World / Politics

Democrat candidates put climate crisis at heart of 2020 race

AFP-JIJI

Democrats seeking to oust climate skeptic Donald Trump from the White House are placing the “existential threat” of a warming planet front and center for the 2020 presidential contests.

With a rampaging Hurricane Dorian not far from the minds of many Americans, 10 Democratic presidential hopefuls have unveiled detailed plans of action on climate change.

At a marathon televised forum Wednesday night, they highlighted the urgent need to move away from fossil fuels toward net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 at the latest.

Doing so, the admitted, will require a radical overhaul of the U.S. economy.

But they also broadly condemned the president for pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accord and for questioning the human role in climate change.

“It is dangerous,” said top tier candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, during the seven-hour series of back-to-back town halls broadcast by CNN.

“We should be leading the world to a global energy transition and you have a president who thinks it’s not real,” he added. “That is idiotic.”

Though not a debate on climate change as activists had sought, the town halls helped frame the party’s commitment to the environment, which has emerged as a critical issue in the 2020 races for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Voters heard a series of proposals and declarations from the likes of front-runner Joe Biden — “I think the Green New Deal deserves an enormous amount of credit for bringing this to a head” — and entrepreneur-turned-candidate Andrew Yang, who soothingly assured that “we are all going to love driving our electric cars.”

The commonalities were many. All claimed a moral imperative for acting now, and supported rejoining the Paris accord and adhering to the U.N.-established goal of preventing global warming beyond 1.5 degrees Celsius.

They called for swiftly shifting to carbon-neutral vehicles and putting a price on carbon emissions as a way to rein in American polluters.

And they all wanted to spend money — mostly totaling trillions of dollars — on programs like research and development to improve energy storage, building modern electricity grids, making American homes and buildings more efficient, and retraining millions of workers.

Sanders’s plan would cost $16.3 trillion in public investment and create as many as 20 million jobs, while Biden’s “clean energy revolution” would run about $5 trillion.

There were fissures on issues like nuclear energy, which proved particularly divisive.

A split emerged between the popular two progressives, Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, over the role of government in public utilities.

While Sanders, a self-described Democratic socialist, argued that the federal government was “the best way” to move aggressively to produce sustainable energy like wind and solar, Warren disagreed.

“If somebody wants to make a profit from building better solar panels and generating better battery storage, I’m not opposed to that,” she said.

Warren also warned voters against focusing on issues like light bulbs or plastic straws — “exactly what the fossil fuel industry hopes we’re all talking about” — instead of far larger emission concerns like buildings, vehicles and electricity generation.

Republicans including Trump have blasted Democratic plans, including the Green New Deal framework unveiled by lawmakers earlier this year, as unrealistic.

“The Democrats’ destructive ‘environmental’ proposals will raise your energy bill and prices at the pump. Don’t the Democrats care about fighting American poverty?” Trump tweeted as the town halls kicked off.

While Sanders was acknowledging that tackling the crisis would be hugely expensive, Biden presented it as “an enormous opportunity” for American workers like those in Ohio and Pennsylvania, Rust Belt states that Trump won in 2016 and that Democrats hope to reclaim next year.

“We can create over 10 million jobs that are making 25 bucks an hour,” Biden said.

Democrats acknowledged it will be critical to unite Americans behind the common goal of averting climate disaster.

Pete Buttigieg, at 37 the race’s youngest candidate, said dramatic action must begin immediately.

“In many ways 2020 is the deadline,” Buttigieg said. “Because if we’re not underway by the time the new president takes office, really we have lost our last shot.”

Several candidates will have a follow-up opportunity to address the issue on the national stage, as MSNBC hosts a climate forum on Sept. 19 and 20.