This article is part of Covering Climate Now, a global collaboration of more than 250 news outlets to strengthen coverage of the climate story.
This election season, it’s hard to understate the change in how Democrats discuss climate change compared to even the 2016 presidential race — or any election in the last half century since scientists first started sounding alarms about the greenhouse effect.
It’s now merely a baseline matter for Democratic candidates to swear off campaign donations from fossil fuel industry sources, pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies, and call to cease drilling and mining on public lands. It goes almost without saying that they’d all rejoin the Paris climate agreement and reinstate Obama-era environmental regulations rolled back by the current administration. Most of the Democratic candidates have also endorsed the Green New Deal.
In fact, the Democratic contenders have almost all issued policy proposals that, if enacted, would amount to a sweeping new social compact, transforming everything from how we build homes to how we fuel our cars, fill our stomachs and power industry, while righting an array of long-festering social and environmental justice issues along the way.
“Climate is not a separate issue. It is the lens through which we must do everything,” Sen. Cory Booker (D‑N.J.) said during the CNN climate town hall September 4.
The public, too, is changing. A poll released last week by the Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, for instance, found that about 80 percent of Americans now say human activity is propelling climate change, and nearly 40 percent now see it as a “crisis” compared to less than 25 percent of respondents five years ago.
For many advocates, though, the goal is not merely to reduce carbon emissions, but to support workers and marginalized communities in the process. Many candidates’ plans are starting to reflect this need for equity and climate justice — with advocates saying that Sens. Bernie Sander (Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) are leading the way.
Inside the Plans
All of the Democratic presidential hopefuls are deploying rhetoric about protecting workers and frontline communities, with many also voicing support for indigenous rights.
“It’s hard not to argue that something really has changed,” says Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy at the progressive think tank Data for Progress.
Even relatively moderate climate proposals from candidates such as former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D‑Minn.), and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg acknowledge that marginalized communities and people of color will be hardest hit by climate change’s impacts, They are vague, however, on how their plans will secure racial and economic equity while ensuring fossil fuel workers aren’t left without income.
One who has offered more in-depth solutions is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I‑Vt.), the campaign’s unapologetically socialist candidate. Sanders is seen by many as taking up the banner abandoned by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who dropped out of the race in August, ending his campaign as “the climate candidate.” Even before Sanders’ climate proposal came out, environmental justice advocates spoke highly of the Vermont senator as among the best aligned with their concerns based on his previous presidential campaign and Senate voting record. Since releasing his detailed climate plan in August, Sanders has received even more praise for producing the most comprehensive proposal among the remaining candidates.
The Climate Justice Alliance (CJA), an umbrella group of environmental justice organizations around the country, called Sanders’ plan for transitioning away from privately-owned energy utilities “a bold leap towards Energy Democracy” and gave the Vermont senator high marks for (along with several other candidates) putting fossil fuel corporations on notice that he will seek to hold them accountable.
Like Inslee before him, Sanders has also taken special care to signal workers and frontline communities will not be left behind. 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.” His plans for a Green New Deal guarantee not just job training, but five years of income to workers who lose their jobs as the economy reconfigures away from fossil fuels. “Coal miners are not my enemy. The men and women who work on oil rigs are not my enemy. Climate change is my enemy,” Sanders said at the September 4 forum.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D‑Mass.), true to her reputation as a policy expert and fighter for the people, has also put out an array of detailed plans outlining how she would tackle the climate crisis without leaving the poor and vulnerable behind.
Her Green Manufacturing Plan calls for $2 trillion in investment in researching and implementing climate solutions, including “a $1.5 trillion federal procurement commitment over the next ten years to purchase American-made clean, renewable, and emission-free energy products for federal, state, and local use, and for export.” This demonstrates a formidable “level of commitment” to addressing the problem, according to the CJA, but the group wants more specifics about how frontline communities that have traditionally borne the brunt of industrial pollution will benefit from the investments and new jobs. CJA members also want assurances that any plan will take seriously the solutions to climate and environmental problems already underway in many low-income communities of color and not just impose changes from the top down without local consultations.
CJA wants to see Warren and the rest of the Democratic field follow Sanders’ lead in explicitly rejecting an array of proposals they consider “false promises” such as cap-and-trade and carbon trading schemes, nuclear energy, and geoengineering, but praised Warren spurring the rest of the Democratic candidates to pay more attention to climate and social justice issues by publishing so many detailed plans of her own.
NoiseCat also gave Warren and Sanders high marks on climate justice. “Warren and Sanders are the standard bearers of the Left in this primary, so that’s not surprising at all,” he said, ticking off a list of candidates— Sens. Kamala Harris (Calif.) and Cory Booker (N.J.) and the billionaire hedge fund manager Tom Steyer — he’d consider in a “second tier” on climate justice, given their focus on creating jobs and a social safety net to protect vulnerable communities and workers. NoiseCat would also give “an honorable mention” to former U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro for his “People First Indigenous Communities” plan that would address a spate of longstanding justice issues — from housing and education to voting rights and tribal sovereignty — facing indigenous communities around the country.
Harris has built a message of polluter accountability around her experience as San Francisco District Attorney, where she presided over several high-profile lawsuits against polluting corporations and created an environmental justice unit. Harris is also burnishing her climate justice credentials this year on Capitol Hill: On the eve of the Detroit debates back in July, Harris teamed with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) to introduce the Climate Equity Act. The bill would make “communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis the foundation of policy related to climate and the environment, including the policies to build a Green New Deal.” The bill has been presented as a first step toward keeping environmental justice in the forefront of any Green New Deal and transition off of fossil fuels. It would first have to pass the GOP-controlled Senate, however, raising the question about whether, at least for the time being, it’s merely a symbolic gesture.
