As the Midwest settles in for another potential polar vortex (the special time of year when an egg can double as a hammer) it may be time to ask: does Elizabeth Warren have a plan for this? Warren, and the rest of our Democratic frontrunners, have spent a total of 40 minutes discussing climate change during more than 12 hours of debate. Considering that many 2020 Democratic candidates have called climate change “an existential” threat to Americans today, that’s remarkably little discussion about what each candidate plans to do about it and how their policies differ. Unfortunately, the DNC has already rejected the idea of an official debate on climate change, despite activists’ demands. To make things worse, Governor Jay Inslee, the only candidate whose campaign centered around climate change, dropped out of the race in August.
The good news is that the lack of conversation isn’t for lack of platforms – all of the candidates have released comprehensive plans to address climate change. At first glance, their policies seem concurrent: net-zero emissions by 2050, recommitment to the Paris Agreement and investments in new clean energy jobs are common themes. Even Amy Klobuchar, arguably the most moderate Democratic candidate, has promised to take action in her first 100 days to restore and expand the Clean Power Act – without Congress.
But getting into the fine print, only about half of the candidates outright support the Green New Deal, and their proposed budgets for reaching net-zero emissions differ wildly. Bernie Sanders’ 16.3 trillion dollar plan for government spending to combat climate change has won the most accolades among environmental activists, but has also drawn criticism for ignoring the potential of nuclear energy and, the old adage of the conservatives, simply being “unnecessarily expensive”. On the other end, Elizabeth Warren has committed $4 trillion, Cory Booker has committed $3 trillion and Joe Biden has committed only $1.7 trillion. Not only do the candidates vary in proposed spending, each has also found their own angle on the issue: Pete Buttigieg has relied on his military experience to address the climate crisis in terms of national security, Booker has emphasized environmental justice for frontline communities like Flint, Michigan and Warren has attacked corporations for exacerbating environmental degradation.
But how can voters tell if the ambitious climate plans of the 2020 candidates will be effective? Anastasia Montgomery, Northwestern Ph.D. student and member of the university’s Climate Change Research Group, says it’s crucial to evaluate environmental policy from a “multi-sector approach”. This means that a policy that might at first seem solely beneficial to the environment, such banning gas vehicles in Chicago, can have unintended consequences. For example, electric vehicles would rely on increased usage of power plants.
“Instead of having bad air quality in the city of Chicago, we would end up transporting it out of Chicago and to the power plants around the city,” Montgomery said. “Then, that ends up affecting the communities there. Economists and climate scientists would call that leakage: you try to put a beneficial policy in place in one area, but then negatively affect a different area.”
Many have criticized policies like the Green New Deal for overstepping, by reaching beyond climate to issues like minimum wage and health care. The dawning political reality, however, is that combating climate change requires balancing and eliminating carbon emissions in every area of our economy.
However, despite the challenge, the Democratic candidates must step up to the plate during the presidential race and beyond when it comes to protecting the environment.
“We need to act like today is 2050,” Montgomery said.