Climate change has barely registered as an issue in any US presidential election. The 2020 race has already changed that.
The Democratic primaries explain why. Of the 23 Democratic candidates running, 14 have signed the “no fossil fuel money” pledge; 11, by participating in a green fundraising platform, have vowed to address this crisis on day one of their presidency and committed to the goal of 100% clean energy, and at least 22 have mentioned climate change on their campaign websites, according to a BuzzFeed News review. Already, three Democrats have devoted their first detailed policy plan to tackling the climate crisis, and one of them, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, even launched his campaign on the issue. Inslee and at least eight other candidates are supporting a call for a climate-only primary debate. And now the Democratic National Committee is fundraising on the issue, including with an email Wednesday asking for help electing “Democrats who are fighting to put a stop to climate chaos.”
“The big picture news to me is that for the first time ever, candidates are embracing climate change in a way they never have before,” Kevin Curtis, executive director of NRDC Action Fund, told BuzzFeed News. “That is really wicked cool.”
In recent elections, billionaire Tom Steyer has spent millions through his progressive political action committee NextGen America in support of pro-climate candidates, trying to make climate relevant in races across the country. It hasn’t always worked. Going into 2020, a race he considered joining, he’s more hopeful than ever. “It seems like this year it’s really happening — what we hoped for in 2016 is happening,” Steyer said.
Activists and climate communication experts attribute the shift to a number of factors, including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s sobering October report, which predicted more dire climate impacts faster than previously anticipated, as well as the deadliest wildfire in California history, on top of damaging hurricanes and floods.
There was also the 2018 midterm elections. That’s when “climate change was beginning, for the first time, to play a significant role in a few races across the country,” although Democrats weren’t running on the issue nationally, said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
The aftermath has been a wave of climate action at the state level and in the Democrat-controlled House. On top of this, the Green New Deal campaign has sucked up attention with a call for a comprehensive policy package tackling climate change, health care, pollution and poverty, infrastructure, and the economy together, championed by youth activists from the Sunrise Movement and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
During this time, climate change climbed up the list of Democrats’ priorities, according to multiple polls. When asked in a CNN poll from late April to rank how important it was for a Democratic candidate to support “taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change,” 82% of the poll respondents that identified as Democrat or Democrat-leaning said it was “very important” and an additional “14%” said it was “somewhat important.”
Results from another April poll, this one by Yale’s climate communication program, showed that on a list of 29 important issues for registered voters, climate change ranked third for liberal Democrats, behind environmental protection (second) and health care (first), and ranked eighth for moderate and conservative Democrats. That’s a jump from just a year ago: Last March, the Yale poll found climate change ranked fourth out of 28 issues for liberal Democrats and 16th for moderate and conservative Democrats.
The polling trends are a big reason “why all the Democrats running for president have at least said climate change will be one of their priorities,” Leiserowitz said.
Inslee announcing his presidential run on March 1 with an opening message exclusively focused on climate change was one of the earliest signs this election cycle was going to be different.
“That’s never happened before,” Leiserowitz said about Inslee’s climate campaign. Multiple environmental activists at the time told BuzzFeed News they hoped his campaign would push the others on this issue.
Nearly three months later, Inslee’s facing competition on climate. The bulk of the Democratic candidates aren’t just talking about climate change — many of them are battling over who has the boldest plan.
Beto O’Rourke, a former Texas representative, was the first candidate to devote his first detailed policy proposal to climate, calling for $5 trillion in funding, net-zero emissions in the US by 2050, and more. “He understands that we must act boldly now to address this urgent threat before it’s too late,” an O’Rourke campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email.
Later that same week, Inslee put out the first of what his campaign has promised to be multiple climate proposals, calling for the retirement of all US coal plants by 2030, net-zero emissions in the US by 2045, at the latest, and specific proposals for federal agencies to run on clean energy and dramatically slash emissions from the building and transportation sectors. His follow-up plan called for $9 trillion in funding.
Running on climate is literally paying off for Inslee. According to his campaign, Inslee received an about 40% increase in donations in the weeks following his proposals, helping him surpass 65,000 unique donors, one of the qualifications for the first candidate debates. “I think it speaks to the desire and need for this race to be focused on policy, especially climate action, and the governor is delivering on that in a substantial way,” Jamal Raad, an Inslee campaign spokesperson, told BuzzFeed News.
Last week, Michael Bennet, a senator from Colorado, became the third candidate to focus on climate in his first big policy proposal, calling for $10 trillion in spending for climate solutions in the US and abroad and a focus on boosting climate funding and support for the agriculture sector. “Climate change is one of Michael’s top priorities, and has been for years,” a Bennet spokesperson said in an email.
John Delaney, a former Maryland representative, on Thursday announced his own $4 trillion plan, one that supports a carbon fee and dividend and goes big on funding new research and innovation. South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg similarly called for a climate pricing scheme on his website.
Elizabeth Warren, a senator from Massachusetts, has put out two separate climate-linked proposals, one focused on public lands that calls for a ban on new fossil fuel leases, and a more recent one on how the military can help combat the climate emergency. A campaign aide told BuzzFeed News that Warren has been asked about climate change “in more than 10 town halls and at each one she talks about how important it is that we meet this moment of urgency and act on the climate crisis.”
