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Published on September 8th, 2019 | by Michael Barnard

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Warren’s Climate Plan: Solid, But Sophisticated & Hard To Sell To Voters

September 8th, 2019 by  


Elizabeth Warren, more so than some other candidates, has spread addressing climate change across different planks of her platform rather than having it as a single plank. This is a reasonable approach up to a point, as climate solutions and impacts touch almost every aspect of the United States (and the world), so inserting climate-related actions in most plans makes sense. However, it can make comparisons to more integrated and costed plans such as Yang’s difficult.

Graphic from Warren's campaign: "Fight climate change, create 1 million+ jobs"

Image courtesy Warren campaign

As a reminder, global warming has several large areas of causation. Electrical generation, transportation, land use, and industry all have greenhouse gas emissions. The US military is also seven times larger than the next seven largest military forces in the world combined, is estimated to be one of the single largest greenhouse gas sources in the world, and has not been required to quantify its emissions, but has been pointing out the significant global security risks of climate change for over a decade.

While dealing with the causes is critical, dealing with adaptation to the impacts is now important as well due to our delays in addressing this problem, which has been clear since the 1970s. Finally, while accelerating drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere is of lower priority than stopping emitting greenhouse gases, any plan should address aspects of drawdown as well. These aspects of Warren’s plan need to be assessed to see if they are present and the approaches are reasonable.

Democratic Candidate Table Stakes

There are three things which virtually every Democratic candidate agrees with. The first is that they all accept the science of human-caused global warming and resulting climate impacts, and the need to act on this serious, global issue. The second is a return to the Paris Accord, which Obama entered the USA into and Trump walked away from. The third is support for the Green New Deal, at least in principle, but implementation varies quite a bit. And the Paris Accord portion means that US military emissions would finally be reported, so that they could be tracked and reductions measured, a major step forward.


Electrical Generation

Warren has a plan for this, Accelerating the Transition to Clean Energy. One of her first statements points to an industrial plan, which we’ll cover in depth later.

“I’ve proposed a historic $2 trillion investment in researching, developing, and manufacturing clean energy technology here in America so that we can lead the global effort to slash greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and beyond.”

(Note: all quoted text is from Warren’s campaign documents unless otherwise stated.)

But then there’s an interesting wrinkle, which is very Warren-esque. She rightly identifies that companies face two types of climate risks, the first being damage to their ability to execute due to the impacts of climate change and the second being actions which cause climate change and must, inevitably, transform or stop entirely. The fossil fuel industry is called out explicitly in that last one.

“My Climate Risk Disclosure plan addresses these problems by requiring companies to publicly disclose both of these types of climate-related risks.”

Yeah, this is an investment advisory component and Warren would have the Securities Exchange Commission (SEC) put standards around reporting. Among other things, companies that were major contributors to global warming would have to quantify and value that impact in submissions. All of this is to fundamentally shift investment and the ability to garner capital by these firms. It’s fundamentally bringing the climate into Wall Street and the markets.

Many firms already do this, including many oil and gas firms. Many of their projections already assume a price on carbon, for example. But the disclosures are all over the map and whether they are accurate or merely greenwashing requires careful analysis of individual efforts. This policy would clarify that substantially.

This is a sophisticated, excellent and hard-to-communicate plan. It’s wonky. The average voter doesn’t read SEC filings or invest millions in the stock market. It’s much less voter friendly as a proposal than many, which is probably its biggest weakness.

That’s not the only plan which addresses electrical generation, however. In addition to the manufacturing plan covered in the next section, My plan for public lands includes references as well.

“I will set a goal of providing 10% of our overall electricity generation from renewable sources offshore or on public lands.”

This is matched by the elimination of new fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

“I will sign an executive order that says no more drilling — a total moratorium on all new fossil fuel leases, including for drilling offshore and on public lands.”

The combination will mean that at a stroke, public lands will be focused on low-emission, low-pollution wind and sun exploitation instead of fossil fuel exploitation. That’s a strong pairing of policy positions that are definitely good for the climate all over the world, and for the quality of the environment on public lands.

That first pledge includes removing barriers to leasing for renewables firms and to sharing the income with the states and local communities. The combination is a strong one.


