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Each of the Democratic hopefuls has made environmental justice a priority. Here’s who stands out in the search for a greener future.
On June 1, 2017, President Trump announced his intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, signaling to the international community that the United States was backing down from the fight against climate change. Just over two years later, at the 2019 G20 Summit in Japan, Trump indicated his disdain for the essential mission of that fight: “We have the cleanest water we have ever had, we have the cleanest air we have ever had,” he claimed of the United States, adding that wind power “does not work” because it has to be subsidized.
Particularly coming from a president who has described climate change as a hoax, such a statement represented a disheartening and dangerous attitude toward environmental issues for concerned citizens across the country. As 2020 and the possibility of a new POTUS approaches, such voters will be parsing policy proposals to determine—among many other salient issues—who stands the best chance of mitigating climate change. Below are stances on climate change from a few Democratic candidates who stand out in the crowded political landscape.
Jay Inslee (Governor of Washington)
Inslee’s name is practically synonymous with the battle for a greener future: He has made climate change a key plank of his campaign platform, and has released four extensive climate plan proposals, each outranking his competitors in length and depth. Part one addresses clean energy in electricity, cars, and buildings; part two is a 10-year, $9 trillion investment plan; part three discusses foreign policy; and part four recommends stemming the flow of fossil fuels from the United States. Together, the four segments speak to a whopping 41 out of 48 components in the rubric put forth by leftist think tank Data for Progress, which in 2018 created one of the first blueprints for the Green New Deal—the clean energy–based economic stimulus package championed by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey. As of now, Inslee’s plan lacks proposals to curb waste, increase antitrust enforcement, establish a universal basic income, or found a public bank, but the governor has promised more to come.
Inslee on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “Victory is the only option against climate change, because without victory there is not survival.”
Polling numbers: 0.4 percent.
Bernie Sanders (US Senator, Vermont)
Given that Sanders hails from the Green Mountain State, it’s no surprise that going green is high on his political agenda. In the Senate, he has introduced carbon-pricing legislation and pushed for the Democratic Party to embrace a carbon tax, but his stance on climate change can be traced back to well before he was elected senator in 2006: Videos are available from 30 years ago of him discussing the issue. During his 2020 bid, Sanders has been enthusiastic about the Green New Deal (also an unsurprising development, given that Ocasio-Cortez worked for Sanders during his 2016 campaign). In April, he released his climate platform under the heading “Combat Climate Change and Pass a Green New Deal,” citing upgraded public transit, a ban on fracking, and an end to fossil fuel exports as key tenets. Yet despite his long-running push for improved environmental policy, Sanders’ proposals fall short of some more specific and nuanced iterations put forth by competitors like Inslee.
Sanders on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “Not alone, and not, certainly, just by doing what has to be done in the United States.”
Polling numbers: 14 percent.
Elizabeth Warren (US Senator, Massachusetts)
Rather than releasing policies focused narrowly on climate change, Warren has taken a different tack, addressing the issue through the lens of public lands, the military, and domestic industrial development through three distinct proposals. And running through each of these manifestos is the thread of Warren’s policy centerpiece: getting money out of politics and out of the hands of massive oil conglomerates. Her latest proposal, which is also her longest, fleshes out some of the tenets outlined in the Green New Deal, suggesting a Green Industrial Mobilization that earmarks $1.5 trillion for low-carbon tech; a Green Marshall Plan that encourages foreign countries to buy American clean energy tech; and a Green Apollo Program that invests $400 billion in energy research and development over a decade. Taxing wealth and corporate profits would provide funding for the ambitious plans, which have led Greenpeace to place her as tied with Sanders in its climate scorecard.
Warren on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “I believe that the opportunities for the next president are enormous. We can show worldwide leadership.”
Polling numbers: 13.8 percent.
Kamala Harris (US Senator, California)
Harris has supported and co-sponsored the Green New Deal, but her 2020 bid has otherwise made limited mention of climate justice. Past actions, however, show at least some commitment to the issue: As San Francisco’s district attorney, she established an environmental justice unit, and as attorney general, she launched an investigation into Exxon Mobil to see whether the company lied to shareholders and the public about the risks posed by climate change. During her time in Congress, she joined with five other senators to file a brief on behalf of San Francisco and Oakland in their climate damages lawsuit against fossil fuel companies, pointing to massive spending by the industry to quash climate concerns and influence lawmakers.