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker put out details specific to his environmental justice focus on climate and pollution, such as reauthorizing and increasing the Superfund tax polluting companies have to pay, as well as increasing the staff of the Environmental Protection Agency’s offices that work on environmental justice and enforcement.
Environmentalists are awaiting former vice president Joe Biden’s climate plans, now that he’s in the race and leading polls. An article in Reuters quoted a Biden campaign adviser, saying Biden was looking at a “middle-ground” approach, sparking an immediate backlash from the climate community and a denial from the campaign.
“Vice President Biden believes that climate change is an existential threat to our country and to the entire planet,” a Biden campaign spokesperson told BuzzFeed News in an email. “As president, Biden would enact a bold policy to tackle climate change in a meaningful and lasting way, and will be discussing specifics of that plan in the near future.”
With more and more candidates sharing their climate priorities, if not releasing full plans, patterns are starting to emerge — areas of overlap and fracture.
A review of all 23 candidates’ websites reveals at least 19 of them mention climate change on the website’s introduction, biography, or issues pages; Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii and former housing secretary Julián Castro only mention it in descriptions of campaign stops; New York Mayor Bill de Blasio just mentions Trump’s anti-climate efforts in a campaign video and has talked about New York City’s Green New Deal early in his campaign; and Rep. Tim Ryan of Ohio doesn’t mention it at all.
But they are all talking about it. Every candidate, on their websites, on social media, in the press, or on the campaign trail, either directly or through their campaign, have called for the US to stay in the Paris climate agreement, a response to President Donald Trump’s vow to withdraw the country from the global deal as early as possible.
Other areas of overlap: support for the Green New Deal. All but one of the US senators running for president were cosponsors of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in Congress — Kamala Harris of California, Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Warren, and Booker — and an even larger swatch of candidates, from Buttigieg to Florida Mayor Wayne Messam to Massachusetts Rep. Seth Moulton, have endorsed it on their websites.
For the candidates with detailed climate plans, many of them have a high price tag for climate funding and call for the US to reach net-zero emissions in the coming decades.
A subset of candidates offer a vision heavy on investing in innovation and new research and generating new jobs.
And then there are the ways candidates are carving out their own voice in the increasingly crowded space. Warren is the only one to offer a detailed military climate plan. Inslee’s the only one directly calling for the end of coal and providing a plan on how to help fossil fuel workers transition to a new clean energy economy. Booker is the only one who’s outlined specific environmental justice goals. Andrew Yang, a former tech executive, appears to be the only candidate endorsing looking into geoengineering solutions for the climate problem.
Environmental groups are watching all this climate talk critically.
“We feel like the fact that people feel like they have to come up with plans is a fantastic fact,” Steyer said, “but the real question is where does climate fall as a priority in your overall program?”
Steyer said he’s trying to find out about each candidate: “Did you look at the polls and suddenly decide you’re a climate champion?”
He’s the only one to say this so bluntly. But multiple climate advocates interviewed for this story said they are using various measures to determine if a candidate prioritizes the issue as much as they say.
Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president for government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters, said a candidate committing the US to stay in Paris and undoing Trump’s environmental regulatory rollback are simply “day 1” actions.
Evan Weber, cofounder of the Sunrise Movement, told BuzzFeed News one sign of commitment is whether candidates have signed the “no fossil fuel money” pledge. Just over half the candidates have signed it.
But some, including Delaney, have pushed back on the pledge. The public language of the pledge briefly mentions candidates are agreeing not to take over $200 from political action committees, lobbyists, and executives of the fossil fuel industry, defined as coal, natural gas, and oil companies. But as Delaney told BuzzFeed News on the phone, most of the nation’s utility companies are on the list of companies the pledge organizers put together. “I don’t think I’ve taken any money from fossil fuel executives,” Delaney added, but said, “Why would the head of solar energy at some utility company be someone I’m saying you’re donation to my campaign is something I reject? That just didn’t make sense to me.”
Another test for the Sunrise Movement, which recently deemed Inslee’s climate plan the most ambitious and urged other candidates to follow his lead, is whether candidates support the call for a climate debate. Climate was mostly ignored in the 2016 presidential debates, and activists and some candidates are trying to prevent a repeat. Young activists with the US Youth Climate Strike are also pressing candidates to support such a debate. Several candidates, including Bennet, Castro, Klobuchar, Moulton, Ryan, Sanders, Warren, and Yang, have backed the idea, which started with Inslee. When asked about it, O’Rourke said, “I like that idea.”
To help people better understand a candidate’s climate commitment, the policy and consulting group Climate Advisers rolled out a ranking of all the candidates. Inslee is ranked first, and Biden is second to last.
Some of the current frontrunners in the race have some ways to go, according to Matt Piotrowski, a senior analyst at Climate Advisers. He said the plan is to update the ranking ahead of the first Democratic debate in June.
Climate change’s unusual dominance in the primary could still fade by next fall. If Trump’s withering attacks on the Green New Deal resolution in Congress — and his recent fixation on falsehoods about wind technology — are any indication, he will attack the issue endlessly in the campaign. The Republican Party has already tried to use support for the Green New Deal against Democratic candidates who support it, as they did Tuesday night with Harris.
And the recent polling on climate shows that while Democrats are increasingly embracing the issue, Republicans are not.
“The really interesting thing is that we are in such an unprecedented era of extreme partisan ideological polarization,” said Riley Dunlap, a sociology professor at Oklahoma State University.●