As the Democratic presidential primary field grows more crowded by the day, something feels a bit different this time: In the face of increasingly dire scientific warnings and a president committed to denying the existence and severity of climate change, Democratic presidential contenders are calling for urgent action to address the crisis in their first appeals to voters.
“Climate change is an existential threat to us, and we have got to deal with the reality of it,” Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) said Monday in a televised town hall.
“We need a moonshot,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) wrote in an email to supporters this week. “We’re running out of time to save our planet from catastrophic climate change.”
Both Harris and Warren then proceeded to voice their support for a Green New Deal. Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), along with former San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro, have all expressed support for a Green New Deal. The concept of a bold plan to address climate change and economic inequality was quickly elevated when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) burst onto the national political scene and, in the span of a few months, it has become something of a litmus test for early presidential contenders. But is it the right litmus test?
For starters, it’s not clear whether the candidates are even talking about the same thing when they say they support a Green New Deal. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal mandates a rapid decarbonization of the entire U.S. economy, including 100 percent renewable energy for the electricity sector, in just a decade — a very tall order. Additionally, it calls for “a job guarantee program to assure a living wage job to every person who wants one” and “additional measures such as basic income programs, universal health care programs.”
The clean energy revolution has accelerated dramatically in the 10 years since the last crowded Democratic presidential primary: building new renewable energy is now cheaper than operating existing coal plants in many parts of the United States and wind and solar jobs are two of the country’s fastest-growing occupations. This makes it far easier for candidates to embrace the large scale clean energy investment that would be required to achieve the goals in the Green New Deal.
Beyond general support of this ambitious plan, however, the conversation about actual climate policy has been sparse (if Green New Deal legislation is introduced soon, as reported this week, then that may quickly change).
While the Green New Deal might be the talk of the town, it’s far from the only proposal climate-focused candidates could embrace. What about a national renewable portfolio standard (RPS) or national carbon-free electricity target? One hundred percent renewable energy would require large scale energy storage deployment, as proposed in a 2017 tax credit bill. On the carbon-pricing front, a carbon fee and dividend bill was introduced in Congress late last year with bipartisan support. Sens. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) introduced legislation to accelerate the country’s shift to zero-emissions vehicles. Maintaining Obama-era fuel efficiency standards would make remaining internal combustion engines increasingly cleaner. The list goes on.
Gillibrand has advocated for ambitious climate legislation, including a goal of getting the country to net-zero carbon emissions, and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI) introduced a bill requiring 100 percent of electricity to be generated from clean sources by 2035, but overall, the presidential field is light on climate experience. The entrance of Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA), who would run a climate-focused campaign, or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), or former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg could force the rest of the field to hone their platforms. While any ambitious climate legislation faces a steep uphill battle in Congress, specifically the Republican-controlled Senate, the issue deserves serious consideration from anyone seeking the White House, and their platforms should be ambitious and concrete.
The science is far too dire for lip service. The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warned last October that sharp reductions in global carbon dioxide emissions must be made by 2030 to have any chance of averting catastrophic climate change. A month later, a comprehensive report from hundreds of scientists across several U.S. government agencies warned that failing to address climate change will cost Americans $500 billion a year in increased health impacts, property damage, loss of productivity, and other damages.
These alarm bells aren’t lost on the younger generation. Youth climate activists — like those in the Sunrise Movement, who have been demanding attention from lawmakers on the Green New Deal — seem fully aware of the fact that this will be their problem to inherit. Seventy-seven percent of young voters representing both parties think we should try to stop or slow climate change, according to a poll conducted last year.
Voters more broadly may be increasingly aware of the climate crisis, as well, despite the Trump administration’s persistent denial. Some 73 percent of Americans said global warming was happening in polling conducted late last year by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication and George Mason University, and 72 percent described it as something personally important to them. Both numbers are record highs.
“I’ve never seen jumps in some of the key indicators like this,” Dr. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale program, told the New York Times. Leiserowitz attributed the spike to devastating natural disasters, the two major climate reports released last year, and the reverse Trump effect — more attention on the issue of climate change every time he tweets nonsense.
The conditions are primed then for Democratic presidential hopefuls to show voters they are ready to finally give the climate crisis the high-level attention it demands. The true test, however, will be in the specific policies candidates embrace to rapidly decrease emissions, scale up clean energy, and help U.S. communities become more resilient to the impacts of climate change we cannot avoid. There’s no more time to wait.