Why Beto’s Climate Plan Is So Surprising

Previously light on policy, his campaign has—for the moment—the most detailed plan on climate change in the Democratic primary.

Beto O'Rourke spoke in Yosemite National Park, saying that California has already been transformed by climate change. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / AP)

The first 2020 presidential candidate out with a comprehensive climate-change policy is … Beto O’Rourke?

I was surprised, too. The former congressman from Texas, whose campaign has previously been somewhat skimpy on policy proposals, debuted on Monday a $1.5 trillion proposal meant to rapidly move the economy away from fossil fuels and slow the advance of climate change.

“We will ensure we are at net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by the year 2050, and that we are halfway there by 2030,” O’Rourke said in a video posted to Twitter. His plan calls climate change “the greatest threat we face—one which will test our country, our democracy, and every single one of us.”

O’Rourke says his proposal is the “most ambitious climate plan in the history of the United States.” Certainly it is—so far—the most wide-ranging climate plan debuted by any Democratic presidential candidate in the 2020 race, though a number of contenders say their own proposals will come out shortly. And it makes for a dramatic contrast with the agenda of President Donald Trump, who has repealed major federal rules restricting carbon pollution and staffed the federal government with former fossil-fuel lobbyists.

It certainly doesn’t lack for length. The new proposal, running more than 2,500 words, has nearly doubled the policy content of O’Rourke’s campaign. Previously, his website devoted only one page to policy, detailing a 3,000-word “vision for America” that ranged across 13 different issues.

There are several different ways to address climate change through federal policy. O’Rourke’s plan tries to do all of them at once.

First, the government can try to make carbon pollution more expensive by regulating or taxing it. O’Rourke says that on his first day in office, he would reverse all of Trump’s climate-related orders, rejoin the Paris Agreement, and tell the Environmental Protection Agency to restrict air pollution from power plants and car tailpipes again.

He would also ask Congress to pass a “legally enforceable standard” that would force the United States to zero out its carbon emissions by 2050. What is this “standard”? Though the proposal’s language is cleverly vague, O’Rourke seems to be describing some kind of carbon tax—his exact language is “a clear price signal to the market”—that scales up as the mid-century deadline approaches.

Second, the government can try to make clean energy cheaper. O’Rourke says he will spend $200 billion on a new R&D program to study technologies that can reach his zero-carbon goal.

Finally, the government can buy things: solar panels, wind turbines, public transit, electric-car charging stations, and adaptations (such as seawalls) that will help people prepare for the worsened weather to come. O’Rourke says he would ask Congress to cut tax breaks for oil companies, using the resulting $1.5 trillion to fund new climate-ready infrastructure.

O’Rourke also promises to connect $500 billion in federal spending—spending that would happen anyway—to his climate goals. The federal government already tries to “buy American,” favoring U.S. companies and manufacturers; under O’Rourke’s plan, it would also “buy clean,” favoring steel, glass, and cement produced in a climate-friendly way. Some scholars associated with the Green New Deal have proposed similar new programs.

O’Rourke’s proposal goes much further than either Trump- or Obama-era policy. It will also face virtually guaranteed political opposition. But it combines a mix of approaches. Some of his proposals require new congressional legislation; some can happen through annual budget negotiations; some can be authorized by the president.

Take his proposed advanced-energy R&D program. The United States actually has an active energy R&D program, called ARPA-E, or the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. Trump has proposed closing ARPA-E every year since he took office, but some Republicans and Democrats in Congress have resisted him. As such, ARPA-E now has a budget of $366 million—a record haul for the small agency.

But that all-time record is still 550 times smaller than O’Rourke’s $200 billion proposal. O’Rourke says that $200 billion is “an amount equal to what we invested in our nation’s journey to the Moon,” but I think that may actually understate the monetary scale of the proposal’s ambition: In inflation-adjusted dollars, $200 billion exceeds the cost of the 15-year Apollo program.

O’Rourke’s climate ambition is noteworthy in part because, as a candidate, he has not had the easiest relationship with the environmental left. Earlier this month, he declined to turn down money from fossil-fuel workers, saying only that he would refuse donations from oil executives, industry trade groups, and their political-action committees. In December, the environmental nonprofit Oil Change USA said that O’Rourke had violated its “no fossil-fuel money” pledge, kicking him off its approved list after he accepted too many donations over $200 from fossil-fuel employees.

The disagreement gets at a deeper problem: whether the national Democratic Party should treat the fossil-fuel industry like it once treated the tobacco industry—as an evil enterprise and political enemy—or like it now treats the pharmaceutical industry—as an important part of the economy that must be tamed and transformed. O’Rourke’s campaign suggests that he thinks the latter approach can coexist with ambitious climate policy. Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Governor Jay Inslee—whose entire primary campaign is focused on climate change—have taken the opposite bet, forswearing large fossil-fuel donations.

While other candidates have climate proposals in the works, O’Rourke now has the most detailed one in the Democratic primary. Warren has released a detailed proposal for public lands that overlaps with some of O’Rourke’s climate agenda. (Both candidates would, for instance, ban all new fossil-fuel projects on federal land, as would many of their competitors in the field.) Sanders has endorsed a Green New Deal, though provided little detail about it. And Inslee is expected to debut his own climate proposals shortly.

The O’Rourke plan seemed to catch many climate groups off guard. Even Greenpeace USA, which calls for aggressive climate action, said in a statement that the plan “surprised” it and was “an important contribution.”

“I did not expect him to come out first with it, and I didn’t expect the rhetoric in it to peg so closely with the Green New Deal framing,” Greg Carlock, a policy researcher at the leftist advocacy group Data for Progress, told me. “It sets at least an expectation that other candidates have to react to.”

While Carlock said the plan could be more detailed—he called its proposed $1.5 trillion in new funding “woefully inadequate”—it reflects “a good consensus that the U.S. has to do a lot more, a lot faster.” He judged it to sit roughly between the climate policies adopted by President Barack Obama and those favored by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. One of the few groups to criticize the O’Rourke plan: the Sunrise Movement, the youth-led activism corps that helped launch the Green New Deal to national recognition last year. “He gets a lot right in this plan,” said Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, in a statement. But she said that O’Rourke should instead set 2030 as a carbon-free goal for the United States. (It is unclear that it is possible for the United States to meet the 2030 goal without a near-revolutionary upheaval in the national energy system.)

And Carlock said that, regardless, O’Rourke’s plan would needle other candidates into similar specificity: “If every candidate comes out with their vision, and we can debate that in the public sphere, that’s good.”