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2020 Democrats on the environment: How Sanders, Warren, Biden, and Bloomberg stack up

While the 2020 primary season has largely been presented as the Democrats' attempt to pick a candidate who can defeat Donald Trump, there is one issue that is increasingly on the mind of voters heading to the Democratic primary polls: the environment. A survey conducted by Yale and George Mason University found that climate change is now the most important single issue for Democratic voters. It's an understandable concern.

Scientists fear we may have already experienced some climate tipping points and the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that we only have until 2030 to get our act together or face truly irreversible effects. The 2020 Presidential election marks an important pivot point in how we handle the threat of climate change. For voters heading to the polls for the Democratic primary and ultimately the general election, here are where the Democratic candidates stand on the climate and the environment.

Bernie Sanders

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Environmental History

Independent Vermont Senator and self-identified Democratic Socialist Bernie Sanders has made consistency his calling card. The one-time long shot candidate who has ridden the wave of a political revolution to front runner status has been saying the same things since he first got into politics in the 1960s. That includes his positions on the environment. While economic and civil rights issues first pushed Sanders into activism and eventually politics — and those remain his driving issues in the 2020 presidential campaign — he has largely understood the importance of environmental protection and sustainability, according to a profile tracking his environmental record published in the Vermont Digger. He oversaw one of the largest environmental projects in Burlington, Vermont's history during his time as mayor of the city in the 1980s — and once he joined the US Congress, he began using his position to push for more environmental protections, particularly preventing corporations from polluting and embracing a shift to renewable energy sources. It's nearly impossible to disentangle Sanders' economic views from his environmental ones — they are firmly entrenched in his overall vision for a version of America that he views as more just.

While in Congress, Sanders took a particular interest in the environment. According to the Vermont Digger, he held a number of congressional hearings during his early years in the governing body to tackle topics of toxins found in common household products. He was one of the driving forces behind the Indoor Air Quality Act of 1993, which established new standards for what type of chemicals could be used in products like carpets and paints. Sanders has been involved in a number of major environmental policy lifts, including a carbon tax-and-dividend bill and accompanying clean energy bill that he attempted to bring to the floor in 2013, though it failed to gain much traction. Perhaps his biggest legislative accomplishment when it comes to addressing climate change and the environment was his push to introduce a national energy efficiency grant program, which was passed in 2007 — his first year in the Senate. Sanders also worked behind the scenes to include $3.2 billion for energy efficiency and renewable energy programs for communities throughout the U.S., which was included in the Obama administration's 2009 economic recovery package.

On Climate Change

Sanders has called the climate crisis "the single greatest challenge facing our country." He has the most "radical" climate policy among all presidential candidates, according to The Intercept, and is ready to spend billions of dollars to update America's energy infrastructure in order to bring the country to a carbon-neutral status.

Using the Green New Deal as his framework, Sanders has proposed a massive, $16.3 trillion platform proposal that would completely overhaul the nation's energy framework. The plan starts with declaring climate change a national emergency, enabling him to use the office of President to its full extent, as the executive branch has fewer barriers when addressing an emergency than it otherwise would. The current Senator would nationalize public utilities across the country, making them publicly owned and operated as not-for-profit entities — eliminating the for-profit operations of energy companies like PG&E in California. Under a Sanders administration, the government would be put in control of these companies and they would be more tightly monitored and regulated. They would also push for carbon-free electricity nationwide, meaning there are no emissions resulting from power grids. That would require ditching fossil fuels including coal and natural gas, which make up about 63 percent of U.S. electricity generation.

Sanders set 2050 as the year he would like to achieve de-carbonization. That includes a 2030 deadline for eliminating sales of carbon-emitting vehicles. That's a rather radical deadline, but would also put the U.S. back in line with much of the rest of the world. Sanders' plan would accelerate America's push for making transportation carbon-neutral — a necessity, given that the sector accounts for nearly 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., according to the EPA.

