How to Assess Climate Change Plans

According to a recent CNN poll, climate change is now the most important issue for Democratic primary voters, with 96 percent saying it is somewhat or very important. When the New York Times surveyed Democratic presidential candidates in mid-April about their views on climate change, they found areas of both agreement and disagreement.

The candidates unanimously supported recommitting to the Paris Agreement, restoring President Barack Obama’s environmental regulations and increasing funding for clean-energy research.

But their responses diverged on five other potential policies: increasing the United States’ emissions reduction targets under the Paris Agreement; setting a national renewable energy standard; putting a price on carbon; enacting new regulations beyond Mr. Obama’s; and expanding the use of nuclear energy.

Earlier this year, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) teamed up to release a Green New Deal. It is important to keep in mind that the GND is not a plan. Instead, it is an aspirational document that sets goals. Both Beto O’Rourke and Jay Inslee have produced actual plans for how to reach those goals and, as the primary race continues, we can rest assured that others will join them.

It can be difficult for ordinary Americans to evaluate plans that are so steeped in science and technology. But there are a few important things to keep in mind. The first is that most of the discussion about what needs to be done is based on a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)—the United Nations body for assessing the science related to climate change. In addition to documenting the catastrophic effects that are currently underway, the report set a target of getting to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Contrary to what has often been reported, the Green New Deal is written around reaching that specific goal. The confusion surfaced when proponents of the GND criticized the plan put forward by O’Rourke for not being sufficiently aggressive, even though it also embraces the goal set by the IPCC.

Another thing to keep in mind is something Emily Atkin identified when comparing the Green New Deal to O’Rourke’s plan.

The two plans have a lot in common, but there’s a fundamental difference. Proponents of the Green New Deal approach climate change as an issue caused inherently by unchecked capitalism and the fossil fuel industry, and thus seek to vanquish—or at least, aggressively subdue—those enemies. O’Rourke does not expressly demonize either. In his plan, climate change itself is the enemy.

As I suggested, the GND is not actually a plan, but an aspirational document. However, she makes a great point about the need to identify the so-called “enemy.” Is it capitalism or climate change? As we often see with the far left, capitalism becomes the enemy regardless of whether the issue being addressed is climate change, income inequality, health care, or racism. That is why the GND is criticized for going beyond climate change to re-making the basics of our economy. But both the overall message, as well as the breadth of opportunities that can be deployed, will be determined by how the various climate change plans address that question and where they place their focus.

By way of specifics, O’Rourke’s plan includes the following:

  • Reach economy-wide carbon neutrality by 2050,
  • reduce pollution via a series of executive actions designed to reverse the problematic decisions made by the current administration and go beyond the climate actions under previous presidents,
  • mobilize $5 trillion for climate change with investment in infrastructure, innovation, and communities that are most disrupted by an economy in transition,
  • end the tens of billions of dollars of tax breaks currently given to fossil fuel companies,
  • halt new fossil fuel development on public lands,
  • and require any federal permitting decision to fully account for climate costs and community impacts.

Governor Jay Inslee (D-WA) has released the first installment of his climate change plan. As you are probably aware, he is building his entire candidacy around this issue and has a record of implementing these kinds of initiatives as the chief executive of the state of Washington.

Inslee’s plan ups the game a bit by aiming for economy-wide, net-zero carbon emissions “as fast as possible, and by no later than 2045.” Given that electricity, transportation, and buildings are responsible for 70 percent of US carbon emissions, the governor lays out plans for the following by 2030:

  • 100 percent carbon-neutral electricity,
  • 100 percent zero-emissions in new light- and medium-duty vehicles and all buses,
  • 100 percent zero-carbon pollution in all new commercial and residential buildings.

Inslee makes it clear that this is just the beginning of the plan he will put forward to address climate change.

During the coming weeks, Governor Inslee will introduce additional major policies as part of a national Climate Mission – including: increasing strategies to slash climate pollution from the transportation sector and from existing buildings; making major investments in clean energy jobs, infrastructure and innovation; supporting clean and competitive manufacturing and sustainable and thriving agriculture; advancing environmental justice and economic inclusion; and bringing an end to fossil fuel giveaways.

Both of these plans meet the IPCC goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and do so through a series of regulations, combined with funding for infrastructure and innovation. In other words, they focus on making climate change the enemy.

We now await plans from the rest of the field.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.