What Are The Presidential Candidates’ Climate Plans?

11:56 minutes

kamala harris, elizabeth warren, and joe biden all giving speeches collaged together
From left to right, Democratic presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Joe Biden. Credit: Shutterstock

a stylized version of the earth with cloudsThis story is part of Degrees Of Change, a series that explores the problem of climate change and how we as a planet are adapting to it. Tell us how you or your community are responding to climate change here.

The first Democratic presidential debate will take place at the end of the month and climate change is becoming a central issue. Former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Elizabeth Warren, and other presidential hopefuls have released their versions of a climate plan. The different proposals range from increases in spending to executive action.

Climate and environment reporter Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones outlines the major differences between these plans, and talks about why major oil companies are backing a carbon tax and investing in coal elimination campaigns.

Segment Guests

Rebecca Leber

Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate for Vox, in Washington, DC. Previously, she was Climate and Environment Reporter for Mother Jones.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, broadcasting today from KUNC in Greeley, Colorado.

The climate is changing. And because we need to deal with it now, we open the third chapter of our series, Degrees of Change. This series explores the challenges of a changing climate and how we as a planet and a people are adapting. And this week we’re talking about how the world’s cities are grappling with heat, how engineers and community groups are working to keep residents cool. That’s going to be coming up in just a short bit.

But first up this week, a check-in on the gatekeepers, the decision makers, the controllers of the purse strings. The first democratic presidential primary debate happens at the end of this month in Miami. Climate change hasn’t been a big issue in debates, but this year is different. Senators Joe Biden and Elizabeth Warren have floated plans, along with many other of the candidates. What are the differences between the proposals?

My next guest is here to help me navigate that story and other climate policy news. Rebecca Leber is a climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones, based out of Washington DC. Welcome to Science Friday.

REBECCA LEBER: Thanks for having me on.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. All right, so the Green New Deal is the big climate proposal that people are talking about. But each candidate has his or her own version. Senators Warren and Biden put out their plans. Take us through what some of the candidates are proposing.

REBECCA LEBER: I think one of the most important points here is that the candidates even have plans and that we have the frontrunner’s coming out with these pretty detailed proposals about what a Green New Deal would mean in their supposed administration. So Biden had a recent plan out this week where he actually took a foreign policy slant to pushing climate change because the US is just a small fraction of global emissions. Warren, meanwhile, has looked at some interesting facets of carbon emissions, including the military and how to clean up military contractors with what would be in effect a carbon tax. Inslee, of course, has centered his campaign around climate. So he has had a series of proposals that look probably in the most detail at how to use executive action and Congress to push forward on climate change.

IRA FLATOW: But in reality, the Green New Deal is more of an idea than a really discrete plan, is it not?

REBECCA LEBER: Certainly. I think that’s why it’s so important to see what candidates are describing what a Green New Deal means for them. There’s different timelines that have been proposed. There is different levels of investment. And there’s of course the toughest question, which is, how do we got to net zero emissions?

The candidates have come out with various ideas, including whether it’s a carbon tax, whether it’s investment and job transition for clean energy future. And those are the differences that we can see some nuance when we start to get into debates on how a transition from natural gas would look like, what role nuclear plays in. And there’s a lot of nuance between the bold promise of the Green New Deal.

IRA FLATOW: It’s interesting also because two years ago it wasn’t even on anybody’s radar screen. The presidential debates didn’t have one question, perhaps, about climate change in it.

REBECCA LEBER: Right. The last cycle, the general election didn’t feature a single question on climate. It only came out because Hillary Clinton brought it up in the debates.

And certainly the political climate has changed a lot since then. And I think everyone’s expecting some questions. But I think the quality of the debate and how much of it we have is what matters.

IRA FLATOW: And there has been actually some rumblings within the Democratic National Committee itself and the candidates because some of the candidates want a dedicated climate debate. But the DNC committee chair opposes that, right?

REBECCA LEBER: Right. There’s been a bit of a back and forth the last few weeks. And it’s a huge sea change just that we are having a debate about having a climate debate. That’s just shows what a major shift we’ve seen in the politics.

But Jay Inslee has been calling for a climate debate along with a number of environmental groups. And the DNC has come out again and again saying they are not doing any single-issue debates. And there are a dozen debates this cycle. And they will have plenty of chances to talk about climate in the debates.

