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10 September 2019

US Democratic candidates must walk the climate change line softly

A number of prominent US Democrat presidential candidates have all updated their position on climate change. We hope these plans are well thought out. For any democrat candidate to beat President Trump, they will need a full package – they cannot be just a climate change one trick pony. Most polls say that the US public are all concerned about climate change, but that they are more concerned about health insurance, and many of them now have a position on gun control.

It is very easy for a candidate who opens up every one of these fronts to get himself or herself kicked out of the running, by voters who sit on the fence, and worry more about whether or not the economy is going into a downturn. Chances are, the US and the West are headed for a recession whatever any of these candidates do, and the economy will come front and center as the US gets closer to the final election.

So, the key candidates must not threaten to “squander” money on climate change. The key issue to get into power is to be moderate and proportionate in all things. It has always been our position at Rethink Energy that we can achieve very similar things with policy, which costs next to nothing, as can be achieved by spending lots of government money. With that in mind, let’s see which of the candidates who have spoken up lately seem to have climate change proportionate to the issues.

Obviously, Bernie Sanders speaks from the heart in everything, and as such as he would be a great socialist leader in any country in Western Europe. In the US, he is not likely to make it through to being the final presidential candidate. He wants to go all guns blazing at climate change and have the government pay for everything, at a cost well over $16 trillion. His strategy has been well understood and respected, for some time.

Joe Biden’s climate plan has been out for months also. He is seen as middle of the road in all things, and is also a strong candidate, and his expenditure on his plan for climate change is to spend just $1.7 trillion of the governments money over the next ten years, and using that to leveraging additional private sector and state and local investments to total around $5 trillion. He is very big on taking the global lead on climate change and getting other countries to toe the line – a trick that Donald trump missed, as this would have played to his strength, especially combined with a trade war, bullying other countries to follow the US lead.

So those are the two extreme positions, on the one hand Sanders, happy to spend $16.3 trillion, but promising it will create 20 million US jobs in steel and auto manufacturing, construction, energy efficiency retrofitting, coding and server farms, and renewable power plants; and Biden spending about a tenth of that, and using policy to make everything else happen. If we take the Australian experience seriously, where Labour lost because it pushed to do too much in climate change, and ended up with the wrong government – then Biden looks the stronger candidate here.

The Democrat voters will always vote Democrat, and the Republican voters will always vote Republican, it is the swing voters in the middle that can be appealed to by common sense, promises of getting more done on less money, and on their position in the other issues, along with the issue of the candidate’s personality – the US have become used to a vocal, strong personality in the white house, and will probably want more of the same.

Which brings us to Elizabeth Warren who also says she will support a kind of Green New Deal with a $2 trillion investment into research (far too late for that) and developing and building clean energy in the US. Any candidate that thinks the US can catch up with China on solar and Europe on Wind, will get a good hearing, it’s just whether or not this will have any bearing on climate change, because the US is so far behind, and it is behind because oil companies are too strong. So, the voters need to know what is she going to do about them?

Some good policy ideas include making publicly traded companies share details of their carbon emissions, and she also wants to see this priced into the fossil fuel companies’ share prices, which declaring it should achieve.

Warren’s plan will invest $10 trillion in public and private funding to meet the initial 10-year mobilization necessary to stave off the worst climate impacts, things like accelerating adoption of EVs and the uptake of solar panels, and wind turbines. Warren says that by 2030, the US we will run on 100% carbon-neutral electricity, all new buses, heavy-duty vehicles, and vehicle fleets will be zero-emission. All new buildings will be carbon-neutral. And she will transition public land from producing fossil fuels. In some ways, Warren seems to be similar to Booker, but with a much higher spend.

None of these candidates stand out head and shoulders above the others. Booker has a good grasp of the technology, Warren and one of two others have some great policy ideas. Yang, O’Rourke, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar are also in the running, and while some elements are worth pursuing, these candidates seem to be outliers.

If this can be sold to the US people, as “Hey we’ve got it covered, Mr. Trump did nothing for five years, but we can catch up without spending too much, now let me talk about health,” then that’s the candidate that is likely to exhibit most voter appeal. Failure to find that right candidate, risks what happened in Australia where over 70% of people want to do something about climate change, but they voted in a party which simply doesn’t care.

The most worrying thing is the tendency for voters to vote based on personality, rather than policy commitment – which happens everywhere, and Mr. Trump is like Marmite, you either love him or hate him, and this election is really about how many of each there are.