Anyone who views the climate crisis as a compelling issue can only be frustrated by how it has been handled in presidential debates over the years—neglected, mostly. And as the first round of debates for the 2020 election arrives, the frustration may be repeated, if for different reasons this time around.
It's not that the issue won't come up. It will, driven by climate events in the real world, by the extraordinary record of reversal and denial in Washington, by the emphatic alarms of scientists, and by the loud insistence of activists that candidates and the media alike do their share in focusing the spotlight on the urgency of action. Even if the interrogators don't emphasize it, some candidates will.
To prepare for the debates, we explored the candidates' evolution on climate change and early progress in bringing the issue to the forefront in 2020. In the following series of profiles, we focus on the most prominent candidates and those with the most detailed climate proposals, with an eye toward showing the spectrum of policy choices.
On Wednesday and Thursday this week, 20 candidates face questioning from a panel of journalists in two rounds, with 10 candidates each evening. With so many candidates and so much ground to cover, there may be only slight attention to climate change. It may be hard to distinguish the candidates' climate policy positions from one another, let alone to discern the complex details in depth, or to decide which answers are the more coherent, practical or politically appealing.
One goal in these profiles: to help you prepare to watch the debates, perhaps forming in your own mind what climate question you would pose to candidates beyond the most simplistic.
Instead of being asked "do you believe in global warming?" or "would you stay in the Paris treaty?"—every Democratic candidate does and would—we think they should face questions like these:
- "How much would you demand that U.S. emissions decline in your first term, in order to put your targets within reach by the end of your second term?"
- "Many people say we have only 12 years to act. Can you explain where that number comes from and whether you believe it?"
- "Should fossil fuel producers be held liable for the damages being inflicted now because of emissions from our previous use of their products?"
- "Do you think American youth have a constitutional right to a safe climate that could be enforced by the courts?"
- "Should any of the revenues from a carbon tax be spent on research and development of clean technologies, or should it all be returned to households as a tax rebate or dividend?"
- "How much expansion of our natural gas production would be consistent with reaching zero net emissions of carbon dioxide by 2050?"
- "Would you rely heavily on any of these technologies: a new class of nuclear reactors? Capturing the carbon from smokestacks or the atmosphere for storage underground? Geo-engineering to reflect sunlight or seed the oceans as a carbon sink?"
Of course, you can't count on such probing questions being asked or answered. But keeping careful, probing questions in mind may help you to sort out which candidates are truly informing the public. We, too, will parse the answers afterwards.
Following are profiles of about a dozen candidates, listed alphabetically. They were drawn from those who are leading in the polls, have detailed climate platforms, or represent diverse policies.
"What's the point of being a progressive if we can't make progress?"
—Michael Bennet, November 2017
Sen. Michael Bennet frequently talks about the twin problems of drought and wildfire that have plagued Colorado for years, problems that scientists say will only worsen with global warming—longer wildfire seasons, shorter ski seasons, scorching drought. In an Iowa campaign speech, he said: "I spent the whole summer meeting with farmers and ranchers in places where I'll never get 30 percent of the vote in Colorado, who are deeply worried about being able to pass their farms or ranches along to their children or grandchildren because they have no water because of the droughts."
Bennet, a scion of a political family with insider Democratic credentials, was initially appointed to the Senate to fill a vacancy. He's since navigated through the minefields of climate and fossil fuel policy. Notably, he repeatedly broke with most Senate Democrats to vote for the Keystone XL pipeline, an act that climate activists might not swallow easily. He bemoaned the fight over Keystone as "one of those idiotic Washington political games that bounces back and forth and doesn't actually accomplish anything," as he said to the Wall Street Journal.
- Bennet 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." But he hasn't embraced the Green New Deal: "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 boosts 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, and 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.
- The problem he faces is squaring that with an ambivalent record on fossil fuels. His support for Keystone was not an anomaly: Bennet has been supportive of fossil fuel development generally, especially natural gas, as in 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."
- On the other hand, he favors protection for Alaskan wilderness from drilling.
