A few weeks ago, Reuters reported that Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden’s camp was crafting a “middle ground” climate-change policy that more or less returned the US to the pre-Trump plan for rolling back emissions.
But the plan he unveiled on Tuesday would go well beyond the climate policies of the Obama-Biden era, striving to completely eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions in the next few decades.
The turnabout, which follows a public torching of Biden’s middle-ground trial balloon, is the latest sign of just how high the climate bar has been raised for anyone who hopes to clinch the Democratic nomination.
It’s a stark shift from the last presidential campaign, when climate change barely came up in the debates. Recent polls have found that climate has become a “very important” issue among Democratic-leaning voters, rising significantly from the 2016 election year.
Observers believe a number of factors could be driving the growing concerns, including reactions to the policies of the Trump administration, the success of youth-driven climate protests, the attention surrounding the Green New Deal proposal, the rising recognition of how climate change affected events like last year’s fires and heat waves, and the UN IPCC’s recent conclusions that the world could exceed 1.5 ˚C of warming by 2030.
Climate change increasingly seems like an imminent and direct threat rather than an abstract and distant one, says Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who focuses on environmental and energy politics.
“It’s not other people. It’s not in the future,” she says. “Climate change affects us in the here and now.”
The five-point plan from the former vice president and current Democratic front-runner sets the ambitious goal of reaching a “100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050,” and embraces a wide portfolio of technologies to achieve it. That includes emerging and somewhat controversial tools like small modular nuclear reactors, systems for capturing carbon emissions from power plants and the air, and the use of hydrogen to store excess electricity from solar and wind power.
Biden’s plan would spend $1.7 trillion on clean energy, environmental justice, and infrastructure, including $400 billion for research and development. The funds would come from reversing the Trump administration’s tax cuts, ending fossil-fuel subsidies, and closing other tax loopholes, according to the campaign.
To Stokes and others, Biden’s suddenly strengthened plan seemed more like a reaction to the earlier criticism than any newfound heartfelt climate commitment, as it cobbled together (or worse) high points from the plans of other Democratic contenders and additional sources.
Not to be outdone, Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, a distant fourth in recent polling, unveiled her own “Green Manufacturing Plan” on Tuesday. It would pour $2 trillion over the next decade into “green research, manufacturing, and exporting,” also earmarking $400 billion for clean-energy R&D, in what she describes as a “Green Apollo Program.”
The main priority of her plan is to make the US a major manufacturer and exporter of clean-energy technologies, to create jobs domestically and help push down emissions globally. That reads as an implicit effort to confront China’s rise as the global leader in manufacturing green technologies like solar panels, lithium-ion batteries, and electric vehicles, says David Hart, director of the Center for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy at George Mason University.
Some were skeptical of how easy it would be to pull off such a global reordering of the energy landscape.
“The focus on American-made technologies strikes me as ambitious given the dismal US track record on clean tech manufacturing,” tweeted Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, who focuses on the energy transition in China. “[It] also completely disregards the fact that these products are produced in truly global supply chains.”
Warren previously cosponsored the Green New Deal, which also sets a target of achieving “net-zero emissions” by 2050, and announced plans last month to cut US military emissions.
Tuesday’s announcement called for “widespread domestic and international adoption of clean, renewable, and emission-free energy technology.” Like the Green New Deal, this technology-agnostic language allows for nuclear power and carbon capture. But it doesn’t specifically advocate for them in as direct a way as the Biden plan does.
The real test, of course, isn’t which candidate can outbid the others in calling for deeper investments or earlier deadlines. It’s whether these climate commitments persist into the general election, and can be turned into binding and effective laws under the next administration.
This story was updated to clarify Beto O'Rourke's proposed level of federal investment.