In addition to making dramatic changes to energy production and transportation, Sanders also plans to use the environmental-driven upheaval to create and fill new jobs. He proposes creating a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund, equipped with $40 billion that will be used to help provide communities with new jobs, including working on renewable energy projects and updating currently insufficient infrastructure. He would also recommit the Paris Climate Agreement that Trump withdrew the United States from and pledge an additional $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a program established for advanced economies to provide funding that can be used by developing nations to create clean energy programs and embrace renewable alternatives to fossil fuels.

On Environmental Protection

In addition to being one of the leaders in embracing a drastic transformation for U.S. energy consumption, Sanders has also largely been a leader when it comes to protecting the diverse ecosystems across the country. He has a history of supporting and sponsoring strong environmental protections, and would continue that mission as president. He has pushed back against Trump's attempts to roll back protections put in place for endangered species — though specifics on this are lacking from his campaign.

Sanders has proposed investing $171 billion into programs that would restore damaged wetlands and corals, plant new trees and mitigate soil erosion, and other concerns caused by flooding and other natural disasters. He has also proposed investing $900 million into the Land and Water Conservation Fund that is used to protect the wellbeing of threatened areas across the country. Sanders has also called for an end to all fossil fuel leasing on federally owned lands and water, which would put an end to the expansion on natural gas drilling that the Trump administration has openly triumphed.

Environmental Scorecards:

Joe Biden

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Environmental History

Joe Biden has been in the public eye for decades now. Best known as serving as Vice President to President Barack Obama, Biden also served as a Delaware senator from 1973 to 2009. During that time, he had plenty of opportunities to cast votes on environmental issues and be a driver for the topic. At times, he did, in fact, lead the way in addressing climate change. He introduced the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986, which required the Environmental Protection Agency to to create a national policy regarding climate change and provide annual reports to Congress on the topic. Biden likes to tout the accomplishment as "one of the first" climate change billssomething that he is largely correct in claiming.

However, given Biden's long history as a Senator, he's cast his fair share of votes that undermined environmental causes. He has on multiple occasions failed to strengthen the Endangered Species Act and voted against stricter vehicle emissions standards on at least four occasions — including an effort in the early 1990s that even had bipartisan support, before climate change became a politicized, partisan issue — before finally supporting them in 2007. Biden also was absent when the time came to lend his vote to the 2008 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, one of the strongest pieces of climate change legislation ever to reach the Senate floor at the time, according to Inside Climate News as he was on the campaign trail at the time. Biden has also had a history of promoting things like clean coal, which doesn't really exist. While he was present and a powerful voice in the Obama-era stimulus package that made massive investments in clean energy projects, he also pushed to continue allowing things like fracking and drilling for natural gas, which enabled the ongoing burning of carbon-emitting fuel sources that got us into this climate predicament.

On Climate Change

Despite his relatively mixed history on environmental topics — at least compared to other Democratic candidates — Biden is promising to be much more active as president in addressing climate change than he ever was as a senator or vice president. His campaign has promised a $1.7 trillion investment in what it calls a Clean Energy Revolution. That plan includes a target goal of getting the United States to net-zero emissions by no later than 2050, including establishing milestones throughout to ensure the program is on track — though the specific benchmarks are not entirely clear. Part of Biden's plan would include a $400 million investment made over a 10-year period to push for new climate and environmental research, including developing cleaner infrastructure programs. Biden plans to recommit the country to the Paris Climate Agreement, and wants to make the U.S. a leader globally when it comes to addressing climate change.

Biden also has a "day one" plan, in which he would sign a series of executive orders on his first day in office that would push the country into a more environmentally conscious direction. Those day one executive orders include new requirements for limiting pollution from oil and gas operations, using the federal government's procurement system to move to 100 percent clean energy vehicle fleets, and making all government buildings climate-ready and energy-efficient, among other efforts that would establish new environmentally-friendly standards for government operations. Biden's campaign also promises to treat climate change as a national security threat, opening up the possibility for additional avenues for responding to the crisis through the military.