But the argument that Inslee has been making– and he has a point– is 60-second soundbites will not capture the complexity of this issue. And that’s why there is this campaign around getting a debate and shows that this isn’t over. DNC members have been proposing a resolution that they would have to take a vote, potentially forcing the DNC’s hand to support a climate debate.

IRA FLATOW: So what’s to stop some of the candidates from organizing their own non-sanctioned debate?

REBECCA LEBER: Well, there is a catch that if the candidates participate in a non-sanctioned debate, then they would be precluded from joining any future DNC debates. So Inslee so far is the only candidate to go as far to say that he might do that. Of course he’s polling very lowly, and that is a factor.

But other candidates have also come out saying that they support a climate debate in theory. And I think the question is, where this goes from here. I don’t think this issue is dead.

IRA FLATOW: No, and I’m sure, as you might agree, it’s got to come up in the Miami debate coming up. A large part of it must have a question or two about climate change there.

REBECCA LEBER: Right. I certainly expect a question about climate change in a city that’s being swallowed by sea level rise. But there are so many questions that could be asked. And often in these debates it gets drilled into a single sound bite.

In the past, we’ve had questions like, do you think climate change is a problem? And that’s an easy answer for candidates. And certainly when we’re trying to learn more details about frontrunners, including Biden, Sanders, and some of the other candidates, we want to hear details. We’re well past the point of saying the science is real.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s move on to another aspect of this. President Trump has been talking about coal coming back. And now, just going in the opposite direction, Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, has donated half a billion dollars, $500 million, to a campaign to stop coal. What are the details of that? What is he investing in?

REBECCA LEBER: This is the continuation of a campaign that’s been going on for years to transition from coal to renewables. And it’s been a wild success. Coal has basically been going out of commission at the same rate, and even outpacing where the Clean Power Plan would have put us. And just in the last decade about half of coal plants generating power have closed, and that trend is just picking up pace.

And this Bloomberg investment just shows the power of that strategy and investing in the local fight. And arguing on economics, arguing renewables and gas have both come down so far in price that they are cost-competitive with coal. And just recently there was this report that showed capacity for renewables has now overtaken coal, which is a huge game changer and that shows coal is not coming back.

IRA FLATOW: That’s amazing. And that is an interesting statistic. Your last story is about big oil companies starting to support a carbon tax. And this was announced at the Vatican. Why did they make this joint statement at the Vatican?

REBECCA LEBER: Well, Pope Francis, of course, has been pushing climate advocacy for years now, and he has publicly now endorsed a carbon price. The big oil companies have also endorsed a carbon price. And this is a change in position they have taken just in the last few years as they face a growing number of lawsuits, especially in the US, trying to hold them accountable for climate change and where they would be on the hook for millions and billions of dollars. So to save public face, oil companies have embraced this campaign of a carbon tax on a federal level and now, with Pope Francis’s approval, on an international level.

But when you look at the local initiatives that have actually put forward a carbon price, those are the initiatives that the oil companies still come out against. And we saw that last fall with the Washington State carbon initiative. And I think it’s important to remember the subtleties to this position that it’s easier to embrace a carbon tax that doesn’t yet exist on a federal level than for oil companies to embrace what’s happening at the local level.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, because it’s harder to fight back on the local level than it would be in a national level.


IRA FLATOW: Yeah, but this proposal is on the federal level. What’s in it for the oil companies? You say it’s to protect them against lawsuits. But is it also saving face for them a little bit to recognize the inevitability that, as you just said, green energy is now outproducing coal? I mean, that’s the trend.

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, a lot of this isn’t new for the industry. And often there are a lot of similarities between what the oil companies do and what tobacco has done in the past. And a lot of this is a PR campaign. It’s not just about what they’re embracing in terms of the idea of a carbon price. But also it boosts basically the idea that big oil knew about climate for decades without doing anything, that they are doing something and they’re taking some steps.

But by embracing a carbon tax, they want a carbon tax on their own terms. And one of those terms is to exempt oil companies from liability. So basically these lawsuits that we’re seeing across the nation in various cities, one stipulation is that they exempt themselves from being responsible in those lawsuits.

IRA FLATOW: Thank you very much. Very interesting stuff. We’ll be following you a little along with you. Thank you, Rebecca. Rebecca Leber is a climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones, based out of Washington DC.

We’re going to take a break. And when we come back, tackling the most direct consequences for our cities, and that’s heat. Why cooling the urban heat island is on so many minds.

We’ll talk about how cities around the country are tackling that, right after the break. Stay with us. We’ll be right back.

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