Wednesday night’s Democratic presidential debates revealed many things, but I want to focus on what was easily the most chilling moment of last night: Andrew Yang talking about climate change.
In 30 seconds, Yang offered a mix of ill-informed defeatism about our ability to thwart the worst effects of a changing climate and an ill-conceived adaptation plan that would require individuals to do the heavy lifting that only a government can. Add in his climate plan explicitly calls for geoengineering, and it’s clear Andrew Yang isn’t just bad at climate politics. He has the most dangerous ideas about climate in the entire Democratic field.
CNN brought Yang into the mix to talk about climate change after Washington Governor Jay Inslee and former Vice President Joe Biden sparred over their respective plans to address the climate crisis. Though neither had mentioned Yang, anchor Dana Bash kicked it to him. Yang’s response started off mostly fine, as he talked about how the planet has been exceedingly hot and that the heat waves we’ve seen this summer are part of the trend of more extreme weather. He also correctly noted the U.S. is responsible for only a portion of global emissions—that even if we stopped emitting carbon pollution today, the climate would still continue to change for centuries in response to past emissions.
All this is based on good, sound science. And the takeaway to me is the U.S. needs to assume the mantle of global climate leadership and embark on a moonshot or World War II-style (or whatever historical analog you prefer) mobilization of technology, research, and human capital to avert catastrophic climate change. Instead, we get this conclusion from Yang:
“This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late. We are 10 years too late.”
“We are 10 years too late” is the absolute shittiest climate messaging I could imagine a presidential candidate using. Yes, it’s even worse than Donald Trump’s braindead climate denial, which is transparently stupid as opposed to Yang’s veneer of science-backed wisdom.
But the real issue is, it’s also breathtakingly, dangerously wrong. If humanity had started reducing emissions 10 years ago, the lift to get to net-zero emissions by mid-century required to avert 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) of warming would’ve been easier. Instead, global emissions have increased over the past decade, and now the lift becomes harder, but it doesn’t mean we’re too late.
“Yes, we should have rapidly reduced emissions a while ago,” Costa Samaras, a climate adaptation expert at Carnegie Mellon, told Earther. “But humanity gets a vote on how bad climate impacts will be. Global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius isn’t great, but it’s better than 2 degrees, which is much better than 3 degrees. The magnitude and scale of future impacts depends on what we do now.”
Every megaton of carbon dioxide emitted (or not) matters. The world has a finite amount of carbon it can emit before we set the worst impacts of climate change in motion, and we haven’t blown through it yet. And because of the aforementioned centuries-long response of the climate, the choices we make for dealing with carbon emissions today will echo far into the future. Pretending otherwise is indulging in dangerous defeatism, and millions of Americans—many of whom want to hear more about the climate crisis and solutions—got to indulge in it with Yang.
Spreading this mentality now is the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time—a time when we need to be pushing for extremely bold actions. Even if Yang loses the nomination, which appears highly likely, pushing defeatism on a national stage only serves to help the idea spread just when we, the voters, must put increasing pressure on government officials to take the possibility of global climate catastrophe seriously and do something about it before it really is too late.
Plans for bold action are something we’ve seen from a number of other major Democratic presidential candidates, including Governor Inslee and Senator Elizabeth Warren who have comprehensive climate plans. Even Joe Biden has a plan—it isn’t on the same level as Inslee’s or Warren’s, but it’s still solid. The point is nobody is engaging in defeatism and saying we’re too late, and Yang’s sentiment otherwise is dangerously misguided.
“We need to do everything we can to start moving the climate in the right direction, but we also need to start moving our people to higher ground.”
Okay, yes! These are both good statements, though the first part does hint at Yang’s scary geoengineering visions of dimming the sun to cool the Earth or terraforming the planet. We’re not there yet, and frankly, it’s good he didn’t go into his plan to do those things.
The latter half is particularly interesting. “Moving our people to higher ground” is an idea generally known as “managed retreat” that’s becoming more talked about in climate adaptation circles. There are worrying signs that even beefed-up coastal infrastructure won’t be able to handle sea-level rise. In light of that and increasingly fierce storms, some coastal towns and neighborhoods have already chosen to retreat from the rising seas. More may do so, and it’s actually not bad that Yang introduced this idea. But it’s how he would implement it that’s most chilling:
“And the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families.”
The Heritage Foundation called, and it wants its white paper back. That Yang somehow thinks his universal basic income of $1,000 per month is enough to help coastal American save themselves is, I mean... Just... No. Universal basic income is not an adaptation plan.
The communities that have left, or are in the process of leaving the coasts have done so with massive government intervention to buy out homes and help with relocation costs. The whole idea of managed retreat is that it’s managed and not left in the hands of individuals. There is a whole raft of issues to be worked out to ensure it’s equitable and doesn’t screw poor people.
And the whole idea that homeowners who had very little say in the rising seas swamping their homes can solve the situation with $1,000 a month is beyond the pale. For most Americans, their home’s value is an outsize part of their net worth. Replacing these suddenly worthless assets with $1,000 bucks is bad policy, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it become an official plank of the 2030 Republican platform.
“Putting an end to unbridled development in the most vulnerable places is a no brainer in terms of improving resilience **READ: SAVING LIVES** but right now the opposite is happening if you look at trends in coastal development,” Andrea Dutton, a sea level rise researcher at the University of Florida, told Earther in an email. “Yang’s suggestions that $1000 per person will enable them to relocate to higher ground and protect themselves from the impacts of climate change/sea-level rise is totally misguided though, and far underestimates the true cost.”
None of this is to say Yang’s whole platform is bunk. The issues he’s raising around artificial intelligence and automation are dystopian but also legitimate concerns. We should be talking about this stuff more! And as a long-shot presidential candidate, he’s well-positioned to do that.
Samaras also noted that the format of these debates also doesn’t lend itself well to a nuanced discussion (a climate debate sure would be nice). But regardless, it’s unfortunate Yang spent a good chunk of his time on Wednesday night dabbling in dangerous thoughts of giving up and making citizens take care of themselves amidst a storm they had little part in creating. That’s a lot more dystopian than automation and AI.