Climate Change & the Democratic Candidates

The candidates are all in favor of climate action but there are significant variations in their stances.

It’s hard to keep track of the twenty or so Democrats who are in the running for the 2020 presidential nomination.   The differences between them on climate policy are minor compared with the gulf between them and President Trump.  All of them support the Paris Agreement, unlike Trump.  And all of them vow to restore Obama’s climate change regulations.  But it’s worth taking a look at some of the nuances, for whatever clues they may give us about what the eventual nominee might look like.  And the differences are also significant to the extent they reflect the range of views and priorities among Democratic voters.

In surveying the candidates’ views, I was able to build on recent material in the Axios blog and the NY Times, which spared me the tedious task of ferreting out the views of each candidate myself.    Here are some key takeaways about their views:

Support for the Green New Deal is broad but shallow.   According to Axios, among the six candidates who co-sponsored the Green New Deal in Congress, three described it as aspirational or as setting goals rather than firm policies (Gillebrand, Klobuchar, and Harris).  Three others were more fervent (Sanders, Warren, and  Booker).  Among the other candidates, Williamson, O’Rourke, Castro, and Yang have endorsed the Green New Deal, while Delaney and Inslee were only willing to endorse its “spirit.”  As far as I can tell, no one has said that its environmental, jobs, and equality efforts are the cornerstone of their domestic policy, something that the Green New Deal aspires to.

There’s a split on carbon taxation.  According to the Times, about a third of the candidates support a carbon tax (Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Delaney, Gillibrand, Williamson, and Yang). Another five (Inslee, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Ryan, Swalwell) said they are willing to consider a carbon tax.  The fact that about two-thirds of the candidates were willing to at least consider a carbon tax may show that it’s not seen as quite such political poison as the conventional wisdom would have it.

There’s another split on nuclear power.  Most were apparently opposed to new nuclear plants, but six were in favor (Booker, Delaney, Hickenlooper, Inslee, Klobuchar, Ryan, Yang). Three others (Swalwell, Castro, and Williamson) said they might be willing to consider nuclear despite reservations.  Most of the others skipped the question.  Energy experts and environmentalists are also somewhat divided on this issue, so it’s not surprising that there was no clear consensus among the candidates.

Candidates were divided on the need for new regulations. On the “yes” side were Castro, Gabbard, Gillibrand, Hickenlooper, Inslee, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren,  and Williamson.  Messam,  Ryan,  Swalwell, and Yang were willing to consider the possibility of new regulations.

Everyone loves research funding. Literally “everyone,” among this group.  Several singled out battery and storage technology as an area of special need.

What about Biden? Biden wasn’t included in the surveys.  However, he has a long history of working on climate issues.  His involvement stretches back to 1986, when he introduced the first Senate bill aimed at climate change, and he also emphasized  climate issues when he was Vice President under Obama.  Up till now, as Vox  has observed, he has presented himself in the current electoral cycle as a generic Democrat on the issue, without taking a really distinctive stance.

So where does the Democratic Party stand on climate change?  There is clearly consensus that we need to address the issue of climate change and that Obama’s policies provide a good foundation.  There also seems to be agreement that something stronger is needed beyond those policies.  But, to the extent that the candidates represent the spectrum of views among Democrats, there is not yet a clear agreement on what needs to be done, or how quickly, or at what cost.  There is a political price for taking more specific positions, which could drive away some voters, but candidates are also under some pressure to distinguish themselves from the pack.  That tension is likely to shape how their policy positions evolve over the next year.

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Reader Comments

4 Replies to “Climate Change & the Democratic Candidates”

  1. Promises, Promises . . .

    When Obama was campaigning in coal country in 2008, he promised 5 million new jobs for “clean coal.” How did that go?

    Carbon emissions from coal did in fact decline during Obama’s time in office. But not because coal became “clean.” It was because of fracking, which led to a shift from coal to cheaper natural gas, which produces less CO2. (Of course, fracking also leaks methane, turns groundwater into toxic wastewater, causes earthquakes, etc., etc.)

    Modest gains in solar and wind energy consumption were also made (about 5%), but fossil fuels still account for about 80% of energy consumption in the US.

    While policies such as carbon taxation, cap-and-trade, and stricter regulations may help to reduce demand for fossil fuels by making carbon more expensive, regulatory policies achieved very minor gains during the Obama administration. More significant reductions in carbon emissions were achieved by shifting from coal to cheaper natural gas.

    Carbon free energy sources, such as wind and solar, have become cost-competitive or cheaper than coal and natural gas, but are mostly intermittent energy sources. In order to shift from coal and natural gas to wind and solar, it is absolutely necessary to improve battery and storage technologies, as well as infrastructure for efficient transmission of electric power. The democrats all seem to agree on this, but promise, promises . . .

  2. Failures by our social, political and economic leaders are preventing us from controlling global warming.

    The paramount fact of life is that intellectuals fail to produce and communicate solutions to the peoples of the world so they will demand immediate implementation of solutions before destructive levels of atmospheric CO2 destroy our options for survival.

    Meanwhile, the power of money that controls far too many political and economic institutions continues to produce out of control atmospheric CO2 levels.


      “I feel I know just as much about climate change as anyone in the world, but what surprises me, always and forever, is just the speed with which things are happening. The stuff happening now is stuff that — back when I was writing “The End of Nature” — we thought would happen in 2080 or 2100. I was recently in Greenland watching big chunks of it fall off. To see the planet unraveling before your eyes is shocking.”

      QUESTION: Can UC do anything to mitigate this new fact of life?

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

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About Dan

Dan Farber has written and taught on environmental and constitutional law as well as about contracts, jurisprudence and legislation. Currently at Berkeley Law, he has al…

READ more