Democrats Take on Climate Crisis, Emphasizing Infrastructure

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks during a campaign stop at the Circle 9 Ranch Campground Bingo Hall on Tuesday in Epsom, N.H. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

(CN) – The world has seen wildfire, flood, hurricanes and record-breaking ice-melt since the last U.S. election and on Wednesday, Democratic candidates vying for the White House discussed the climate crisis in its own forum for the first time.

Over the course of 10 one-on-one interviews hosted by CNN, presidential candidates discussed their plans to tackle a growing crisis which climate scientists and environmentalists say has intensified the destructive impact of storms around the world.

The Category 5 Hurricane Dorian – the fifth storm in four years to achieve such monstrous size – only days ago swept over the Bahamas, killing at least 20 people and as of Wednesday, reportedly submerging 70% of homes.

The cost to rebuild is estimated in the billions and as reports like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change indicated last year, without a concerted effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 – which will help cool the planet and oceans – storms like Dorian will only become more prevalent.

Candidates’ plans echo many features laid out in the Green New Deal, a non-binding resolution launched seven months ago by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey.

The Green New Deal supports a decarbonized future through investment in clean energy jobs and infrastructure. Several of the candidates are co-sponsors of the resolution but where they often depart is on the investment required to jumpstart a green economy in a way that could meaningfully head off the worst effects of global warming.

Candidates polling over single digits, including front runners former Vice President Joe Biden, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren filled the prime time slot.

Warren’s plan draws directly from Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s proposal. Though Inslee dropped out after failing to perform in the polls, his plan lives on with the senator’s campaign. She seeks 100% clean energy by transforming the electrical grid, national infrastructure and automotive industry since, at present, nearly 70% of U.S. emissions stem from electricity, transportation and commercial activity.

Warren would commit $3 trillion to tackle climate with at least $400 billion from that spread over 10 years for research and development. Green manufacturing is also covered: Warren would devote $1.5 trillion to procurement of American-made energy products. Additionally, coal fired plants would be retired within 10 years but miners would receive new health care and pensions in exchange.

The plan will be paid for in part from a reversal of Trump tax cuts for the wealthiest individuals and corporations.

During her town hall, an oyster farmer who endured two hurricanes that destroyed his stocks asked Warren if she would support a “Blue New Deal” that would place greater protections for trades relying on the sea.

Ocean acidification is a chief concern, Warren agreed, noting how fish stocks have migrated from points south to points further north due to rising temperatures.

“Where are they going next?” Warren said, questioning how it may one day impact trade and food supplies.

Warren staunchly criticized the Trump administration and the GOP-controlled Senate for inaction on climate and an overall lack of foresight.

Biden proposes a $1.7 trillion investment, setting 2050 as the net carbon emissions deadline.

He also suggests implementing a 2025 deadline for Congress to set a fee or tax on polluters, but Biden has lost this legislative fight before. When former President Barack Obama attempted a carbon tax in 2010, it died in a Democratically-controlled Congress.

Biden has vowed to place $400 billion into R&D, nix all new permits for oil and gas development on public lands and to shore up coal industry laborers by retraining them for a green economy.

Biden said when it comes to developing on state lands, it’s time to look at what exists now and make a judgment on what wells are dangerous or have “already done the damage” to the environment.

He wouldn’t call for a current ban but only a stop to new development on federal lands.

A question over a New York fundraiser Biden is scheduled to attend Thursday with Andrew Goldman, co-founder of the Texas-based natural gas giant Western LNG, stirred some controversy on the forum stage.

While host Anderson Cooper clarified Goldman is not responsible for day-to-day activities at Western LNG, the question appeared to shake the former vice president.

Goldman’s pet project is a floating gas production facility off British Columbia.

“I didn’t realize he had done that,” Biden said.

Sen. Sanders, a longtime champion of legislation aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, has the most ambitious climate crisis proposal in the field. Sanders vows $16 trillion over 10 years with $780 billion earmarked for research. It would create 20 million new jobs in clean energy and technology and focuses on transforming agribusiness.

He proposes 100% renewable energy by 2030 with total decarbonization by 2050. Fossil fuel subsidies would be cut altogether and military spending, as it relates to spending on oil, would be reduced too. Power plant polluters would see heftier fines and taxes would be raised on individuals who profit from the fossil fuel industry.

Where Biden has historically failed to move the dial on a carbon tax, Sanders has had a better record in getting Democrats to move the needle.

And too, where Sanders has vowed to ban fracking altogether, Biden was less clear.

Sanders said of his proposal: “When people say it isn’t realistic, let me ask you this: is it realistic to create a planet that is uninhabitable for our children and grandchildren? This is a moral responsibility to act boldly and yes, it will be expensive.”