- According to his campaign, Bennet "does not accept money from any corporate PACs or lobbyists." But Bennet has not signed the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge. [Update: Bennet signed the pledge on June 26.]
- Bennet's climate plan doesn't outline specific carbon pricing goals, but he recently released a carbon pollution transparency plan to recognize the full climate costs of carbon pollution when assessing the benefits of environmental protections.
- In 2017, Bennet co-introduced a bill to allow businesses to use private activity bonds issued by local or state governments to finance carbon capture projects.
- And he has proposed legislation to expand economic opportunities in declining coal communities.
Bennet is a climate-aware politician from an energy-rich but environment-friendly swing state who doesn't aggressively challenge the fossil fuel industry's drilling, pipeline and export priorities. His platform covers the basics of emissions control, plays a strong federal hand and includes protections for public lands. But his support for the Keystone XL and other fossil development and his sidestepping of issues like carbon pricing shy away from some of the climate actions that progressives hope to push forward.
—By Nina Pullano
"The willing suspension of disbelief can only be sustained for so long."
—Joe Biden on climate denial, March 2015
Among the current candidates, only former Vice President Joseph Biden has debated a Republican opponent during a past contest for the White House—when he was Barack Obama's running mate and took on Sarah Palin in 2008. It's a moment that might come back to haunt him, because in a brief discussion of climate change—a chance to trounce her on the question of science denial or fossil fuel favoritism—he instead slipped into a discussion of what he called "clean coal," which he said he had favored for 25 years. He explained it away as a reference to exporting American energy technology. But his loose language, taken in today's context, sounds archaic.
Biden likes to say he was among the first to introduce a climate change bill in the Senate, and fact checkers generally agree. It was the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986 that was largely put into a spending bill in 1987. The Reagan administration pretty much ignored it, but the bill did call for an EPA national policy on climate change, and annual reports to Congress.
Biden represented Delaware in the Senate 36 years, and he had a lifetime environmental voting score of 83 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. In 2007, he supported higher fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles, which passed, and in 2003, modest caps on greenhouse gas emissions, which didn't.
But his longevity is a liability, because the longer the voting record, the more contradictions. He missed a key vote in 2008 on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which was said to be the strongest global warming bill to ever make it to the Senate floor. Biden also opposed tightening fuel efficiency standards earlier in his career.
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, but 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.
- Biden surprised some activists and pundits in June when he presented his campaign's first climate platform. It went further than many of his previous positions, and embraced the Green New Deal as a "crucial framework."
- Biden foresees $1.7 trillion in spending over the next 10 years, and $3.3 trillion in investments by the private sector and state and local governments.
- He wants Congress to pass emissions limits with "an enforcement mechanism ... based on the principles 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.
- His plan also calls for support for economically impacted communities. He has been slow to agree with activists' calls for him to swear off campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests, but his campaign has signaled that he soon will do so. [Update: Biden signed the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge on June 27.]
Biden has 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.
That compounds the challenge of explaining Senate votes that took place a long time ago. But he is known for his ability to communicate with blue-collar voters who abandoned Democrats for Trump, as well as older voters who have turned out in the past.
—By James Bruggers
"The opposite of justice is not injustice, it's inaction, indifference, apathy."
—Cory Booker, October 2018
Sen. Cory Booker traveled to Paris during the negotiations of the United Nations climate treaty in 2015, and when he came back, he took to the Senate floor to recount conversations he had there with lawmakers from Bangladesh, one of the poorest and most vulnerable of the signatory nations. As the Himalayan glaciers melt and the oceans rise, he said, "right now Bangladesh is losing 1 percent of its arable land each year, displacing millions of Bangladeshis, literally creating climate refugees." The richest people on the planet, he was saying, should make common cause with the poorest.
Since he rose to prominence as an organizer, council member and mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Cory Booker has built a distinct environmental brand that centers on issues of racial and class equity. By 2017, as a U.S. senator and member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, he was pushing to strengthen federal environmental justice programs. This year, as a presidential candidate campaigning in South Carolina, Booker formally adopted the theme as a platform plank.
