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How 2020 Democrats plan to address climate change

In a year when floods, hurricanes and wildfires have devastated parts of the United States, climate change has been polling as a top issue in the 2020 Democratic primaries. All 23 of the party’s current candidates agree that this global crisis is real, but they have very different proposals for dealing with it. William Brangham reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    But first: After a year of devastating floods, wildfires and hurricanes, climate change has been polling as a top issue in the 2020 Democratic primaries.

    As William Brangham reports, the candidates have different plans to address the problem.

  • Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J.:

    We will build a clean energy economy.

  • William Brangham:

    The 23 Democrats who want to challenge Donald Trump in the next election are a varied group, but they all agree on one thing:

  • Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.:

    Climate change is real. It's manmade.

  • Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif.:

    Climate change is real.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    It is us, our emissions.

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt.:

    Climate change is real, and caused by human activity.

  • William Brangham:

    This unanimity on climate change, that it's a serious threat in need of a serious response, stands in stark contrast to President Trump's position.

    Prior to becoming president, he repeatedly said climate change was an expensive hoax cooked up by the Chinese. When asked about the well-documented warming of the atmosphere, he's said it'll soon start cooling.

  • Donald Trump:

    I believe that there's a change in weather, and I think it changes both ways. Don't forget, it used to be called global warming. That wasn't working. Then it was called climate change. Now it's actually called extreme weather.

  • William Brangham:

    As president, he's undone many of his predecessor's moves to cut carbon emissions. He pulled out of the landmark Paris climate accords.

  • Donald Trump:

    The Paris agreement handicaps the United States economy.

  • William Brangham:

    He rolled back auto emissions standards. And he pushed to increase the use of coal and other fossil fuels.

    Even though all the Democrats agree climate change is real, they have some pretty different ideas for how to tackle it. The signature rallying cry from the left has been the Green New Deal, a nonbinding resolution introduced in the House and Senate in February.

    It calls for a sweeping overhaul of how the U.S. generates energy, and it sets an ambitious deadline for U.S. energy production to be net zero. That means no net carbon emissions in 10 years.

    For now, there's no estimated price tag on this hugely ambitious idea. Of the 11 candidates who are currently in Congress, eight co-sponsored the Green New Deal, and another seven candidates not in Congress have said they support some version of it, including former Vice President Joe Biden.

  • Joseph Biden:

    We have to stop thinking that clean energy and job creation don't go together. They do. They do.


  • William Brangham:

    But it's up to the candidates to figure out exactly what it means.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    Let's call climate what it is.

  • William Brangham:

    To the Green New Deal's supporters, like South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, it's a good start.

  • Pete Buttigieg:

    The Green New Deal, as we have seen it so far, is more of a plan than it is a fully articulated set of policies.

  • William Brangham:

    Not everyone in the Democratic field backs it. Former Maryland Congressman John Delaney says enacting the Green New Deal is about as realistic as President Trump saying Mexico will pay for a border wall.

    Other candidates voice different concerns with the plan.

  • John Hickenlooper:

    It was overloaded with other priorities, things like the federal jobs guarantee.

  • Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio:

    I embrace a Green New Deal. I just think we have to have public-private partnerships if we're going to get there.

  • William Brangham:

    By far, the most detailed plan for tackling climate change comes from Washington Governor Jay Inslee.

  • Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.:

    Half-measures are not good enough.

  • William Brangham:

    He's made it his signature issue.

  • Gov. Jay Inslee, D-Wash.:

    Defeating climate change has to be the number one priority of the United States.

  • William Brangham:

    Inslee wants to invest $3 trillion in creating eight million clean energy jobs. He's also calling for all power plants to be carbon-neutral, all new cars to be electric, and all new buildings to be powered by green energy by 2030.

    He wants to hit net zero emissions by 2045. Biden, Congressman Delaney, Colorado Senator Michael Bennet,and former Texas Representative Beto O'Rourke have also put deadlines for achieving net zero emissions in their plans.

  • Beto O’Rourke:

    It gets us to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, halfway there by 2030.

  • William Brangham:

    Rob Stavins is an environmental economist at Harvard's Kennedy School. He supports the goals of many of these plans. But he says it may be harder to meet them than campaign rhetoric suggests.

  • Robert Stavins:

    Well, things to think about for achieving those kind of ambitious targets for the year 2050 is that, if you're driving in your car, you wouldn't be stopping at a gasoline station.

    You would be stopping instead to plug it into an electrical outlet, because, essentially, 100 percent of the U.S. fleet would need to be on electric-powered vehicles of one kind or another.

  • William Brangham:

    Some candidates are pushing for more nuclear power, which doesn't emit carbon emissions, but remains highly controversial, in part because of prominent accidents like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

    Many existing nuclear plants are aging and would likely need tens of billions to retrofit or replace. In a recent Washington Post survey, seven candidates said they wanted to build more nuclear plants, six said they didn't, and four said they want to phase out nuclear totally.

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.:

    Invest in our green energies, wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower, nuclear.

  • Robert Stavins:

    The reason that nuclear power has essentially been frozen at the level it has been in the United States is really for financial, for economic reasons, because nuclear power plants are exceptionally capital-intensive. They are very costly to build.

  • William Brangham:

    Another long-debated idea that some are considering is what's called a carbon tax, which would put a price on any greenhouse gas emissions that would be paid by the emitter.

  • Rep. John Delaney, D-Md.:

    I introduced the only bipartisan carbon tax bill in the Congress, puts a price on carbon. All the revenues get collected, gets given back to the American people in the form of a dividend.

  • Robert Stavins:

    They result on higher costs to produce carbon-intensive goods and services, which is essentially everything in the economy. That's going to ripple out downstream in terms of higher prices certainly for electricity, higher prices for gasoline and other fuels.

  • William Brangham:

    But, despite the growing and troubling scientific consensus around climate change, the issue remains deeply polarizing. One recent poll says it's more divisive than abortion.

    But, for many on the left, it's now an issue to rally around.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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