On climate, Democratic candidates race to the top

by Tim Donaghy

August 5, 2019

At this point in the campaign, we expect every serious presidential candidate to have a detailed and comprehensive plan for a Green New Deal and a Fossil Fuel Phase Out.

During the second night of last week’s Democratic debate in Detroit, Senator Cory Booker and Governor Jay Inslee had a lighthearted back and forth about who sits at the top of Greenpeace’s #Climate2020 Scorecard.

We appreciate the shout-out — but even more, we appreciate that some presidential candidates are in a race to the top in terms of ambition and detail in their plans to tackle the climate crisis. We need our next president to use every tool at their disposal to stand up to fossil fuel CEOs and lobbyists and champion a Green New Deal.

For this round of debates, the candidates were given a little more time to dig deeper into which climate policies are strong enough to meet the scale and urgency of the crisis. But it still wasn’t enough. A few minutes on climate in each debate is better than nothing, but nothing is a very low bar when you’re facing a crisis this big. We need a dedicated climate debate.

So, what did we learn about candidates’ willingness to take on the fossil fuel industry?

First up, let’s settle Gov. Inslee and Sen. Booker’s dispute. Sen. Booker is in fact #3 on our #Climate2020 Scorecard, behind Gov. Inslee at #1 and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand at #2.

Sen. Booker has a solid record in Congress and offered compelling responses to the climate survey Greenpeace sent to every presidential candidate. Some of his responses include:

  • Calling for “100% zero emission electricity generation” and for “100% of the new vehicles sold in the U.S to be zero emission” by 2030.
  • Saying “YES” to halting the expansion of fossil fuels by: ending fossil fuel leasing on federal lands during his term; re-imposing limits on crude oil exports and enacting new limits on other fossil fuel exports; and applying a climate test to new fossil fuel infrastructure projects.
  • “I believe strongly in ensuring a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities in fossil fuel industries“ and have cosponsored bills to “make it easier for workers to join a union and collectively bargain for better pay and benefits.”
  • “It is critical that we respect Indigenous sovereignty. I commit to ​upholding Indigenous peoples’ rights to self-determination, free, prior, and informed consent, and other rights as laid out in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.”

But Sen. Booker still hasn’t earned an “A+.” Why? Well, he still hasn’t released a detailed plan to phase out fossil fuel production, nor has he provided sufficient policy details describing how he would decarbonize the various sectors of the economy.

Gov. Inslee, on the other hand, has released a detailed plan to take on fossil fuel CEOs and rapidly usher in a 100% renewable energy future — and he’s right that his plan is the current “gold standard” for the presidential field. He has also shown that he’ll show up for communities at the front lines of climate disaster. After community leaders called on candidates to see firsthand the impacts of fossil fuel pollution in Detroit, Gov. Inslee visited zip code 48217, the most polluted in Michigan, and affirmed the right of everyone to access clean air and water. That’s why he sits at the top of our #Climate2020 Scorecard with a solid “A.”

Then there’s former Vice President Joe Biden. Gov. Inslee criticized Biden’s plan for being “just too late.” Although Vice President Biden gets a “B+” on our #Climate2020 Scorecard, Gov. Inslee is right that Biden’s plan doesn’t go nearly far enough. When the debate moderators asked if there would be any “place for fossil fuels, including coal and fracking, in a Biden administration,” Vice President Biden’s response was confusing: “No…we would work it out. We would make sure it’s eliminated and no more subsidies for any fossil fuel.” Later, his team clarified his position:

Vice President Biden got close, but he missed the ball on this one. His reference to an increased role for carbon capture and storage (CCS) shows a misguided reliance on unproven and risky technology instead of addressing the root cause of the climate crisis by phasing out fossil fuels. We need our next president to hold firm against the fossil fuel companies polluting our communities and corrupting our democracy and instead prioritize the health and livelihoods of workers and communities — not put a band-aid on the crisis.

Most candidates still have more to do to prove they are true climate champions.

At this point in the campaign, we expect every serious presidential candidate to have a detailed and comprehensive plan for a Green New Deal and a Fossil Fuel Phase Out. So far among major candidates, only Gov. Inslee and Sen. Gillibrand have committed to a full phase out of fossil fuel production — and only Gov. Inslee has released a fully-formed plan to do so. Other top-polling candidates, like Senator Kamala Harris and Mayor Pete Buttigieg, still have some catching up to do. Even Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren — who have offered some strong individual climate policies — still need to put forth comprehensive plans to tie it all together.

And, as we pressure the presidential candidates to continue this race to the top, we need a real climate debate so we can see which candidates are ready to be the climate champions we need.

Tim Donaghy

By Tim Donaghy

Tim Donaghy is a Senior Research Specialist with Greenpeace USA. He writes frequently about climate change, offshore oil drilling, energy production, and the Arctic.

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