Democratic Candidates’ Climate Plans Are All Flawed, But Together They Add Up To A Great Plan

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With Sanders hospitalized, Warren surging, and CleanTechnica’s deep dives into the front runners (and Yang’s) plans completed, it’s time for the overview comparison. Which Democratic candidate climate action plan is currently best, and essentially is both going to deal with climate change and be salable to the American electorate in 2020?

Stacked bar chart comparing main DNC candidates climate plans
Chart by author

We’ll cut this a few different ways. The first is a straight-up numerical points scoring assessment across the five reviewed candidates (easier to keep it light now that Inslee isn’t in the running). Yang is in because he’s a tech entrepreneur with interestingly divergent ideas, and a lot of CleanTechnica readers like him.

Criteria definitions:

  • CO2 Emissions: Will it significantly improve the US’ CO2 emissions and hence help with global warming? Does it cover the big hitters of electrical generation, transportation, industry land use, and the military with useful plans? Requires a carbon price to achieve 5 points.
  • Pollution: Will it improve water quality, air quality, and reduce habitat destruction in addition to its CO2 impacts? This is the other big negative externality of the same things that cause climate change.
  • Timeframe: Is it reasonable from a timeframe perspective, both aggressive enough for the magnitude of the issue but also viable in terms of timeframe? That includes aggressive early targets for big hitters such as electrical generation and transportation, and a clear goal for complete decarbonization.
  • Planning: Does the plan have specific actions against clearly stated legislative or regulatory targets with drafted or identified legislation?
  • Economics: Is it economically sensible, both something the US can afford to do and one which maximizes economic benefits for the country? The transformation is an opportunity for economic growth, so it’s not just the committed dollars that make it economically sensible.
  • Leadership: Will it help globally with the US both being a strong positive example, but also a global leader of other countries? Is it democratic (small d) as opposed to authoritarian?
  • Voters: Will it motivate the Democratic base and Democratic-leaning Independents, attract other Independent voters necessary to secure the Presidency, and assist with House and Senate elections? Populism is too narrow and ill-fitting for climate action, so points are lost for that.

I’ve rated each of these on a scale of 1–5, with 1 being a poor score and 5 being a high score. For comparison, the Republican stance on climate change and pollution would rate them a negative 1 or worse. These are unweighted scores.

Kamala Harris’ plan is by far the best of the five I’ve reviewed. Part of the reason for that is she references existing draft legislation from multiple Democratic leaders, including Warren’s SEC climate risk piece as mechanisms for achieving her goals. Another part is that she’s clearest about what levers she would pull when, with only Warren being even close to as crisp as her.

However, Harris goes further on land use, committing to cutting short oil and gas leases on federal lands. Unlike any candidate except Biden, she has clear foreign policy goals stated, and is the only candidate other than Sanders I’ve seen to not only clearly call out the $100 billion (not trillions) in foreign aid for emerging economies, but promise to substantially increase it.

Harris is also the only other candidate besides Yang to commit to pricing carbon, but she has no specific target and instead has a consultation period. Her energy policy is equally aggressive and well laid out, with clear pathways and levers. Her transportation plan isn’t as fully featured as Biden’s, but it is more aggressive and once again calls out existing draft legislation.

Her weakness is on the military. She’s practically silent on it, which is an interesting oversight given her strength on foreign policy.

Harris has a lot of salable hooks in her plan, but unfortunately, she’s not going to be the candidate, and unless Biden is the candidate, she’s unlikely to be the VP candidate either, in my estimation.

Elizabeth Warren’s plan is second strongest, but only because of her leaning into points from Inslee plan. Her original plan wasn’t nearly as strong on aggressive dates or transportation. Her Wall Street focused climate risk SEC filings legislation is very strong. Biden references them, but without detail, and Harris simply points to Warren’s effort. The most clearly targets the military, where she sets a target of decarbonization of non-combat bases and infrastructure by 2030, the only candidate to make a specific claim.

Warren’s land use plans are stronger than Biden’s, mostly because she’s crisp about which existing programs she would use to make changes. Same end state, better plan to get there. Warren’s transportation plans are much stronger in the update, which isn’t hard as they were practically non-existent previously.

Her weaknesses are salability and foreign policy. She likes wonky governance plans which will leave most readers unexcited. They make sense, but need some crafting of the messages around them. She’s also almost entirely focused on domestic policy, at least in the climate front.

Still, from the nominee most likely to replace the very weak Biden, this is an excellent plan that can be improved.

Bernie Sanders’ plan is weaker than I expected from the early statements about the price tag. Only $8.7 trillion of the $16.3 trillion could be traced to things which would actually be beneficial for the climate, and of that $2.7 trillion is to help people with individual light passenger vehicles to acquire new individual light passenger vehicles, but electric ones. Not a great transportation plan.

His electrical generation and grid plan is much stronger in terms of goals and outcomes, but it depends on nationalizing pretty much all electrical generation using emergency Presidential powers.

This plan will sell well to people who like populist authoritarianism, but that describes the people who switched their votes to Trump in 2016.

Biden’s plan is the weakest of the five. It’s differently weak than Yang’s, but Biden is very strong on transportation, electrification of the roads, biofuels for sea and sky, and high-speed rail where it makes sense. I like the biofuels, but once again Mark Z. Jacobson disagrees, strongly preferring renewable hydrogen pathways for the 3%-4% of transportation fuel that isn’t used for road transportation.