Vice President Biden does not explicitly support the Green New Deal, calling it an important framework for addressing the climate challenge, but has publicly dismissed other candidates who have explicitly embraced the proposals. Biden's approach is a considerably more traditional one, using the power of the executive branch when applicable to push executive orders, but largely focusing on attempting to rally Congress to pass climate legislation — something that has not been accomplished with a Republican majority in the Senate. Depending on the make up of Congress under a Biden presidency, it is possible that this approach will result in efforts to produce real change on the environment sputtering out, given that the former Vice President does not support eliminating the filibuster in the Senate that would allow votes to pass on a simple majority.

On Environmental Protection

While Biden's record on environmental protection is not quite as spotless as some of his competition, he is promising to largely undo the actions of the Trump administration and restore power to the EPA to prevent pollution and limit the expansion of gas and oil drilling operations. Biden explicitly supports ending new oil and gas leases on federal lands and intends to entirely end offshore drilling operations. He has also promised to pursue polluters and violators of environmental law — particularly those who have harmed low-income communities and people of color. Biden has also particularly taken note of the need for clean and reliable water sources for all Americans and has made protecting essential waterways a primary focus of his environmental protection agenda — one that is particularly important given the ongoing risk of important waterways running dry due to climate change.

One area that Biden has largely been absent on is endangered species. While it feels likely that a Biden administration would undo many of the attempts to undermine protections for endangered animals that the Trump administration has championed, Biden has not addressed the issue during his campaign. Endangered species do not appear within his current climate policy. Given his previous history of voting against some expansions for the Endangered Species Act, it seems likely that the topic will not be a priority for a Biden administration.

Environmental Scorecards:

Elizabeth Warren

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Environmental History

Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, like Bernie Sanders, has made the economy her primary issue. But that doesn't mean she hasn't been aware of and involved in climate and environmental legislation during her relatively short time as an elected official. She has compared the looming climate crisis to the collapse of the financial system in 2008, noting that we have much of the evidence right in front of us but are still largely failing to act. Warren has a near perfect score when it comes to her votes on the environment, according to the League of Conservation Voters, and has also introduced her own legislation that would advance environmental interests. Most notably, in 2018, she led the charge to introduce legislation that would require all companies to disclose climate-related risks that could threaten their operations. Warren's record is one of the shortest of all the candidates, but it is also one of the most consistent.

On Climate Change

Warren has run on the promise that she has a plan for just about everything. That certainly includes addressing climate change. Warren has introduced a total of 16 plans on how her administration would approach the issue of climate change and push the United States toward a green economy — many of which acknowledge that climate change is an intersectional issue that touches on many different areas from trade to military operations to manufacturing. Warren has arguably the most comprehensive vision for addressing climate change, though it is arguably less ambitious than the Sanders plan based on overall investment.

Warren, like most of her competitors, wants to get the United States to carbon neutral status as quickly as possible. For the Senator, that includes establishing goals that would require all new building to be net zero emission projects by 2028 and moving to a carbon-neutral electrical grid by 2035. Warren also wants to push all passenger vehicles — including cars, trucks, and public transportation vehicles like buses — to be reliant on clean energy only by 2030. Warren's timeframe for this shift is more ambitious than others, essentially launching a 10-year plan for getting to carbon-neutral status. In order to help achieve this goal, Warren is promising a total of $3 trillion in investment in green energy programs — funded largely by undoing the Trump administration's tax cuts for corporations. That investment will include more than $400 billion set to go into research and development for clean energy technology and $1.5 trillion in federal procurement to make all government operations carbon neutral. Another $100 billion will go toward exporting American-made clean energy products to other countries, which won't just help other nations push to cut back on their own climate emissions but will also create new jobs in the U.S. Warren estimates that she will be able to create about 10.6 million new jobs in the clean energy sector, largely through federally funded programs that will help to create new opportunities for clean energy technology.

