Click on a candidate to jump to their section: Joe Biden | Pete Buttigieg | Kamala Harris | Bernie Sanders | Elizabeth Warren | Jay Inslee | Beto O’Rourke | Michael Bennet | Cory Booker | Julián Castro | Bill de Blasio | John Delaney | Tulsi Gabbard | Kirsten Gillibrand | John Hickenlooper | Amy Klobuchar | | Marianne Williamson | Andrew Yang
It can be difficult to keep track of who's who in the scrum of more than two dozen Democratic presidential candidates, let alone where their policy differences lie. GTM is here to help.
We’ve parsed where each candidate in the Democratic presidential primary stands on energy and environmental issues, and what their track record says about them.
Climate change scarcely got a mention during the 2016 election. But the political conversation has shifted over the past six months, due in part to the intrigue, activism and controversy surrounding the Green New Deal.
Democrats have also been galvanized by President Donald Trump, whose administration has proposed deep budget cuts to clean energy innovation programs like ARPA-E, promised to pull out of the Paris climate agreement and, according to the New York Times, begun or executed 83 rollbacks of environmental rules.
There's substantial overlap among the Democratic candidates on energy and climate issues. Nearly everyone endorses a return to the Paris agreement. Support for the Green New Deal is a given among the top-tier runners.
Yet there are important differences, too, in substance and in style. The future of nuclear energy is one emerging fault line, as is the speed at which fossil fuels should be phased out.
There are also differences in how much attention the candidates are paying to these issues. One candidate, Washington Governor Jay Inslee, has anchored his entire campaign to the topic. Some, like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, call for top-down, government intervention and clean energy funding. Others, like former Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper, prefer to leave more power to the private sector.
(Editor’s note: In our breakdown of candidates we’ve included only those polling with a significant share of potential votes, those who have qualified for the debate stage or those who have otherwise unveiled significant climate plans. We’ll update the list with more information as 2020 approaches.)
The Top Tier
The former vice president and current frontrunner in the polls was the first to introduce climate legislation in the Senate in 1986. Since joining the presidential race, though, he’s gotten middling reviews from the environmental community. Biden's initial climate plan earned the candidate a 'D-' grade from Greenpeace, but that was later upped to a 'B' as he issued more details.
Biden’s campaign calls his climate platform a “clean energy revolution.” It requires $1.7 trillion in direct federal investment over a decade and calls for 100 percent clean energy, net-zero emissions by no later than 2050 alongside the creation of an Advanced Research Projects Agency for climate. Biden says he would sign a series of executive orders while demanding Congress pass legislation mandating historic levels of investment in clean energy.
The legacy Biden built alongside President Obama includes $90 billion for clean energy programs as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. His reputation as a political moderate could give him more leeway to cut deals with Republicans once in office, at least in theory.
Though parts of Biden’s plan have earned plaudits from environmental groups, the original document faced controversy due to apparent plagiarism. The campaign said it had inadvertently left out some citations. Though the updated plan goes further than the “middle ground” approach Biden aides told Reuters he’d take, environmentalists are already pushing the party’s front-runner for further details and more drastic action — including a pledge to phase out fossil fuels, which Biden has avoided.
The South Bend, Indiana mayor favors the implementation of a Green New Deal “with all available tools,” such as a carbon tax-and-dividend scheme and investment in 100 percent clean energy.
While Buttigieg supports the Green New Deal, recommitting to the Paris agreement and decarbonizing transportation and industry, his campaign has offered few details on how those goals should be accomplished. He signed the pledge rejecting money from fossil fuel donors, and as mayor joined the Mayors National Climate Action Agenda, a group of mayors that committed to the goals of the Paris pact.
“From wildfires in the west to hurricanes in the east, to floods and droughts in the heartland, we’re not gonna buy the lie," said California Senator Kamala Harris, highlighting climate change in her campaign’s launch speech.
"We’re gonna act based on [scientific] fact, not science fiction,” she said in Oakland.
