Which Candidates’ Climate Plans Put Justice First? We Break It Down.

Several Democratic contenders offer ambitious proposals to support workers and communities of color.

Christine MacDonald

Presidential hopefuls Sen. Bernie Sanders m, former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (R) stand on stage during the third Democratic debate in Houston, Texas. (Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

This arti­cle is part of Cov­er­ing Cli­mate Now, a glob­al col­lab­o­ra­tion of more than 250 news out­lets to strength­en cov­er­age of the cli­mate sto­ry.

“Where the jobs go; where the infrastructure gets built; those are always relevant questions.”

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.

False Solu­tions

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.

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