Industry

As Warren split her clean energy transition across two chunks of her platform, I’ll follow with her industrial plank, My Green Manufacturing Plan for America. It’s a much more voter-centric plan. The words patriotism, jobs, American, and the like are all over it. She invokes the WWII mobilization of manufacturing to fight global fascism and Kennedy’s Space Race. Pulse-stirring stuff.

And the components of the plan mirror this. Her Green Apollo program would invest $400 billion in R&D for clean technologies and create a National Institutes of Clean Energy. Her Green Industrial Mobilization would provide $1.5 trillion for federal procurement of clean energy products at the federal level, but with a focus on promoting procurement of US clean energy products at all levels of government; bulk federal procurements would be tapped by state and municipal governments for lower-costs at those levels of government. Her Green Marshall Plan would be funded to the tune of $100 billion and promote American clean energy products and expertise globally, assisting other countries to advance without coal and gas. The plan also comes with a good slate of worker-protection clauses to ensure that people are paid fair wages and have access to collective bargaining.

A key premise of this plan is that all intellectual capital and manufacturing jobs would stay in the USA and owned by the USA. The first part makes tremendous sense, but the second part is much more challenging.

The USA remains a very strong manufacturer, but it’s heavily automated manufacturing and it’s only going to become more so. While this plan would increase knowledge and information workers in the United States, it won’t lead to a significant uptick in blue collar jobs because the products have to be globally competitive, and the way advanced economies compete with labor arbitrage economies is through automation. The ratio of labor to manufactured value has shifted, and now an order of two more magnitude of manufacturing has to be created in order to deliver the same number of jobs, and fewer of those jobs are available to basic skilled and semi-skill trades. Yang’s Freedom Dividend, for comparison, is a much more future-oriented approach to deal with this Catch-22, but has it’s own cultural-fit problem.

But that said, this is a salable plan to the people in the heartland who have seen the manufacturing economy hollowed out and want to get back to their well-paying shift work building the goods America and the world uses. A lot of voters will like this regardless of its basis in reality.

And the plan also addresses the reality that some jobs just aren’t coming back and in fact will go away faster. The fossil fuel industry jobs in oil, gas, and coal are yesterday’s jobs and the workers there will have to transition. There’s support in the plan for these workers to change their vocations, but this is something that the Democratic Party has been trying to assist these communities with for a couple of decades; people resist change and are highly susceptible to political messages. Warren’s plan is weak here from a voting perspective even as it’s strong from a reality perspective for assisting these voters, but it’s a calculated risk.

All of this is somewhat the equivalent of Trump’s promise to bring coal worker jobs back, frankly. It will appeal to a lot of the working class, if it’s communicated to them well, but won’t result in a lot of jobs for them unless manufacturing increases an extraordinary amount.

The plan also tackles the $5 billion program for foreign arms sales and promotion programs for the US fossil fuel sector, if not the billions to tens of billions in US subsidies to the fossil fuel sector annually.


Transportation

This is dealt with mostly diffusely and indirectly by the various policies. In fact, Warren barely mentions this entire sector. There’s little to see from her for electric vehicles or high-speed rail trains. But that doesn’t mean that the systemic changes Warren is introducing won’t have impacts.

She does mention transportation in passing in her Green Manufacturing Plan:

“we should prioritize research that can be commercialized to help close the gap in hard-to-decarbonize sectors — such as aviation and shipping”

That’s not a commitment to zero-emission vehicles. That’s not a commitment to electrification of transportation. That’s not a commitment to high-speed rail.

Warren’s plan might be intended to include low-emission transportation in the $1.5 trillion of federal procurement, but that’s not what the words say.

Warren’s investment filing disclosure would, in theory, impact this sector, if carbon were priced. But Warren’s published plans don’t say a thing about a tax (or fee, in Yang parlance) on carbon. An increasing price on carbon emissions would lead directly to SEC-mandated prospectuses that clearly laid out the implications for future revenue and profits, and hence market capitalization and investment.

However, Warren, as with many of the other candidates, committed to a carbon tax at the CNN town hall. Expect more on this front soon enough.

All in all, Warren’s plan more ignores transportation than not.


Land Use

Warren has not one but two land-use plans. The first is targeted at farmers, and the second is targeted at public lands.