Booker has consistently achieved a nearly perfect voting record on the annual green scorecards of the League of Conservation Voters. But like most other Senate Democrats, there's no enacted law he can point to that would mark him as an especially effective climate or environmental champion.
- Booker was among the first senators with eyes on the Oval Office to endorse the Green New Deal in December 2018, right on the heels of Bernie Sanders. The sweep of its policy prescriptions reflects his own broad agenda: more than a year ago he proposed model jobs legislation that would include federal employment support in 15 pilot cities. Booker also favors Medicare for all.
- His past policies have not been quite that ambitious. As recently as 2016, Booker co-sponsored a non-binding resolution to establish a national goal of 50 percent clean electricity by 2030. That's a more moderate goal than the Green New Deal's crash program for zero emissions economy-wide.
- Still, Booker passes most, if not all, of the litmus tests that the party's progressive wing is presenting to presidential candidates this year. He has opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. He has said he favors a price on carbon; depending on its details this could address economic disparities.
- Booker is one of several candidates who are willing to embrace new nuclear technology as part of a climate solution. He has been critical of fracking for natural gas, which can contaminate groundwater and impact local communities.
- Booker has promised not to take fossil fuel money—not a big sacrifice for a candidate whose main sources of corporate finance have been in other industries, such as finance and pharmaceuticals.
- In one distinction, Booker turned to vegetarianism as a young man and says his last non-vegan meal was on Election Day in 2014. In an interview with Vegan News, he talks expansively about the climate and other environmental benefits of avoiding meat. How that plays in states where red politics thrive on red meat is an open question. But voters in Iowa, for example, may actually be more interested in his position on corporate agriculture, family farms and industrial concentration.
Booker once remarked on Twitter that the very first question he was asked as a candidate in Iowa was about climate change. But he rarely mentions it on the social media platform—just twice in a recent 30-day period, once when he signed the pledge not to take contributions from fossil fuel companies, and once while visiting flooded farmland. By comparison, he tweets constantly about other hot-button issues like gun control, health care, reproductive rights and social justice. A significant voice on racial and class inequities, Booker adds nuance to a debate that others sometimes give short shrift.
—By John H. Cushman, Jr.
"If this generation doesn't step up, we're in trouble. This is, after all, the generation that's gonna be on the business end of climate change for as long as we live."
—Pete Buttigieg, April 2019
Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, often talks about the surprising catastrophic flooding that hit his city twice in two years after he took office. A 1,000-year flood occurred in 2016. Then, in early 2018, a 500-year flood hit, costing millions and damaging thousands of homes. "For as long as we're alive, and the younger you are the more you have on the line, you know our adult lives are going to be dominated by the increased severity and frequency of weather and even crazy chain reactions that happen," Buttigieg wrote in an email.
Indiana 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.
"We've continued to demonstrate our climate values by building LEED-certified fire stations, introducing free electric vehicle charging stations, empowering national service members to improve energy efficiency in low-income neighborhoods, and mentoring other Indiana cities seeking to lead on climate issues," Buttigieg said.
His administration is also working to repair remaining damage from recent flooding and to ensure that vulnerable South Bend neighborhoods don't get battered again. The city approved a contract to install gates on stormwater pipes that drain into the river, for the next time the river reaches flood stage.
- 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.
- Buttigieg signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge in March. His climate plan foresees a dwindling role for fossil fuels that would be engineered by federal policies. Any new energy infrastructure would have to be "climate positive," which could leave a loophole open, especially in the case of natural gas. He also said that while carbon capture might play a role, it should not become an excuse for continued fossil fuel development.
- He said he would ban all new fossil fuel development on federal lands. Buttigieg wrote: "I favor a ban on new fracking and a rapid end to existing fracking so that we can build a 100 percent clean energy society as soon as possible."
