From clean coal to carbon taxes: Positions of the 2020 Dems on climate change

By Dan Drollette Jr, February 24, 2020

Earth rising above the moon This view of the rising Earth greeted the Apollo 8 astronauts on December 24, 1968 as they came from behind the moon after the fourth nearside orbit. Image courtesy of NASA

The next Democratic presidential primary debate will be held on Tuesday, February 25, in Charleston, South Carolina.

All of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates are running to the left of Obama; to paraphrase the Washington Post, all have put forward ambitious, progressive platforms for reducing inequality, and promoting access to health and education. (Interestingly, every candidate who unequivocally favored building new nuclear power plants in a New York Times climate policy survey of all 18 candidates back in April, 2019, has since dropped out.)

So, at first glance, it may seem easy to guess what the remaining candidates will all say tomorrow night when it comes to climate change, carbon taxes, renewable energy, and the Green New Deal.

But is that really the case? Are they really all in lockstep about the climate? These questions are becoming all the more relevant, now that a new report from the Pew Research Center says that tackling climate change has climbed up the list of Americans’ political priorities as worries about jobs and the economy have faded.

Herewith, a series of quick rundowns of the highlights of each candidate’s position in these areas, starting with the candidates with the greatest percentage of support in the NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll released on Tuesday.

(Jump to: Bloomberg, Biden, Warren, Klobuchar, Buttigieg, Steyer.)

Bernie Sanders (31 percent in NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll)

Sanders has taken a strong stance on climate change, coming out firmly in favor of the Green New Deal—the House resolution sponsored by New York state representative (and former Sanders campaign organizer) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, which calls for curbing greenhouse gas emissions and completely weaning the country from the use of fossil fuels by 2030.

This is really not much of a surprise, given that climate change has been an issue for Sanders since at least the George W. Bush era; Inside Climate News says “Sanders’ biggest legislative climate accomplishment was a national energy efficiency grant program he introduced his first year in the Senate.” Included in 2009 as part of the Obama stimulus package, this $3.2 billion program was the largest investment to date in energy efficiency and renewable energy at the community level in US history.

So, it’s no wonder that Sanders’ climate platform supports the Green New Deal, with its emphasis on social justice, working class jobs (often in renewables), and health care. His campaign promises to declare climate change a national emergency and put the Green New Deal into action by investing $16.3 trillion in a 10-year mobilization plan “that factors climate change into virtually every area of policy.” To pay for this effort to combat climate change, Sanders says that he would get rid of fossil fuel subsidies, increase penalties for power plant emissions, and “massively” raise taxes on fossil fuel income and wealth, among other items. His plan doesn’t specifically mention a carbon tax, though Sanders has long advocated one.

Bloomberg (19 percent)
When you look up Bloomberg’s name in the politics section of the nation’s press, the first thing that usually comes up is the massive amount of money he is spending on his late (some would say last-minute) bid for the presidency. Headlines alone tell the tale; a typical one is the New York Times’ “The Bloomberg Campaign is a Waterfall of Cash.”

But where does the ex-mayor of New York City stand on the issues, particularly climate change?

Perhaps because Superstorm Sandy hit the city on his watch—flooding subway tunnels and leaving thousands homeless—Bloomberg seems to have taken the effects of climate change seriously, issuing climate action plans that some have called the most ambitious city-level efforts in the world to adapt to rising seas. He also used some of his own money—from his estimated $54 billion fortune—to support a drive to shut down fossil fuel plants, and bankrolled the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign.

But at the same time, Bloomberg has portrayed the Green New Deal as politically unfeasible—while still coming out in favor of a carbon tax.

In comparison to Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan to combat climate change, Bloomberg proposals are more modest: $25 billion per year to be spent on R&D into clean energy, for example. But surprisingly for someone who touts his business credentials, Bloomberg’s platform does call for the federal government to focus on rulemaking and the vigorousenforcement of laws surrounding greenhouse gas emissions, especially when it comes to fossil fuel companies. And Bloomberg wants a moratorium on all new exploration for fossil fuel on public lands and an end to subsidies for coal, oil, and gas companies.

