Which Presidential Candidates Have the Best and Worst Climate Plans?

As we kick off the presidential election year, it’s prudent to take a scan of the Democratic hopefuls and compare and contrast their climate policy plans. 

Let’s start with what’s true across the spectrum: These plans as a whole are the most ambitious ever proposed on the environment. It’s evident that even the least-ambitious plans are still magnitudes ahead of where these proposals stood at the beginning of the presidential campaign cycle, and most definitely ahead of the last presidential election.

In the past few years, and consequently in the past several months, grass roots protests and activism from non-state actors around the world and in the United States have made it very clear where the majority of the global population falls on addressing the climate emergency. From “Fridays For Future” led by teen activist Greta Thunberg to A-list celebrities like Jane Fonda and her “Fire Drill Fridays,” global activism on addressing the rapidly warming planet has consistently gained traction.

In the United States, it’s clear that the majority of Americans do not believe the government is doing enough to protect the climate and environment, and there is strong consensus among Democrats that the government needs to do more.

Given all of this, it’s not surprising that the 2020 Democratic hopefuls have gotten their acts together and want to be sure they are firm on climate as a top priority. They all agree with the U.N. consensus that warming must max out at 1.5 degrees Celsius before the end of the century. This will require achieving net-neutral carbon emissions by 2050.

A mile marker to ensure this will be achieved is the halving of all global carbon emissions by 2030, which is why there is headline reporting on why the next decade is so critical in addressing the climate crisis. What remains to be answered is how each of the candidates aims to reach these progress markers.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee inarguably had the most comprehensive climate change policy plan — 200 detailed pages representing a career devoted to prioritizing the environment; however, that was not enough to carry him to the final 10 candidates.

The top-10 candidates as they stand now recognize the primary desire of Democratic voters: to remove President Donald Trump from office. Some candidates promise to do this and address the climate crisis from Day One, like former Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). Others, such as Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), make it clear that climate will follow the necessary task of weeding out corruption in Washington.

Inslee’s climate plan will be the policy blueprint to carry out the Green New Deal for whoever is able and willing to implement it. Copying policy plans is hardly unusual, and in this case, borrowing and rebranding good ideas should be encouraged.

Sanders is doing exactly that and adding to it a $16 trillion price tag of public funding. He is promising similar trillion-dollar socialist overhauls across health care and education, unsurprisingly garnering support from groups like the Sunrise Movement and an endorsement from Greenpeace.

The rest of the top candidates have also endorsed the Green New Deal with payment plans in the single-digit trillions — all except former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The billionaire is doing things his own way: With a history of climate action and even a book on the topic, Bloomberg’s camp clearly believes it has the infrastructure and initiatives in place to build upon from the Oval Office toward a renewable energy future. Many disagree and believe his initiatives don’t go far enough — on environmental justice in particular and sweeping societal overhaul more broadly — despite his pledges to meet the U.N. goals.

Inslee’s policy prowess and the Green New Deal’s big picture is the way forward for whoever is the Democratic nominee. The candidates whose plans reach net-neutral carbon emissions by 2045 or earlier (e.g. Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), entrepreneur Andrew Yang and businessman Tom Steyer) recognize global leaders such as the United States should have stricter targets than that set for developing countries.

2050, much less 2045, is ambitious by any standards, but it will be critical to achieve as a global community. The only real path toward success is implementation of a plan that is commensurate with the magnitude of the challenges already here and ahead as the planet continues to warm.


Dr. Sweta Chakraborty is a risk and behavioral scientist who focuses on topics including climate change, food and water insecurity and scarcity, social strife, over-population and pandemics.

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