The bare minimum of what Democratic presidential candidates want to do to address climate change has radically shifted from the last presidential election. Over a seven-hour CNN town hall on Wednesday, and cumulatively more than 100 pages of policy ideas, the top candidates for the Democratic nomination are each pushing for more sweeping change at a faster rate than Democrats were calling for even just a few months ago.
Every leading Democratic presidential candidate has vowed to ensure the US is in the Paris climate agreement, reversing one of President Donald Trump’s most popular promises undercutting climate action. But as New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker put it near midnight Wednesday, making this commitment now is simply “the cost of entry into the race.”
At a minimum, every top Democratic candidate now has at least one multipage climate plan — Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has several — with the main goal of transitioning the US economy to run on clean energy sources, not fossil fuels, and produce net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest. This means that every top Democratic candidate has committed to making the US, in only a few decades, only generate as many emissions as it can pull from the atmosphere.
The fact that every candidate has a 100% clean energy or net-zero target was a consistent through line the unprecedented climate town hall. “That’s a big shift,” Nathaniel Keohane, senior vice president of climate at Environmental Defense Fund, told BuzzFeed News.
Hillary Clinton, the Democratic nominee in 2016, pledged to “put the country on a path to cut emissions more than 80 percent by 2050.” Under that scenario, the US would still release more emissions on the whole by mid-century.
Of the 10 Democrats who qualified for this week’s town hall, most only released their climate plans in recent days.
Candidates found unique ways to stand out aside from just their policy specifics. Sen. Kamala Harris implored her Republican colleagues in Congress to “look at the babies in their life”; Warren rebuffed a question asking her if the government should be in the business of telling people what lightbulbs to buy as a sign of the corrupting influence of big energy business: “Oh come on, give me a break”; former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke linked the climate fight to affordable housing and protecting people’s health; Mayor Pete Buttigieg criticized Trump touting a doctored hurricane forecast map; and Booker told people as president he’s “going to ask you to be part of a larger movement on justice.”
It’s not enough anymore for Democrats to just attack Trump on climate or say they will reverse Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, including reinstating the Clean Power Plan to curb power plant emissions, vehicle mileage efficiency, and pollution standards, and undoing a ban on new coal leases on federal land. Those positions aren’t unique: All the major candidates have done that, and climate advocates expect more.
The eventual nominee has likely already agreed to go further than former president Barack Obama, with common ideas like proposing to ban all new fossil fuel leases on public lands and instead using that land for conservation and building out wind and solar infrastructure. Former vice president Joe Biden walked a fine line between framing his climate goals as aggressive while defending the Obama administration’s decision to prioritize health care reform over climate action.
All candidates have also already offered more detail and nuance on what specific climate solutions look like compared to Clinton in 2016, from Buttigieg proposing to pay farmers to sequester carbon in their soils to former Housing secretary Julián Castro wanting to create a new category of refugees called “climate refugees.”
All those onstage Wednesday night spoke, with varying degrees of effectiveness, about what the economy’s massive green transition means for everyday Americans, whether it’s the fossil fuel workers who could lose their current jobs in the process to the low-income communities and communities of color already facing the brunt of extreme weather and other climate-linked disasters.
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders was the only one to identify how exactly he’d help coal and oil rig workers out of work, pledging to pay them and keep their health care for years after a possible job loss and offer training for a new one. Meanwhile, several candidates had poignant moments discussing their interactions with disaster-struck communities, such as Harris painting the horrific scene of California wildfire damage, saying, “I visited Paradise while the embers were still burning there.”
Multiple candidates at the recent town hall largely credited this sea change in climate commitment to both Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, a former presidential hopeful who centered his campaign on climate change, and stubbornly vocal climate advocates, especially the youth activists with the Sunrise Movement. CNN chose multiple Sunrise activists and students to ask questions at the town hall.
With candidates largely overlapping on policy and ambition, the handful of fractures between candidates’ positions are stark. Perhaps the biggest line in the sand is on fossil fuels, with candidates practically evenly split on sweeping bans on oil and gas.
Activists like Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, took note. It’s “easy” to say you are against new fossil fuel leases on public lands, she told BuzzFeed News in an email. “You can only get to net zero by 2050 by boldly saying you will not permit any new fossil fuel projects since they have a 50–100 year lifespan.”
When directly asked by CNN moderators whether to ban fracking and offshore drilling, Harris and Booker said they would. Andrew Yang was only asked about banning offshore drilling, and said he would. Both Warren and Sanders have previously said they would ban fracking.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Biden, and Castro either declined to say they would definitely ban fracking or offshore drilling, or dodged clearly answering.
Buttigieg wasn’t asked head on about these issues, but his campaign told BuzzFeed News in an email that “He favors ban on new fracking and offshore drilling and a rapid end to existing fracking and drilling so that we can build a 100 percent clean energy society as soon as possible.”
There’s also a clear split on whether or not candidates support using nuclear power as an energy source, as well as support for carbon pricing. Booker and Yang lined up in favor of nuclear, and at least Sanders, Klobuchar, and Warren are calling to move away from it due to concerns over how to safely handle the waste.
Yang, Buttigieg, Booker, and Biden expressed support for a carbon pricing plan. Warren, meanwhile, turned to the Green New Deal as her alternative.