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Analysis

Criticism of O’Rourke’s climate plan misstates the science

The Green New Deal's goals also keep being misrepresented.

Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) speaks at a campaign town hall in in San Francisco, CA on April 28, 2019. CREDIT: Stephen Lam/Getty Images.
Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Rep. Beto O'Rourke (D-TX) speaks at a campaign town hall in in San Francisco, CA on April 28, 2019. CREDIT: Stephen Lam/Getty Images.

Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D) has put forward the most ambitious climate plan ever offered by any candidate running for president.

O’Rourke calls for a 10-year, $5 trillion mobilization to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, with the goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050.

But the media’s inaccurate and incomplete reporting has led to a lot of confusion about the merits of the plan. O’Rourke was quickly criticized by some activists who claimed his plan didn’t go fast enough, and the media seized on that. So the resulting coverage missed the mark and misled readers about what the science says and what constitutes an ambitious target — a truly unhelpful debate.

A great many stories have misreported what is in the Green New Deal resolution, introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA) earlier this year, and how it compares to O’Rourke’s plan. Even more stories misreported or simply failed to report what the latest science from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually says regarding the timeline for steep emissions reductions.

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One of the most common errors is the claim that “the Green New Deal calls for net-zero emissions by 2030, 20 years sooner than O’Rourke’s climate vision,” as Bloomberg claimed. Similarly, The New York Times asserted that the “nonbinding congressional resolution calls for a 10-year plan to achieve carbon neutrality as early as 2030.”

But the resolution doesn’t state that, as Markey explained to Vox’s David Roberts earlier this month. Roberts noted that “almost every story” asserts “the Green New Deal sets a target of completely decarbonizing the U.S. economy within 10 years.” He then asked Markey, “Does the Green New Deal say that?”

Markey replied, “The answer to your question, succinctly, is no.” He explained that the resolution repeatedly uses the phrase “to the extent technologically feasible” to describe emissions reductions key sectors of the economy need to achieve by 2030.

Roberts then asked if the resolution’s net-zero goal is “in line with what the IPCC says, which is by midcentury or sooner.” Markey replied, “That is correct. That is what we are responding to: what the IPCC said is necessary. We put the IPCC finding in the resolution.”

MSNBC’s Chris Hayes asked Ocasio-Cortez in March about the Green New Deal’s goals this way: “Zero emissions by 2050, cut in half by 2030, right? Those are the goals, basically, around that?”

Ocasio-Cortez did not challenge Hayes’ interpretation of the goals, which are the same as O’Rourke’s.

Confusingly, when speaking to The Hill this week, Ocasio-Cortez said of O’Rourke’s net-zero by 2050 goal: “Personally, I think we need to have more aggressive timelines than that to be honest.”

Another problematic area for the media is whether O’Rourke’s plan is consistent with the latest science regarding what action is needed to preserve a livable climate.

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Many stories contain quotes from the Sunrise Movement — a youth-led activist group that played a significant role in elevating Ocasio-Cortez and the idea of a Green New Deal — asserting that it is not. However, those same stories don’t contain a discussion of the latest science, nor do they quote an actual climate scientist.

“Beto claims to support the Green New Deal,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, told the New York Times. “But his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action that scientists say is necessary to take here in the United States to give our generation a livable future.”

As we have seen, though, net-zero emissions by 2050 is consistent with the IPCC science and, as Markey has said, the Green New Deal.

The New York Times story did not quote any of the recent science, but, CNN, one of the few media outlets that did, notes that the basis for the strong Democratic climate plans like O’Rourke’s is the “stark” 2018 IPCC report. As CNN explained, that report says we must take “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” to avoid catastrophic climate impacts and that means a 45% emissions cut or more by 2030.

Similarly, some scientists have expressed their support for O’Rourke’s plan and don’t agree that it’s at odds with the latest climate science.

“This is an ambitious plan, consistent with the need for rapid and immediate reductions in carbon emissions if we are to avert ever more disastrous climate change,” Michael Mann, a leading climatologist, told ThinkProgress via email.

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ThinkProgress asked the Sunrise Movement how it reconciled its criticisms of O’Rourke’s plan with the specific wording of the Green New Deal resolution and Markey’s comments.

A spokesman noted that during his campaign launch in early April, O’Rourke backed calls for net-zero domestic emissions by 2030. And at a town hall event in Iowa, O’Rourke said, “we should try to get to net-zero by 2030 or as close to 2030 as we possibly can.”

So while the group said, “there was a lot to like in the plan overall” and applauded O’Rourke for making the climate crisis a priority, they criticized him for changing his goal by two decades.

“Globally, the U.N. IPCC says we need to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, which is what the GND resolution cites directly,” the Sunrise spokesperson acknowledged in an email.

But they argued that to achieve net zero by 2050 globally, “the United States must do much more, much faster — to account for our responsibility as one of the largest polluting countries,” and “provide an economic and innovation engine that can accelerate emissions reductions around the world.”

This is a strong ethical and economic argument, but it is not a scientific one.

As for when this country should achieve net-zero emissions, Sunrise’s spokesperson noted, “Exactly when the U.S. should or can achieve this target is hotly debated.”

For Sunrise, the aspirational goal of 2030 remains important. “Is transforming our economy in a decade possible? Maybe not. But the most substantial accomplishments in American history have been when we’ve set a goal that some thought was impossible and put the full weight of our nation behind that goal.”

The media, however, has done a very inadequate job of spelling out exactly what the Green New Deal says, and what the science says. Contrary to much of the reporting, O’Rourke’s plan is consistent with the science and appears to be consistent with the wording of the Green New Deal.

The Green New Deal and its supporters deserve a world of credit for pushing Democratic candidates to make the climate crisis a top priority and to advance climate plans stronger than we have ever seen before. At the same time, it’s time to figure out what exactly the goals are for 2030, 2040, and 2050.

The bottom line is that the climate crisis is dire, and we should not lose sight of the fact that cutting emissions in half by 2030 and then achieving net-zero emissions by 2050 would be an unprecedented achievement for this country. O’Rourke’s goal is also stronger than that put forward by any other major country in the world. The media needs to do a better job of making all of this clear.