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Tech 2020: Climate Talk on the Campaign Trail

Andrew Grzywacz

Andrew Grzywacz

If there’s one issue that is both getting a lot more attention than past campaigns, and yet at the same time not enough, it’s climate change. Unlike previous issues we’ve spotlighted in this series (AI, facial recognition, data privacy, and really just tech in general), climate has been a major area of policy interest for both candidates and voters this time around.

The 2020 race may be boiling down to its last couple candidates, but it’s worth looking over the most recent group of past and now former candidates for a sense of how presidential contenders in general are approaching climate policy this year, and what positions and proposals they’ve staked out on how to deal with climate change going forward. For all of them, that begins with rejoining the Paris climate agreement. But let’s go deeper into what exactly they are, or were, bringing to the table – and more specifically, how climate tech factors into the conversation.

2020 Climate Policies

Former Vice President Joe Biden frequently touts that he wrote the first bill on climate change, introducing the Global Climate Protection Act into the Senate in 1986. But what about for 2020? As a candidate Biden is pushing for the boldest climate change proposals of his career, including a $1.7 trillion investment into creating a 100% clean energy economy that results in net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest and clear enforcement mechanisms for meeting emission targets along the way. The plan also calls for $400 million in climate research over the decade for deploying new solutions and infrastructure upgrades. In other words, climate tech! That program would be in part funded by the elimination and reallocation of fossil fuel subsidies in the U.S. (part of Biden’s call for a worldwide ban on fossil fuel company subsidies).

Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren approach climate action through the framework of the Green New Deal proposal. For Sanders, that means a $16 trillion overhaul of the country’s energy economy, nationalization of public utilities, the implementation of a nationwide carbon-free electrical grid, a 2030 deadline for eliminating the sale of carbon-emitting vehicles and a Climate Justice Resiliency Fund that would allocate $40 billion toward new jobs around renewable energy projects and infrastructure upgrades. Sanders, who has not been shy about taking on the fossil fuel companies in his stump speeches, has also called for ending fossil fuel subsidies, raising taxes on fossil fuel industry income and imposing a nationwide ban on fracking, leases for drilling and extraction on public lands and construction on new fossil fuel infrastructure.

For Warren – the latest to drop out of the 2020 race – dealing with climate change started with introducing over a dozen distinct plans for climate action, running the gamut of mandating all new building projects to be set to net-zero emission standards by 2028, a carbon-neutral electric grid by 2035, clean-energy passenger vehicles by 2035 and a 10-year plan for hitting carbon-neutral status. That’s on top of $400 billion invested in clean energy R&D programs and another $1.5 trillion in federal procurement to make the government carbon neutral. A byproduct of all this would be the creation of over 10 million new jobs in the clean energy field, predominantly funded by federal programs that incentivize new opportunities for creating clean energy tech. Like Biden and Sanders, Warren had also staked out a number of anti-fossil fuel positions, including: eliminating fossil fuel use in new or renovated federal buildings by 2025; ending fossil fuel subsidies; ending support for global fossil fuel projects; and imposing a moratorium on new fossil fuel drilling leases.

Finally, we have Mayor Mike Bloomberg, the last of the final four candidates. Bloomberg first tackled climate change as mayor of New York City and led initiatives for reducing the city’s carbon footprint. As the founder of America’s Pledge, Bloomberg was also a leading voice on promoting cross-collaboration between cities, states and the private sector in continuing to meet the emissions goals outlined by the Paris agreement. The former mayor has also financially backed a number of environmental organizations and campaigns, like Beyond Coal. As a 2020 candidate, Bloomberg rejected the Green New Deal, instead opting for policy proposals that would otherwise aim to decarbonize the U.S. electrical grid by 2050; reduce U.S. carbon emissions by 50 percent in the next 10 years; phase out still-open coal plants and construction of new natural gas plants; and radically ramp up federal spending for clean energy R&D projects. In another contrast to his former rivals – while he, like Biden, Sanders and Warren, took the No Fossil Fuel Pledge that called for rejecting campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry, he remained supportive of fossil fuel use overall.

The Common Thread in All of Them: Tech

Although none of these campaigns prescribe specific tech-driven solutions for dealing with climate change, they all call for pumping federal investment dollars into research projects that will ultimately yield those solutions. That’s about all politicians can promise on this front anyway. After all, they aren’t engineers themselves…

But while the tech side of 2020 climate proposals may amount to little more than “spend more money on this,” at the end of the day what’s reassuring is that the candidates, past and present, recognized that technology is an integral ingredient for how the country – and the world – can hope to respond to and mitigate the impacts of climate change. There’s no dealing with a changing climate without new tech to deploy on that front, and despite all the contrasts in policy and vision on the 2020 campaign trail, the candidates at least were able to all agree on that.