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Here’s how each Democratic candidate for president would tackle the climate

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RL Miller chairs the California Democratic Environmental Caucus and is the founder of Climate Hawks Vote. 

Last October, The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report which found, among other things, that carbon pollution must be cut by 45 percent by 2030 and must hit net zero by 2050 if we are to have any hope of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. (At 1.5 degrees of warming, losses to cropland, plant and animal species, Arctic permafrost, and human health and civilization will be bad, but not catastrophic.)

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The IPCC’s findings have been popularized as “we have 12 years to turn this around.” But a better way to think of 2030 is this: If the United States elects a Democratic president in 2020 and reelects her in 2024, almost all of the decarbonization work that we must do to avert a global catastrophe will occur on her watch. Is she up to the task?

It’s vital to know who has the best climate policy. So let’s tour the 2020 candidates’ proposals and see how they stack up. To keep things manageable, we’ll look at the records of the eight candidates who have qualified for the September debate (those with 130,000 unique donors and who have hit 2 percent in three separate qualifying polls), plus two climate hawk candidates who may yet qualify.

The task at hand is huge. Any candidate who thinks there’s a big place for the extraction and burning of fossil fuels past 2030 does not respect the science. So the first metric for measuring climate plans is: what does the candidate propose to do by 2030, not by 2050?

Second, the Senate filibuster is where good bills go to die. Democrats face a steep hill winning control of the upper chamber next year, and even if they do end up with a slim majority, 41 senators can block any progress under the existing rules. So it’s not enough to propose a climate policy–a candidate must also have a plan to either get it through the Senate or work around it.

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Jay Inslee’s climate plans are generally considered the gold standard. He’s released five separate plans so far under his Climate Mission heading–one covering 100 percent electric vehicles and buildings, another on environmental justice, and one known colloquially as “fuck fossil fuels.”  Still to be written: a climate plan for agriculture. Thirteen percent of the world’s emissions are from agriculture, the second largest sector of the economy (after the energy sector), and most of that is from beef.

Equally important, Inslee–unlike some of the senators running for President–recognizes that the filibuster is a major obstacle to progress, and he wants to end it.

And, unlike many of the other candidates’ climate plans, Inslee’s approach fully accords with the science calling for a complete net-zero economy by 2050, with a major turnaround in place by 2030.

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It’s not clear yet whether Inslee will qualify for the September debate. His fundraising has surged since his strong July 31 debate performance, but he hasn’t yet gotten 2 percent in the polls.

Elizabeth Warren has part of a plan for climate. She’s released several blueprints — one on the role of the military, another on green manufacturing, the third is a trade policy that weaves in action on climate. And she electrified climate observers by mainstreaming a policy demand long considered “out there”–an end to fossil fuel leasing on public lands.

They don’t yet add up to a complete climate plan, but climate observers generally praise the details in what she has put out so far.

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As a senator, she’s also authored a bill, S. 2075, calling for publicly traded companies to assess and disclose the risks they face from climate change.

And in April she joined the call to abolish the filibuster.

Joe Biden released a climate plan that is better than expected after he let it be known that his approach would stake out a “middle ground.” (The plan appears to have whole paragraphs lifted from other sources, not that that’s considered plagiarism or anything.) He proposes to end fossil fuel subsidies, develop new fuel economy standards aimed at 100 percent electric passenger cars, reclaim the United States’ “moral leadership role,” and commit that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution.

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However, in the July debate he made it clear that he will not end fossil fuel production in the United States. He’ll accelerate carbon capture and storage technology research — unproven measures that would give the fossil fuel industry the ability to keep drilling. And Twitter rightly destroyed his call for doubling the number of offshore wind farms, noting that this would bring us from one existing wind farm all the way up to two. Biden describes his plan as the most politically realistic one, but political reality is colliding hard with the scientific reality.

Bernie Sanders has not yet released a climate plan. He’s been an outspoken proponent of the Green New Deal and critic of the greed of the fossil fuel industry, and based on that perspective, people expect that he’ll be a solid climate hawk. He’s introduced a bill, S. Con. Res. 22, to declare a climate emergency.