Booker, who cut his political teeth as the mayor of Newark, N.J., before going on to serve in the U.S. Senate, has made inner cities and other frontline communities a focus, as well. In the Democratic presidential debate in Houston earlier this month, Booker pointed out that he was the only candidate on the stage who lives in a low-income community of color, giving an added boost to his environmental justice proposals which not only include stepped up enforcement of environmental regulations in frontline communities and the establishment of an Environmental Justice Fund led by a White House Advisor for Social Justice. The fund would allocate $50 billion a year to a wide range of projects, from water infrastructure to cleaning up abandoned mines. While Booker’s positions on climate justice haven’t gotten as much attention as those in the top tier of candidates, CJA’s Anthony Rogers-Wright praised his work bringing attention to the concerns of frontline communities in Alabama and “cancer alley” in Louisiana.
Castro, who served as the mayor of San Antonio, Texas, has hung his climate ambitions around social justice, as well as housing and building codes — issues he dealt with at H.U.D.’s helm during the Obama administration. Asserting himself as the true standard bearer of the Obama years in a testy confrontation with Biden during the September debate, Castro has pledged to introduce “new civil rights legislation to address the disparate impact of environmental discrimination and dismantle structures of environmental racism” in his first 100 days in office. He would also reinvigorate the EPA’s Office of External Civil Rights Compliance, and require federal agencies to take the environmental and health impacts on low-income and marginalized communities into account to ensure frontline communities enjoy the same protections afforded more affluent ones.
Castro and fellow Texan, the former congressman Beto O’Rourke also propose a new climate refugee status for migrants displaced by extreme weather, drought or other climate-related problems, setting themselves apart on this front.
Biden, meanwhile, and more middle-of-the-road candidates like Yang and Klobuchar have failed to impress climate justice hawks with proposals such as cap-and-trade and carbon trading marketplaces that critics say could delay the transition away from fossil fuels.
Carbon capture and storage technology would allow continued burning of coal and natural gas, capturing the carbon dioxide emissions and burying them underground to keep them from warming in the atmosphere. Most objections to this burgeoning technology revolve around whether it is scalable and economically feasible. But setting aside technical hurdles, Rogers-Wright also points out that continued fossil fuel use means continued pollution. “We all know where that carbon capture will be located. … it’s going to be located in the Gulf South and Cancer Alley.”
Critics of carbon trading—in which corporations receive credits that allow them a finite amount of emissions that they can then buy and sell, making it possible for companies to increase pollution by purchasing other company’s unused credits on an open marketplace— and offset schemes—in which corporations and individuals pay for emissions reduction projects, such as reforestation, in order to offset their own emission — say there is no justification for putting such faith in the market and the private sector. So far, these have failed to deliver fully on promised reductions in greenhouse gases. Forest conservation offset projects have been particularly controversial due to the difficulty of accurately estimating how much carbon dioxide can be offset by restoring or conserving a given forest, as well as cases of outright fraud.
CJA praised Sanders for being the only presidential candidate whose platform explicitly rejects such “false solutions” as geoengineering, carbon markets, carbon offsets, nuclear energy, and industrial carbon capture and storage. “We find those way too middle-of-the-road,” Rogers-Wright said, whose organization also criticized the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.) for failing to rule out those same controversial ideas. Warren has also been critical of nuclear energy.
“A Critical Juncture”
Speaking at a Capitol Hill press conference yesterday in the lead-up to Friday’s global climate strike, Markey said this presidential election “is going to be a referendum on climate change.” Flanked by dozens of youth climate activists including a delegation of South American indigenous people and Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, Markey went on: “It will be a referendum between Donald Trump and a whole new Green New Deal direction.”
Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, is among those in the environmental justice community who also see this presidential election as “hugely important.”
“We are at a really critical juncture in terms of the direction this country is going to take in terms of not only climate change, but all of these environmental justice issues, like drinking water quality,” he said. “All of these are rising environment issues, not only in Michigan but across the country.”
But while the mere frequency with which the Democratic presidential candidates utter the phrase “climate justice” this election cycle is unprecedented; it remains to be seen whether any of the ideas floated by the candidates will actually move from rhetoric to reality.
Earlier this year, a group of environmental justice activists in Detroit invited all the presidential candidates to come to Michigan’s most polluted Zip Code (48217) to hear first-hand about their problems while they were in town for the July presidential debate. Who showed up? Just one candidate: Jay Inslee, who has now left the race. The failure of follow-through with Detroit 48217 residents muddles the message and raises questions about whether a Democratic president would truly prioritize the most vulnerable.
For his part, NoiseCat is encouraged to hear so many of the candidates make reference “explicitly or indirectly to climate justice” at the climate town hall earlier this month. Nevertheless, he says, “a major question here” is how much the Democratic Party cares about attending to the issues of one of its core constituencies: poor and marginalized communities, particularly communities of color.
“Where the jobs go; where the infrastructure gets built; those are always relevant questions,” he says.
Christine MacDonald is an investigative reporter and author, whose work focuses climate change, environmental sustainability and greenwashing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fellow with the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.