Change the Debate (Night 2)

This is part 2 of our breakdown of the candidates running for president in the 2020 election and their proposed climate policies. Our first post (including the other 10 candidates) can be found here.

Michael Bennet

Bennet has not embraced the Green New Deal. Instead, he has published an extensive climate platform that promises zero emissions by 2050 “in line with the most aggressive targets set by the world’s scientists.” He has stated: “I’m not going to pass judgment one way or another on the Green New Deal,” Bennet said during an Iowa speech in February, “I’m all for anyone expressing themselves about the climate any way they want.”

His climate platform introduces ideas like these: Giving everyone the right to choose clean electricity at a reasonable price from their utility, and doing more to help them choose clean electric cars. Setting up a Climate Bank to catalyze $10 trillion in private innovation and infrastructure. Creating a jobs plan with 10 million green jobs, especially where fossil industries are declining. Setting aside 30 percent of the nation’s land in conservation, emphasizing carbon capture in forests and soils, and promoting a climate role for farmers and ranchers.

However, Bennet is a supporter of the Keystone XL pipeline. His support was not an anomaly: Bennet has been supportive of fossil fuel development generally, especially natural gas, such as his support for the Jordan Cove pipeline and natural gas export terminal project in Oregon. In a 2017 op-ed in USA Today, Bennet wrote that “saying no to responsible production of natural gas—which emits half the carbon of the dirtiest coal and is the cleanest fossil fuel—surrenders progress for purity.”

In the debate, when asked what his first issue as president would be, he stated “climate change and the lack of economic mobility Bernie talks about.”

Michael Bennet has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. 

Joe Biden 

Biden does not support the Green New Deal entirely, however, he signaled he will embrace central concepts of the Green New Deal—that the world needs to get net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that the environment and economy are connected. He was slower to do so, and for that reason he has faced criticism from young, impatient voters.

He wants Congress to pass emissions limits with “an enforcement mechanism … based on the principle that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting.” He said it would include “clear, legally-binding emissions reductions,” but did not give details.

The Biden-Obama administration was strong on climate change, especially in its second term, notably achieving the landmark Paris climate agreement, asserting climate action and jobs go hand in hand. It pushed through auto fuel economy standards that deeply cut emissions. It also produced regulations on coal-fired power plants, though the rule was stymied by litigation and has been replaced with a weaker rule by the Trump administration.

Often overlooked, the Obama era stimulus package of 2009 included big investments in climate-friendly research and infrastructure. But Biden is also tethered to Obama’s  “all-of-the-above” philosophy, which left ample room for the fracking boom that bolstered one fossil fuel, natural gas, over another, coal, and put the U.S. on track to become the world’s leading oil producer.

Joe Biden has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge.

Pete Buttigieg

Buttigieg said he backs “a green new deal that promotes equity in our economy while confronting the climate crisis.” That includes a nationwide carbon tax which would pay dividends to Americans, and a commitment to retraining displaced workers from fossil fuel businesses that close down. His climate plan also calls for at least quadrupling federal research and development funding for renewable energy and energy storage.

Indiana, Buttigieg’s constituency, is heavily coal reliant, its state leadership across the board is Republican, and it has passed so-called pre-emption laws that curtail local initiatives to address climate change and fossil fuel use. Yet, Buttigieg set up an Office of Sustainability for South Bend. In the aftermath of the U.S. exit from the Paris Climate Accord, the city has jumped aboard campaigns by mayors to meet the treaty’s goals.

However, Mayor Pete was slow to roll out specifics for addressing climate change in his burgeoning campaign, the next challenge may be to flesh out his climate positions to drive home that sense of urgency and differentiate himself from the big, more experienced pack. 

Pete Buttigieg has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Kamala Harris

As San Francisco’s district attorney, Kamala has worked on environmental policy. Namely, she oversaw the creation of an environmental justice unit and has confronted the fossil fuel industry, opposing a Chevron refinery expansion in Richmond. She frequently joined other blue-state AG’s to challenge Trump regulatory rollbacks. One of 17 to join AGs United for Clean Power in 2016, she signaled support of an investigation of ExxonMobil but did not take on the company as did Massachusetts and New York, which pursued active legal challenges that continue to this day. However, in a state like California where climate and environmental policy rank high on the agenda, her actions could be much more extreme. 

