VOTING WITH CLIMATE CHANGE IN MIND: A Citizen’s Guide February 19, 2020



A Citizen’s Guide

Tom Bowman

(My old friend Tom Bowman, a Zen person as well as a climate activist posted his research into the views about engaging climate change among the current candidates for the presidency of the United States. He did it as a series of posts to Facebook. I asked if I could reprint it all together here at my blog. He kindly agreed.)

Those of us in the climate chance communications world often urge people to vote the climate issue. A majority of Americans want significant action, but climate is never a high enough priority for politicians to pay a price for ignoring it. The solution: vote the issue.

That’s easy in the general election: elect Democrats. Republicans are trying to de-regulate industry and preserve fossil fuel viability.

But what about the Democratic primary?

I’ve slogged through the top candidates’ plans (so mind-numbing!) and I can characterize what I learned. Happy to offer it up in a series of posts — NOT to be definitive but to support thoughtful discussion. It’ll take a series of posts.


Voting the Climate Issue #1 — Some basics.

Climate action is about eliminating GHG emissions (“mitigation”) and adapting to the changes that are no longer avoidable (“resilience” or “adaptation”).

All Dem candidates want to eliminate net emissions by 2050 through renewable electricity, electric transportation, efficiency upgrades to homes and buildings, regenerative agriculture practices, etc. There are milestones along the way. They go about it in somewhat different ways. All would restore Obama’s Clean Power Plan and CAFE standards and accelerate them. Beyond this, though, some rely more heavily on regulation while others use more market-based approaches.

On Resilience, all invest in resilient infrastructure for vulnerable cities and give preference to communities of color and tribal communities, which are the most vulnerable. Investment amounts vary widely, as do some of the policy mechanisms.

Internationally, all restore the Paris Climate Agreement, provide more $$ for vulnerable nations, integrate climate into trade negotiations, and promote US manufacturing sales to overseas markets.

So, then we come to what differentiates the candidates….


Voting Climate #2 — Bernie Sanders

What makes his approach distinctive? He’s an FDR-style New Deal Democrat who proposes a big, bold, federal program to thoroughly address the many aspects of policy.

Among many other things, Sanders proposes a new publicly owned electric utility (renewable) and investments and incentives in energy efficiency economy wide. He appears to favor regulating fossil fuel use out of existence by 2050 as opposed to making it unfavorably expensive (there is no mention of putting a price on carbon). And, Sanders would invest heavily in resilient infrastructure (which would cost much less than paying for incessant damage according to every economic analysis).

The investment is equally ambitious: $16.3 trillion that is recovered over 15 years through elimination of fossil fuel subsidies, less military action on behalf of oil, higher taxes on corporations and the wealthy, revenue from the public utility, and income taxes from 20 million new infrastructure and manufacturing jobs.

I’m only trying to characterize what makes this plan distinctive (the plan itself is comprehensive). It’s a big, bold, ambitious federal program. If it proves impossible to enact completely, it might shift the debate toward some of these proposals.


Voting Climate #3 — Elizabeth Warren

Warren and Sanders get lumped together in the media, but their climate plans work in different ways. Warren is aggressive about regulating emissions from electricity, non-combat Pentagon bases, all new buildings, all new vehicles—all by 2030, plus financial incentives to accelerate the transition to zero emissions (“Clean Cars for Clunkers,” etc.).

One of the most striking features of Warren’s plan is a requirement for corporations to disclose their GHG emissions, climate vulnerabilities, and associated financial risks to investors. Doing so might cause dramatic changes in market priorities that stimulate de-carbonization of the private sector.

Her signal-and-stimulate markets approach, which many economists favor, costs the federal government less than Sanders’ plan does. She projects $10.6 billion in combined public and private sector investment. There is a big emphasis on promoting U.S. R&D and clean energy manufacturing (and foreign assistance), plus spending on new infrastructure. Federal spending is repaid by eliminating fossil fuel subsidies, increasing taxes on corporations and the wealthy, and income taxes on 10.6 million new jobs.

In a nutshell, whereas Sanders uses a New Deal approach, Warren combines some of that with market stimulation and incentives. Interesting….


Voting Climate #4 — Pete Buttigieg

Mayor Pete says that climate change motivated him to run because his generation will experience more climate harm that older politicians will.

Buttigieg’s plan has some unique features compared to those proposed by Sanders and Warren. First, Buttigieg proposes an economy-wide carbon price. Putting a price on carbon that rises every year is the main alternative to regulating its decline. The idea, which most economists support, is that as carbon prices rise (via carbon tax or cap & trade), innovation will accelerate, consumers will shift to cleaner, lower-cost options, and big emitters will reduce and eliminate their emissions. It would take an act of Congress, of course.

