vision 2020

Beto O’Rourke’s Climate Change Plan Is Blandly Inoffensive

A serious man. Photo: Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

Before Monday, the boldest stand Beto O’Rourke had taken during the 2020 race was on a countertop. The former Texas congressman had been asking voters to judge him not on the thinness of his résumé, but the pleasantness of his banalities, handsomeness of his face, and expressiveness of his hand gestures. Then the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, offered voters roughly the same — and somehow, won a much warmer reception.

For weeks now, O’Rourke’s poll numbers have been slowly declining, while his campaign has bled core staffers. So, on Monday, in an apparent bid to revitalize his flagging candidacy, Beto did the unprecedented — he unveiled an original policy proposal.

And it was pretty all right!

In a speech at Yosemite National Park Monday, O’Rourke announced that combating climate change would be his top priority as president, and that he had a comprehensive plan to get the United States to net-zero emissions by 2050.

“The greatest threat we face — which will test our country, our democracy, every single one of us — is climate change,” O’Rourke​ told the assembled crowd. “We have one last chance to unleash the ingenuity and political will of hundreds of millions of Americans to meet this moment before it’s too late.”

O’Rourke’s plan consists of the following:

• $1.5 trillion in direct federal funding for emission-reducing infrastructure improvements, “renewable-power desalination plants and community solar facilities.” Using various incentives, O’Rourke’s plan claims that it will generate $3.5 trillion in additional state, local, and private climate infrastructure investments.

• A series of forceful, executive orders on climate, including ones recommitting the U.S. to the Paris agreement, ending fossil fuel leases on federal lands, establishing stricter standards for methane emissions, and redoubling disaster preparedness in front line communities.

• A requirement compelling public companies to disclose the climate risks and greenhouse gas emissions inherent to their direct operations and their supply chains.

• A “legally enforceable standard” that would guarantee America’s greenhouse gas emissions are net-zero by 2050.

Precisely what the enforcement mechanism on that last — and most important — provision would be is not clear. A carbon tax that ratchets up automatically when annual emissions reductions prove too meager would be one potential tool. But whatever that tool is, it’ll need to powerfully constrain many prevalent forms of commerce and consumption. Thus, if your top goal is to get elected president, it probably makes sense to be vague about the whole thing. But how President O’Rourke would get his plan through Congress — once the rubber meets the road, and the details of his carbon-pricing mechanism hits Fox News — is hard to see.

There’s a lot to admire about Beto’s first policy. If you’re only going to develop a detailed plan on one issue, climate is certainly the right one to pick. And for a candidate who doesn’t feel comfortable calling himself a progressive — and was once a stalwart ally of the fossil fuel industry — O’Rourke’s plan is respectably ambitious. A decade ago, calling for $1.5 trillion in green investments, financed by “ensuring corporations and the wealthiest among us pay their fair share,” would have marked O’Rourke as a left-wing gadfly.

Nevertheless, a detailed enforcement mechanism isn’t the only thing missing from Beto’s blueprint. Climate is a global problem, and emissions reductions in the U.S. will mean bupkes if India and China don’t find a cleaner way to fully industrialize. Thus, no serious climate proposal is complete without a plan for helping the developing world rapidly adopt renewable technologies. Meanwhile, considering the exorbitant costs of inaction on climate, $1.5 trillion is too modest an opening ask; in the unlikely event that President O’Rourke inherits a Senate majority, he’s going to have to drag moderate Senate Democrats kicking and screaming toward a climate policy that’s even mildly ambitious.

All of which is to say: It seems that O’Rourke has crafted a climate policy in his own image — one that’s likable, vague, and deeply inadequate to the task it has set for itself.

Beto O’Rourke’s Climate Change Plan Is Blandly Inoffensive