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6 September 2019

US democratic candidates must walk the climate change line softly

A number of 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.

So 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 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.

So where does Andrew Yang sit? His campaign message was really easy to relate to. He starts, “Our planet is a mess,” and he cites record temperatures, the loss of Greenland ice, fires in the west of the US, flooding, hurricanes and the fact that the top 5 US oil and gas companies posted revenues over $760 billion, while federal government subsidized the industry to the tune of $26 billion a year.

Yang’s message is we’ve waited too long, so now we need to act fast and promises a five pronged approach; transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy, upgrading infrastructure, improving farming and land use. But he talks about removing carbon from the atmosphere, something we know is not do-able, so we worry about his technical grasp here.

Yang makes a lot of specific spending promises, $10 billion in a debt forgiveness fund for rural co-ops; $200 billion in Grid Modernization; $50 billion in next generation nuclear power; $250 billion in net-zero emission ground transportation; $80 billion in net-zero emission air transportation; $285.5 billion in sustainable agricultural, forestry, and land methods use over; $5 billion invested in research for sustainable materials; $45 billion invested in National Labs; and $3 trillion to finance loans for household investments in renewable energy over 20 years.

He goes further talking about amounts for apprenticeship schemes combating sea rise levels and mitigation grants for hurricane communities, money for fire prevention, and a climate change adaptation institute. Further than that he really believes in geoengineering and would put up $800 million for this – he has truly drunk the cool-aid from the fossil fuel industry and although this all totals just $4.87 trillion, it will not win him the white house, because so much of it is plain wrong. It is better than Trump, but still wrong. And it’s too expensive.

What about Beto O’Rourke? O’Rourke also talks about $5 Trillion for climate change and like Yang he wants to treat the symptoms, like fighting extreme weather, rather than take on the causes. And he talks about improving the quality of air, water and our health right away and reversing the bad decisions of the Trump administration – so that’s things like car emissions targets.

He wants to get back to the Paris agreement and accelerate plans for 2030. That’s not really necessary and it’s going to cost a lot. He talks about reducing methane leakage from existing sources in the oil and natural gas industry whereas many of the others are talking about simply stopping these industries – full stop. O’Rourke comes over as a nice guy, a concerned citizen who wants to improve everyone’s life, but one who does not truly understand climate change. We do however like his buy clean program for steel, glass, and cement and his zero emissions for public lands ideas – but do they really cost anything? Surely that is all about policy, not cost.

He says he will spend $5 Trillion, of which the government only pays $1.5 trillion and he will raise that with an end to tax breaks for the fossil fuel companies and spend mostly on tax breaks for renewables. Most of those tax breaks mean cheaper fuel for consumers, so remove them and the price of petrol will go up. So he has to ensure that does not happen.

Additionally he says he will spend $3 trillion on innovation and pioneering solutions in energy, water, agriculture, industry, and mobility – no amount of investment in finding out stuff is going to change climate change in time. We conclude that his plan will not work.

How does democratic candidate Pete Buttigieg want to approach the problem? He wants to give the problem to the Department of Defense, who will create a “Climate Watch Floor” and a climate security department. He will create 3 million clean energy jobs, and embrace the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but only funded to the tune of $1.5 trillion to $2 trillion.

Buttigieg is entirely right about investing $200 billion over 10 years in training and transitioning workers from dying industries like steel and coal, and pivoting them to more environmentally friendly jobs like solar and wind energy and talks about providing leadership to the rest of the world. It was failing to do that which led to the rust belts and Trump’s election. So fix that.

Cory Booker says he will directly invest $3 trillion dollars by 2030 to fund the transition to a 100% carbon-neutral economy and accelerate the end of fossil fuels by immediately eliminating all fossil fuel subsidies, barring all new fossil fuel leases, phasing out fracking, and instituting a carbon fee and progressive climate dividend and create a clean energy workforce through a $400 billion community-based investment in every corner of the country. This seems to be a wise policy led approach, sprinkling just enough money to get the job done, but not so much that he is unelectable. He says he will incentivize distributed energy resources at the home level. Booker will also give the EPA teeth in targeting polluting companies.

The big policy move is to make all vehicles zero emission by 2030. That may actually work, and revolutionize the US EV industry. Another is to block all new onshore and offshore fossil fuel leases and make them lock down methane leaks. We wonder if anybody has ever told him the fossil fuel companies say they don’t have any. He also says he will shut the Keystone Pipeline and the Dakota Access Pipeline, and block any moves that have streamlined approvals of other fossil fuel projects. Booker has a whole lot of detail about replacing water supplies and making communities safer that are also all good moves.

He does come across as a bit of a target for the Republicans to call a socialist, which is a term Americans don’t seem to like, but he seems to have a real grasp of how to use policy, not money, to solve many of US problems. Many a water issue is down to abandoned coal, uranium, and hard rock mines and he wants all that stuff cleaned up.

And he wants to plant 100 million trees and in the fullness of time get America off old nuclear onto new nuclear. A few republicans would agree with him on that.

Amy Klobuchar was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, so we can see pretty much how she sees climate change – which includes signing up for the Paris agreement again, and restoring the clean power act which set emissions standards for states to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. She would bring back the fuel-economy standards too.

But her main mission is to create state, local and private incentives for the immediate adoption and deployment of renewable energy. She is another who wants more research, and will strengthening federal climate research and thinks that there is promise in carbon capture and negative emissions, in other words she will spend stupid amounts of money pulling carbon out of the air. The biggest reason that it makes little sense for the USA to build a $1 trillion CO2 capturing machine, is because the benefit would be felt in the entire world, not just the US, and the US voter would “get” this and wonder how they were going to charge china for this? It is not a good plan.

She plans to adopting a carbon pricing program that does not have a regressive impact on Americans. Good luck with that. A tax that is tough for voters to understand, which results in their gasoline being more expensive, is not going to win her friends. Telling everyone to use rail transport is also not going to win her many either.

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 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. 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.