Similarly MSNBC will host a two-day Climate Forum on September 19 & 20 with the Presidential candidates at Georgetown University. These events will provide opportunities for the public to hear candidates make a case for urgent actions and discuss their plans to address climate change.  Certainly more than 15 minutes worth of discussion. Perhaps the most important thing we can do right now is talk about it. Talking about what we should do to save the planet enables an informed choice and I look forward to learning more from our candidates.

A footnote: In addition to Jay Inslee, other candidates mentioned in this post have withdrawn as candidates, namely John Hickenlooper and Eric Swalwell.

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