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Climate change takes center stage as Democrats vie for White House

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Climate change takes center stage as Democrats vie for White House

Climate change has emerged as a top early issue for Democratic primary contestants in the 2020 U.S. presidential election, with most backing aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector.

The subject could be a divisive one in the general election as Republicans, including President Donald Trump, blast the progressive Green New Deal aimed at lower reliance on fossil fuel-based energy, a plan many Democratic White House hopefuls support.

With the 2020 election on the horizon, climate change "is more prevalent in the conversation already than it ever has been," Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune said in an interview. "It's clear that climate change is both a higher-priority issue, and we see candidates with much more ambitious climate proposals than we've ever seen before."

Most presidential candidates have yet to release detailed policy platforms. But climate change, which has not been a high priority for most voters, has become a top concern for Democrats as government agencies anticipate severe economic and health impacts as global warming intensifies. In 2018, 68% of Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters said climate change should be a top priority for the president and U.S. Congress, up from 56% in 2016, according to a survey from the Pew Research Center.

Among the Democratic field of candidates, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has taken the strongest stance thus far, pledging to make tackling climate change his No. 1 goal if he is elected.

"What we need is a president to do what presidents do, which is to blow the bugle and really call the country to a higher mission," Inslee said on "ABC News This Week" on March 3. "You've got to understand there's an enormous cost of doing nothing here ... There's a huge cost to our economy, to our health, to our national security if we do not act. But there's an enormous economic advantage by embracing clean energy."

As governor, Inslee has pushed an environmental agenda, although voters in the state rejected a ballot measure in 2018 to impose a tax on carbon after his proposal for a carbon cap-and-trade program failed in the 2018 Legislature.

Inslee's presidential agenda includes accelerating the transition to a 100% clean energy and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions; investing in jobs, infrastructure and innovation to advance climate objectives; fighting for environmental justice; and ending fossil fuel subsidies. Inslee's campaign page says he will issue his full plan in the coming weeks, but Inslee's campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Another presidential candidate, U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, has been among the more outspoken federal lawmakers on the issue of climate change, particularly when it comes to moving away from fossil fuels.

"We need a president who understands that climate change is real, is an existential threat to our country and the entire planet, and that we can generate massive job creation by transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy," Sanders said Feb. 19 in announcing plans to run again for president.

So far, six sitting U.S. senators have announced plans to run in the Democratic primary election. All of them have co-sponsored a resolution from U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., calling on the federal government to form a Green New Deal that includes a goal to meet all U.S. electricity demand with "clean, renewable and zero-emission energy sources" within 10 years.

Any legislation to achieve the resolution's goals, however, would need to pass through committees of jurisdiction in Congress, which is split between a Democrat-controlled House and Republican-majority Senate, meaning the bills would need bipartisan support.

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Leading Democratic candidates have also criticized the White House's reported consideration of an advisory panel to scrutinize findings from the military and intelligence community that climate change poses a national security threat.

"Climate change is a threat to our national security. Period," said U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, who announced her bid for the White House on Jan. 21. "Anyone who denies that has no business in our government."

Although Democratic contenders are still crafting full policy platforms, "most are calling for a very rapid and ambitious transition away from fossil fuels," Brune said. "Many of them are expressing support for 100% clean energy. Some are expressing strong support for the Green New Deal. The language is different, but the level of ambitious is surprisingly common actually at this stage of the game.”

For U.S. Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard, her state of Hawaii is among the parts of the U.S. most threatened by the climate change, particularly sea level rise and hurricanes.

Hawaii "is a frontline [community] for the impacts of climate change," Gabbard said in a February tweet. "We don't debate whether it is real here, we talk about how to adapt to rising ocean levels flooding storm drains & increasingly severe weather patterns." In her presidential campaign, climate change is among Gabbard's top four priorities along with Medicare, education and infrastructure.

Green New Deal risks

The Green New Deal resolution is an aspirational document that stands little chance of passage in the GOP-controlled U.S. Senate, but supporting the proposal could pose a liability to Democrats in the general election. In a recent poll, 72% of Democratic respondents said they supported the resolution, but only 25% of Republicans and 44% of Independents felt the same way.

Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee in 2020, dismissed a recent federal report warning of dire threats from global warming and has worked to rescind climate regulations formed under former President Barack Obama. Republican lawmakers in Congress have panned the Green New Deal resolution over its potential costs, which one think tank estimated could total as much as $93 trillion over 10 years. Most of the projected expense, however, stemmed from the proposal's call to ensure jobs and healthcare for all Americans. Congressional lawmakers have yet to release any bills to implement Green New Deal targets.

Despite GOP criticism of the resolution, groups pushing for tougher climate action expect attention on the issue to ramp up in the general election rather than moderate.

"Increasingly, climate change is something that voters across all demographics care about," the League of Conservation Voters' vice president of government affairs, Tiernan Sittenfeld, said in an interview.

And the Sierra Club's Brune said he expects attention on climate change to intensify in the general election. "There's a strong majority of voters in both parties that want to see more action on climate change. I think the shift has been that most candidates now look at climate change not just as an obligation, but as an opportunity."