Harris is a cosponsor of the Green New Deal and has signed a pledge promising to reject money from the oil and gas industry. She has not, however, committed to ending the expansion of fossil fuels.
While working as San Francisco’s District Attorney, she created an environmental justice unit to tackle environmental crimes impacting low-income residents. And after rising to state attorney general, Harris joined other state AGs in investigating ExxonMobil’s knowledge of climate change. She also navigated a settlement with Chevron tied to pollution.
Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders keeps his climate and energy policy short and to the point.
He calls climate change an “existential threat” that demands rapid action. For specific actions, he offers five bullet points, but the first one says it all: “Pass a Green New Deal.”
Sanders co-sponsored the GND resolution introduced in the Senate, and seems to have outsourced any broader energy strategy to that document. He speaks and tweets often about the issue, but has not released the kind of sweeping, detailed plan of action that many of his fellow candidates have already produced.
He also advocates investment in clean transportation, banning fossil fuel extraction on public lands and ending the export of fossil fuels.
But he’s not excited about all forms of carbon-free energy: Sanders has called for a halt to new nuclear plants and license renewals for existing ones, citing concerns about nuclear waste and the cost of federal subsidies for the industry.
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, another co-sponsor of the GND resolution, has released multiple plans to tackle greenhouse gas emissions at home and abroad while revitalizing the U.S. economy in the process.
Her most recent installment calls for $400 billion in federal R&D spending on clean energy over the next decade, framed as a Green Apollo Program in reference to the moon landing mission.
Her administration would require manufacturing that results from government-funded research to take place in the U.S., to maximize benefits to the national economy. Warren also called for $1.5 trillion in federal procurement commitments for clean energy over the next decade, and a Green Marshall Plan to spread American cleantech products overseas.
An earlier plan would turn the Pentagon into an engine of clean energy deployment, taking non-combat operations and infrastructure carbon neutral by 2030, and helping the military harden itself against climate-related threats.
Warren would also freeze new leases for fossil fuel extraction on public lands and instead require 10 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from renewable plants offshore or on public lands.
The so-called “climate candidate” arguably has the most comprehensive and aggressive climate platform proposed so far among presidential hopefuls.
Inslee has unveiled a four-part climate plan. It requires 100 percent clean electricity by 2035, allots $300 billion in public investment in clean infrastructure like EV charging, transmission and grid modernization, and lays out policy proposals for the U.S. to reclaim leadership in international climate discussions. The latest pillar of the plan would end fossil fuel subsidies and phase out U.S. production of fossil fuels. It includes funds to reinvest in communities impacted by the transition away from those industries.
In June his platform got the nod of approval from Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who introduced the Green New Deal resolution in the House, when she said it’s “the gold standard” among candidates.
The Washington governor has leaned on progress in his home state to prove his environmental efficacy: In April the state passed a law requiring 100 percent clean energy by 2045 and Inslee was a co-founder of the U.S. Climate Alliance, a group of governors who committed to Paris agreement goals when Trump announced he’d move to leave the international pact.
Inslee has also lobbied for a debate focusing entirely on climate change (which the Democratic National Committee has resisted). Climate change only got 5 minutes and 27 seconds of debate in the 2016 general election.
Inslee supports nuclear energy, plans to rejoin the Paris agreement (and strengthen U.S. commitments, according to the Washington Post) and has signed a pledge to decline campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry.
Though he’s lagging in the polls, in May Inslee hit enough donors to qualify for the debate stage.
Beto O’Rourke, a former U.S. representative and Senate candidate from Texas, in April released the first climate plan among the wide Democratic field. Consisting of four parts, O’Rourke said his administration would work to cut pollution and take executive actions on climate change such as rejoining the Paris Agreement, mobilizing $5 trillion over ten years to invest in infrastructure and innovation (with a $1.5 trillion direct investment), and guaranteeing net-zero emissions by mid-century. Eighty percent of that money will go to researching technologies that push the U.S. towards that zero-emissions goal, which would presumably include clean energy.