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Joe Biden (15 percent)

When it comes to climate change, some things from Biden’s past might come to haunt the former vice president: In a debate with Sarah Palin in 2008, Biden said he favored what the fossil fuel companies love to call clean coal. (Which is anything but.)

But Biden does have a lifetime environmental voting score of 83 out of 100 from the League of Conservation Voters, and he supported higher fuel efficiency standards for vehicles, according to Inside Climate News. Notably, the Obama-Biden administration put into place regulations on coal-fired power plants and got the United States to agree to the landmark Paris Agreement on climate change—an agreement which, unfortunately, the Trump administration subsequently pulled out of.

More recently, Biden did finally release a climate platform in June 2019 (long after Sanders), that favored the Green New Deal and investments in clean energy. Biden calls for spending $1.7 trillion in spending to completely end US carbon emissions by 2050—which his advisers described to Reuters as a “middle-ground approach” that would still go well beyond the policies set when he served under Obama. It’s much less than the $16.3 trillion offered by Sanders, but much more than the $25 billion proposed by Bloomberg.

But one thing Biden has had in his favor—at least until New Hampshire—was his so-called electability; until recently, primary voters kept citing Biden’s ability to reach out to the blue-collar voters that abandoned Democrats as a reason to support Biden. Or, as a New York Times article put it, “…Mr. Biden is portraying his chief rival, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and another top candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, as liberals who are overly focused on expensive and theoretical government overhauls.”

Elizabeth Warren (12 percent)

A July 2019 article by Vox noted that “Warren has released not one, but five climate change plans as part of her campaign for president. So far.”

It’s a piecemeal approach that’s steadily been pulling together over time, rather than a grand, comprehensive climate change vision from the get-go. This is in dramatic contrast to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who had made climate change the most important reason for his campaign, back when he was in the race.

By September, Warren’s campaign platform called for spending $3 trillion to move the US to 100 percent clean energy in 10 years (and spur economic development with a raft of new jobs in the clean energy sector). About $2 trillion of it would go toward R&D into green research, manufacturing, and exporting green technologies.

But while relatively late in issuing a formal overall plan, Warren has long argued, for example, that extreme weather is acting as a threat multiplier to the security of the United States—a concern that drove her to introduce the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act in Congress in 2017. She’s also called for what she terms economic patriotism, using climate change to motivate a new economic development push, marrying industrial policy to environmentalism. She also has a Green Industrial Mobilization plan that mandates $1.5 trillion in federal procurement for US-made low-carbon technology, a Green Marshall Plan to help foreign countries buy US clean energy technologies, and a Green Apollo Program to invest $400 billion in clean energy R&D over a decade.

Her “Blue New Deal” plan for the oceans would fast-track the federal permit system for offshore wind energy—the major holdup to implementing commercial-scale wind power off the East Coast. She would also phase out offshore drilling for oil and gas.

Some have lauded Warren’s array of plans as putting meat on the bones of the Green New Deal. In the words of Umair Irfan of Vox: “So her proposal doesn’t just zero out emissions in the United States; it aims to drive down emissions around the world.”

Warren says she would pay for it by restoring the taxes on the wealthy and corporations that Trump had removed in his 2017 tax cuts, reported Politico.
Warren favors a carbon tax.

Amy Klobuchar (9 percent)

The senator from Minnesota has a 96 percent lifetime rating from the League of Conservation Voters.

But when it comes to initiatives to fight climate change, Klobuchar states that while she co-sponsored the Green New Deal in Congress, it should not be taken literally, calling it “aspirational” and a “framework for discussion.” While supporting the goals of the Paris Agreement, Klobuchar has been vague as to how to get there—in dramatic contrast to Warren, for example. Klobuchar also told CNN that it doesn’t make sense to “get rid of all these industries, or do this in a few years.”

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On the other hand, Klobuchar’s published platform to tackle the climate crisis does say that she would wield the power of the presidency to quickly roll back the climate and energy policies of the Trump administration. Much like Tom Steyer (see the last of the candidates profiled here), Klobuchar promises to do much within the first 100 days, through actions such as executive orders: restore the Clean Power Plan; reinstate the fuel economy standards for vehicles; restore and strengthen enforcement of the Clean Air Act; restore climate science to federal websites (and presumably decision-making); and bring the United States back into the Paris climate agreement.

