A guide to how 2020 Democrats plan to fight climate change

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Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (C) speaks while former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke (R-L) Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) (L) listen during the Democrati

Most of the remaining 2020 Democratic presidential contenders have put out comprehensive visions to combat climate change. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Tactics include taxing carbon, prosecuting polluters, space mirrors, and trillions of dollars in investment.

Climate change, remarkably, has become a top-tier issue in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary.

Polls show voters rating it as one of their highest priorities. The top candidates have issued comprehensive plans to address it. Television networks are giving it an unprecedented amount of airtime.

It’s worth taking note of how much the public discussion has moved on climate change in a short amount of time. There was almost no talk of rising average temperatures and the consequences thereof among candidates ahead of the 2016 presidential election.

Now, no Democrat who has eyes on the White House can come to the table without a credible plan to limit greenhouse gases, adapt to rising seas, and to ensure a just transition toward a clean economy. CNN spent seven hours discussing these proposals with Democratic candidates. MSNBC is planning a two-night event with presidential hopefuls later this month.

Much of the credit for this surge in attention to climate change goes to activists from groups like the Sunrise Movement. With their signature climate policy framework, the Green New Deal, Sunrise set the agenda for the climate discussion among candidates earlier this year. And its persistent pressure against the Democratic National Committee’s refusal to hold a climate change-specific debate is a big reason why two cable networks stepped up to invest so much airtime on climate change.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee also deserves much credit for this moment. Though he’s now out of the race, his campaign’s singular focus on climate change set the policy benchmark against which other candidates are being compared. Several candidates shouted him out in the CNN town hall, and many have sought his blessing.

As for the remaining candidates’ plans, most agree that climate change demands a policy response to zero out the country’s emissions. Where they differ is in how they want to get there, how they will draw on sources like nuclear power, how much federal government investment they need, and the political levers they’ll use to enact their visions.

Here is how 2020 Democratic presidential candidates intend to fight climate change

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT): With Inslee gone, Sanders’s plan to combat climate change has become the yardstick for judging the other proposals on the table.

He has adopted the Green New Deal branding for his own proposal, which has the largest price tag in the field of 2020 presidential climate ambitions: $16.3 trillion. The money, according to Sanders, will come from sources including income taxes from 20 million new jobs, taxes on fossil fuels, defense budget savings from no longer protecting oil shipping, and selling power via federal power marketing authorities.

That money would then be spent on measures like a climate resilience fund, deploying renewable energy, building a high-voltage direct current network, and supporting the United Nations Green Climate Fund.

The plan also calls for zeroing out emissions from transportation and power generation by 2030. Sanders also takes the most aggressive line against the fossil fuel industry. In addition to raising taxes on the industry and pursuing civil litigation, Sanders wants criminal prosecution of greenhouse gas emitters like Exxon Mobil.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA): Fighting corruption and the influence of money in politics has been the central theme of Warren’s campaign for the White House. But rather than putting out one central climate change agenda, she has incorporated it into her proposals for public lands, the military, trade, US manufacturing, and climate risk disclosure. She also borrowed Inslee’s vision for reaching 100 percent clean energy.

“When I first started thinking about how to describe what I will fight for when I run for president, I decided I wasn’t going to do one climate plan,” she said during the CNN climate town hall. “I decided I was going to try to look at climate in every part of the plans I’m working on.”

By framing climate change as an issue of economics, public resources, and national security instead of just as an environmental issue, Warren is laying out a climate case for the general election, not just the primary. It would keep climate change as a front-burner issue, even in the event of a recession or an international conflict, while perhaps drawing in voters who don’t see climate change as a top-tier concern.

Andrew Yang: The entrepreneur is an unconventional candidate compared to the slate of current and former public officials running for the White House. So it isn’t too surprising that he has a unique approach to climate change.

In addition to his signature proposal of a $1,000 per month “Freedom Dividend,” Yang has put out a long, technology-centered climate agenda that pursues energy sources like thorium-based nuclear energy. He aims to power the US completely by renewable energy by 2035 (it’s unclear if nuclear, a clean but not renewable energy source, would be used toward that goal). The proposal also calls for research into some of the more controversial climate change mitigation approaches like geoengineering. This can include mirrors in space to reflect sunlight away or spraying particles into the air to cool the planet.

But unlike some of the other candidates, Yang is frank that there will be unavoidable consequences from climate change and that people will have to move as a result. His plan allocates $40 billion in grants for people in coastal areas to move inland, $30 billion for infrastructure like seawalls, and $25 billion for disaster planning. It’s bleak, but arguably prudent.

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro: The fundamental injustice of climate change is that the people who contributed least to the problem stand to suffer the most. That’s why Castro is framing climate change as an issue of civil rights.

His proposal calls for $10 trillion over 10 years for clean energy and resilience to get to net-zero emissions by 2045. It also calls for new laws to combat environmental discrimination, more civil litigation from the Environmental Protection Agency, and direct the federal government to proactively protect low-income communities and communities of color from pollution.

Castro has also called for creating a new classification for refugees fleeing climate-related disasters. More than 140 million may be displaced as a result of climate change by 2050 according to the World Bank, and Castro wants to create a mechanism to help people before a disaster strikes.

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA): During her time as California’s attorney general, Harris launched an investigation into oil giant Exxon Mobil to see whether the company lied to investors and to the public about what it knew about climate change.

She is leaning on this experience prosecuting polluters in her plan to fight climate change. Her $10 trillion plan includes many of the conventional provisions like public and private investment in projects such as job training, repairing water infrastructure, and switching to clean energy. But it also includes expanded access to the legal system for people to hold greenhouse gas emitters accountable.

