The biggest fissure last night had former Vice President Joe Biden on one side and Washington Governor Jay Inslee on the other. Biden’s climate proposal aims for a “100 percent clean-energy economy” by 2050. It asks Congress to spend $1.7 trillion on new climate-friendly programs. Inslee’s plan, by contrast, requires most of the economy to go 100 percent clean by 2030, and it calls for $9 trillion in investment.
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“We have to have a bold plan. And mine has been called the gold standard,” Inslee said last night. (Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, specifically, called his plan the gold standard.) “Middle-ground solutions like the vice president has proposed or sort of average-sized things are not going to save us. Too little, too late is too dangerous,” he added.
Biden, who has proposed a legitimately ambitious climate policy, seemed thrown. The United States is responsible for only 15 percent of global carbon emissions, he said. For the other 85 percent, the world needs something that “I helped negotiate … the Paris climate accord.” He promised to “rejoin that accord, and I would make sure we up the ante. I would be able to bring those leaders together that I know and convene them in the White House, and I would raise the standard.” His plan would also spend $400 billion on clean-energy R&D and build half a million charging stations for electric cars by 2030.
Most of the candidates onstage then sided with Inslee. “I have to agree with Governor Inslee,” Senator Kamala Harris said at the start of her answer. She then quoted a line from his stump speech. A few minutes later, Senator Cory Booker made the same move. “I want to take a step back and say that I agree wholeheartedly with Governor Inslee,” he said. “Nobody should get applause for rejoining the Paris climate accords. That is kindergarten.”
Booker then argued that every aspect of the U.S. government, from its trade deals to its economic policies, must center on climate change. (Inslee has already proposed plans advancing similar ideas.) “The majority of this problem is outside the United States, but the only way we’re going to deal with this is if the United States leads,” Booker said.
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Pursuing ambitious climate policy would have repercussions, and across the two evenings of debate, one of the clearest disagreements was about the right status for the fossil-fuel industry. Inslee argues that the oil and gas industry is the primary obstacle to taking climate action. Any attempt to reduce carbon emissions, he says, must address Big Oil’s power head-on. Siding with him most clearly are Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. Sanders went even further than Inslee on the first night of the debates. “What do you do with an industry that knowingly—for billions of dollars of short-term profits—is destroying this planet?” asked the senator from Vermont. “I say that is criminal activity. That cannot be allowed to continue.”