Although the Republican Party continues to hold the unique view that climate change is a hoax, or that it’s not a big problem, or that it’s unrelated to human activity, Democratic candidates are incorporating their plans for dealing with the “climate crisis” into their campaign platforms. After the DNC declined the suggestion to host a climate-themed debate, CNN stepped in, hosting a town hall on September 4th during which ten Democratic candidates were given the opportunity to articulate in detail their plans to cut back emissions, expand renewable energy, and execute other initiatives to battle the crisis. Though each candidate tried to differentiate themselves with a unique spin on their climate plan, all ten candidates offered an approach that wildly differed from the Republican Party establishment, which is currently in the process of rolling back regulations designed to limit carbon emissions and protect the environment from further destruction.
Although the town hall format of CNN’s event wasn’t quite the head-to-head debate activists had asked the DNC for, in some ways the event proved to be more useful for voters, as the event lasted a whopping 7 hours and gave voters the opportunity to ask tough questions on a subject that tends to get ignored in the traditional debate format.
On certain subjects, the candidates were in strong agreement. They agreed that climate change was a threat to the existence of not only the United States, but of human civilization, that the US should rejoin the Paris climate accord, that reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 was necessary, and that radical and unprecedented policies would have to be implemented in order to get us there. But they disagreed about which policies, exactly, would be the best for the country.
One of the more popular policy proposals among the candidates was a carbon tax, which is notable because politicians have been arguing for decades that placing a fee on greenhouse gas emissions would drive up the price of fuel and stifle the economy, hurting American consumers. A carbon tax, however, is widely considered one of the most effective potential policies for cutting back on pollution. Candidates differed on the specifics; while Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan does not call for a carbon tax, Biden and Warren incorporate a carbon tax into their proposals, and Yang calls for a tax at $40 per ton of carbon, which would help to fund his Universal Basic Income proposal and initiatives to increase the efficiency of fossil fuels and increase the availability of renewable resources.
Although Governor Jay Inslee did not attend the town hall, as he recently dropped out of the presidential race, his presence was felt throughout the event. The governor ran on a climate-focused platform, arguing that it was by far the most important issue currently facing the country, and had the earliest and most detailed plan for fighting climate change. Elizabeth Warren invoked Inslee’s name specifically, explaining that she had incorporated several elements of his plan into her own. Joe Biden’s staff also planned a meeting with Inslee’s staff to discuss climate policy, and Biden pledged not to accept money from donors from the fossil fuel industry. Biden also emphasized his experience in dealing with international affairs, citing his personal relationships with several other world leaders and noting that climate change is a problem that can only be addressed via cooperation between nations.
Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg also pledged to implement a carbon tax, with Harris also proposing a ban on fracking. Some candidates strictly opposed the use of natural gas, while others viewed it as a necessary stepping stone between the use of oil and of renewable sources of energy. Perhaps the most divisive topic of the night was nuclear energy; some candidates, including Sanders, argue against the use of nuclear power, citing the problems of storing radioactive wastes and the threat of nuclear accidents, while others, including Yang, argue that nuclear energy is an essential component of transitioning to a carbon-free future, and that newer technology allows nuclear power plants to be safer and produce less waste.
In particular, Yang’s plan is notable because it goes further than reducing carbon emissions to discuss how to prepare for the predicted negative effects of climate change. Yang proposes investing in initiatives to move people to higher ground, away from the coasts, as coastal cities are the most likely to be devastated by rising sea levels and a growing intensity of extreme weather events. He also proposes investments in geoengineering, including capturing carbon, planting trees to rebuild forests, injecting sulfur dioxide into the atmosphere to reflect sunlight, and installing mirrors in space to reflect sunlight. The fact that these proposals deal with the bleak possibility of surrendering to the reality of climate change, combined with the impression they given of sounding more like science-fiction than reality, means that other candidates are hesitant to explore this territory of climate policy.
Many of the candidates instead chose to focus on the economic opportunities created by investing in clean energy solutions. The candidates claim that expanding the country’s usage of solar and wind would create millions of jobs. Economists, however, warn that the lofty goals candidates set for job creation are just estimates, and that it’s difficult to predict exactly how exactly the job market would react to such a drastic shift in priorities. One thing is for certain, however: whether or not the United States takes bold action to address the climate crisis, drastic change is coming, whether that be in the form of a major reimagining of our energy systems or the destruction of the environment resulting from global inaction.