By unveiling the first climate plan in the race and making climate the first platform his campaign introduced, O’Rourke gained plaudits from environmentalists. But they also asked for more. Sunrise Movement, the environmental group behind much Green New Deal advocacy, said O’Rourke “gets a lot right in this plan,” but added that his slow-walking on net-zero emissions by 2050 “gets the science wrong.” In a report released in October, analysis from United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change found the world must drawdown emissions 40 to 60 percent by 2030 to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of climate change.
Colorado Senator Michael Bennet touts a long history of prioritizing climate resilience and clean energy. He made climate the focus of his first major policy proposal as a presidential candidate, which calls for net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest.
More unusual ideas in the plan include: Requiring power providers to offer customers a clean power option; a “Race to the Top”-style contest for states to earn federal infrastructure investment by taking action on carbon emissions; conserving 30 percent of the nation’s lands and ocean territory; funding a $1 trillion Climate Bank to inspire 10 times as much private follow-on investment; and using his first 100 days in the White House to “engage people from across the country” to crowd-source a national climate strategy.
Booker, a Senator from New Jersey, has touted an environmental justice plan on the campaign trail. He’s promised to increase staff in the Environmental Protection Agency’s office of environmental justice by ten times and double enforcement staff. He’s also a member of the newly formed environmental justice caucus in the Senate.
The Senator has shown consistent support for nuclear as a solution and in a 2016 address at the Advanced Nuclear Summit and Showcase he mentioned the idea of going carbon neutral by 2050. In a questionnaire submitted to the New York Times, Booker said he’d “at least double” federal funding for clean energy research and pursue energy storage options.
The former San Antonio mayor (and Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary) has clean energy bona fides from boosting renewables in local government. In 2011, he declared “San Antonio has the opportunity to seize a mantle that no city in the U.S. holds today: To be the recognized leader in clean energy technology,” while unveiling a six-year development package that included a 30-megawatt solar farm from SunEdison and incentives to bring clean energy companies to the city.
At the time, the city’s utility was working to reach 20 percent clean energy by 2020 (the utility looked to have reached 19 percent in 2018, though it’s recently faced blowback over the speed of its transition).
Castro’s brought a similar message to campaigning; he recently told the New Yorker, “in my neck of the woods of Texas ... there is a new energy economy out there that is at the nexus of both reducing carbon emissions and protecting the planet, and also creating good jobs for people as the economy changes.”
At the same time as greening San Antonio, though, Castro has celebrated the economic benefits the shale boom has brought to Texas.
Castro endorsed the Green New Deal and has also said he’d return the U.S. to the Paris agreement. He's also tackling environmental health: in June he unveiled a plan to cope with lead contamination, which has impacted communities like Flint, Michigan.
The New York mayor’s 2020 campaign site has three pages to click on: a bio, a video and a link to donate. Maybe he’ll expand that at some point.
In his capacity as mayor, he called climate change “a national emergency without a national policy,” while unveiling an ambitious resilience plan that would expand the coast around lower Manhattan to protect it from future storms. He also endorsed a Green New Deal as the “best shot” to decarbonize the economy quickly.
The former congressman from Maryland dropped his climate plan in May. The $4 trillion platform proposes increasing funding for Department of Energy clean energy programs, such as the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, by a factor of five.
Delaney also proposes “challenge grants” to drive innovation in several key areas, including freight electrification and energy storage and transmission.
Delaney also supports a “carbon fee and dividend” at $15 per ton, increasing by $10 per year. He doesn’t support the Green New Deal, however, and hasn’t signed a pledge to reject money from the fossil fuel industry.
Tulsi Gabbard, a U.S. Representative from Hawaii, co-sponsored a 2015 resolution declaring that the House favors a move to 100 percent clean energy, and in 2017 she introduced a bill requiring 100 percent clean energy by 2035 (spoiler: neither passed). In a questionnaire submitted to the New York Times, Gabbard mentions grid modernization and energy storage as areas deserving research funds.