- He recently spelled out the climate role that American farmers could play, even though many deny manmade global warming. "There are some estimates that through better soil management, soil could capture a level of carbon equivalent to the entire global transportation industry," Buttigieg told a young questioner at an MSNBC town hall in June.
Buttigieg, at age 37, is the youngest candidate in the Democratic primary. So when the inevitable first question comes asking if he's too young to run for president, Buttigieg points to climate change as a big reason for his candidacy. He explains that in 2054, when he'll be 72, the current age of Donald Trump, his generation will be suffering some of the worst effects of climate change.
His website, in a tacit nod to the links between his military record and his recognition of the climate crisis, lists the latter under the rubric of security. If he 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.
—By Neela Banerjee
"We're gonna say no to subsidizing big oil and say yes to passing a Green New Deal."
—Julián Castro, January 2019
As U.S. secretary of Housing and Urban Development during the Obama administration, Julián Castro spoke about the increasing frequency of natural disasters as a sign that the nation needed to build smarter and invest in resilience before the next storm hits. The success stories he saw from that position—including energy efficiency work in public housing and sustainable land-use planning after disasters—would go on to shape the policies he's campaigning on now.
Before joining the Obama administration, Castro was mayor of San Antonio from 2009-2014, when he led the city-owned utility to pivot away from coal and toward more renewable energy. The utility adopted a goal of 20 percent renewable energy by 2020, announced the closure of a coal-fired power plant, developed a plan to cut energy use, and expanded its purchasing of solar power. Castro tried to position San Antonio as a hub for clean energy by attracting new businesses and partnering with the University of Texas, San Antonio.
As Housing secretary, Castro oversaw a $1 billion grant program for innovative projects that aimed to make cities and towns more resilient to flooding and extreme weather. The program, developed with the Rockefeller Foundation after Hurricane Sandy, helped pay for projects in eight states and five cities, including coastal restoration in Louisiana and a plan to protect parts of Manhattan from rising seas. He also promoted a program that boosted energy efficiency in multi-family housing as a way to cut costs while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
But it wasn't all green for Castro. His tenure as mayor coincided with a fracking boom in the nearby Eagle Ford shale, and Castro welcomed the jobs and investment that came with oil and gas development. In 2012, he told the San Antonio Express-News that the drilling boom brought an "unprecedented opportunity" and that high schools and colleges had to do more to train students for oil field work.
In a 2015 interview, Castro said that while he had concerns about the safety of fracking, he supported the practice as long as it is well regulated. "I believe that there is a utility to it and that it has a strong economic value, that natural gas is an important component of our energy future and at the same time keeping an open mind as research continues to come in," he said.
- Castro has said that his first executive order as president would be to recommit the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement.
- Climate change plays a prominent role in Castro's "People First Housing" plan, which includes a $200 billion green infrastructure fund that would go toward public transportation, electric vehicle charging stations, energy efficiency, upgrading the electricity grid and more. This would be part of an effort to "achieve net-zero global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, reduce U.S. emissions to at least half of 2005 emissions levels by 2030, and meet the promise of the Green New Deal."
- The housing plan also calls for zoning changes to increase housing density, boost public transportation use over personal vehicles and make new development more resilient to the effects of climate change.
- Like several of the Democratic candidates, Castro has pledged that his campaign won't accept contributions from fossil fuel companies.
Castro has spoken often about the urgency of the threat posed by climate change, and in his campaign announcement, he called it "the biggest threat to our prosperity in this 21st Century." But while he has established credentials working to boost energy efficiency and renewable energy in San Antonio and as part of the Obama administration, climate change does not appear to be one of Castro's signature issues. Beyond the specifics in his housing plan, his campaign has not announced a detailed climate policy.
—By Nicholas Kusnetz
"When John F. Kennedy said, 'I want to put a man on the moon in 10 years,' he didn't know if he could do it. But he knew it was an organizing principle. ... Why not do the same here? Why not say let's get to net zero carbon emissions in 10 years not because it's easy, but because it's hard?"
—Kirsten Gillibrand, April 2019
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.