Harris on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “There’s no question that the next president has within her capacity to significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”
Polling numbers: 15.2 percent.
Joe Biden (Former Vice President)
As part of his lengthy legislative career, Biden has the distinction of being among the first to introduce a climate change bill in the Senate: the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986, which called for an EPA national policy on the issue. In concert with President Obama, Biden built a notable record on climate change, particularly with the signing of the Paris climate agreement in 2016 and the initiation of auto fuel economy standards that slashed emissions levels. Nevertheless, Biden has faced scrutiny for missing crucial climate votes earlier in his career—including the 2008 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, regarded as the strongest climate change bill to reach the Senate floor. Despite his support of the Green New Deal, Biden initially put forth a “middle ground” approach to environmental policy in the early days of his 2020 run. Facing subsequent criticism from activists and lawmakers, including Ocasio-Cortez, he replaced that suggestion with a proposal that aligned more closely with those of his competitors, and which allocates $1.7 trillion in federal spending to climate policy over the next decade.
Biden declined to be interviewed on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change.
Polling numbers: 26 percent.
Cory Booker (US Senator, New Jersey)
Climate change is far from the hottest-button issue for Booker, who tends to focus instead on topics like gun control, racial justice, and health care. Still, he was one of the first legislators to support the Green New Deal, has voiced support for a price on carbon, and has pointed to nuclear energy (which supplies more than one-third of New Jersey’s power) as an alternative to fracking. And while such moves may be largely tactical, Booker has pledged not to take fossil fuel money in his presidential bid as well as publicizing the fact that he is a vegan.
Booker on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “It’s not going to be one person in one office—it has to be a movement, a renewed commitment in our country and across this planet.”
Polling numbers: 2.2 percent.
Pete Buttigieg (Mayor of South Bend, Indiana)
As the youngest candidate in the race at just 37, Buttigieg has a personal stake in the matter of climate change, given that his generation is one of the first to substantively feel its detrimental effects. “It just gives you a very different relationship to political decision makers and decision making,” he told The Atlantic on dealing with environmental justice as a millennial. Like most of his competitors, Buttigieg has endorsed the Green New Deal, and the climate platform he released in May describes full implementation and a 100% carbon-free society. That could include a major role for the rural communities in his native Midwest: At a town hall in June, he described how improved soil management could help mitigate the climate crisis.
Buttigieg on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “This is a generational project. It’s going to have to be a national project.”
Polling numbers: 5.2 percent.
Beto O’Rourke (Former US Representative, Texas)
On May 1, O’Rourke became the first 2020 candidate to release a comprehensive climate plan, which defines a binding target of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions across the U.S. economy by 2050. Unlike Inslee’s target of 2045, however, this goal raised the ire of some environmental groups, who asserted that O’Rourke should have aimed for as soon as 2030. And although O’Rourke signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge two days after issuing his platform, he accepted more than $550,000 from oil industry sources during his Senate bid against Ted Cruz—the second-highest number among the candidates after Cruz.
O’Rourke on whether it’s possible for the next president to stop climate change: “It’s going to take this entire country, and it’s going to take this country leading the entire world.”
Polling numbers: 2.4 percent.
At a point in the race where the strength of actual policy proposals is often eclipsed by intangible factors like electability and charisma, voters still have a while to wait before realistic options for environmental justice begin to coalesce. Until then, temperatures will keep ticking up, waters will continue rising, and communities in the United States and across the globe will keep hoping for a leader with the power to reverse the inevitable.
TALYA PHELPS hails from the wilds of upstate New York, but dreams of exploring the globe. As former editor-in-chief at the student newspaper of her alma mater, Vassar College, and the daughter of a journalist, she hopes to follow her passion for writing and editing for many years to come. Contact her if you're looking for a spirited debate on the merits of the em dash vs. the hyphen.