Where The 2020 Democrats Stand On Climate Change With the Iowa caucuses around the corner, we give you a Short Wave guide (with some help from our friends at NPR Politics) to where the top-tier Democratic presidential candidates stand on climate change and the environment. Political correspondent and NPR Politics Podcast co-host Scott Detrow breaks it down for us. Follow host Maddie Sofia on Twitter @maddie_sofia and Scott @scottdetrow. Email the show at shortwave@npr.org.
NPR logo

Where The 2020 Democrats Stand On Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/800113374/800938410" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Where The 2020 Democrats Stand On Climate Change

Where The 2020 Democrats Stand On Climate Change

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/800113374/800938410" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


You're listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SOFIA: Well, well, well.


SOFIA: It's you.

DETROW: How's it going?

SOFIA: Scott Detrow, one of the hosts of the NPR Politics Podcast, my bro on the NPR softball team and, honestly, my greatest enemy.

DETROW: It's going to be a challenge to be in the studio for this taping, but I think we can make it work.

SOFIA: Let's just get it over with.

DETROW: OK, yeah.


SOFIA: But honestly, I am really excited about today. We have a special NPR Politics-slash-SHORT WAVE collab for y'all. We're talking science, and we're talking politics.

DETROW: I am excited to be here. I'm sad it's not an episode about comets, sincerely.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

DETROW: But we will talk politics and science instead.

SOFIA: So politics is your main deal, Scott. Anything interesting going on? Anything we should be talking about right now?

DETROW: Oh, you know, after a year-plus of talking about this election, the contests are about to start, and that is pretty exciting.

SOFIA: So, OK, we're coming up on the Iowa caucuses. All the action is really happening on the Democratic side. Walk us through the political calendar.

DETROW: So we are less than a week - February 3, the Iowa caucuses. It's the first contest in this race. A week after that, it's the New Hampshire primary. Then you've got Nevada, South Carolina, then a whole bunch of states in March. About a month and a half from now, we should have a pretty good sense of who the Democratic nominee is probably going to be.

SOFIA: OK, so at this crucial point in the political calendar, Scott, you and I are going to talk about where the Democratic candidates stand on probably the most crucial scientific issue they could face in office, which is climate change.

DETROW: Yeah, all of these candidates have really broad plans on a whole range of issues, but every single one of them has made it clear that if they become president, they will devote a ton of resources to addressing climate change, something they all think is far overdue, dangerously overdue, and something that they're very serious about. Just as one example of that, I was at an Elizabeth Warren town hall in Iowa the other week.


DETROW: And somebody asked her what she thought the most pressing existential issue facing the United States was.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: China, Iran, North Korea or Russia?

ELIZABETH WARREN: Can I pick a fifth?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: You can pick a fifth.

WARREN: Climate.




DETROW: And I think most of the candidates would say that. And every single one of them has one plan or another that gets the country to net-zero emissions by midcentury, which would be a massive overhaul of our economy and our energy system.

SOFIA: Right. And that's certainly not the case with the Trump administration - right? - this plan for net-zero emissions.

DETROW: Yeah, there's a pretty clear party disparity here. The Trump administration just does not take climate change seriously. And over his first three years as president, President Trump has really done everything he can to dismantle everything that President Obama did to try to address climate change.

SOFIA: Yeah. So today on the show - climate change and the environment. Where do the Democratic candidates stand?


SOFIA: All right, Scott, it's about a 10-minute podcast, so we're going to stay focused on just four of the Democratic candidates in this episode. Who we talking about?

DETROW: So we are talking about - and we've kind of referred to them as the big four, the four candidates whose polls are a lot higher than the rest of the field, and that is former Vice President Joe Biden, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind.

SOFIA: Right. So these are the people that are polling the highest at this time.