She is not a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. Gabbard told the Washington Post she supports the carbon neutrality goals of the resolution, but she doesn’t want nuclear as an option. The lawmaker supports a phase-out of fossil fuels.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand hasn’t rolled out an official climate platform, but her website declares that “we can’t afford to make [climate change] anything less than our top policy priority as a country.” To deal with the issue, she proposes “a moonshot strategy” of investing in infrastructure and creating tax incentives to boost innovation and investment in renewables. Gillibrand also proposes a price on carbon.
She is among the co-sponsors of the Green New Deal and supports staying in the Paris climate agreement.
The former Colorado governor does not include an “Issues” page on his campaign website, but he did release a climate plan on Medium last week under his byline but written in the third person.
Hickenlooper differentiates himself from the pack by criticizing the Green New Deal in a March op-ed in The Washington Post and in his new plan, where he says “some other proposals” distract from the core climate objective with things like a federal jobs guarantee. He would attack carbon emissions with more emphasis on market-based solutions than the more ardent Green New Dealers.
Specifically, Hickenlooper would rejoin the Paris pact and go further, and at home would impose a carbon tax with a border adjustment mechanism, giving the proceeds back to the people.
The campaign touts the time during his governorship when Hickenlooper “brought industry and environmentalists together to reduce methane emissions — a major contributor to climate change.” He wants to replicate that program nationwide. His willingness to engage with the fossil fuel industry sets him apart from some fellow candidates.
Despite his more industry-friendly disposition, Hickenlooper still advocates a robust role for the federal government. It will invest in climate-related research, set goals and price signals for industry to respond to, and fund a Climate Corps to train scientists and engineers to tackle low carbon technology. He just doesn’t want proposals like the Green New Deal to expand the size of government or “polarize the issue."
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar is another sponsor of the Green New Deal. Unlike many of her colleagues, Klobuchar has yet to unveil any sort of climate platform. (Her infrastructure plan does include a section on “climate smart” infrastructure and mentions a clean energy bond program).
As president, she has said she would “put forward sweeping legislation that provides a landmark investment in clean-energy jobs and infrastructure, provides incentives for tougher building codes, promotes rural renewable energy and development, and promotes ‘buy clean’ policies.” That legislation, of course, would be subject to cooperation and approval from Congress.
She has signed a pledge to reject any campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Klobuchar has also promised to recommit the U.S. to the Paris climate agreement on her first day in office (and strengthen U.S. commitments, per the Washington Post) and to bring back Clean Power Plan regulations — the goals of which the U.S. is already on track to meet — and Obama-era fuel economy standards shortly thereafter.
Like many candidates, she also favors doing away with subsidies for fossil fuels. Klobuchar co-sponsored a 2017 bill that would have limited or ended those tax credits. According to the New York Times, Klobuchar takes a favorable view towards new nuclear development.
Marianne Williamson, a motivational speaker and bestselling author of New Age self-help books, supports increasing investments in clean energy, extending tax credits for renewables and transitioning away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy, though her website does not offer specific policies on how those goals would be accomplished. She proposes a price on carbon to help meet climate targets.
Williamson supports the Green New Deal, though she claims on her campaign website that it “doesn’t cover the whole range of measures we must undertake to reverse global warming.” She would also rejoin the Paris agreement and reinstitute the Clean Power Plan, which the Trump administration replaced with the Affordable Clean Energy rule.
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang published an unusually comprehensive list of policy proposals, including such dark horses as “Empowering [mixed martial arts] Fighters” and “NCAA Should Pay Athletes.” In his climate change post, he calls the phenomenon an “existential threat to humanity and our way of life."
His solutions: tax carbon emissions, end fossil fuel subsidies and direct the Environmental Protection Agency to work with states on accelerating renewables adoption. He also wants to create a Global Geoengineering Institute to halt and reverse climate change, and he would expand the use of nuclear power in the U.S.
These sorts of techno-optimistic planks set Yang’s platform apart from his competition.
Want more? You can also listen to our Energy Gang episode examining the climate plans of 2020 candidates.
(Story reported and written by Emma Foehringer Merchant and Julian Spector.)