It’s a watershed moment in American politics. Climate change and the environment, for the first time, have risen to become among the top issues in a Presidential election. President Trump is campaigning against the whole idea of environmental regulations and has falsely labelled climate change a “hoax.”
In stark contrast, all of his Democratic challengers are pledging unprecedented action to reduce greenhouse gas pollution.
Here’s Senator Bernie Sanders: “What the scientists are telling us is – in fact – they have under-estimated the severity and speed in which climate change is damaging not only our country, but the entire world.”
Former Vice President Joe Biden said: “I think it is the existential threat to humanity. It’s the number one issue.”
Mayor Mike Bloomberg made this statement: “Climate change is not a science problem – it is a political problem.”
And Senator Elizabeth Warren proclaimed: “I support the Green New Deal. We have got to make change. We’ve got to make big change. And we’ve got to do it fast – we’re running out of time.”
But what’s fascinating about the Democratic candidates is that all of them – while promising action on the climate – have completely abandoned the main policy vehicle for combating global warming that Democrats, and even a few Republicans, championed until a few years ago.
That was the imposition of a carbon tax – or a Wall Street friendly “cap and trade” system – to gradually increase the price of oil, gas, coal and other fossil fuels to create economic incentives, in the free market system, for cleaner energy.
Instead, the Democrats are now emphasizing a more traditional government regulatory approach – banning any more leases for fossil fuels extraction on public lands, for example. Most also support the Green New Deal, which would use tax dollars to subsidize public transportation, electric car charging stations, wind and solar energy, and other projects.
Mike Tidwell is Director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network Action Fund. He said that there has been a shift in the Democratic party away from the kinds of market-friendly environmental policies that were designed to appease and attract Republican support, but never did.
“I think that definitely, in the Democratic party, the skepticism of letting Wall Street cure the climate crisis is there,” Tidwell said. “I think you do see Bernie Sanders steering away from cap and trade, which at one time was popular within the Democratic Party. And I also think that, as a result, a greater emphasis on government policies, government mandates to solve climate change.”
Tidwell added, however, that he thinks that some kind of a carbon tax will eventually be necessary to pay for the transition to cleaner energy systems.
Evelyn Hammid is the political team leader for Sunrise Baltimore, a climate advocacy group. She said it makes sense that Democrats are now going more after big polluting companies with regulations and taxes, instead of heaping more fees on lower-income consumers of gasoline and energy.
“Everyday people don’t really have much of a choice of whether they drive to work or not, unless you live in a small city,” Hammid said. “But, for lots of people, they just don’t have that option. So if you just increase the taxes on gasoline, on carbon emissions, these fossil fuel companies are just going to pass those costs along to consumers.”
The Democratic primary candidates are not the same in their climate proposals. For example, Sanders and Elizabeth Warren favor a national ban on hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas, and a prohibition on the export of fossil fuels from the U.S. The more centrist Biden and Bloomberg do not, arguing that bans like this could be politically impossible – and perhaps harmful to the economy.
But if any of the Democrats prevail and take the White House, it would be a dramatic change in the political climate from Trump.