Scientists agree that human activity is at the root of global warming. As more international protests bring the consequences of a warming planet to the mainstream media, presidential candidates are announcing how they would deal with the crisis. But will any of their plans actually work or go far enough in stemming the problem?
The Democratic National Committee recently held a 7-hour climate change town hall with presidential candidates. While we have many more months of debate and a crowded Democratic field, I’m going to grade the climate action plans of two frontrunners based on how effective I believe the plans are. We’ll start with two candidates who have been involved in politics for decades: Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders.
Joe Biden: C
While good ‘ol Joe introduced one of the first-ever climate bills to the Senate in 1986, I give his current proposal a solid C because it lacks major policies needed to combat the worst consequences of climate change. What trended on Twitter in May as #NoMiddleGround in response to campaign statements looking for climate policy compromises, his plan has very few relevant and actionable policies. Instead, Biden’s proposal seems to wait for investment in R&D to improve carbon capture technology.
The main goal in this proposal is 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050, a much later deadline than proposed by other candidates. Biden plans to accomplish this by implementing tax credits to incentivize clean energy, like expanding electric vehicle tax credits, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and regulating methane emissions (a more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide). However, these actions are not unique to Biden’s platform and are pretty standard for many Democratic candidates. The Biden plan calls for congressional legislation that will establish “an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than his first term in 2025.” While gaining Congressional support is necessary, this plan shows lack of substantive climate policy.
Interestingly, Biden’s plan is the first, in my knowledge, to use foreign policy to help solve the climate crisis. For example, Biden says he will not allow other countries to become destination economies for polluters, meaning polluters in the U.S. would not be able to move and pollute elsewhere, like China, which would undermine American efforts. Any effective climate strategy must be global; however, I’m not sure the U.S. can force China, or even underdeveloped nations still industrializing, to do or not do anything. Why would these countries give way to their own development just to further cultivate American riches? To note, China invested three times as much in renewable energy as the U.S. in 2017.
The Sanders plan is best described as a “$16.3 trillion microcosm of his entire ethos.” Extremely ambitious and encouraging, I give this plan a B- because it has some merits but is not completely realistic. In particular, it oversteps electrifying the transportation sector and is misguided about safety and reliability of nuclear energy.
However, Bernie goes above and beyond other candidates in demanding accountability from fossil fuel industries. If elected, Sanders says he will ensure that the Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission bring criminal and civil suits for any wrongdoing. Similar to the actions the tobacco industry participated in, Sanders argues that the fossil fuel industry poured billions into denialism, hired lobbyists to fight government oversight, and contributed to politicians who would put the industry first over the safety of the planet.
Sanders’s electricity plan calls for a 100% renewables grid by 2030 without the use of nuclear energy, which some have criticized as unrealistic. While wind and solar are important contributors to the grid, these technologies alone won’t be able to succeed in complete decarbonization. Why? Well, tough challenges await during weeks or months of inclement weather due to seasonal factors or prolonged weather fronts, which result in a decline of energy output available to consumers. Nuclear energy is one possible way to help stem away from fossil fuels, but Sanders has been an opponent of nuclear energy, even calling for a moratorium on license renewals for existing plants. However, last year, nuclear energy accounted for 55% of U.S. carbon-free electricity and many energy experts argue nuclear energy is necessary for reducing carbon emissions from electricity.
The biggest problems with Sanders’ plan are how he plans to electrify the transportation sector. By 2030, he would require zero-emission vehicles, so say good-bye to typical combustion engine vehicles. Since storage is still an issue for electric vehicles, it seems optimistic that this could be solved by 2030, considering larger trucks would require a longer battery life compared to passenger vehicles without charging more frequently.
While there is no A+ climate proposal from any Democratic candidate, in all seriousness, we need action now. No matter who wins the 2020 election, the president will need to make some serious decisions about how the U.S. leads the world in this crisis. To stay informed about climate voting issues in this next election, I recommend checking out environmental groups like the Sierra Club and following scientists on Twitter like Leah Stokes (@leahstokes), climate policy researcher at University of California, Santa Barbara, and Kate Marvel (@DrKateMarvel), climate scientist at Columbia University and NASA.