Beto O’Rourke calls for $5T to fight climate change
Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke labeled climate change “the greatest threat we face” as he called for $5 trillion to be spent over the next decade with the goal of neutralizing carbon emissions in the U.S. by mid-century.
The former Texas congressman’s plan is among the most detailed of the crowded Democratic 2020 field, but it does not define how it would achieve dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Its goal for getting the U.S. to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 also aligns with the ambitious aims of the Green New Deal, a lofty set of climate priorities advanced by activists and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.).
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O’Rourke said he wanted the government and private sector to spend $5 trillion over 10 years on clean energy infrastructure, framing the investment as a way to limit significant future economic and health costs caused by climate change while also bridging racial, generational and economic inequities.
“The stakes are clear: We are living in a transformed reality, where our longstanding inaction has not only impacted our climate but led to a growing emergency that has already started to sap our economic prosperity and public health — worsening inequality and threatening our safety and security,” O’Rourke said on his campaign website.
That urgency largely reflects the comprehensive template Green New Deal supporters have put forward, which envisions a massive infrastructure and investment program designed to green the economy while consciously involving marginalized communities in the process.
“Climate change has a distressingly disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities across the United States and around the world. Race is the number one indicator for where toxic and polluting facilities are today,” O’Rourke’s website said.
Environmentalists were generally pleased with O’Rourke’s plan, which drew praise from groups ranging from Greenpeace to the League of Conservation Voters. Many called it thorough and progressive, especially for a candidate like O’Rourke who hails from the nation’s leading producer of oil and natural gas.
His plan calls for a “legally enforceable standard” and says it will “harness the power of the market” to reach net-zero emissions by 2050, with a goal of getting “halfway there” by 2030. That suggests O’Rourke would pursue some form of carbon pricing, but leaves open whether that would come through a tax or cap-and-trade program or some other mechanism.
O’Rourke also joined a growing list of Democratic contenders who want to end new fossil fuel leasing on federal onshore and offshore land. He said he’d set a net-zero carbon emissions standard for federal lands by 2030 and update royalty rates to reflect the costs of climate change.
Still, some environmental and progressive activists have criticized O’Rourke for what they perceive as closeness with the oil and gas industry. O’Rourke has received some criticism from activists for refusing to sign a pledge to reject large contributions from fossil fuel companies, political action committees and executives while Democratic presidential competitors Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee have.
O’Rourke would pay for some of the $5 trillion spending he envisions by ending favorable tax treatment for fossil fuel companies. He said those “tens of billions of dollars of tax breaks” would comprise a portion of a plan to transform the tax code to “ensure corporations and the wealthiest among us pay their fair share,” which he said would generate $1.5 trillion in revenue.
As part of that $1.5 trillion from changes to the tax code — which he said would be his first piece of legislation — O’Rourke suggested $300 billion in tax credits and $300 billion in direct spending could generate $4 trillion of investment.
O’Rourke also said he wants to set a trajectory for deploying zero-emissions vehicles, tighten pollution rules for power plants, boost building and appliance efficiency standards and rely on the federal government’s size to “decarbonize across all sectors.” He also would re-enter the Paris climate agreement, from which President Donald Trump has said he will withdraw.
The plan shows O’Rourke is “moving in the right direction,” said David Turnbull, strategic communications director with Oil Change U.S., the group that has pushed Democrats to shun fossil fuel industry money. Still, he said, agreeing to forego those donations was a “prerequisite” because “the fossil fuel industry is going to pull out all the stops,” he said.
Julian NoiseCat, the Green New Deal strategic director with progressive think tank Data for Progress, said O’Rourke’s plan included “strong echoes of the Green New Deal.”
“It’s also quite relevant that he comes from an oil-producing state in Texas [since] taking a stand on these issues if you’re from New York, Vermont or Massachusetts is not necessarily the same high-stakes politics as if you’re a politician from the great state of Texas,” he said.
Not all activists were satisfied. Sunrise Movement, the youth-led environmental group at the heart of the Green New Deal, said O’Rourke “gets a lot right,” but that he backtracked on comments he made in Iowa earlier this month to strive for net-zero emissions by about 2030.
“Beto claims to support the Green New Deal, but his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action that scientists say is necessary to take here in the United States to give our generation a livable future,” Varshini Prakash, the group’s executive director, said in a statement.
Jenny Marienau, political campaign manager with environmental group 350 Action, said there were many positives to O’Rourke’s plan,
but it still likely leaves him behind Sanders, Inslee, Warren and Gillibrand on her group’s scorecard.
“We’d like to see more from him on his own personal commitment by refusing to taking money from the fossil fuel industry,” Marienau said, who echoed concerns that O’Rourke’s timeline for curbing emissions wasn’t sufficient.