His plan has two other big features: a focus on local resilience and mitigation action (that’s where most of the action is today), and a thriving carbon removal market by 2040. The IPCC now says that we need to remove carbon from the air in order to stay below the 2°C threshold, and the options include planting enormous numbers of trees (a partial step) and scaling up carbon removal technologies (the carbon gets used to make products and/or gets stored deep underground). I didn’t see carbon removal called out in Sanders’ or Warren’s plans, but it would undoubtedly be part of their R&D and green manufacturing implementation.

This looks like a more incremental plan on the surface. He thinks big structural change is unlikely, so he doesn’t propose it. The main actual difference is carbon pricing. Carbon pricing would be transformational if the price is high enough, and it will do relatively little if the carbon price is low. The cost of Pete’s proposal is lower: $1.5 trillion in spending to trigger $2 trillion more in private sector investment.

How aggressive is the Buttigieg commitment and plan? His calm, low-emotions demeanor and “more pragmatic” approach to governing makes it a bit hard to tell.


Voting Climate #5 — Tom Steyer

I met Tom Steyer in 2010, when we did editorial board meetings in defense of California’s climate protection law called AB32. He was a climate activist then and has continued ever since.

Steyer’s approach has two key features. First, he would press Congress to pass a Green New Deal by declaring climate change a national emergency. Doing so gives a president lots of authority to move money around and direct federal agencies in various ways. He says he will take bold action if Congress won’t.

He even proposes creating a cabinet level coordinator for climate action, both mitigation and enhancing resilience through coordination with city and state leaders.

His second organizing principle for climate action is social justice. Like most Dem candidates, he would direct resources (spending and bonds) to disadvantaged communities and to dis-employed fossil fuel workers, and he would create a climate jobs program for disadvantaged workers. He also attacks GHG emissions by reducing toxic pollution, which hits low income communities hardest. Reducing air pollution means addressing GHG sources too.

Investment: $2.3 billion over 10 years including $2 billion for infrastructure that would trigger private sector spending, $250 billion for National Healthy Communities Bonds, and $50 billion for fossil fuel workers and communities.


Voting Climate #6 — Amy Klobuchar

The essence of Amy Klobuchar’s plan relies on executive action restoring and expanding Obama’s vehicle emissions standards and the Clean Power Plan. She’d use regulatory authority to try to close coal-fired power plants (Obama’s effort was stayed by the Supreme Court and cancelled by Trump). She’d also restore science to federal websites and require federal agencies to reduce emissions.

Klobuchar would go to Congress for a law setting 2050 as the target for net-zero emissions, put some sort of price on carbon, and increase the corporate tax rate to 25%. The price on carbon approach — carbon tax vs. cap and trade — isn’t specified.

The investment is $1 trillion, part of which would be funded through clean energy bonds to support new projects, plus eliminating fossil fuel subsidies.

This is a more incremental plan, compared to the others, and it reflects Klobuchar’s assessment that a divided Congress won’t pass bold legislation.


Voting Climate #7 — Joe Biden

Biden’s plan emphasizes two things. One is “rallying the rest of the world to meet the threat….” This aligns with his campaign’s focus on his international experience. Going beyond the Paris Climate Agreement, Biden says he’d work with other world leaders to lock in enforceable international agreements to reduce emissions in shipping and aviation, reach bi-lateral climate agreements with China, work with the G20 to eliminate subsidies for high-carbon projects, etc.

Domestically, Biden focuses on R&D in energy storage, modular nuclear, buildings, hydrogen energy, and other technologies ($400 billion over 10 years). He wants Congress to enact enforcement mechanisms to reach net-zero emissions by 2050 with milestones along the way.

His infrastructure proposals are similar to others, notably with a focus on making rail travel and shipping much faster to reduce reliance on flights.

Investment: $1.7 trillion over 10 years, triggering another $3.3 trillion in private sector, state, and local government spending.

The plan is measured rather than bold, and well-informed by experts in various technologies and mechanisms.


Voting Climate #8 — Mike Bloomberg

Bloomberg helped New York City develop a landmark climate risk assessment and action plan after Superstorm Sandy. This gives him direct experience with the issue. While the plan posted on his campaign website is shorter on specifics than some of the others—including its level of investment—it has a one notable feature.

Bloomberg front-loads emissions reductions by forcing the closure of all coal- and gas-fired power plants by 2030 and generating 80% of electricity from clean sources by 2028. His strategy relies on setting stringent emissions and pollution limits.

His plan describes grant-making to cities with an emphasis on hard hit and disadvantaged communities, incentives for clean transportation, etc., that are similar to proposals from other candidates. It appears that his plan is to work on climate through everyday good governance, such as requiring climate risks be part of all budget and environmental reviews by the OMB and other agencies.