The candidate also emphasized that average taxpayers won’t be expected to shoulder the burden. It will be taxpayers who are in the fossil fuel industry that will pay more.

His plan has built in tens of billions for a “just transition” that promises some workers, if through no fault of their own, lose their job due to the U.S. moving away from fossil fuel, their income would be guaranteed for 5 years.

“They should not be punished because we’re trying to save the planet,” Sanders said.

California Sen. Kamala Harris and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar often hammered President Donald Trump for his reversal of over 80 environmental regulations. For her part, Harris said as of today there is “no accountability or consequence” for the Trump administration’s actions.

If elected she vowed to lean on her experience as a prosecutor to “take on” big oil.  Her plan features a $10 trillion investment with a goal of achieving a “clean economy” by 2045. Harris has set 2030 as the deadline to achieve total carbon neutrality. Part of the plan includes a $250 billion earmark for water infrastructure.

Klobuchar appealed to voters’ economic sense, saying that addressing the climate crisis will be this generation’s mission to solve the world’s most challenging problems.

“We have to prioritize. On day one of my administration, we return to the Paris Climate Agreement, on day two, we renew clean power rules and bring back gas mileage standards,” Klobuchar said.

Part of the senator’s proposal undercuts the goal of reaching net zero carbon by 2050: She would not agree to a strict ban on fracking, saying she would make determinations on a lease-by-lease basis.

During his town hall, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro faced similar questions about where his loyalties may lie on fracking. During his time as mayor of San Antonio, the candidate supported it.

“Back then, we had been saying natural gas was a bridge fuel. We’re coming to the end of the bridge. My plan calls for moving toward clean, renewable zero emission energy in the years to come,” Castro said.

Castro also called for a reversal of Citizens United, which he argues would end special interests clogging the energy sector. He calls for $10 trillion over ten years, an investment that could create 10 million jobs.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang pushed his $1,000 “freedom dividend” as a way to empower people to protect themselves from the damage climate change may cause to their homes during storms and other disasters. His plan calls for zero emissions for new cars by 2030, an all-renewable electric grid by 2035 and net zero emissions by 2049.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker ended the evening.

“Congress is like a room full of doctors arguing over what to do with a cancer patient, half are arguing about whether surgery or medication is the best approach and the other half is arguing whether cancer exists,” Buttigieg said of the climate crisis, which the veteran also dubbed the most challenging issue the U.S. has faced since World War II.

“If we’re still at each other’s throats between now and 2050, it isn’t going to happen,” Buttigieg said.

Buttigieg has proposed $200 million in federal funds for research and development and storage.

His benchmarks include doubling clean electricity by 2025 and reaching zero emissions in electricity generation a decade later. Net zero emissions from industrial vehicles would come by 2040, and overall net-zero emissions by 2050.

O’Rourke hails from El Paso, a city feeling increased pressure from immigration prompted by political and environmental upheaval in the Northern Triangle. O’Rourke has proposed a $5 trillion plan with the goal of eliminating greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and net zero emissions by 2050.

To set the pace toward achieving those ends, O’Rourke said he would implement carbon cap-and-trade and ban offshore drilling altogether.

As president, he would also refuse to place oil wells along coastal areas since the toll oil spills exact come at a too great a cost to the environment and the national economy.

“There will be no new oil and gas leashes offshore or on federally protected lands. All existing leases will reflect the true cost of pollution and carbon,” O’Rourke said.

Like Warren, Sen. Cory Booker has pledged $3 trillion and like Sanders, he has proposed an end to subsidies for the fossil fuel industry. Booker would end new fossil fuel leases for fracking and fine fossil fuel entities that fail to address methane emissions. The New Jersey senator also proposes banning new fossil fuel infrastructure and supports a straight ban on all fossil fuel exports by 2030.

Booker also called for greater investment in new generation nuclear technology.

“We used to have the most R&D intensive economy but we’re no longer there. We’re being out-innovated by other nations. Government must step up with a massive investment on future tech, from battery storage to regulations for aviation, to nuclear standards,” Booker said.

Labor and climate should also be at the center of any trade deals the U.S. undertakes, Booker said. As for the military industrial complex’s contribution to the climate crisis, Booker says America is misguidedly ramping up investment.

Questioning the morality of fueling planes that drop bombs – “even if we aren’t doing it directly,” he said – is another critical issue Americans should address.

The state of the climate is one of crisis, but where crisis exists, there is both danger and opportunity, Booker said.

“This is a chance to deal with restorative justice issues too. Democracy is a verb, we must all act,” he said.

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