There’s no question that Harris understands the importance of climate change, its causes, and the need for rapid solutions. But she has not made it a hallmark of her campaign and has shied away from the particulars. She doesn’t have the kind of comprehensive, detailed plan that many other candidates have offered, and in a few instances, such as whether to vigorously pursue an investigation of Exxonmobil’s activities, she has backed off.

In the second round of debates, Harris gave attention to climate change in stating, “Well, first of all I don’t even call it climate change. It’s a climate crisis. It represents an existential threat to us as a species.”

Kamala Harris has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

John Hickenlooper

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, who calls  himself “the only scientist now seeking the presidency,” got a master’s degree in geology at Wesleyan University in 1980. He then went to Colorado to work as an exploration geologist for Buckhorn Petroleum, which operated oil leases until a price collapse left him unemployed. He opened a brewpub, eventually selling his stake and getting into politics as mayor of Denver, 2003-2011, and then governor of Colorado, 2011-2019.

Hickenlooper has made a point of dismissing the Green New Deal, which he considers impractical and divisive. “These plans, while well-intentioned, could mean huge costs for American taxpayers, and might trigger a backlash that dooms the fight against climate change,” he declared in a campaign document, describing the Green New Deal.

Making another case against the Green New Deal, Hickenlooper stated early in the debate “if you look at the Green New Deal, which I admire the sense of urgency and how important it is to do climate change, I’m a scientist, but we can’t promise every American a government job if you want to get universal healthcare coverage.”

Hickenlooper’s has made no secret of his support of fracking, however, in 2013, he made a point to display that fracking was safe by testifying that he has drank fracking fluid, “You can drink it. We did drink it around the table, almost ritual-like, in a funny way,” Hickenlooper said before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. 

John Hickenlooper has not signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Kirsten Gillibrand 

As a senator from upstate New York, Kirsten Gillibrand has seen two climate hot-button issues land in her backyard: fracking and the impacts of extreme weather. She is continuing to seek funding for recovery from Superstorm Sandy and Hurricane Irene and has cited the impacts from those storms—as well as the recent flooding in the Midwest—as evidence that leaders need to take on climate change urgently.

On fracking, her position has evolved. Early in her Senate career, Gillibrand saw fracking as bringing an “economic opportunity” to the state, though she regularly underscored the need for it to be done in a way that was safe for the environment, according to E&E. More recently, she has supported plans that would likely keep any remaining oil in the ground—making fracking a moot point.

She’s been an active supporter of implementing a carbon tax, and in April, was one of four co-sponsors of a Senate bill that would put a price on carbon. The bill aims to reduce greenhouse gases by an estimated 51 percent by 2029, compared to 2005 levels, while generating an estimated $2.3 trillion over 10 years. Resources for the Future found that, if implemented, the plan would lead the U.S. to outpace the targets laid out in its Paris Agreement pledge and double the utility sector carbon reductions by 2030 that were promised by Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

Unlike most of her peers in the 2020 race, Gillibrand hasn’t put out a lengthy climate policy plan—this really isn’t her issue. But it is ours. 

Kirsten Gillibrand has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Bernie Sanders

Sanders often says he introduced “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.” It was a carbon tax-and-dividend bill and accompanying clean energy bill co-sponsored with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer in 2013. The bills were dead on arrival, but they marked an important shift in the Democratic drive for climate action—a pivot away from the cap-and-trade approach that had foundered, and toward carbon taxation.

The Green New Deal is central to the Sanders campaign, and he has left more fingerprints on it than any of the other senators running for president who co-sponsored it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who propelled it into the center ring in Washington, got her electoral start working for Sanders in his 2016 campaign. And with its emphasis on social justice, working class jobs, health care and spending without regard to revenue sources, it echoes the ideas of Sanders’ long-time economic adviser, Stephanie Kelton.

Out of all candidates in the second round of debates, Sanders gave the most attention to the climate crisis. He stated that, “Look, the old ways are no longer relevant. The scientists tell us we have 12 years before there’s irreparable damage to this planet. This is a global issue. What the president of the United States should do is not deny the reality of climate change, but tell the rest of the world that instead of spending $1.5 trillion on weapons of destruction, let us get together for the common enemy and that is to transform the world energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency, and sustainable energy… the future of the planet rests on us doing that.”

