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Where the Democratic candidates stand on climate policy

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A key issue for 2020, finally with comprehensive plans

Climate change is emerging as a critical issue for 2020. A recent Reuters poll confirmed that 69 percent of voters—including Republicans—believe the country should take “aggressive” action to reduce emissions, with a majority of Americans agreeing that the U.S. should transition to 100 percent clean energy within a decade.

But how, exactly, to reduce U.S. emissions is set to become one of the more pivotal differentiators among leading 2020 presidential candidates. On the day of a historic seven-hour climate-focused marathon, all presidential candidates appearing at CNN’s town call released comprehensive climate plans.

Since the last election, the urgency of the climate crisis has become apparent as still-increasing emissions have fueled a record-breaking number of extreme weather events, destroyed entire cities, and cost the country billions of dollars each year—all of which is expected to get worse.

Curbed has compiled an overview of where many of the two dozen candidates stand on the major climate issues. We will update this post as candidates share new proposals—and update as the contenders leave the race.

The single-issue climate candidate

As governor of Washington, and before that as a member of Congress, Jay Inslee oversaw the passage of dozens of critical climate bills in the state and federal legislature (as well as two failed attempts at passing a carbon tax—more on that in a bit). He launched his campaign early, arguing that dramatic emissions reductions need to be prioritized because climate change will so heavily impact all other aspects of society.

Inslee’s plan, named Our Climate Moment, called for eliminating carbon emissions “as fast as possible, and by no later than 2045.” The four-part plan includes a New Deal-esque $9 trillion investment (with $3 trillion of public funding and $6 trillion from the private sector) in clean energy, manufacturing, and infrastructure, plus a $3 trillion Evergreen Economy Plan that would create 8 million green jobs along with social programs. It was equated to the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the G.I. Bill, which put WWII veterans to work while subsidizing health care and housing costs.

Some candidates proposed similar, although far less ambitious plans to reduce emissions, but in June, Inslee became untouchable, from a policy perspective, when he introduced another plan to completely phase out fossil fuel production in the U.S. This would go a step beyond simply eliminating emissions. This would mean no mining, no drilling, no extracting, no fracking, no refining. This plan would also likely bankrupt U.S. fossil fuel companies.

As Vox’s Ezra Klein wrote, “Inslee is the only candidate in the race who is treating climate change the way the science says climate change should be treated: not as one issue among many, but as the overriding emergency of our age.” In fact, Inslee’s vision for a zero-emission U.S. was so fully formed that Vox’s climate reporter David Roberts thought other candidates should simply defer to his climate polices instead of crafting their own.

In August, Inslee dropped out of the race, saying it was clear he wasn’t going to win. No other candidate will be consistently messaging on climate, but it’s clear his impact changed the conversation. According to The Daily Beast, candidates have contacted Inslee asking for his advice and co-opting parts of his policy into their own plans.

Backing the Green New Deal

In February, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey introduced the Green New Deal, a 14-page framework for decarbonizing American society within 10 years while rebuilding the economy. Three members of Congress who cosponsored the resolution are currently Democratic candidates: Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Aligning with the Green New Deal makes sense for most Democratic candidates, as the framework addresses specific issues that many of these candidates claim to care about in addition to climate change, including universal health care, job creation, wealth inequality, and holding large corporations accountable.

But the Green New Deal isn’t policy; it’s simply a list of recommendations, and there has been little climate legislation introduced at the national level since Democrats took control of the House of Representatives in 2019. So it’s still not clear which aspects of the resolution most candidates who support it would turn into policy. Data for Progress, a progressive think tank that has provided some analysis of how the Green New Deal might work, has a guide to what climate questions should be asked during the debates.

That changed in August, when Sanders debuted not just a climate plan, but a $16 trillion plan using the Green New Deal name and framework. Sanders’s plan would create 20 million jobs while decarbonizing the country’s energy and transportation sectors by 2030. It’s by far the most aggressive, comprehensive plan for reducing emissions.

Radical action vs. “middle ground”

Early reports that former vice president Joe Biden’s climate plan was proposing a “middle ground” triggered outcry from advocates who claimed there was no middle ground when it came to climate change. But an attempt to appeal to moderate voters is particularly applicable for front-running Biden, who might sway Republican voters currently supportive of the current administration’s rollbacks of the Clean Power Plan and vehicle fuel-efficiency standards.

While Biden’s $5 trillion plan to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 proved to be more progressive than touted, the idea of a more bipartisan climate policy could help move legislation forward that has been historically difficult to pass. Even though Biden has co-authored the first climate legislation in Congress back in 1986—and Warren and Sanders have also introduced climate bills in Congress, including Sanders’ early attempt at carbon pricing—the demise of many of these bills has been blamed on Republican control of Congress.