Gillibrand boasts a 95 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation voters, having voted on the side of environmentalists 100 percent of the time since 2014. Since becoming a senator in 2009, Gillibrand has been a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee, where she has co-sponsored multiple pieces of legislation, including bills calling for a carbon tax and for the Green New Deal.
- In late January, Gillibrand sent a letter to the environment committee chairman, John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), urging him to make the tenets of the Green New Deal central to the committee's agenda. She went on to co-sponsor a Green New Deal resolution in the Senate, along with many of her fellow 2020 candidates.
- 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.
- Gillibrand signed the "No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge" in March, and is an original co-sponsor of a Senate plan to create tax credits for renewable energy technology and energy efficiency. She has said that Congress needs to "facilitate the development of renewable technologies like wind and solar."
- Gillibrand is opposed to opening new areas of the Outer Continental Shelf to offshore drilling and cosponsored legislation to keep the Trump administration from doing so.
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 she does have a record in the Senate that, by and large, brands her as a climate progressive. Her early support of fracking may come back to bite her, though.
—By Sabrina Shankman
"As California breaks one wildfire record after another, we need to speak the truth—in order to mitigate these fires, we must combat the effects of climate change."
—Kamala Harris, August 2018
Kamala Harris is just the latest example of a presidential candidate using a newly won Senate seat as a launching pad, but her political profile was built in California, a state where environmental and climate policy rank high on the agenda.
As San Francisco's district attorney she created an environmental justice unit and as California attorney general she 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.
In the Senate minority, Harris has opposed Trump and the Republicans on environmental issues, especially those that involve California, like rollbacks of regulations involving offshore drilling or automotive fuel efficiency standards.
She joined with five other senators to file a brief in court on behalf of San Francisco and Oakland in their climate damages lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, citing the millions of dollars the industry has spent to sow climate change doubt and influence lawmakers.
Harris, like other senators running for president, has embraced the Green New Deal. "Climate change is an existential threat, and confronting it requires bold action," she said, adding: "Political stunts won't get us anywhere."
- In comparison to other candidates, Harris has been light on the details of how she would address climate change.
- She has expressed doubts about fracking, but not embraced a ban. Her position is also vague on the role of nuclear power. In 2017, she voted in committee against a bill to spark innovation in advanced nuclear reactors, which had bipartisan support but never became law, arguing that it didn't address waste issues.
- She has taken no position on a carbon tax or other ways of putting a price on carbon. That's a striking silence, given that California has long led the way with its comprehensive cap-and-trade system for restricting emissions of greenhouse gases.
- Harris signed a pledge not to take fossil fuel money in her presidential campaign. She has taken industry donations in the past.
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 Exxon's activities, she has backed off.
"Combatting this crisis first requires the Republican majority to stop denying science and finally admit that climate change is real and humans are the dominant cause," her statement on the Green New Deal said. If that's an attempt to focus attention on the problem of Donald Trump and GOP denial, it may not propel her far in a turbulent climate debate among Democrats.
—By David Hasemyer
"For some reason, our party has been reluctant to express directly its opposition to democratic socialism. In fact, the Democratic field has not only failed to oppose Sen. Sanders' agenda, but they've actually pushed to embrace it."
—John Hickenlooper, June 2019
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 that left him unemployed. On the rebound, he opened a brewpub, eventually selling his stake and getting into politics as mayor of Denver, 2003-2011, and governor of Colorado, 2011-2019. Both previous private sector jobs mark him as an unconventional Democratic presidential contender.
In 2014, when Hickenlooper was governor, Colorado put into force the strongest measures adopted by any state to control methane emissions from drilling operations. He embraced them: "The new rules approved by Colorado's Air Quality Control Commission, after taking input from varied and often conflicting interests, will ensure Colorado has the cleanest and safest oil and gas industry in the country and help preserve jobs," he said at the time. Now, as a presidential candidate, he promises that he "will use the methane regulations he enacted as governor as the model for a nation-wide program to limit these potent greenhouse gases."
