Watching the Democratic presidential candidates on CNN’s seven-hour town hall on climate change was like attending the shot-put competition at a track meet. It wasn’t even a debate because the candidates agreed on most major points. Any sense of competition came in seeing which would offer the most grandiose plans. One after another, each candidate strained to hurl the biggest, most expensive wad of policy proposals as far as humanly possible.
Senator Bernie Sanders set the bar high. “We are proposing the largest, most comprehensive program ever presented by any candidate in the history of the United States,” he declared. Other candidates didn’t want to come up short, offering plans to transform radically fundamental elements of American life—not just energy, but farming, housing, transportation, and more. No detail was too small. Yes, Senator Kamala Harris admitted, it will be necessary to ban plastic drinking straws to avert climate change.
There were quibbles over some particulars, but, as the New York Times noted, “One thing is certain: All of the candidates want to spend money, and lots of it.” Former Vice President Joe Biden’s plan alone clocks in at a relatively modest $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Senator Cory Booker, meantime, wants to spend $3 trillion. Harris ups the ante to $10 trillion, but Sanders prevails in the spending contest with a $16 trillion plan.
The candidates’ upfront price tags reflect only part of their proposal costs. Each would subject entire industries to unprecedented levels of federal control, with varied promises to ban fracking and offshore drilling; mandate electrical utilities’ reliance on wind and solar installations; and restrict so-called factory farming in favor of vaguely defined “sustainable farming.” In some cases, the candidates said that they’d favor incentives to encourage changes in public behavior. Biden, for example, suggested that, if the government just builds 500,000 electric-car charging stations, drivers will happily give up their current cars and trucks. “By 2030 we’re all electric vehicles,” he promised in an earlier debate.
The candidates didn’t shy away from endorsing outright coercion, either—especially if the public doesn’t behave as instructed. Harris’s plan demands a “balance” between “creating incentives and then banning certain behaviors.” Not just plastic straws, but red meat, air travel, and air conditioning could all fall under suspicion in the candidates’ proposals.
Of course, all the candidates’ plans share a fundamental problem. It’s not just the enormous costs imposed on taxpayers, businesses, and consumers, or how their policies would restrict economic and individual freedom; the biggest problem is that these proposals simply won’t work. And that should worry not just conservatives and free-market supporters but also anyone who believes that climate change is a real threat.
A policymaker who genuinely wishes to bring down greenhouse-gas emissions—without tanking the economy—would explore the most efficient and least disruptive mechanisms possible, including a carbon-tax offset by corresponding cuts in other taxes. Biden and Senator Elizabeth Warren, in fact, expressed vague support for a carbon tax in Wednesday’s forum. A serious policymaker would also apply market forces to help identify the best technologies for replacing fossil fuels. Finally, he or she would apply scientific research to answer complex questions like what type of farming has the lowest impact, or whether wind and solar power are the best substitutes for coal and natural gas.
The candidates’ proposals accomplish almost none of these things. Democrats berate Republicans for “denying science,” yet there is little science in their position papers. Instead, they believe the answers to climate change are obvious: mandated technologies—like wind, solar, and electric cars—that we’ve already decided are best. We simply need to restrict behaviors—eating meat, air travel—increasingly viewed as problematic. Rather than looking to markets and science to develop better approaches, they want to impose readymade solutions by fiat.
There’s another reason we know that these proposals won’t work: they’ve already been tried. In 2011, Germany launched its ambitious Energiewende plan to shift its power grid from coal and nuclear power to “renewable” wind and solar. The program costs some $36 billion annually, and electricity prices have skyrocketed. Yet Germany’s carbon emissions remain as bad as ever, its air is filthy, and coal strip mines continue to eat into the landscape. The project is an epic failure by any measure.
Most of the Democrats’ climate plans, nonetheless, follow the German roadmap. Warren even vows to phase out nuclear power, currently America’s biggest source of carbon-free energy. A growing consensus exists among energy analysts and climate scientists that nuclear power is a crucial component in reducing carbon emissions. But on this issue, you don’t hear much from the candidates about “trusting the science.”(Booker and Andrew Yang, who take pro-nuclear positions, are brave exceptions.)
It’s almost as if bringing down carbon emissions isn’t the candidates’ top goal. If you look closely, you’ll see that their proposals are loaded with items only marginally related to carbon emissions: billions for “infrastructure” and new foreign aid, promises to create “10 million jobs”—and let’s make those “union jobs” while we’re at it.
All the plans owe some debt to Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s sweeping Green New Deal proposal, introduced earlier this year. Cortez helped move the goalposts of the debate by presenting the high cost of her plan as a selling point and by conflating the climate issue with longtime leftist goals of fighting income inequality and promoting “social justice.” In a discussion reported by the Washington Post, Cortez’s Svengali-like former chief of staff, Saikat Chakrabarti, took an expansive position when discussing the Green New Deal. “Do you guys think of it as a climate thing?” he asked. “Because we really think of it as a how-do-you-change-the-entire-economy thing.”
Few of the Democratic contenders tilt as far left as Ocasio-Cortez, and most know better than to commit the classic Kinsley gaffe of saying what they actually think. But the devil is in the details. The candidates’ climate proposals envision a dramatic shift in power to Washington rulemakers, and a radical reworking of American life. If only they were as committed to developing climate policies that might work.
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