His consistent climate change message can be summed up in a few words: it’s real, it’s here, we caused it, and we need to shift the whole economy away from fossil fuels. So he supports nationwide bans on fracking, on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and on fossil fuel leases on public lands. He supports high speed rail, electric vehicles and public transit. He has called for phasing out nuclear energy, and he supports spending money to adapt to climate change, such as defenses against wildfires, floods, drought and hurricanes.

Bernie Sanders was the first candidate to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Eric Swalwell

Swalwell supports the Green New Deal and the shifts that go along with it. He supports the shift away from fossil fuels and toward zero-net emissions, banning fracking and oil drilling, increased funding towards clean-energy research, and an investment in energy storage technology, such as solar and wind. 

In Congress, Swalwell has cosponsored legislation to further regulate hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” fund clean energy research and development, ban offshore drilling in California, and protect parts of the Alaskan wilderness from drilling.

While Swalwell is vocal about climate action, his solutions don’t produce the radical change we desperately need to see in order to avert a climate disaster. 

Eric Swalwell has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge. 

Marianne Williamson

Williamson is one of the most interesting candidates out of the bevy of people competing for the democratic nomination—she plans to solve America’s problems by “harnessing love,” a statement she even made on night two of the debates. She is a self-help guru who once self-helped Oprah into experiencing 157 miracles. 

When asked about her inexperience, she stated, “There are many kinds of experience. Experienced politicians have led us to a situation where, if we don’t act within the next 12 years, in terms of climate change, the survivability of the human race will be in question.” 

Williamson—with an exception to Bernie—may be the only candidate running on a platform that outwardly opposes the stagnant nature of the Democratic party. She calls for radical change, however, not without sacrificing her reputation—it often comes off as a “crystal healing, meditation fantasy.”

This bestselling author completely supports the Green New Deal. Going beyond most candidates, she states how more needs to be done in addition to passing the resolution: “while it doesn’t cover the whole range of measures we must undertake to reverse global warming, it is an important step, therefore I support it.” She thinks of the climate crisis in terms of rethinking energy, transportation, economics, climate justice, and national security—and has specific proposals to back her stance up. 

In the second round of debates, Williamson was the sole candidate to connect healthcare to the climate crisis in stating: “What we need to talk about is why so many Americans have unnecessary chronic illnesses so many more compared to other countries and that gets back into not just the big Pharma, not just health insurance companies, it has to do with chemical policies, it has to do with environmental policies…”

Marianne Williamson has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

Andrew Yang

Yang’s biggest policy, and likely what brought him to the debate stage, is his vision for Universal Basic Income (UBI). His proposal is to give every American a monthly check for one thousand dollars, which he connected to solving climate change in the debate. 

His campaign site speaks sparingly about climate, however, he does state that “while the role of the federal government is important, much of the work will be done at the state, or even neighborhood, level. The federal government should support local efforts through funding and market-based incentives.” He mostly focuses on Carbon Fee and Dividend in his climate plan. 

While Yang has some radical ideas that allude to systemic change, he doesn’t seem to be quite there. His climate plan is vague and follows the same tune of corporate democrats, not the sweeping change we need—one that reimagines our economy and creates millions of green jobs.

Andrew Yang has signed the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge.

REFLECTION

After enduring two nights of Democratic candidates pandering, it is more apparent now than ever that we need an entire debate devoted to the gravest existential threat in our time. On Wednesday night, we got 6 minutes on the gravest existential threat of our time. Last night we got 7. Over the two nights, only half of the candidates even got a chance to answer questions on climate change.

While the blame for the lack of attention to the climate crisis can be given to the DNC, many of the candidates could have brought up the climate crisis on their own. Every issue is inextricably tied to the climate crisis: immigration, campaign finance reform, healthcare, national security, gun control, and much more. 

Elizabeth Warren and Jay Inslee mentioned their plans to address climate change most explicitly outside the climate section. But by and large, candidates said they saw it as a threat, talked in platitudes, and moved on. And why wouldn’t they? They knew the moderators weren’t going to press them. 

These people in power have proven they do not have their act together. Whether our political system takes this crisis seriously is up to us. Please, get involved with local activist groups to demand that the climate crisis is treated like the emergency it is. Our future is in our hands.

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