DETROW: Yeah, there's a real gap between them and - Amy Klobuchar is probably the next candidate in the list. Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are at the head of the field in the national polls. But when it comes to Iowa, the state that's just about to have its contest, they are all really jumbled together very closely. And you could see a case where any one of them comes out on top in Iowa, and that really changes the conversation going forward.

SOFIA: OK. So instead of talking about the candidates one by one, we're going to talk about where they agree and disagree. So starting with where they agree, one key area of climate policy is the Paris climate agreement.

DETROW: Yeah. And this is where every one of these candidates starts the conversation about climate change. This is just a no-brainer to them. Quick reminder - this was the 2015 global agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The U.S. pledged to reduce its emissions by about a quarter by middecade. And President Trump not only said he'll pull out of it; his administration dismantled the main way the U.S. was going to get there, through these EPA rules that would change the way energy is generated. This is something every Democrat says they will put the U.S. back into.

And here's the thing - even though President Trump has said the U.S. is going to leave the Paris climate accord, that decision does not fully go into effect until November 4, 2020, which just happens to be the day after the presidential election. So...

SOFIA: Even though he said we're out, we're really not out yet.

DETROW: We're really not out yet. And if one of these Democrats wins the presidency the night before, you can bet that he or she will say on stage that night, and I am keeping us in the Paris climate accords.

SOFIA: So it sounds like these candidates all agree that the U.S. should get back into the Paris agreement, like, ASAP, which, by the way, the scientific community says we need to go way beyond in order to avert a worst-case climate scenario. What are the other areas that these candidates agree on in terms of climate and the environment?

DETROW: This debate was really framed by and has been dominated by the Green New Deal, which is a plan that was rolled out in Congress by Democrats which really set broad goals. It wasn't, like, detailed - this is exactly what we're going to do. But it said, we are committing to making the United States net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

SOFIA: So when we say net-zero carbon emissions, like, briefly, what does that actually mean?

DETROW: Yeah, when you're talking about net zero, it means that you're still going to be generating some sort of greenhouse gas carbon dioxide here and there, but that's offset in one way or another, whether it's through planting more trees or taking other steps or even getting into the conversation about taking CO2 out of the air.

SOFIA: So let's talk a little bit about the carbon tax because I know that's another thing that a lot of climate scientists have been pushing for as something that could actually make a big impact somewhat quickly.

DETROW: Yeah, whether they do it through a carbon tax, directly, you know, charging companies for emitting carbon dioxide, or the other plan that's usually talked about, a cap-and-trade system, where companies are basically given permits to pollute CO2 and limits of it. The candidates are all a little vague on which one they would prefer, but they are all very clear on putting a price on carbon dioxide emissions, saying you need to make companies want to avoid doing this and pay a cost otherwise, otherwise things just won't change.

SOFIA: Gotcha.

DETROW: The other thing that has really been a new focus in recent years is they are also all prioritizing taking the revenue from whatever approach they take and putting it back into disadvantaged communities, communities where pollution has been much more of a concern, reinvesting the money.

SOFIA: OK, so where are the places where the candidates diverge from each other?

DETROW: So I'd say one big area is spending. So Warren, Buttigieg and Biden are all pretty close to each other. They want to spend something like $2 to $3 trillion on these efforts. Bernie Sanders blows way past them. He's talking about spending $16 trillion and really reshaping the entire economy as part of this effort.

SOFIA: Gotcha. Let's talk a little bit about nuclear energy because I think that's one area where the candidates really diverge, right?

DETROW: Yeah. And this is probably the biggest substantive difference.


DETROW: Obviously, that spending difference is a big deal...

SOFIA: Sure, sure, sure.

DETROW: ...But in terms of the choices you make in trying to reach this goal. Nuclear energy generates about 20% of overall energy in the U.S. right now.

SOFIA: Sure.

DETROW: And at the moment, it is the biggest source of clean energy in the sense of greenhouse gas emissions.

SOFIA: Specifically. Yeah, OK.

