The Ins & Outs of the Democratic Climate Policies

September 4, 2019
 Climate Democracy

It almost seems like every day brings a new ‘climate plan’ from one of the Democratic presidential contenders, and telling them apart can start to feel tricky.

While each of the candidates agrees that tackling climate catastrophe is vital, they differ on what that agenda should look like — who should fund it, what sectors it should target, and how it should correct environmental inequities. There is no one perfect plan, but there are policies we can identify that make a plan bolder, more efficient, and less susceptible to corporate manipulation.

What does a market-based climate policy look like? What about a non-market-based one? 

A market-based climate policy is simply one that relies on market forces to slow fossil fuel production or usher in a ‘carbon neutral’ energy system. Key examples include carbon taxes, cap and trade, and carbon offsets. The big idea with carbon taxes is that, if we make fossil fuels expensive enough, we’ll simply price them out of use; high costs will force ratepayers to pick clean energy over dirty energy.

While this might sound appealing on its face — especially given a status quo where the government grants huge tax breaks and subsidies to fossil fuel corporations — the evidence tells us that cap and trade, carbon taxes, and carbon offsets aren’t effective at reducing the emissions that are causing global warming. A small tax would likely only lead fossil fuel companies to pass along the cost to working people. That could be one reason many corporations have begun to embrace carbon taxes: they are a fairly painless way to look like you care about climate. 

So far, carbon taxes feature prominently in the plans of Andrew Yang, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Senator Cory Booker. Buttigieg and Booker both embrace dividend programs that purport to return some of the tax revenue back to Americans. But a more effective strategy is an all-out ban on fossil fuel production and exports. All-out bans are absolute and won’t fall victim to corporate antics (at least not without serious legal repercussions). Several candidates call for moratoria on leasing federal lands for fossil fuel development, including Booker, Buttigieg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (who promises a complete ban on new leases as her first executive order). Senator Bernie Sanders and former Representative Beto O’Rourke both promise a total end to subsidies for the oil and gas industry

We need a total clean energy transition. But by when? 

ASAP, folks. But because even the most politically brilliant candidate won’t be able to install solar panels on every single building in America on Inauguration Day, the frontrunners are proposing some different benchmarks. 

In line with the demands of the Green New Deal and Paris Climate Agreement, several candidates call for national net zero emissions (note: not the same thing as decarbonization) by the year 2050: Julian Castro, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. Andrew Yang is a year more ambitious, setting the net zero deadline for 2049, and Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Kamala Harris all set it for 2045. 

So… how much will this cost? 

Regardless of which candidate’s plan you’re looking at, it’s going to be in the trillions. Bernie Sanders’ plan takes the lead with a $16.3 trillion investment over 15 years, and Julian Castro and Kamala Harris are right behind with a pledge to spend $10 trillion. Joe Biden is at the low end with his plan to spend $1.7 trillion over 10 years. All other candidates have plans with a price tag somewhere between $3 and 5 trillion. 

If that sounds expensive, just remember that not addressing climate change would be the costliest option of all

Where does nuclear power fit into a clean energy plan? 

The short answer is — it doesn’t. Although nuclear energy doesn’t emit carbon, it still produces dangerous radioactive waste, which has historically been placed in the midst of underrepresented, low-income communities. Nuclear power also lacks the potential for local, community-owned energy production that makes wind and solar so promising (amongst other things). 

Andrew Yang’s plan calls for massive subsidies towards nontraditional forms of nuclear power. Cory Booker also plans to build more nuclear plants. Senator Sanders explicitly advocates for a nuclear phase-out. Other plans leave the door open to nuclear energy by describing their goal as “zero emission” electricity, instead of 100 percent renewable electricity. 

Some other stuff…

These climate plans also touch on other issues. A few interesting climate policy pillars you’ll see: 

Cory Booker recently announced that his climate plan will remove all lead water pipes in the country by the year 2028. This is in response to the recently-uncovered lead poisoning crisis in his home city of Newark, New Jersey. Sanders also addresses aging water infrastructure, calling for the passage of the WATER Act

Elizabeth Warren’s plan takes aim at the U.S. military, one of the biggest greenhouse gas emitters globally. 

Andrew Yang’s plan has a section titled “Moving to Higher Ground,” which allocates hundreds of billions of dollars to getting people physically out of the way of sea level rise and major storms.

It’s worth remembering that the campaign season has just started, so expect more details to emerge in the months ahead. Most importantly, grassroots climate activists have fundamentally changed the nature of this debate, forcing the candidates to spell out where they stand on the fight to fundamentally save a livable future.