On Environmental Protection

Similar to her approach to climate change, Senator Warren also has one of the most comprehensive plans for environmental protection. A Warren administration would undo all of the Trump administration's meddling in environmental policy, re-instituting the protections that have been undone and re-empowering the EPA to go after polluters and those who have abused public lands and potentially poisoned at-risk communities. Warren, like Sanders, has embraced a total ban on fracking and drilling for oil and natural gas on federal lands and plans to implement that restriction via executive order. She also intends to limit existing oil and gas projects from emitting dangerous pollution including methane gas.

One area that Warren goes deeper than any other candidate is on protection for coastal lands and water. The Senator introduced a plan called the Blue New Deal that provides new and much needed protections for ocean areas under U.S. jurisdiction. Warren's plan would support carbon sequestration projects including reinvigorating coral reefs, improving seagrass beds, and revitalizing wetlands that have fallen victim to pollution and been harmed by the ongoing effects of climate change. Given the fact that coral reefs in particular are facing a potential extinction as viable areas for growth are becoming few and far between, Warren's plan could be an essential one for the future survival odds of these carbon-storing polyps.

Environmental Scorecards:

Michael Bloomberg

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Environmental History

Michael Bloomberg has not held an office that would allow him to drive national climate policy, but during his time as mayor and in his private life, he has put in a considerable amount of effort to address climate change. According to Inside Climate News, he developed one of the most comprehensive city-level efforts in the world to address the potential impact of climate change on New York City — an effort driven by the devastating effects of Superstorm Sandy on the region. He led New York City to significantly reduce its carbon footprint, even while the country's overall footprint was increasing. Bloomberg has served as a United Nations climate envoy and also established America's Pledge — an effort to unify cities, states and businesses across the country to meet the goals established by the Paris Climate Agreement after it became clear that President Trump would lead the U.S. to withdraw from the agreement. Bloomberg has also used his massive amount of wealth to finance environmental efforts like the Beyond Coal campaign, which has reportedly helped close down nearly 300 coal-fired power plants across the United States.

Of course, not all of Bloomberg's money has gone to actually helping improve the environment. Bloomberg has spent plenty of money backing Republican candidates, including those who have been opponents to major climate change legislation. Bloomberg has also drawn some criticism of his business relationships in China — one of the worst offenders for greenhouse gas emissions.

On Climate Change

Because Bloomberg doesn't have a true voting record on climate change, much of the understanding for how he would address the issue as President comes from his plans rather than his actions. Bloomberg has established a goal of getting the United States electrical grid to 100 percent clean energy by 2050, with plans to cut overall emissions by 50 percent as soon as 2030 and reaching a goal of 80 percent clean electricity by the end of his second term, should he manage to make it that far. A Bloomberg presidency would push to close all remaining coal power plants across the country and would end all construction of natural gas plants, opting instead of clean energy alternatives. Bloomberg has also called to quadruple the amount of federal spending on clean energy research and development, bringing the spending total up to as much as $25 billion per year. As president, Bloomberg would re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and increase the U.S.'s commitment to the goals established by the agreement. Climate change would also be a top priority for all U.S. foreign policy as the country would look to limit its emissions globally, including stopping the expansion of dirty-burning fuel sources in other parts of the world.

While Bloomberg is certainly no slouch on climate change policy, he also has not been as inclined to embrace more radical plans of action. He has explicitly dismissed plans like the Green New Deal, calling it "pie in the sky, that we never are going to pass, never going to afford." His general disdain for these types of efforts may make it more challenging for him to form a consensus around his own plans if elected president, though a Bloomberg administration would undoubtedly take climate change more seriously than a Trump administration would.

On Environmental Protection

Bloomberg's policies are relatively light when it comes to environmental protection, though the candidate makes it clear that he would basically undo everything that the Trump administration has pursued. That includes reinstating previous protections for public lands and wildlife. Bloomberg's campaign says he intends to protect as much as 30 percent of all public lands by 2030, more than doubling the amount of federally owned areas that are currently protected. He has also said that he intends to add new protections for national parks, though details on that are relatively sparse. Bloomberg, like Biden, intends to end new oil and gas drilling leases on federal lands and put an end to offshore drilling operations.

Environmental Scorecards: