For Democrats vying to unseat President Trump, acknowledging climate change is easy. Deciding what to do about it is the hard part.
Among the 18 declared candidates, there is no broad consensus on taxing polluters on their carbon emissions — a measure most experts say is needed to slow global warming. And when it comes to building new nuclear power plants or adding federal regulations, there is even less agreement.
Those divisions were apparent in the candidates’ responses to a new climate policy questionnaire from The New York Times. They unanimously supported remaining in the Paris Agreement and restoring Obama-era policies that Mr. Trump has abandoned. But scientists are clear that preventing catastrophic climate change will require going well beyond those policies.
While the candidates agreed with that assessment, few offered detailed strategies for getting it done. Some have supported the Green New Deal in principle, but that congressional resolution was more a statement of ideals than a plan of action.
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After years of hovering toward the bottom of voters’ concerns, climate change is having something of a moment. A poll conducted by environmental groups in early primary states found that 84 percent of likely Democratic voters ranked acting on climate change and moving the United States fully to clean energy as essential or very important.
And global warming has been on the lips of virtually every 2020 contender. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington is even basing his entire campaign on tackling climate change.
But while the sense of urgency has grown, many politicians still speak in generalities. Though scientists have laid out solutions that would be effective, those are less politically appealing than the broad principles now dominating the conversation.
One reason is the outsize influence of fossil fuels. “More than half our states produce some amount of oil and gas,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan. “All states use oil and gas. And notice I haven’t even used the ‘C word’ of coal.”
“One of the reasons we’ve accomplished so little in the United States on climate policy,” he said, “is that it’s really hard.”
To tax or not to tax?
Just seven of the 18 Democrats put their weight firmly behind a carbon tax, which economists widely view as the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Such plans come in many varieties, but they typically charge polluting industries for the carbon dioxide they pump into the atmosphere. Some call for returning the money as a dividend to taxpayers, while others aim to allocate the revenue to fund government programs.
Favor a carbon tax:
Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, John Delaney, Kirsten Gillibrand, Marianne Williamson, Andrew Yang
Willing to consider it:
Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’Rourke, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell
A carbon tax, however, faces major political challenges. Even in Mr. Inslee’s overwhelmingly blue state, measures he supported to price carbon failed three times in recent years.
“At the end of the day, you can get 300 economists to vote for it,” said John D. Podesta, a former top adviser to President Barack Obama and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. “The question is, can you get 300 elected officials of any party to vote for it?”
With that difficulty in mind, several candidates pledged to return the revenue to the public in some form. Mr. Delaney, a former representative from Maryland who co-sponsored a carbon tax bill in the House, has the most specific plan: a tax starting at $15 per metric ton of carbon dioxide, increasing by $10 each year. All of the revenue would be returned to taxpayers, he said, “with an option to invest the dividend into a tax-advantaged savings account.”
Mr. Booker’s campaign said the revenue “should be paid out as a dividend in a progressive way that ensures that our climate policies are also reducing inequality and not burdening everyday families,” but did not give specifics. Ms. Klobuchar’s campaign said she would not support any proposal that increased prices for poor and middle-class Americans.
How strict should regulations be?
After Congress tried and failed in 2009 to create a system of trading carbon emissions, Mr. Obama turned to another tool: regulation.
Under him, the Environmental Protection Agency established rules designed to curb emissions from smokestacks and tailpipes, and the Interior Department moved to freeze coal leasing on federal lands and reduce methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. Mr. Trump is undoing all of those rules and more.
All of the 2020 Democrats vowed to restore Mr. Obama’s regulations and recommit to the Paris Agreement, the global climate pact that Mr. Trump plans to abandon. But only nine of the 18 said unequivocally that they would push for additional, stronger federal rules, and still fewer explained what those rules would be.
Favor new regulations:
Julián Castro, Tulsi Gabbard, Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Marianne Williamson
Willing to consider it:
Wayne Messam, Tim Ryan, Eric Swalwell, Andrew Yang
Ms. Warren this week laid out a regulatory plan to end fossil fuel production on public lands. She said she would enact a “total moratorium” on new federal fossil fuel leases if elected, a move that goes further than Mr. Obama’s ban on coal leasing.
Only Ms. Gabbard, a representative from Hawaii, and the self-help author Marianne Williamson answered this survey question in detail. Ms. Gabbard’s proposals include a halt to major fossil fuel projects, while Ms. Williamson called for requiring zero-deforestation supply chains and regulating the waste produced by large agricultural operations.
An easier choice: Money for research
By contrast, every Democrat supported greater investment in research and development. Mr. Booker vowed to “at least double” federal funding for clean-energy research, a benchmark Mr. O’Rourke’s campaign said he also supported. Mr. Delaney has proposed increasing funding fivefold. And Mr. Sanders’s campaign said he was developing a plan that would include a “massive investment in infrastructure” and eliminate subsidies for fossil fuels.
Several candidates went a step further and identified specific funding priorities. Improving battery and other types of energy storage was a common theme, including from Mr. Booker, Ms. Gabbard, Mr. Inslee, Mr. Swalwell and Ms. Williamson. Ms. Gabbard also mentioned grid modernization and security. Mr. Delaney called for a $5 billion annual investment in negative emissions technology, which would remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Investment is one of the few areas ripe for bipartisan agreement. But incentives without a price on carbon won’t be enough, Aruna Kalyanam, Democratic tax counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, told a group of renewable energy leaders in Washington recently. “The federal government doesn’t have the resources to carrot our way out of this,” she said.
The nuclear option
The most divisive policy among the candidates was nuclear energy. Many climate change activists reject nuclear plants, even though they emit no carbon dioxide, because of safety concerns and a general preference for wind, solar and other purely renewable sources. And only seven candidates were unequivocally in favor of new nuclear energy development.
Favor new nuclear development:
Cory Booker, John Delaney, John Hickenlooper, Jay Inslee, Amy Klobuchar, Tim Ryan, Andrew Yang
Yet more than half of the carbon-free electricity in the United States currently comes from nuclear energy, and even many proponents of renewables say a 100 percent transformation to clean energy by midcentury will be nearly impossible without it.
“It can’t be done with wind and solar alone,” Mr. Booker said in a speech in 2016. His campaign said developing next-generation nuclear reactors would be key in decarbonizing the United States “at the speed and scale that scientists are telling us is necessary to avoid the worst impacts from climate change.”
Mr. Sanders, who has called for a moratorium on nuclear power license renewals in the United States, rejected nuclear energy, as did Ms. Gabbard and Mr. Messam, the mayor of Miramar, Fla.
Mr. Swalwell, a representative from California; Mr. Castro, the former housing secretary; and Ms. Williamson didn’t rule it out but expressed strong reservations. Others chose not to answer the question at all.
Some economic pain is inevitable
The divide apparent in many of the candidates’ answers — a full-throated defense of the urgent need to act, but reticence on the specific policies involved — points to a broader reluctance to commit to measures that will, in all likelihood, involve economic trade-offs.
Candidates prefer statements that “sound like they don’t have any cost associated with them,” said Robert N. Stavins, a professor of environmental economics at Harvard. In reality, almost all serious climate policy options involve some fiscal burden on taxpayers, he said.
Mr. Podesta argued that for the time being, it was fine for Democrats to focus on drawing contrasts to Mr. Trump’s history of climate change denial. But soon enough — at least by the first debates set for June in climate-vulnerable Miami — they may need to explain how they plan to achieve goals like a transition to 100 percent clean energy.
“They’re going to have to have more specific plans and answers,” Mr. Podesta said. “It can’t just be, ‘We’ll get back into Paris.’”