Candidates put their own spin on climate message

By Timothy Cama | 11/19/2019 07:01 AM EST

FRANKLIN, N.H. — Democratic presidential hopefuls campaigning in the Granite State share a lot of the same ideas on climate change, but the way they present their solutions is vastly different.

Former Vice President Joe Biden answers questions at a Franklin, N.H., town hall on Nov. 8.

Former Vice President Joe Biden answers questions at a Franklin, N.H., town hall on Nov. 8. Timothy Cama/E&E News

FRANKLIN, N.H. — Democratic presidential hopefuls campaigning in the Granite State share a lot of the same ideas on climate change, but the way they present their solutions is vastly different.

Former Vice President Joe Biden looks back.

"I introduced the first climate change bill … back in 1986," he said during a recent town hall event here.


South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg looks ahead.

"Picture, as vividly as possible, the first day that the sun comes up over this country and Donald Trump is no longer the president of the United States," he said.

"We are still going to be dealing with a climate that is approaching the point of no return," Buttigieg said.

For Sen. Elizabeth Warren, talking about climate means diving into one of her favorite topics: corporate greed and influence on politicians.

"We have a government that works great for giant oil companies that want to drill everywhere," the Massachusetts Democrat said. "Just not for the rest of us who see climate change bearing down upon us."

With the clock ticking down to the first-in-the-nation primary New Hampshire will hold on Feb. 11, candidates are taking varying approaches to talking about — and even not talking about — an issue that polls indicate is a top concern for voters.

For Biden, the polling front-runner in the race, talking about climate means boasting about his experience, both as a longtime senator representing Delaware and as vice president under President Obama.

"First thing I will do as president of the United States is rejoin what I helped put together, the Paris climate accords," Biden said at a recreation center, in response to a question from a young girl.

"We’re in a position where we should be doing what we did in our administration, which we did in the Recovery Act," Biden said of the 2009 stimulus. "We invested more money in renewable energy than any administration ever has," he said.

But Biden also tried to paint his positions and experience as relevant to current times and current needs on climate.

"Since then, the problem has grown urgent, more difficult," he said, referring to his climate initial work 33 years ago. "We’ve moved far beyond it. It’s moving quickly. And we have to keep pace with it."

On the Paris Agreement, Biden said he’d work quickly to "up the ante," and push the nearly 200 nations that signed on to it to increase their ambition.

"What I would do is call a meeting of the 173 nations that signed on and say, ‘You’ve got to up the ante; here’s the deal. And when you don’t up the ante, here’s the price you’re going to pay: The rest of us are not going to import your products,’" he said during another event at Colby-Sawyer College in New London, N.H.

Buttigieg touches on climate while delivering a common line in his stump speech asking people to imagine a post-Trump world. Even then, he says, the climate crisis will remain.

"This is not just something for the North Pole. This is not just happening on the coasts. [In] my own community, I have had to activate our emergency operations center twice to deal with floods that are supposed to happen once every 1,000 years, and they came less than two years apart," he says.

"It’s here. And we will be judged on whether we solved the problem," Buttigieg said in a Lebanon, N.H., town hall with more than 1,000 attendees.

Buttigieg says his plan is "more responsible" than competing climate proposals from other candidates because it would spend less money (E&E Daily, Nov. 13).

Warren told voters in Exeter, N.H., that Congress was working on a bipartisan basis in the 1990s on fighting climate change. But then big oil companies decided to invest, not in clean energy but in fighting government intervention.

"They invest in politicians. They invest in the people who write the regulations in Washington. In fact, they not only invest in campaign contributions. The one that really gets me, they invest in the climate deniers," she said.

"You want to understand the climate crisis we face today? It’s 25 years of corruption in Washington that brought us here."

Talking points

Andrew Yang. Photo credit: Timothy Cama/E&E News
Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang speaks at a rally in Concord, N.H., on Nov. 8, after filing paperwork to run in the state’s primary. | Timothy Cama/E&E News

While candidates spent considerable time trying to demonstrate how seriously they take climate change and how big of a threat they consider it, they spent less time talking about the extensive plans most of them have published detailing how they would fight global warming.

Warren, for one, didn’t bring up her climate plan at all during her Exeter town hall or at a Nov. 13 rally after filing her state paperwork, except to say she would "end lobbying as we know it" and "block the revolving door between Wall Street and Washington."

Others touched lightly on their plans, which frequently run dozens of printed pages long.

"I set out a plan … that calls for net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, but locks in by 2030 institutional changes that can’t be altered," Biden said, briefly mentioning his desire to expand high-speed rail and reward farmers for planting crops that sequester carbon.

"I’ve got a plan, starting with aggressive action to double the amount of renewable energy on the grid by 2025, which we need to do," said Buttigieg.

"Then we’ve got to get transportation to be carbon-free. We can do light vehicles by 2030, heavy transportation carbon-neutral by 2040 and industry by 2050, because we need to be a carbon-neutral economy by 2050, or it’s going to be too late."

The most high-profile and controversial aspect of Andrew Yang’s climate plan is his push to explore geoengineering strategies such as massive space mirrors and to develop new nuclear power technologies like thorium reactors.

But in a pair of recent appearances, Yang focused instead on pricing carbon and removing tax breaks for fossil fuels companies.

"We need to put a price on pollution," said the entrepreneur-turned-candidate. "Then we need to take the subsidies that we’re giving to fossil fuel companies, and say, ‘That’s dumb,’ and move them to wind and solar and renewable energy companies."

A senior adviser to Yang told E&E News that he recognizes some of Yang’s climate proposals are controversial, but they’re necessary.

"The level of urgency requires an all-hands-on-deck, all-of-the-above approach that is aggressive, it requires significant federal investment, and it requires intensity, because even if we were to get everything right starting today, there are impacts from what has already occurred that we’re dealing with," said Steve Marchand, the former mayor of Portsmouth, N.H.

"It’s a recognition that we have to do homework to see what is possible. It’s not because we know; it’s because we don’t know. So we have to invest money in R&D."

Existential threat

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii). Photo credit: Timothy Cama/E&E News
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) campaigning for president in New Hampshire. | Timothy Cama/E&E News

It’s not just the leading candidates who talk about climate change.

Many of the lower-polling contenders work climate into the events, as well, to varying degrees.

Speaking with reporters after filing his candidacy paperwork, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock (D) spoke about the perspective he brings to the climate debate as a Westerner.

"Fire seasons in the West are 78 days longer than they were 40 years ago. We’re outdoorspeople. Our farmers have different planting seasons by this point than not that long ago," Bullock said.

"So, as outdoors folks, we see it each and every day … we can’t wait another 30 or 40 years to address it."

Yang, whose signature campaign promise is to give every adult $1,000 per month, turned a question at a town hall at New England College in Henniker, N.H., about Saudi Arabia into one about climate change.

"The fact that we have a relationship with Saudi Arabia that’s based upon oil, as much as anything else, to me, is a sign of where we do not want to be in the future," he said.

"Trying to combat climate change, for me, is [an] existential threat, job one, because if things continue to accelerate around climate change, the level of damage it’s going to do to our way of life is almost unthinkable and staggering," Yang continued. "None of this stuff is speculative anymore; it’s already happening."

Not everyone, however, talks about climate.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard didn’t discuss the issue during an appearance in Lebanon, N.H., before a small, tightly packed group in a restaurant.

The Hawaii Democrat, who in recent weeks has publicly butted heads with former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton over Clinton’s assertion that Gabbard is a "Russian asset," talked about clean air and water, but not climate.

"As we look at challenges that we face in our local communities — infrastructure needs, health care, education, protection of our environment — too often, we, the people, are told there’s just not enough money," she said as part of an explanation for why she opposes many of the wars the United States has participated in.

"There’s not enough money to make sure that your kids are getting the tools they need to get a good education. Not enough money to make sure that our teachers are paid what they deserve. Not enough money to make sure that we all have clean water to drink, every American has clean water, clean air to breathe," she said.

Billionaire former hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, a late entrant in the 2020 contest, wastes no time, however, talking about what he thinks is the most pressing issue.

"It’d be priority one. If it’s not No. 1, it’s not going to get done," he said in Concord, N.H., shortly after filing paperwork with state officials to run in the primary. "I’d declare a state of emergency and start working on it on the first day, with the emergency powers of the presidency" (E&E Daily, Nov. 15).

Long-shot balancing act

Former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld is one of just two long-shot candidates challenging Trump for the Republican nomination after former South Carolina Rep. Mark Sanford left the race, but climate was part of his stump speech, too.

For Weld, the sweet spot is balancing his criticism of Trump’s climate policy rollbacks with criticism of the Democrats’ approaches that involve spending trillions of dollars.

"They seem, many of them, to have only a sticker price — $16.3 trillion for Sen. [Bernie] Sanders [I-Vt.], and then on down from there," Weld told reporters after filing his paperwork Nov. 13, referring to the Democrats’ climate plans.

By contrast, Weld says charging a carbon tax alone — which would adjust based on market conditions — would be enough to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global warming above pre-industrial levels, "which is the only thing we have to do."

"It’s not a command-and-control proposition at all," Weld said. "It’s no one telling the United States, ‘You have to shoot Bessie the cow or not use airplanes anymore.’ It’s just a matter of getting carbon out of the atmosphere."