“Access to the courts is fundamental for Americans to hold polluters accountable,” her climate plan reads. “By statutorily reinforcing standing for those harmed by pollution and strengthening counsel-access provisions, we can protect access to the courts for citizens seeking restitution for environmental and climate-related damages.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke: O’Rourke was the first 2020 Democrat out of the gate with a comprehensive climate change plan, publishing his proposal even ahead of Jay Inslee on May 1.

The proposal starts by setting a legally binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the US economy by 2050. It gets there by using executive powers to do things like re-enter the Paris climate agreement, limit methane leaks from oil and gas drilling, and set new energy efficiency standards. O’Rourke also wants to mobilize $5 trillion over 10 years to invest in clean energy and prepare vulnerable parts of the country for the changes in the climate we can’t avoid.

O’Rourke called for a legally binding net-zero emissions standard by 2050 and supports cap-and-trade over a carbon tax. Like Yang, O’Rourke has also been blunt about the need to relocate people, a lesson learned after the flooding in Houston from Hurricane Harvey. “Let’s as Americans invest in the people of Houston and the southeast of America and every community that’s on the front lines of climate change, to rebuild where we can and to move where we must,” he said during the CNN town hall.

South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg: The youngest candidate in the race, the 37-year-old says he has a personal stake in the low-carbon future. “Because when we’re talking about whether we hit this target of 2050, decarbonizing the economy,” he said during the CNN town hall. “Lord willing I plan to be here. I would be in my 60s.”

His suite of strategies to address climate change take pains to address impacts across all parts of the country, not just the coasts. He calls for equitable disaster relief funding, national extreme weather insurance, climate-smart agriculture, and regional hubs to increase resilience to local climate-related risks.

The plan would cost between $1.5 and $2 trillion and create instruments to limit greenhouse gases like a clean energy bank, tax credits for carbon capture, a transition fund for workers who might see their jobs disappear. The proposal also calls for a carbon tax with revenues distributed back to low- and middle-income Americans as a rebate.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-MN): The Minnesota senator has published a climate agenda to “mobilize the heartland and leave no one behind.” Her plan begins with executive actions to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, restore the Clean Power Plan, and sign legislation to reach net zero emissions by 2050. She estimated the cost of her proposal to be between $2 and $3 trillion, funded in large part by pricing carbon emissions.

Her tactics include a $1 trillion infrastructure package to modernize the power grid with union labor, retrofit buildings for energy efficiency, and implement new zoning policies with federal housing grants.

Klobuchar was skeptical about some of the elements of the Green New Deal, like reducing air travel, but she ultimately cosponsored the resolution. She also says that she will not ban fracking and is open to carbon capture for fossil fuels as well as nuclear energy.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ): Booker has long framed environmental issues, including climate change, as social justice concerns. The transition toward clean energy needs to address the needs and grievances of marginalized communities.

His plans invests $3 trillion over ten years with the aim of reaching zero-carbon electricity production by 2030 and making the US economy carbon neutral by 2045. Booker wants to end fossil fuel development on public lands. He is also in favor of nuclear energy. “Right now nuclear is more than 50% of our non-carbon causing energy,” Booker said. “People who think that we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren’t looking at the facts.”

He also said that rejoining the Paris agreement isn’t enough and that the United States needs to take a more aggressive leadership role on climate change on the international stage. Though he’s a vegan, Booker said that he isn’t coming for anyone’s burgers, but says that US food production could be restructured in a way that’s more sustainable and more just for the farmers themselves.

Former Vice President Joe Biden: Biden has the distinction of introducing the first climate change bill in the Senate, way back in 1986. A campaign advisor teased a climate strategy earlier this year that would be a “middle ground” approach to climate policy. He was then subjected to a torrent of criticism from environmental activists and some lawmakers.

The proposal that was finally released ended up roughly in line with those from other candidates, pegged to the 2050 deadline. The mechanisms for hitting the target include changes to the US tax code; job training and other equity provisions for those most impacted by climate change and the shift away from fossil fuels; and diplomatic pressure on other countries to reduce their emissions.

The agenda calls for $1.7 trillion in federal spending over the next decade on these policies. Biden has also pledged to refuse fossil fuel funding, backed the Green New Deal, and supported holding a climate change debate. And in the first primary debate in June, Biden highlighted his commitment to electrifying the US vehicle fleet. “I would immediately insist that we in fact build 500,000 recharging stations throughout the United States of America, working with governors, mayors and others, so that we can go to a full electric vehicle future by the year 2020 — by the year 2030,” he said.

Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO): The Colorado senator has laid out not just an agenda but an “enforceable timeline” for climate action. Building on the net-zero by 2050 goal, Bennet wants to have a global climate summit in his first 100 days to set even more ambitious goals. (He does not explain what the summit will accomplish that dozens of similar summits haven’t.)

He also calls for the creation of a climate bank to drive private sector financing of clean energy and climate resilience projects, to the tune of $10 trillion in the US and around the world. For utility customers, Bennet wants to establish the option of buying clean electricity.

However, Bennet’s record on climate change might be tougher for environmental activists to support. He has backed natural gas as a “bridge fuel” and supported new pipelines. On the campaign trail, he has been circumspect about the Green New Deal, declining to support or criticize it outright. However, he has pledged not to take fossil fuel money or funding from corporate PACs.


Correction: An earlier version of the story misstated when Joe Biden first introduced his climate bill and when his campaign began publicly discussing a climate agenda.