Photo: AP

If you want further proof the 2020 presidential election will be the first presidential election where climate change is treated like it really matters, let me direct you to Beto O’Rourke. The former member of Congress’ biggest climate moment to date has been refusing to sign a pledge eschewing donations from fossil fuel executives. But that changed in a big way on Monday when O’Rourke rolled out a sweeping climate policy as his first major policy proposal.

It’s a pretty damn ambitious one at that.

The biggest ticket item calls for investing $5 trillion over 10 years in infrastructure, worker training, science, R&D, and communities most impacted by climate change. This would be paid for by fixing the tax code to “ensure corporations and the wealthiest among us pay their fair share,” though the exact details of what that entails (a carbon tax? A wealth tax?) are unclear. The plan also sets a goal to get the U.S. to net zero emissions by 2050. The plan is a little bit Green New Deal and a little bit neoliberal, which is pretty much O’Rourke in a nutshell.

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“I think this plan is quite bold, particularly coming from a Texan politician who is refusing to stop taking campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry,” Leah Stokes, a public policy expert at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told Earther.

O’Rourke called climate change his “north star” on Friday at an event in Las Vegas, foreshadowing this week’s policy rollout. The four point plan lays out how climate policy could serve as a guide for President Beto. Those points include cutting carbon pollution “from day one,” spurring $5 trillion in climate investments, getting to net zero emissions by 2050, and adapting to changes already in the pipeline.

Those middle two points are by the far the most ambitious. The emission timeline, which includes a signpost of getting halfway to net zero emissions by 2030, is in line the target scientists have laid out for global emissions to avoid warming the planet more than 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). In that regard, O’Rourke’s plan is in line with scientific reality. Yet O’Rourke himself has also said he supports getting to net zero emissions by 2030, so the difference in his proposal is curious. The Green New Deal, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s resolution that’s become a measuring stick for climate proposals, calls for “meeting 100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources” by 2030 and alludes to the the 2050 net zero timeline.

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In the net-zero emission section of his plan, O’Rourke also calls for “hold[ing] polluters accountable, including for their historical actions or crimes.” That phrase is an intriguing one, especially in light of the numerous lawsuits opened up against Exxon and other oil companies for their role in causing climate change while sowing doubt. Stokes said it “[s]uggests, like tobacco, he would potentially support massive lawsuits against the industry.”

“It has many of the hallmarks of the Green New Deal by acknowledging what science tells us is necessary to avoid the worse impacts later this century by eliminating emissions from our economy and building resilience in just ways,” Greg Carlock, the Green New Deal research director at progressive think tank Data for Progress, told Earther in an email. “But this plan is less specific and less ambitious compared to the goals laid out in the House and Senate GND resolutions.”

That includes lack of committing to zero emissions from the energy sector by 2030, as well as other sectoral specific decarbonization plans. The plan also breaks from the Green New Deal in other ways, among them alluding to the need for a price on carbon. Specifically, it says O’Rourke would work with Congress to set a “legally enforceable standard” for carbon emissions in his first 100 days as president. Putting aside that Mitch McConnell has compared himself to the grim reaper for any progressive policy proposals and will almost certainly mobilize Congressional Republicans to block such a measure, Columbia economist Noah Kaufman told Earther that was among the most interesting parts of O’Rourke’s plan and could herald a carbon market or carbon tax.

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And while the plan also includes a commitment to unions and people impacted by climate change, including front line communities from tribes to those living in territories like Puerto Rico as part of a $5 trillion investment, it also doesn’t deal with some of the other major Green New Deal planks like Medicare-for-All, improved public transit (though it does advocate for better access), and other progressive policies that the proponents of the resolution say are necessary for making a clean energy-focused economy work.

That $5 trillion investment would be fueled by $1.5 trillion in public money, which the plan says would come from repealing fossil fuel subsidies and rewriting the tax code. The rest would come from unnamed private sector investments, and Carlock said the numbers in O’Rourke’s plan likely “inflates the investment numbers a bit.”

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There are still lots of details to be hammered here, but the signal the policy proposal sends is pretty clear. For one, O’Rourke is about more than standing on tables. His plan would radically reshape how much the U.S. spends on clean energy, which Stokes noted has been investing $56 billion annually for the past few years. But she and Carlock noted that the investment still isn’t be enough to rapidly transition to a carbon-free economy or to address the other changes that need to take place.

But the plan also signals something more important: Climate change continues to rise up the ranks of issues among Democratic presidential candidates. That include Jay Inslee, who jumped out in front of the issue as the first-ever climate change-focused presidential candidate, a detailed public lands proposal from Elizabeth Warren that includes phasing out fossil fuel production, and many candidates throwing their support behind the Green New Deal and turning away fossil fuel donors. The urgency behind the issue has become so great that it’s impossible for mainstream candidates to ignore. Now if only there was a forum for candidates to hash their differences out for the public to hear.