Andrew Yang Is Not Your Climate Friend

Fleeing to “higher ground” isn’t an adaptation policy.

Andrew Yang and Kamala Harria
Andrew Yang made a surprisingly conservative argument about climate adaptation. (Jim Watson / Reuters)

During the primary debates, Democratic candidates repeatedly accused each other of using “Republican talking points.”

But it was Andrew Yang who actually deployed a hyper-conservative argument on Wednesday night—albeit one that had somehow time traveled from the year 2080.

Asked in very general terms about his climate-change plan, Yang, a former technology executive, made a few points. Almost all of them were terrible.

“The important number in this is 15 percent of global emissions,” Yang began, referring to the U.S. share of overall carbon pollution. “We like to act as if we’re 100 percent. Even if we were to curb our emissions dramatically, the Earth is going to get warmer. The last four years have been the four warmest years in history. We are too late. We are 10 years too late.”

Okay, let’s stop there. Yang is correct about a number of facts here. The United States does emit about 15 percent of the world’s carbon pollution. Even if the U.S. cut emissions now, the world would keep getting warmer. (That would be true even if the entire world cut carbon emissions, by the way—the thing about filling the atmosphere with greenhouse gases is that they will keep mindlessly capturing heat until they are absorbed or dissolve.) Yang is also right that some climate change is already baked in: The planet has already warmed by about 1 degree Celsius.

Yang sees those facts, collectively, as a condemnation. “We are too late,” he intones. “We are 10 years too late.”

With some due respect: What the hell? Yang has taken several nominally true sentences and strung them together into a dangerous argument. Sure, we’re too late to avoid some amount of climate change taking hold. We will need to adapt to climate change—and frankly, few leaders talk enough about adaptation. (Several candidates onstage last night, including Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Vice President Joe Biden, have adaptation plans.)

But the game is not lost. The planet could still follow a range of emission outcomes, including a not very bad one and a catastrophic worst-case scenario. The worst, fastest sea-level rise seems like it may kick in between two and three degrees Celsius—and extraordinary action could yet hold that off.

Nor is the United States’ 15 percent share of global emissions reason for despair. First of all, the U.S. is the second-largest producer of carbon emissions. Second, there is a good response available to America’s emissions—and Yang, a former tech worker, should know it. The United States must develop decarbonization technologies here that can be sold or transferred to the rest of the world. That is why so many candidates stress the importance of R&D and why Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts have talked about green manufacturing.

This was not the end of Yang’s argument.

“We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction,” he continued, “but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground—and the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.”

Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe Yang is just very good at staying on message. He is, after all, referring to his signature proposal, a universal basic income that would assure every American $1,000 a month. And, like, … sure … I guess. It is true—it is obviously true—that people who have more money will be less vulnerable to any one disaster. And people who are facing disaster should have more money. Protection from vulnerability is basically what wealth is.

But handing out money is not an adaptation policy. And $1,000 a month is not a good response to losing your house to higher sea levels, which is the malady Yang seems to be implying. It is certainly not a collective adaptive approach to the challenge of climate change.

Think about it this way. Asked about climate change on national television, Yang said that climate change is an inexorable problem, that the U.S. can’t do much of anything about it, and that if the seas take your house—that is, if a problem outside your control deprives you of your most expensive asset—then the government shouldn’t do anything specifically to help you. That is quite an argument. It does not strike me as one well chosen for a party whose voters care about climate change and who are moving to the left.