“My plan will make it economically feasible for farmers to be part of the climate change solution by increasing CSP’s payments for sustainable farming practices from around $1 billion today to $15 billion annually — and expanding the types of practices eligible for compensation — so that every farmer who wants to use their land to fight climate change can do so.”

This is a reasonable approach, leveraging an existing pathway. It pales in comparison to Yang’s $285 billion commitment, which is much more in line with the scale of the challenge, if lacking in detail. However, Warren’s approach is, as always, more structurally wonky, but perhaps in this case more voter friendly.

This plan, like her manufacturing plan, has a context of returning decent-paying work to Americans. Her approach to this is strong supply management in agriculture — basically collective bargaining for farmers — allowing them to ensure that they can sell their products for more money than it takes to produce them. Ensuring a stronger annual profit reduces the incentives to cut corners for short-term gain, something that the agricultural industry is just as subject to as other industries.

Beyond that, there is the public lands policy. As noted already, it prevents new oil and gas exploitation on these lands and prioritizes much lower impact wind and solar electrical generation.

But that’s not all from a climate perspective. Warren’s approach would also reprotect all of the 2 million acres — an area 2/3 the size of Connecticut — that Trump has removed from protection in his Administration. More teeth and money would be put into protecting public lands and for land and water conservation efforts. That has direct and long-term climate benefits, but mostly from not turning nature into paved plazas.


The Military

Warren has already tabled legislation, the Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act, to address the military’s role in global warming and its ability to deal with its impacts. And the military is a different beast than other contributors to global warming. It has to be ready to be anywhere in the world on short notice, operate in zones with heavily disrupted infrastructure, and have major ships operate independently for extended periods of time. Powering this mandate with renewable and biofuel energy is impossible in the near term, and extremely difficult in the longer term.

But the military has a steady state set of operations that can be addressed. The sharp end of the spear is hard to decarbonize, but it’s a huge logistical machine, and much of the logistics can be decarbonized. And so, the first target of Warren’s plan is that:

“the Pentagon should achieve net zero carbon emissions for all its non-combat bases and infrastructure by 2030.”

Base adaptation funding would be provided. Contractors that weren’t zero emissions would pay 1% of contracts that they receive for the business, and that money would go to climate adaptation resiliency. Funding would go to research for advanced energy storage and microgrid approaches so that forward bases could be set up and run without nearly as much diesel generation.


Warren’s plan is wonky, somewhat hard to sell but solid

Warren’s plan is far from having the highest price tag. The numbers only add up to $4 trillion, 20% under Yang’s already low-ball plan. But they have the merit of working in the spheres that are under federal mandate, putting the money dominantly into existing processes and programs that have proven track records, and changing structural misalignments that create climate problems.

Some of it can be sold to the American working class easily, specifically the manufacturing jobs and the farm profit stabilization, even if the approach to gaining those benefits won’t necessarily sit well with fiscal conservatives. Others are harder to explain to most voters, such as her SEC disclosure policy.

And others, something shared with most of the Democratic candidates, are just going to be a problem for major stakeholders such as Wall Street and the fossil fuel industry. On those files, the stakeholders are going to be choosing among evils, less than rooting for the nominee or funding them. The military will prefer Warren to some other candidates, while Wall Street will likely favor others.

Is it the best plan? At the end of the series, I’m writing on the four frontrunners’ plans (plus Yang’s). I’m sure I’ll have an opinion.

Note: I’ve reached out to the Warren campaign for comments on my assessment. Should they respond, the article will be updated.


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About the Author

is Chief Strategist with TFIE Strategy Inc. He works with startups, existing businesses and investors to identify opportunities for significant bottom line growth and cost takeout in our rapidly transforming world. He is editor of The Future is Electric, a Medium publication. He regularly publishes analyses of low-carbon technology and policy in sites including Newsweek, Slate, Forbes, Huffington Post, Quartz, CleanTechnica and RenewEconomy, and his work is regularly included in textbooks. Third-party articles on his analyses and interviews have been published in dozens of news sites globally and have reached #1 on Reddit Science. Much of his work originates on Quora.com, where Mike has been a Top Writer annually since 2012. He's available for consulting engagements, speaking engagements and Board positions.



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