DETROW: Yeah. Beyond that, obviously, there's a lot of questions and concerns about nuclear energy, about the safety of it...

SOFIA: Sure.

DETROW: ...About what to do with the spent fuel rods and things like that. So this is where you have a split. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders say, as ambitious as their goals are, they don't want nuclear energy to be part of it.

SOFIA: Interesting.

DETROW: They want to focus on things like wind and solar and other sources and leave nuclear behind. Biden and Buttigieg say, yes, this is a huge source of carbon-free energy. We need to make it part of the conversation.

SOFIA: OK, so why are Joe Biden and Buttigieg in support of that?

DETROW: I think this is a good example of this split we've talked a lot about in the campaign, about candidates who are taking the more progressive stance and the more ideological stance, and that's the way we divide this up.

SOFIA: Sure.

DETROW: You know, in reality, any one of these administrations would be the most aggressive ever on dealing with this.

SOFIA: Yeah, yeah.

DETROW: But I think Biden and Buttigieg are saying this is already a huge source of power, so therefore let's keep dealing with it, and let's build solar on top of that.

SOFIA: So why are Warren and Sanders opposed to nuclear power? I don't know.

DETROW: I mean, I think for Bernie Sanders especially, this has been a - really, a focus of environmental organizing for decades...


DETROW: ...Even before climate change was a serious top-of-mind concern. Concerns about the safety of nuclear power plants among anything else - on his website, with his plans laid out, he specifically mentions Fukushima and Chernobyl as large-scale, you know, nuclear disasters that he would rather avoid and focus on other energy sources.

SOFIA: Right, right, right, right. OK, Scott, you cover these candidates for a living, I assume because you were really bad at science when you were younger.

DETROW: (Laughter) Yeah.

SOFIA: Do you - (laughter) do you see candidates changing their stances or further clarifying their plans when it comes to climate and the environment, as we go?

DETROW: I would say I have seen a big shift compared to previous elections that's really notable. I've covered politics for a while. I've covered environmental and energy stuff here and there. And I've always really been interested in this as a campaign issue. And up until relatively recently, there was the thinking, kind of like with guns, that Democrats were worried that talking a lot about climate change, talking a lot about what they would do to change the electricity picture, would do more harm than good for them in a general election...

SOFIA: I see.

DETROW: ...That voters would think, you're talking about raising my gasoline. You're talking about raising my home energy costs. I don't want to do that. There has been a real shift, and I think it has to do with a lot of the things we've been seeing around the world - wildfires, droughts, things like that...

SOFIA: Sure.

DETROW: ...Where Democrats feel like, no, the public's on our side on this. We're going to talk about it, and we're going to draw out this contrast with the Republican Party.

SOFIA: All right, Scott Detrow, what a dream to have you in the studio.

DETROW: I'm glad this went by as quickly as possible.

SOFIA: That's how I feel, too. Scott is headed to Iowa. In fact, he will be there by the time you hear this episode. If you want to follow his stories from there, find him on Twitter. We will link to him in the notes of this episode. We're also going to put this side-by-side of the candidates and where they stand on climate. You can find that at npr.org. You're welcome, Scott.


SOFIA: (Laughter) Anytime you're hankering for a little political coverage, the NPR Politics Podcast has your back with new episodes every weekday. Scott is just one of the hosts - thank God.

DETROW: (Laughter).

SOFIA: You'll hear from a whole pile of NPR political reporters, and they've also done sit-down interviews with each of the Democratic candidates. Scott, good luck in Iowa.

DETROW: These shoutouts are so magnanimous of you. I really appreciate it.

SOFIA: (Laughter).

This episode was produced by Brett Bachman and Brit Hanson, edited by Viet Le and fact-checked by Emily Vaughn. I'm Maddie Sofia. And thanks for listening to SHORT WAVE from NPR.


SOFIA: Hate to say it, but I had fun.

DETROW: Well, me, too.


Copyright © 2020 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.