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.
But his plans are full of mainstream liberal ideas for addressing climate change:
- He endorses a carbon tax with revenues returned directly to taxpayers, and he says that the social cost of carbon, an economic estimate of future costs brought on by current pollution, should guide policy decisions.
- He offers hefty spending for green infrastructure, including transportation and the grid, and for job creation, although he presents few details. He favors expanding research and development, and suggests tripling the budget for ARPA-E, the federal agency that handles exotic energy investments.
- He emphasizes roping the private sector into this kind of investment, rather than constantly castigating industry for creating greenhouse gas emissions in the first place. For example, when he calls for tightening building standards and requiring electric vehicle charging at new construction sites, he says private-public partnerships should pay the costs.
- He would recommit the U.S. to helping finance climate aid under the Paris agreement. But he also says he'd condition trade agreements and foreign aid on climate action by foreign countries.
Hickenlooper's disdain for untrammelled government spending and for what he sees as a drift toward socialism in the party's ranks, stake out some of the most conservative territory in the field. He has gained little traction so far. But his climate proposals are not retrograde; like the rest of the field, he's been drawn toward firm climate action in a year when the issue seems to hold special sway.
—By John H. Cushman, Jr.
"I am the only candidate saying, unequivocally, that I will make defeating climate change the number one priority of my administration."
—Jay Inslee, June 2019
Since taking office in 2013, Gov. Jay Inslee has seen seven of the 10 largest wildfires on record in Washington, a state half covered with woodland. "Climate change is ravaging our forest," Inslee said at the site of a fire that burned for three months in the Wenatchee National Forest in 2017. "The combination of beetle kill, drought and higher temperatures have made our fires, bombs, waiting to go off."
When Inslee signed a law in May committing the nation's 10th largest state economy to 100 percent clean energy by 2045, it was a testament to both his perseverance on climate and the power of the forces that lined up against him. For six years, Inslee pushed a vision of Washington as part of a West Coast vanguard in the fight to curb carbon emissions, but first he had to battle a Republican legislature, the state's big oil refining industry, and even division among environmental activists. A slew of proposals either died in the state capitol or at the ballot box before Inslee could claim victory for what he called "the strongest clean energy policy in the nation." He had to drop his goals for carbon pricing and a low-carbon fuel standard.
- The Green New Deal has "gotten people talking about climate change, it's elevated the scope of people's ambitions," says Inslee. He argues he can put this "aspirational document" into action with dozens of proposals in four separate policy platforms so far—a 100 percent clean energy plan, a program to create 8 million new jobs, a strategy for U.S. re-engagement in global climate leadership, and a "Freedom from Fossil Fuels" plan. Altogether, they would cost $9 trillion, with some funding coming from a new "climate pollution fee" on the fossil fuel industry.
- To achieve a 50 percent reduction in carbon emissions by 2030, and net zero domestic climate pollution by 2045, Inslee foresees $300 billion in annual spending leveraging $600 billion in private sector investment over the next 10 years.
- Inslee's plan calls for zero emissions—basically, electric vehicles only—for all new passenger vehicles, medium-duty trucks and buses by 2030, and would ensure those vehicles are made in the United States by union workers. He'd jump-start market demand for EVs with rapid electrification of government vehicles, and would encourage consumer turnover with a "Clean Cars for Clunkers" trade-in rebate program, a nod to the 2009 stimulus bill.
- Inslee's goal of "all clean, renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation by 2035" in theory leaves room for nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage, but neither are mentioned in his plans. In contrast, he talks about how federal lands can be a base for expansion of solar and wind energy, and he foresees federal action to expand and upgrade the grid and electricity storage to bolster renewables.
- After Inslee's repeated failed efforts to enact a carbon tax in Washington state, he turned his focus to other climate measures that he described as "more attainable in the short-term." But he revived the idea of a levy in his latest plan. "While putting a price on the cost of climate pollution does not represent a single silver bullet, it nonetheless remains an effective tool for both ensuring that polluters pay and for generating new revenue to address the harms caused by those emissions," he said.
