First in an occasional series of articles on top issues in the 2020 presidential election.
Young climate change activists are trying to force global warming to the forefront of the 2020 presidential race, which has so far been dominated by other topics.
While candidates have released plans to curb climate change, until recently many have been more focused on universal health care, gun control, race, criminal justice and President Donald Trump. One Democratic contender who made climate change a centerpiece of his race, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, dropped out at the end of August.
But after a summer in which Europe roasted in record heat, tons of ice melted on Greenland and the Amazon burned, millions are expected to strike on Sept. 20 “to demand an end to the age of fossil fuels.” The walkout, inspired by 16-year-old Greta Thunberg's strikes outside the Swedish parliament building, is to be followed by a week of mobilizations and a second strike a week later on Sept. 27.
Democrats and even some Republicans favor candidates ready to act. According to a poll conducted for CNN by SSRS, a survey and market research firm in Pennsylvania, 82% of Democrats believe taking aggressive action to slow the effects of climate change is “very important” for Democratic candidates to highlight leading up to the election.
A spring survey of young Americans between 18 and 29 by Harvard University’s Institute of Politics found that 46 percent agreed with the statement that “government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of economic growth.” Only 16 percent disagreed.
And among Republicans, typically more skeptical about climate change, 69% of GOP voters are worried that the party’s climate position is hurting it with younger voters, in a poll done by GOP strategist Frank Luntz. The poll, about a carbon tax advocated by a group called the Climate Leadership Council, also found that 55 percent of Republicans want the government to limit carbon emissions.
But Republican leadership has resisted any climate change legislation and the Trump administration continues to roll back environmental regulations. Trump cut the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, is on the record saying that global warming is a hoax invented by the Chinese to attack U.S. manufacturing and pulled the United States out of the Paris international climate agreement.
Climate change already is causing intense heat waves, shrinking glaciers, the loss of sea ice and rising water levels, according to scientists. In the future, temperatures will continue to rise, more rain is projected for the northern United States and less for the Southwest, there will more droughts and heat waves, hurricanes will become stronger and more intense and the global sea level will rise between one and four feet.
The Fourth National Climate Assessment, a report by 300 federal and non-governmental agencies that was released last November on Black Friday, outlined the real-time effects of climate change across the U.S., broken down by region.
"Americans increasingly recognize the risks climate change poses to their everyday lives and livelihoods and are beginning to respond," the report said.
NBC spoke to Bill McKibben, an environmentalist and author, Michael Oppenheimer, an associated faculty member of the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment at Princeton University, and Stephen O’Hanlon, once a climate change denier and now a leader of the Sunrise Movement, which aims to stop climate change and create millions of jobs in the process.
They were asked to offer insights and suggestions for policies. Here is what they had to say:
What Should the Next President Do?
McKibben said, “Thirty years ago, we could've put a modest price on carbon and that would have steered the ship of our economy slowly but steadily in the right direction. Now, because we didn't do that, we're way further along the wrong direction and we have to restart very dramatically.”
McKibben said he thought something like the Green New Deal, a stimulus program aimed at addressing climate change, makes a lot of sense as “it is legislation on the same scale as the problem that we face.
“We have not taken any real federal action on climate change. So there aren't any simple, modest, easy, painless things for our next president to be doing,” McKibben said. “They're going to have to take bold action, and that bold action is going to have to include a strong support for an incentive program to building out renewable energy.”
The Green New Deal, introduced by Democrats Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, calls for large investments in renewable energy and guarantees high-paying green jobs. The resolution is nonbinding and would not become law even if passed by Congress.
McKibben's advice is to “put up solar panels at the fastest pace that is possible to imagine, stop all fossil fuel mining and drilling on public lands, and stop the expansion of all fossil fuel infrastructure.”
O’Hanlon believes there needs to be comprehensive action to combat climate change within the first 100 days of the next president’s administration.
“And that means moving to 100% clean and renewable energy,” he said.
The Sunrise Movement, whose army of students is bipartisan, camped outside of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to push the Green New Deal and helped to spread the word about it by organizing more than 250 town halls across the country. They say they will go after Democrats if they are not strong enough in their actions towards climate change.
“We can build a broad coalition that crosses party lines,” O’Hanlon said.
Oppenheimer told NBC that whoever is elected president “needs to take a thorough look at the science of climate change, which continues to move forward very rapidly, and develop a comprehensive policy to address the problem in light of recent reports by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which underscores an urgency about dealing with the problem.”
The report from the United Nations warns that if the temperature rises by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, the effects will be dire. The enormous changes needed to avoid such a catastrophe has “no documented historic precedent,” the report says.
Oppenheimer, who is also a professor of geosciences and international relations at Princeton University, said that “longstanding theory and international relations, which seems to be working out, unfortunately in the climate change arena, states that countries will belly up to the bar and do much more than they would do if they were acting alone if they know other countries are going to act as well. No one country can solve this problem.”
“We’ve got to get back in the ball game and resume international leadership or else the problem is just never going to get solved,” he said.
McKibben told NBC: “I think that the Paris accords are very important, but I don't think anyone will take us seriously now on them unless we're doing really crucial things in our own country.”
Students are becoming more aware of how detrimental the effects of climate change can be on their future. Stephen O’Hanlon used to be a climate change denier. Now, he is a leader of the Sunrise Movement.
“We started this movement because saw that the climate crisis was getting worse and our political leaders weren't taking kind of action that we needed,” he said.
To be taken seriously by his generation, candidates must pledge not to take money from fossil fuel executives, their lobbyists or front groups and instead prioritize the health of families, climate and democracy over fossil fuel industry profits.
McKibben said he thought a majority of Americans understood the dangers the world is facing. He pointed to organizations like his. 350.org and The Sunrise Movement and young activists like Haven Coleman, 13, a co-founder of US Youth Climate Strike. She and others around the world have been inspired Sweden's Thunberg, who began her strikes last year.
He said he did not worry about those who do not, whether for ideological or other reasons.
“The real job is to get those who are worried about climate change, active and engaged in this fight,” he said. “And if we do that, we'll have plenty of people to carry the day.”