Beto O’Rourke on Climate Change: Where the Candidate Stands

How do the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls compare on their climate history and promises to solve the crisis? ICN is analyzing their records.

Beto O'Rourke. Credit: Kimberly White/Getty Images
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke, a Texas Democrat running for president. Credit: Kimberly White/Getty Images

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Update: On Nov. 1, O’Rourke announced he was withdrawing from the Democratic primary race for president.

“Literally. Not to be melodramatic, but literally, the future of the world depends on us right now, here, where we are. Let’s find a way to do this.”
—Beto O’Rourke, March 2019

Been There

Former U.S. Rep. Beto O’Rourke frequently cites the devastation from 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, which walloped Texas with record amounts of rain and caused $125 billion in damage, as an example of what will befall American cities if emissions aren’t brought under control. “We many not be able to live in some of the cities we call home today,” he told a crowd on a campaign stop. That could further fuel migration, already affecting places like El Paso, at the Mexican border—a “crisis of a different magnitude altogether.”

Done That

With just three terms in a GOP-run House, O’Rourke hasn’t much of a climate record. His campaign cites green credentials earned in El Paso city government, including pollution and land use issues like copper smelting pollution and protecting grasslands from drilling.

Candidate profiles

As he rose to fame in an unsuccessful challenge to Sen. Ted Cruz last year, O’Rourke presented a sharp contrast on climate change—as deep as any Trump will present to the eventual Democratic nominee. In their final debate, Cruz denied the human role in climate change and mused that “the climate has been changing from the dawn of time.” O’Rourke retorted: “Three hundred years after the Enlightenment, we should be able to listen to the scientists.”

O’Rourke was the first candidate out of the gates with a detailed climate-specific platform, releasing a $5 trillion plan in late April that calls for the U.S. to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. That’s as big a scale as practically any candidate’s with the possible exception of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

“Some will criticize the Green New Deal for being too bold or being unmanageable,” O’Rourke told a crowd in Keokuk, Iowa, in March. “I tell you what, I haven’t seen anything better that addresses this singular crisis that we face, a crisis that could at its worst lead to extinction.”

Candidate profiles

Getting Specific

  • O’Rourke’s climate proposal threads the needle on whether he would support a carbon tax. It says that he will work with Congress to create a “legally enforceable standard” to get to net-zero emissions by 2050.
  • “This standard will send a clear price signal to the market to change the incentives for how we produce, consume and invest in energy, while putting in place a mechanism that will ensure the environmental and socio-economic integrity of this endeavor,” a spokesman said in an email.
  • Two days after O’Rourke issued his climate platform, he released a video on saying he had signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge. He promised to return any relevant donations above $200.
  • O’Rourke took more than $550,000 from oil industry sources during his Senate race against Ted Cruz—the second highest amount accepted by any candidate during the 2017-2018 election cycle after Cruz.
  • It was no oddity in Texas for a Democrat to favor natural gas exports, resist limits on offshore drilling, consider nuclear part of the solution, and include carbon capture technology as a way to address some of the emissions from fossil fuels. Texas is also a major wind-power state. But O’Rourke’s support for natural gas, in particular, has put him under scrutiny from commentators like Bill McKibben, who wrote in the New Yorker that the time has come to choose between fossil fuels and renewables.
  • O’Rourke’s climate plan includes $1.2 trillion for “economic diversification and development grants for communities that have been and are being impacted by changes in energy and the economy,” his campaign said. It also supports pensions and benefits owed coal industry employees.

Our Take

After declaring his candidacy, O’Rourke attempted to distinguish himself as a leader on climate. But, being from a conservative, fossil-fuel dependent state—albeit one that has embraced wind energy—O’Rourke has a complicated relationship with the oil industry. Sometimes his rationale for past votes, like opening up export markets for oil and gas, echo those of the industry. His campaign says his positions are changing as the climate threat becomes more clearly understood.

Like other candidates, O’Rourke most forcefully cites the IPCC’s warning that the world has a critical 12-year window in which to most effectively act on climate change. That’s hard to reconcile with an enduring pact with fossil fuels.

Read Beto O’Rourke’s climate platform.
more candidate profiles.