The support of unions will prove key here, especially for Biden and Sanders, who are courting the labor vote. In March, the AFL-CIO wrote a letter that stated it could not support the Green New Deal as written because it had the potential to hurt American workers. In early June, however, the powerful Service Employees International Union (SEIU) passed a resolution endorsing the Green New Deal, signaling that more unions might get on board with climate legislation. In August, the UE, the country’s largest manufacturing union, endorsed the Green New Deal, and also endorsed Sanders for president.

Warren’s climate proposals—actually, five different proposals, including Inslee’s energy plan—take a completely different approach that might appeal to some moderate voters by focusing almost exclusively on dismantling Big Oil the same way she’s taking on other corporate entities like banks and tech. She also has a green manufacturing and jobs plan, a plan to protect public lands from oil extraction, and a plan to declare climate change a national security threat, which would empower the U.S. military—the government entity most impacted by climate change—to lead decarbonization efforts.

What about a carbon tax?

While Inslee was governor, he oversaw not one, but two failed attempts to pass a carbon tax for Washington state. A carbon tax, or carbon pricing, would penalize companies based on the amount of greenhouse gases they emit. The economic theory behind carbon pricing is that a tax would addresses emissions at the source and would spur industries to quickly find alternatives.

But a carbon tax wasn’t part of Inslee’s plan, who has said he’s reconsidered carbon pricing as a solution. Many climate pundits agree that pricing might be part of a larger solution, but that a single market-driven tool isn’t the best way to achieve the swift emissions reductions the country needs. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” Inslee said in January.

Largely, the candidates who have explicitly mentioned pricing carbon are viewing it as a way to fight inequity. Klobuchar’s plan includes a mention of carbon pricing but specifies that it won’t hurt low-income communities.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang is proposing a carbon tax that would help fund a Universal Basic Income program. Yang’s climate plan aims for net-zero emissions by 2040, and would include nuclear power as well as geoengineering.

Sunrise Movement pressure and no-fossil fuel money pledge

As candidates have introduced their climate plans, advocacy groups have mobilized swiftly to provide pushback against plans that are deemed not aggressive enough. The Sunrise Movement, the national advocacy group that has been organizing strikes and protests at major campaign events, has publicly rejected some candidates’s plans and proposals. The Sunrise Movement endorsed Sanders in January 2020.

Former U.S. representative Beto O’Rourke was the first candidate to release a plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, and he received sharp criticism from Sunrise, which wanted him to shorten the timeline to 2030. He has since left the race.

Another form of pressure being exerted on candidates by activists is being led by a coalition of environmental groups which are asking candidates to sign a pledge promising not to accept contributions from the oil, gas, and coal industries. So far, 18 Democratic candidates have pledged not to take money from fossil fuel companies, although many have taken donations from oil, gas, and coal companies in the past. Of the frontrunners, only Biden has not signed the pledge, even though he has said publicly he won’t accept fossil fuel funding.

Former Denver mayor and Colorado governor John Hickenlooper, who once worked as a geologist for a petroleum company, did not back the Green New Deal or sign the no-fossil fuel pledge because he believes the U.S. should continue to extract oil by hydraulic fracking methods. He left the race in August. Sen. Michael Bennet, also from Colorado, has also not endorsed the Green New Deal or signed the pledge because he believes that the U.S. should continue to use natural gas.

Bloomberg’s late entry

The “November surprise” entrance of former New York mayor and philanthropist Michael Bloomberg brought one of the world’s most influential climate leaders into the race. As a special envoy to the UN, Bloomberg has been a fixture at global climate talks since the U.S. backed out of the Paris agreement, backed Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal initiative, and formed a separate coalition of cities, states, and businesses, We Are Still In, as part of the America’s Pledge initiative. Bloomberg’s foundation recently published a report on how collective actions are affecting climate policy.

Although the climate efforts funded by Bloomberg’s various philanthropies are widely considered to be some of the most effective on the planet, his climate platform is ambitious in its stated goals but thin on specific policy (so far). He has released one plan to decarbonize the energy grid—he promises 100 percent clean-energy “as soon as humanly possible” before 2050, but also slashing emissions by 50 percent across the entire U.S. economy within ten years—and he plans to achieve these goals by empowering the EPA to shut down both coal and natural gas plants on environmental grounds.

Standalone climate debates

As the Democratic debates kicked off, advocates called for a separate, climate-focused debate to bring more time, attention, and nuance to an issue that commanded only 2 percent of total stage time at the 2016 presidential debates.

In August, the Democratic National Committee voted against holding a dedicated climate debate. But two climate-focused national televised events were scheduled by networks. On September 4, CNN aired a seven-hour climate crisis town hall with 10 candidates qualifying to participate. MSNBC hosted another climate forum on September 19 and 20.

In advance of the town hall, Warren, Castro, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg all released new or revised versions of their climate plans.