A satellite image taken Tuesday and provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows Hurricane Dorian moving off the east coast of Florida in the Atlantic Ocean. (NOAA/AP)

As leading candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination prepared for seven back-to-back hours of climate change conversation on CNN on Wednesday night, Hurricane Dorian slowly crept up the Atlantic coast from Florida. The convergence of those two events is important: Dorian, climate scientists tell us, is a good example of how the warming world can make bad things worse.

There are no simple answers to addressing climate change, a slow-building but accelerating function of greenhouse gas emissions, largely from burning fossil fuels. Nearly every nation must implement myriad changes to fully constrain future warming, the sort of international agreement that is generally the domain of science-fiction movies involving hostile space aliens. It’s trivial, though, for Democratic candidates to propose doing more to curtail the problem than President Trump. After all, nearly all of the actions focused on climate change that Trump has taken have been to decrease the extent to which the United States addresses the issue.

So what are Democrats proposing? A variety of things. The 10 leading candidates (those who are both participating in CNN’s town halls and those who have made the cut for the next debate) propose spending $1 trillion to nearly $17 trillion to either slowly or dramatically reshape the U.S. economy.

The Washington Post has an existing article detailing how Democrats who are seeking the nomination hope to address climate change if elected. I took the responses offered by the candidates and catalogued them, overlaying additional information from the candidates’ climate proposals, to create a sort of cheat sheet for what the candidates propose to do.

Here’s that cheat sheet. (Links to each candidates’ proposals are at the bottom of this article.)


(Philip Bump/The Washington Post)

And, for the uninitiated, here is what each issue means.

“Net-zero emissions by”: To prevent the worst effects of climate change, a U.N. panel believes that the world must be carbon-neutral — removing the same amount of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide as is emitted from the atmosphere — by 2050. The candidates have different estimations for when their proposals might achieve net-zero emissions (an essentially equivalent term), ranging from 2045 to 2050.

The following eight questions (those bolded on the chart) were included in The Post’s questions to candidates. (You can read more detailed answers at that link.)

“Carbon pricing”: One way that carbon dioxide emissions might be reduced is to make them more expensive. Adding a tax to gasoline to discourage consumption, for example, or creating a system by which companies that emit greenhouse gases are limited in how much they can produce without facing a financial penalty.

Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) didn’t explicitly embrace a price on carbon, with Sanders’s camp arguing that the urgency of acting on climate change might make this possibly incremental step too slow.

“Rejoin Paris agreement”: The Paris agreement formulated under President Barack Obama was important because, while not compulsory, it engaged most countries in a unified plan to address the problem. Each leading candidate believed the agreement should be rejoined, with most — excluding South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Andrew Yang — offering specific targets to which the United States should agree.

“End extraction on federal land”: Much fossil-fuel extraction (drilling for oil and gas or coal mining) happens on land leased from the federal government. That gives the government leverage over extraction — leverage that every Democratic candidate said they would exert.

“Ban fracking”: Improvements in the process of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) led to a boom in oil and gas extraction. That boom has been beneficial in that it dropped the price of cleaner-burning natural gas, prompting some movement away from producing electricity by burning coal. But it has also had negative consequences, including leaks of the greenhouse gas methane at extraction sites and concerns about water pollution. While some candidates agreed that the process should be banned, others argued that it should instead be better regulated.

“More nuclear plants”: Nuclear power is cleaner than fossil-fuel-based energy production, with the obvious long-tail exception of possible pollution. (Think: Chernobyl.) Some candidates think an expansion of nuclear power would allow for more rapid elimination of carbon dioxide production (as much of the United States’ emissions stem from producing electricity). Others (such as Buttigieg) want a moratorium on new plants. Still others (such as Sanders) want to phase nuclear power out.

“End fossil fuel subsidies”: The candidates all agree that the federal government should not subsidize the fossil-fuel industry.

“Ban fossil fuel exports”: On the question of exporting fossil fuels (such as coal sent to Asia or liquefied natural gas sent to Europe), opinions are more mixed. Fossil fuel production contributes to climate change — but it also means jobs.

After reviewing the candidates’ proposals, we added three more categories.

“Carbon capture”: There’s an ongoing debate over the extent to which carbon dioxide can be captured when fossil fuels are burned. Systems for capturing emissions are still fairly immature, and the process is often seen as a political compromise that allows the fossil fuel industry to press forward.

“No more pipelines”: One of the focal points of the climate movement in recent years was the building of a pipeline running from Alberta, Canada, to the Gulf Coast. One section, called Keystone XL, became emblematic of industry’s ongoing investment in extracting and burning fossil fuels, with opponents argued that its construction would create infrastructure that would eventually be used.

President Trump approved the pipeline (meaning that it could enter the United States from Canada), and several candidates have indicated that they would revoke that approval. Two, Sanders and Yang, argue that all pipelines should be blocked.

“National security threat”: The Trump administration has downplayed the extent to which climate change is seen as a national security threat, something that the Defense Department had included in previous assessments. Several Democratic candidates cite national security explicitly, including Warren, who has a position paper specifically on the issue.

Then there’s the economic impact. Each candidate offered an assessment of how much would be invested in addressing climate change, often incorporating estimates of both federal and total investment. (Former vice president Joe Biden’s plan, for example, imagines spending $1.7 trillion in federal investment and $5 trillion in total, including investment from state and local governments and the private sector.)

Several candidates also suggested that this investment would lead to a surge in new jobs. Retrofitting buildings and constructing green-energy production systems would, after all, require people to do much of that work. Sanders, who proposes the most spending, also has the most significant projected job-creation effects.

This overview necessarily omits a lot of nuance, which is why each candidate’s plan is linked below. But it hopefully offers some point of contrast as viewers consider candidates’ positions.

Candidate proposals: Biden, Booker, Buttigieg, Castro, Harris, Klobuchar, O’Rourke, Sanders, Warren and Yang.