While he and Warren agree on many points, Sanders isn’t crazy about getting rid of the filibuster–he believes that a mass movement can overcome obstruction from conservatives and moderates, and that big bills can be passed through budget reconciliation, which only requires 50 votes. There are, however, limits to what can be done through that process.

Speaking of climate emergencies, Tom Steyer is a relatively late entrant to the 2020 race (he announced after the cutoff for the July debates, and it’s not clear whether he will qualify for the September debate). The hallmark of his climate plan is the declaration of a climate emergency, giving himself as President significant executive authority. (The “climate emergency declaration” of Sanders’ resolution states that it does not create additional emergency powers. Steyer’s’ route seems more akin to Harry Truman’s nationalization of the steel industry, resulting in a Supreme Court decision limiting Presidential executive powers on national security grounds.)

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These days, Steyer is known for his Need To Impeach group, but one of his groups began as NextGen Climate before morphing into a broader focus.

Steyer has achieved 2 percent in a qualifying poll but it’s not clear whether he’ll get enough small dollar donors and additional polls to get into the September debate.

Kamala Harris stands out because, like Sanders, she has not yet released a climate plan. Unlike Sanders, she doesn’t have a long history of speaking out against the fossil fuel industry.

As a Senator, she’s introduced two climate bills of note — one, S. 1750, to promote electric buses, which is a tiny piece of the work needed to decarbonize the economy, and the other (with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) centered broadly on climate justice. The Climate Equity Act (which has not yet been introduced as a bill) would create an equity score, modeled on the economic score provided by the Congressional Budget Office, to estimate the impact of environment/climate legislation on frontline communities, and it’s a long-sought dream by environmental justice advocates.

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She generally says the right things about climate change, and represents California, generally a climate-aware state. However, climate observers are concerned about her measured, deliberative approach to politics and are unsure of whether she’d prioritize climate change among a host of other pressing issues.

And she’s conflicted about the filibuster.=

Pete Buttigieg frames climate as a national security issue — not surprising given his campaign’s focus on his military record. He also hasn’t released a detailed climate plan. He has called for a Climate Corps, similar to Americorps, and floated the idea of a carbon tax with revenues returned as a dividend to the American people. And at the July debate he highlighted the need for rural America, including farmers, to get involved. Nevertheless, there’s a sense among climate observers that a carbon tax and climate corps don’t add up to a plan to fix the climate crisis by 2030, let alone by 2050.

He does support changing the filibuster–and packing or otherwise reforming the Supreme Court.

Amy Klobuchar recently qualified for the September debates. She’s running as a moderate. Although she signed on to the Green New Deal in the Senate, she calls it “aspirational.” She hasn’t spelled out a detailed plan on her website but has given speeches, answered questionnaires, and proposed legislation in which she sees continuing roles for fracked natural gas, nuclear power, and something called “cleaner coal.” She backs carbon capture and storage–a technology still in its infancy that would enable fossil fuel companies to keep drilling and spilling. Her plan, such as it is, is arguably the weakest among the candidates who have qualified for the September debate.

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Klobuchar doesn’t seem keen to change the filibuster either.

Beto O’Rourke put out a climate plan generally perceived as better than expected, especially considering that he’d been in hot water for signing the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge and then taking money from fossil fuel executives anyway. (He has since re-signed the pledge.) The plan has borrowed a lot from the Green New Deal, with significant investments in infrastructure and more funding for housing and transit in frontline communities. Like Buttigieg, he envisions a revitalized Americorps, and like Warren, he wants climate risks disclosed. However, his plan, like Joe Biden’s, uses 2050 rather than 2030 as its goal.

He’s talked about scrapping the filibuster.

Cory Booker has, rightly, labeled “return to Paris agreement” as “kindergarten.” Throughout his political career, going back to his Newark city council days, he has focused on environmental justice rather than climate policy per se. He hasn’t laid out a climate plan yet, but climate observers expect two standouts: agriculture (he’s a vegan) and nuclear power (he’s a vocal proponent).

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As a Senator, he recently introduced S. 2236, the Environmental Justice Act of 2019, which focuses on drinking water, Superfund sites, and similar goals–but not climate.

Booker, like Sanders, would prefer to use budget reconciliation for big bills and isn’t keen on killing the filibuster.

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