Biden’s other strength is foreign policy, something he shares with Harris. This makes sense given his years as VP. He has a decently salable plan for conservatives, as it focuses on China to a great extent, the country which is pretty much the favorite punching bag for US politicians and voters right now. He has an interesting policy of extending an integrated grid and US foreign climate policy through the Americas, partly to counter the China Belt and Road initiative.

Biden’s land use plan is adequate, with the baseline of eliminating new oil and gas leases on public land, and the expansion of renewables on federal lands and waters. His industry plan is pretty weak too. And he’s very weak on what levers he would pull when to make his plan happen by what dates.

Andrew Yang’s plan is interestingly bad for the most part, and stronger than Biden’s in a couple of ways.

The best parts by far are his carbon fee and dividend and his focus on appealing to Independents and #NeverTrumpers. He assumes Democratic voters will mostly get out, but wants to get suburban and rural voters into polling stations, a strong strategy and the opposite of Sanders’ deeply left-base focused plan. Regardless of what happens in the coming months, the eventual candidate should get Yang and his strategists to help with market segmentation and improvement of their plans.

Yang’s biggest fiscal expenditure is for residential solar, but it’s targeting a small portion of potential electrical generation. If the same $3 trillion in financing, 62% of his budget as of the time of the review, was provided to utility-scale wind and solar, all primary energy in the US — all energy, all of it for every use — could be decarbonized. Instead, he’ll be lucky to see decarbonization of 2% to 5%. Mark Z. Jacobson disagrees with the maximum potential for residential solar, putting it at 14.5%, but even at his number, when the alternative is all energy, not just 14.5% of it, the argument isn’t strong.

His energy advisors are clearly not people who know what they are talking about in the energy space. While residential solar is an excellent, if an expensive, way to decarbonize, his nuclear plans and geoengineering plans are deeply misguided. He needs different advisors.

Right now, the perfect plan looks something like:

  • Yang’s carbon fee and dividend
  • Biden’s transportation plan but with Harris’ aggressive dates and crispness of execution
  • Harris’ energy plan with some inclusions from Sanders’ goals
  • Warren’s SEC Climate Risk plan
  • Warren’s land use plan with its crispness, with the addition of Harris’ extension to get rid of existing oil and gas leases
  • Warren’s military plan
  • A combination of Biden’s and Harris’ foreign policy plans, as they both have strengths
  • A combination of Warren’s and Harris’ industry, manufacturing, and jobs plans
  • Harris’ pointers to other Democratic draft legislation and call-outs to allies. She’s statesmanlike in this.

A few additions to Warren’s current plan would make it take the lead. It’s pretty good and no one should worry about the platform. Just adding a carbon price to it would make it a solid plan. Of course, there are voters who worry about Warren’s commitment to climate and drive to execute on it.

There are some clear differentiators emerging. Harris leans into the social aspects early, with a focus on communities at risk, and has the best plan overall. Biden is great on transportation, has a good perspective on foreign policy, but is weakest otherwise. Warren is wonky, has some good heartland manufacturing jobs statements and her plan has seen the most improvement. Yang is crispest on pricing carbon, but his energy policy is abysmal, along with other gaps. Sanders is the most populist and authoritarian, only one of which I expected.

Then there are the dollar figures. Sanders’ plan is the biggest at $16.3 trillion, but only 53% of the money is traceable to things that actually impact the climate. Harris talks about $10 trillion dollars, but doesn’t have a lot of differentiation and talks about that being made up of public and private money. Warren’s plan comes in around $5 trillion, and she’s clearest that this is government money but she isn’t clear about shifting the $2 trillion of R&D to useful deployment of things that work today. Yang’s plan comes in at $4.7 trillion, but $3 trillion of that is for loans for residential solar, which is a head-scratcher. Finally, Biden trails badly at $1.7 trillion, and it’s very poorly articulated as to where that money would go, and when, outside of $400 billion for research.

On a couple of key points, carbon pricing and nuclear, there are clear differences. Only Harris and Yang have written commitments to pricing carbon, although more candidates said that they would during the CNN Town Hall. Pricing carbon is a requirement for an effective plan, and stealing a Republican plan as Yang has done is a good strategy, just as picking up the ACA from Republican healthcare plans was a good idea. It’s inadequate on its own, but a plan without a market pricing of negative externalities of carbon won’t be running on all cylinders.

And then there’s nuclear. It’s unclear why in 2019 after the past decade of wind and solar crushing nuclear in terms of price and time to build, but there are still strong advocates for the fading technology. Among the front runners and Yang, Warren has committed verbally to eliminating the fleet by 2035, the hardest target. But of the reactors working today, only two will still be operating without extensive and undoubtedly uneconomic refurbishment by then, so this isn’t a significant issue in my opinion. Warren and Sanders both commit to not approving new nuclear or refurbishments. Yang is the only one of the five to be positive on nuclear, but there he’s talking about non-existent nuclear — thorium MSRs and fusion — as if they were things which could be up and running by 2027, so it’s clear he has no clue on the subject. Biden is promising more research dollars for small modular reactors, as if throwing money at an idea that’s going nowhere will make a difference to CO2 emissions. Harris is silent, which is a perfectly reasonable response.

Note: I’ve reached out to the five campaigns for comments as this article was being prepared. Should any get back to me, the article will be updated.


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Michael Barnard

is a climate futurist, strategist and author. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future. He assists multi-billion dollar investment funds and firms, executives, Boards and startups to pick wisely today. He is founder and Chief Strategist of TFIE Strategy Inc and a member of the Advisory Board of electric aviation startup FLIMAX. He hosts the Redefining Energy - Tech podcast ( , a part of the award-winning Redefining Energy team.

Michael Barnard has 719 posts and counting. See all posts by Michael Barnard