- The fracking ban in Washington state that Inslee signed into law on May 8 was not a heavy political lift in a state with no known oil or natural gas reserves. But in a reversal, Inslee also announced his opposition to other gas infrastructure projects. Inslee once thought natural gas would help reduce greenhouse gas emissions on the way to a clean energy transition; now he opposes "locking in these multidecadal infrastructure projects." He has rebuffed industry's efforts to open Washington's prized coastline as a gateway for fossil fuel exports to Asia.
- Inslee said he would enact a "G.I. Bill" to aid fossil fuel workers who lose their jobs, and protect pensions and disability payments, and a "Re-Power Fund" would boost communities now reliant on fossil fuels.
- Inslee was the second candidate to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, on Jan. 9. Among current presidential candidates, only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) signed earlier.
While embracing his role as the first presidential candidate to center a campaign around climate change, Inslee seems determined to show he's not a single-issue candidate. When his full platform is unveiled, it will encompass up to seven separate detailed policy papers. In approaching the clean energy transition as an economic issue, a labor issue, a foreign policy issue, and more, Inslee tries to avoid the label of one-trick pony while pestering the Democratic National Committee to hold a debate on climate change alone.
—By Marianne Lavelle
"The people are on our side when it comes to climate change. Why? Because like you and I, they believe in science."
—Amy Klobuchar, February 2019
Sen. Amy Klobuchar speaks of Fran, a woman she met in Pacific Junction, Iowa, along the Nebraska border during recent flooding. "Hanging there on her neck was this pair of binoculars. She had me look through them and she says, 'This is my house, I bought it with my husband, our 4-year-old twins, we were going to retire in this house, and now it's halfway underwater.'" It's a personal connection, but can that elevate the Minnesota senator among the other candidates?
Months into her first Senate term in 2007, Klobuchar introduced a bill to start a carbon-tracking program as a step toward a cap-and-trade system to address climate change. Another bill of hers called for an expansion of renewable energy tax credits, provisions of which later became law as part of the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008.
- Klobuchar co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution, but she calls it aspirational rather than prescriptive, telling CNN that it doesn't make sense to her to "get rid of all these industries or do this in a few years," while it does make sense to "start doing concrete things, and put some aspirations out there on climate change." She supports putting a price on carbon, but told the Tampa Bay Times "it would have to be done in some way that is not at all regressive.
- She answered a Washington Post questionnaire on fracking by saying she doesn't want to ban the method of extracting oil and gas, but would like to regulate it better. She has said that "safe nuclear power" along with "cleaner coal technologies" should continue to be developed as part of a comprehensive energy strategy, according to an issue brief on her Senate website.
- Klobuchar supports research into carbon capture and storage technology and co-sponsored a 2017 bill to expand a tax credit to help carbon capture research.
- She signed the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge in May.
Klobuchar describes herself as a progressive who can still win moderate voters in swing states such as Iowa and Wisconsin. On climate issues, however, her tone and positions mean that the majority of the field is to her left. She is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution but says it shouldn't be taken literally, and she shies away from stances that could be branded as extreme, such as banning fracking. But she can argue that her actions on climate and the environment are progressive, as shown by her 96 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters and her early support for a cap-and-trade program.
—By Dan Gearino
"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
Former Rep. Beto O'Rourke frequently cites the devastation from 2017's Hurricane Harvey, which walloped his home state of 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."
With just three terms in the U.S. House, which was dominated by the GOP at the time, 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.
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."
- 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 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.
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.
—By Georgina Gustin
"There is no 'middle ground' when it comes to climate policy."
—Bernie Sanders, May 2019
Tropical Storm Irene, which in 2011 caused the deaths of six people in Vermont, forced thousands from their homes, and washed away hundreds of bridges and miles of roads, was a wake-up call for a state where Sen. Bernie Sanders is a thoroughly established favorite son. "No one thought a northern state like Vermont would be hit by such a strong tropical storm," Sanders said.