Klobuchar wants to put a price on carbon, and aims for 100 percent net zero emissions by 2050, through a combination of public and private efforts into clean energy R&D and implementation.
Politico estimates that her plan would cost about $1 trillion, which Klobuchar would raise by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, issuing clean energy bonds, reversing the Trump tax cut on businesses, and increasing the capital gains rate.

Pete Buttigieg (8 percent)

To some extent, Buttigieg is a product of his roots: the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, hails from a state that is heavily Republican. And it’s very coal-dependent; the US Energy Information Agency says that Indiana is second in the nation in coal consumption. (Only Texas uses more.) Nearly 70 percent of the state’s electricity is generated by coal; and its Whiting oil refinery is the largest inland oil refinery in the nation. (In comparison, Elizabeth Warren’s home state, Massachusetts, gets zero percent of its electricity from coal. About 67 percent of its energy comes from natural gas, with the rest from renewables and nuclear energy.)

Consequently, his accomplishments to date have focused on smaller, city-level goals: free electric vehicle charging stations, better stormwater gates to prevent flooding, and better insulation for municipally owned buildings.

But with his background in the military and a strong sense of internationalism, Buttigieg wants to create a climate security position in the Defense Department, and aims to increase the military’s climate planning. His $250 billion Global Investment Initiative would stimulate projects that use US clean technology in developing countries, and a similarly sized American Clean Energy Bank would finance clean energy projects “where private capital is reluctant to go,” he wrote in Medium.

Buttigieg’s climate plan calls for a 10-year, $200 billion commitment to retrain workers who will likely lose their old jobs in the transition away from fossil fuels, estimating that 3 million new jobs would be created. It also calls for quadrupling the federal R&D budget in renewable energy, to nearly $200 billion over 10 years.

Buttigieg foresees a zero-emission electrical grid by 2035. He supports the Green New Deal, but his plan is much more modest than that of Sanders, Warren, or even Biden. Buttigieg supports a price on carbon.

Tom Steyer (2 percent)

The so-called other billionaire seeking the Democratic nomination, Steyer has participated in five of the most recent debates, but his poll numbers are so low that he didn’t make the cut for the latest debate.

That’s a pity, because Steyer had the most rousing support at the New Hampshire Youth Climate and Clean Energy Town Hall in Concord, New Hampshire, a mere two-and-a-half weeks ago—and if Bloomberg’s recent sudden ascent is anything to go by, it’s best not to count out any billionaire too quickly. (According to the New York Times, “[Steyer] has become one of the largest Democratic financiers in the country, spending more than $300 million on politics between 2014 and 2017.”)

Despite his wealth, the pugnacious, fiery Steyer is running as a populist outsider, much like Trump did in 2016. Steyer founded the environmental advocacy group NextGen America, wants to take emergency action to address climate change, and says that every president gets just one thing that he is remembered for: “Obama got health care, Trump got his tax cut, and I’d get action on climate change in my first 100 days—my number one priority.”

To pay for this, Steyer has called for a “wealth tax” on the superrich (sort of like that proposed by Elizabeth Warren). And in case his initiatives are defeated, Steyer has suggested adding new justices to the Supreme Court, and his campaign’s climate plan says that he would “use the emergency powers of the presidency to protect the American public from the climate crisis, just as I would use those powers to protect our country from a hostile military invasion.”

One factor tarnishing Steyer’s climate credentials is that the investment firm he founded, Farallon Capital, had previously heavily bankrolled coal mines and coal-fired power plants.

If nothing else, Steyer seems to enjoy the political battle and seems to relish poking a thumb in the eye of his expected Republican opponent—traits which could serve him well on the campaign trail. To contrast himself with President Trump, Steyer released 10 years of his tax returns.

As the coronavirus crisis shows, we need science now more than ever.

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Derek Paul
Derek Paul

Get this: the Heartland Institute is backing a German girl to attack everything that Greta Thunberg says.

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