Environmental Policy and the 2020 Election

By Leah Fattor.

For a candidate to truly address the climate crisis, their climate plan must address how they as president will lead the United States to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, which is consistent with a maximum global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius. An average global temperature increase of 1.5 degrees Celsius is the point determined by scientists where many natural systems will begin to cross dangerous points of no return, triggering lasting changes and transforming life as we know it. All democratic candidates for 2020 have environmental plans that they claim will achieve this goal.

Although the Green New Deal has been a big talking point in the climate crisis discourse, especially in the 2020 election, I will not be discussing it here. Instead, I will highlight major climate action areas, many of which would be included in a Green New Deal. I have chosen seven climate action areas to highlight, based on the action areas described in the UN Global Climate Action Summit. The goal of this piece is to provide an outline of the major dimensions to look for in a comprehensive climate plan, so you, the reader, can know what to look for and evaluate for yourself how the presidential candidates line up in terms of the environment.

The first two action areas that a good plan must include, also the most important: climate financing and climate pricing. Climate financing, as defined by the UNFCCC, is “local, national or transnational financing—drawn from public, private and alternative sources of financing—that seeks to support mitigation and adaptation actions that will address climate change.” With regards to the 2020 election, each candidate has come up with an estimated cost of each of their environmental plans; how they propose to pay for these costs is an example of climate financing. For the democratic candidates, the cost of their plans ranges from $1.7 trillion (Biden) to $16.3 trillion (Sanders), and each one has many proposed ideas about where to source the necessary funds (climate financing).

Carbon pricing is an approach to reducing carbon emissions that uses market mechanisms to pass the cost of emitting on to emitters. One of the most popular forms of carbon pricing named by candidates in the 2020 election is a proposed tax on carbon. Candidates in favor of some sort of carbon tax include Buttigieg, Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Klobuchar. Trump does not support any form of carbon pricing.

The next action area is social and political drivers, which includes propositions like clean air initiatives, implementing climate action that contributes to gender equality, and supporting just transition. (Just transition is a framework developed by the trade union movement to encompass a range of social interventions needed to secure workers' rights and livelihoods when economies are shifting to sustainable production, primarily avoiding climate change and protecting biodiversity.) For an example from the 2020 election, Sanders has proposed a $40 billion Climate Justice Resiliency Fund that would task the EPA and other federal agencies with conducting a nationwide survey to identify communities based on their “climate impact vulnerabilities and other socioeconomic factors, public health challenges, and environmental hazards” and prioritizing funding “in order of most vulnerable to least vulnerable.”

Another important action area involves infrastructure, cities, and local action. This area would include proposals that address climate-friendly transportation, climate grants to cities to support local action, and zero-carbon building. For a couple examples, Klobuchar aims to “support low- and no-carbon alternatives,” including bicycle and pedestrian improvements, and increase investments in public transit “with a focus on decreasing barriers to opportunity,” particularly for “low-income communities and communities of color.” Warren has advocated, by 2028, mandating carbon free building and by 2030, mandating carbon free cars and light-duty truck production.

The next action area is implementing nature-based solutions, including protecting and promoting biodiversity, ending the practice of fracking for oil and natural gas, supporting public lands, conserving forests, and transitioning to low-carbon and resilient agriculture and livestock management. O’Rourke, when he was in the race, said he would return Bears Ears and Grand Staircase National Monuments back to their original sizes; on the other side, Biden has said he will not ban the practice of fracking for natural gas.

Another significant action area is energy transition, which includes propositions to transition to renewable energy, to take action on climate-friendly and efficient cooling, and to decarbonize shipping. Sanders and Warren are both committed to fully renewable energy sources.

The last action area is resilience and adaptation, which includes reducing the impact of specific disaster events on agriculture and livelihood through the monitoring of major risks, enhancing resilience to climate shocks and extreme events for small-scale farmers, increasing household incomes and food security, and reversing ecological decline.

Again, for a candidate to truly address the climate crisis, they must have a comprehensive plan that addresses all of these action areas, with special emphasis on climate financing and carbon pricing. While I encourage you to do more research into all the candidates yourself, the best overall candidate in the 2020 election, in terms of addressing these areas (and therefore the climate crisis), is Bernie Sanders. The worst overall candidate in the 2020 election is Donald Trump.


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