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 (D-Calif.) 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.
Sanders' biggest legislative climate accomplishment was a national energy efficiency grant program he introduced his first year in the Senate. It passed in 2007. He successfully pushed for $3.2 billion for the program to be included in the Obama administration's 2009 economic recovery package. The grants were the largest investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy at the community level in U.S. history.
- The sweeping energy and social transformation known as 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 (D-N.Y.), 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.
- Sanders has long advocated an aggressive carbon tax, and one was included in the Democratic Party platform in 2016 at his campaign's behest.
- 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.
- Having built his last campaign on small individual donations, Sanders was the first presidential candidate to sign the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge launched by climate and justice groups in 2016.
Sanders, with his open defense of democratic socialism, defines the leftist boundary of presidential politics while also staking out a populist territory that resonated well in 2016. His explicit aim is to "keep oil, gas, and coal in the ground." Although his signature campaign proposals (Medicare-for-All, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour) aren't about climate, the Green New Deal allows Sanders to use climate action as a vehicle for his economic and social justice aims. His proposal for a federal jobs guarantee would be tied to the need for workers to build infrastructure to aid in a clean energy transition as well as to help communities with restoration and resilience. Whether or not he emerges as the nominee, his base of voters, and his ideas, will deeply influence the 2020 campaign.
—By Marianne Lavelle
"Before the 2008 crash, investors and the government failed to address growing risks in our financial system. We're making the same mistake with climate change today—we know it's coming, but we're not doing enough to stop it."
—Elizabeth Warren, September 2018
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who represents Massachusetts, a state with strong ties to Puerto Rico, paid attention to Hurricane Maria when it spread death and lasting destruction across Puerto Rico in 2017. Warren was already fighting for debt relief for the territory before the storm. Maria brought the island's plight into a climate focus. "There are people who have no food, there are people who have no water, there are people who have no medicine, there are people who need our help," she said. "This is the responsibility of our government, the government that is supposed to work for us."
Warren came to political prominence in her detailed response to the financial crisis of 2008, and that has carried over into her increasingly developed position on climate change. Look at the Climate Risk Disclosure Act that she introduced in September that would require companies to disclose the risk climate change poses to their financial assets. The bill would require companies to release information on their greenhouse gas emissions, fossil fuel holdings, and how they would be impacted by both climate policies and the effects of climate change. The bill languished, but the issue has been gaining attention from fossil fuel company shareholders in recent years and appears to be gaining traction among other candidates.
- If Warren's campaign had a single slogan, it would be "I have a plan for that." While she entered the race with a reputation based on issues other than climate change—some environmentalists dismissed her leadership in this realm—she has made up for it with a series of expansive and fairly detailed prescriptions.
- She struck early with a pledge to prohibit all new fossil fuel leases on public lands, which struck a chord with the "keep-it-in-the-ground" camp—she had co-sponsored legislation on the same theme that never moved in the Republican Senate. Some, but not all, other candidates quickly echoed the promise.
- It's a tactic that has served her well so far: outline a far-reaching proposition and let others play catch up. That's what happened with her biggest climate proposal so far, a $2 trillion package describing a 10-year program of investment in green research, manufacturing and exporting, all to help "achieve the ambitious targets of the Green New Deal."
- Her plan would include $1.5 trillion for American-made clean energy products, $400 billion in funding for green research and development and $100 billion in foreign assistance to purchase emissions-free American energy technology.
Warren built her career in the Senate railing against Wall Street and championing consumer protection and economic equality. But her priorities are evolving as environmental and economic impacts of climate change increasingly merge.
On the campaign trail, Warren is increasingly taking a leadership role on climate issues, as when she became one of the first presidential candidates to sign the No Fossil Fuel pledge. When she released a detailed policy proposal in April to ban new oil and gas leases on federal lands, other candidates quickly followed suit. And when Joe Biden put out a big climate pledge, Warren was able to quickly trump him with an even bigger commitment of her own.
—By Phil McKenna