Climate change questions for presidential candidates

Climate change questions for presidential candidates
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Not a single question about climate policy was asked of Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton in their presidential debates. Ditto for Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012.

This time, though, climate change is front and center in the presidential campaigns. Polls rank climate among the top priorities of Democratic voters. Candidates address climate change at nearly every town hall and rally. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is centering his candidacy around climate change. Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke this week issued a four-part framework aiming to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050.


The contrast between any Democratic nominee and President TrumpDonald TrumpProject Veritas surveilled government officials to expose anti-Trump sentiments: report Cheney: Fox News has 'a particular obligation' to refute election fraud claims The Memo: What now for anti-Trump Republicans? MORE on next year’s debate stage will be stark. All of the Democratic contenders accept the science of climate change; Trump’s misunderstandings of it are too numerous to list here. In the primaries, though, distinguishing Democrats’ shades of green is far trickier.

Too much attention so far has focused on two purity tests: support for the non-binding Green New Deal resolution, and refusing campaign contributions from fossil industries. Each stance has its merits. But neither on its own would keep a single molecule of pollution out of the sky. The initial Green New Deal set lofty ambitions but no binding policies or appropriations to achieve them. Refusing an industry’s money doesn’t limit its emissions.

What candidates should tell us is how they would actually confront climate change, by answering questions like these.

What should we price? Over 3,000 economists have called a price on carbon “the most cost-effective lever to reduce carbon emissions at the scale and speed that is necessary.” But politicians and voters have repeatedly failed to pass one. Candidates should tell us their plan for pricing carbon and using the revenue, or why they would keep pollution free.

What should we ban? Though economists love markets, environmental successes have often come from mandates and bans. That’s what removed lead from gasoline, chlorofluorocarbons from Styrofoam, DDT from pesticides and inefficient refrigerators and lightbulbs from our homes. Any successful climate plan will likely include a ban on especially potent greenhouse gases like hydrofluorocarbons. Will any of the candidates go as far as the nine countries that are considering bans on gasoline or diesel cars, or the states like Hawaii, California, and New Mexico that are banning carbon-emitting power plants?

What should we study? Ditching fossil fuels will require research and development of cleaner and cheaper technologies to replace them. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) has proposed doubling energy research funding. Will Democrats aim higher, and how will they target research?

What should we build? A revitalized electric grid is needed to move power from wind and solar farms and balance their variable output. Millions of chargers will be needed to electrify cars, and better transit could reduce their use. Natural gas pipelines could capture excess gas that would otherwise be flared from oil fields, but also become stranded assets in a cleaner future.

What should we keep in the ground? Most climate policy focuses on reducing demand for fossil fuels. But restricting supply matters too. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) this month proposed a moratorium on new offshore drilling and fossil fuel leases on public lands. Similar provisions were included in O’Rourke’s plan and in the Keep It in the Ground Act, co-sponsored by Warren along with Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.). Some scientists estimate that at least 80 percent of the world’s coal reserves, a third of oil and half of natural gas must be kept in the ground to keep warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

What should we influence abroad? How can we influence the 85 percent of carbon dioxide emitted abroad? Staying in the Paris Agreement is an obvious first step. Nobel-winning economist William Nordhaus recommends “climate clubs” to incentivize stronger actions by member nations. Pairing domestic carbon pricing with a border adjustment tax on carbon in imports could prod other countries to price carbon too. Research, development and deployment of clean energy technologies here can drive down their costs globally. Restricting exports of coal can reduce its use overseas.


What should we protect? No matter how well we curb emissions, the world is warming and sea levels are rising. How should we protect vulnerable communities and adapt to climate change?

What should we envision? It’s easy to get lost in policy details. Much like President John F. Kennedy inspiring Americans to reach for the Moon, the next president must provide an overarching vision to inspire tackling our greatest environmental challenge. The Green New Deal presented one such vision. Will candidates adopt that framing or invent their own?

None of the questions above has easy answers. Grappling with them now can help the next president prepare to jumpstart climate action in the decade ahead.

Daniel Cohan is an associate professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Rice University.