Investment: Bloomberg doesn’t seem to provide numbers other than $25 billion each year for ten years to expedite clean power through R&D, solar and wind tax credits, and tax incentives for battery storage and hydrogen fuel.

It would be interesting to know how his plan might get fleshed out, especially in debate with other candidates.…


Voting Climate #9 — Summary

So, what did all this research reveal? Here are some thoughts.

  1. All Dem candidates seem to understand the urgency and the linkage between climate change and social justice.
  2. They take different approaches to the challenge, none of which are unfamiliar in the climate field.

– Biden, Klobuchar, and Bloomberg rely on restoring and expanding Obama’s executive actions and seek legislation that they consider realistic: an emissions target for 2050 and spending for infrastructure and R&D. One inevitable variable his how aggressive or modest their regulatory expansions would be.

– Buttigieg proposes a carbon price as a major feature (requires legislation) and a greater emphasis on removing carbon from the atmosphere.

– Steyer proposes declaring a national emergency to pressure Congress to pass a Green New Deal and to expand executive authority if Congress doesn’t act.

– Warren combines executive action with so-called market mechanisms that stimulate private sector emissions cuts (e.g., requiring corporate disclosure of climate-related financial risks to investors). This anti-corruption lens could be transformational.

– Sanders swings for the fences, so to speak, with a transformational federal program. Pundits and moderates call it unrealistic. It relies on Sanders’ “political revolution,” which means working to elect progressive legislators everywhere and, regardless of the election outcome, sustaining public pressure.

  1. In the end, the questions for us voters might be (1) who do you think truly gets the scale and urgency of the climate emergency, (2) which policy approaches do you trust, (3) which candidate do you think can be pressured to follow through, and (4) which candidate will best inspire and/or pressure constructive action in Congress and abroad?

I live in California, where our landmark climate laws (carbon pricing, plus regulations) have come under multiple attacks from the oil industry and conservative manufacturers. We’ve overcome deceptive ballot initiatives and court cases, and multiple administrations have kept moving forward. There’s no such thing as voting for president and being done with climate change. So, who inspires you and who do you want to keep working with?

Food for thought….


Voting Climate #9 — Some Discussion

My crystal ball isn’t any better than anyone else’s, but this research leaves me with some impressions. I offer them merely for discussion and not anything more.

First, I don’t fault the candidates for not being ideal. Big, sweeping changes happen with a large Congressional majority rallies to an urgent issue but wrangles intensely over their preferred approaches to solving it. That’s not where we are, since one party rejects compromise, doesn’t acknowledge the emergency, and has a ruthless leader in the Senate, while the other party has both progressive and moderate/conservative members. Unless Dems can win a significant majority in Congress, the next president might rely on executive action, as all the candidates’ plans suggest. Meanwhile, climate change is a true emergency right now.

And so . . . ? Speaking personally and still mulling this over:

– I don’t sense that Biden or Klobuchar are burning with this issue. Are they offering more small steps or will they be bold?

– Bloomberg seems like a black box to me. He did groundbreaking work in NYC and has funded climate causes since, but he has yet to face others in a debate so it’s hard to read him. His $s have been influential, but he controls his own spending. (Check out “The Daily” NYT podcast about Bloomberg’s money and influence from today).

– Buttigieg says he entered the race because of climate. How bold will he be? I find it hard to tell, but his plan is pretty measured (he says “realistic”). Perhaps his calm demeanor masks more passion than we see?

– Sanders strikes me as a high risk/high reward bet. If there is a sufficient Congressional majority, his bold approach might push action further than it might otherwise go. On the other hand, the Republicans will block him at every turn and paint him as far more radical (they’ll say dangerous) than he is. One risk is a backlash that puts Reps back in power and delays climate action for another decade. That would be a very bad outcome. Another risk is that he pursues Medicare for all first, leaving little political capital left for climate legislation. He would rely on regulation, just like the other candidates. Does this his make him more risky than other candidates or more like them in the end? Hard to say.

– Steyer closed one debate by saying his best offering is teamwork. He’s in the race for the climate issue but he doesn’t strike me as dogmatic about one approach or another to a Green New Deal. What he emphasizes is that he will use a president’s emergency powers to act unilaterally if Congress drags its feet. So far we know nothing about his capacity to win or govern effectively, of course.

– Warren seems to view leadership largely through an anti-corruption lens. Hers is a bold, thorough plan. I find her proposal to require corporate disclosure of climate risks to investors intriguing as a means of forcing action on the corporate side. Would Republicans treat her any differently than they’d treat Sanders? Hard to say.

No wonder caucus goers in Iowa and voters in New Hampshire had such a tough time making up their minds.


(And at absolutely no extra cost, here’s Tom Bowman being interviewed by Dr Chris Hoff at the Podcast Radical Therapist on the psychology of climate change.)


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