A First Step in Assessing Proposals to Address Climate Change

Ahead of CNN’s town hall meeting on climate change Wednesday night, several Democratic candidates made news. Both Kamala Harris and Julian Castro released comprehensive plans to address the issue and Elizabeth Warren adopted the timetables in Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan, calling on other candidates to do the same thing.

For those of us not steeped in the science of climate change, it can be difficult to evaluate the differences in all of these proposals. But perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is the target set by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The report finds that limiting global warming to 1.5°C would require “rapid and far-reaching” transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport, and cities. Global net human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) would need to fall by about 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, reaching ‘net zero’ around 2050. This means that any remaining emissions would need to be balanced by removing CO2 from the air.

With that in mind, we can compare the goal set by each of the 10 candidates who will participate in the town all and the amount of federal dollars they are proposing to reach the goal.

Elizabeth Warren has adopted Governor Jay Inslee’s three goals for net zero emissions from buildings, vehicles and the electric grid.

  • By 2028, 100% zero-carbon pollution for all new commercial and residential buildings;
  • By 2030, 100% zero emissions for all new light-duty passenger vehicles, medium-duty trucks, and all buses;
  • By 2035, 100% renewable and zero-emission energy in electricity generation, with an interim target of 100% carbon-neutral power by 2030.

As you can see, all 10 candidates have set a goal that is in compliance with the ultimate aim recommended by the IPCC. While the amount of money spent is not determinative, it appears that an investment of somewhere between $3-10 trillion is necessary. The question is, based on the candidates’ specific plans and the federal investment projected, will they reach that goal? Answering that question is difficult, if not impossible. Kevin Drum has suggested that the amount of money allocated for research and development is critical, indicating that we still have a lot of work to do in simply coming up with the right answers and alternatives.

As the field of candidates narrows, it will be possible to compare the candidates’ specific plans in more detail. But in the meantime, Alexandra Hutzler talked to several climate experts to hear what they hope the moderators of Wednesday’s town hall ask every candidate. Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice president for the Environmental Defense Action Fund, summed that up very well.

Climate change touches on every issue that is going to be of key importance to the American people and in the debates in the months ahead, including the economy, foreign policy and national security. I think we should be asking candidates how they would position the U.S. to take advantage of an enormous clean energy market and put the U.S. on the path to 100 percent clean economy. How would the candidates restore American leadership on climate and how do they articulate the benefits to us here at home?

Getting the United States on a pathway to net zero carbon emissions is a necessary but insufficient goal. Addressing climate change is a global issue that will require working in partnership with the nations of the world. Under President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry, this country was taking a leadership role in those efforts. All of that has been squandered by Donald Trump and his administration. In order to tackle this existential crisis, we will need to elect someone who is up to the task of turning that around.

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Nancy LeTourneau

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