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Sorting through the 2020 candidates on climate

A group of teenage protesters, part of the global movement “Fridays for Future,” against climate change complacency, gather in front of the White House on May 24. ERIC BARADAT/AFP/Getty Images/AFP/Getty Images

The dangerous heat here last week, the last month in Europe, and the last two months in India and Pakistan, should remind everyone, once again, of the urgent need for action on climate change.

The last time this country elected a president, global warming got relatively little attention. This time around, there are several broad categories of positions. First is the do-nothing stand of Donald Trump. He has declared global warming a hoax; his scoffing attitude is further seen in his taunting tweets, during times of frigid weather, that it would be nice to have some global warming at that particular moment. He is taking this country out of the Paris climate agreement — something all the Democratic candidates would rejoin — and has ended Barack Obama’s Clean Power plan. His policy is an orgy of irresponsibility. There’s fertile ground there for Republican challenger Bill Weld, who believes in climate change and says the United States needs to rejoin the Paris accord.


Then there’s the economists’ consensus position: a refundable carbon tax based on the carbon dioxide emissions that result from the use of fossil fuels. The idea: By factoring the environmental cost of carbon pollution — the “externality,” in economic jargon — into the price of a fuel, that price will increase, thereby discouraging the use of the fuel. Thus carbon-free energy should become more attractive, price-wise, while coal will become an even less viable option than it already is. The cost of natural gas would also increase, as would that of gasoline.

This is an elegantly simple solution. Get prices right, and people will make smart environmental choices. Prominent Republican luminaries like former secretaries of State James Baker and George Shultz support the idea.

Problem: They are elder out-of-power statesmen — and today’s in-power GOP officials are ostriches on climate.


And while the idea is much-loved by wonks, the politics of a carbon tax are tricky. Clearly such a plan would have to be well-designed, perhaps with the first rebates preceding the levy itself, so as to lessen populist backlash. That kind of opposition has twice led to the defeat of a carbon tax proposal in Washington state; caused Australia to scrap its carbon tax; and prompted the French government to abandon plans for such a tax.

Still, among the Democratic presidential hopefuls, the idea, in one guise or another, has won some support. Former vice president Joe Biden favors a price on carbon and carbon tariffs to offset any global-warming price advantage foreign products might have. Among the other Democrats who would tax or climate-price carbon are Pete Buttigieg, John Hickenlooper, Kirsten Gillibrand , and Cory Booker . The campaign of home-state candidate Elizabeth Warren said, via e-mail, that she is open to the idea. However, Bernie Sanders, once a proud carbon-tax supporter, has grown mute and seemingly skeptical.

The most aggressive candidate on climate is Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who has made the matter his campaign cause celebre. Having failed to secure a carbon tax in his home state, he has a related carbon-pricing idea: a carbon pollution fee. Inslee has proposed an intensive 10-year effort to recenter the US economy on clean energy.

The easy Democratic talking point is for a Green New Deal, something that’s more concept than plan. It proposes spending large sums on a massive effort to transition to 100-percent clean energy in a decade, as well as making infrastructure more resilient, and offers an array of social benefits designed to protect those hurt vocationally by the battle against global warming.


A tougher clean energy choice for Democrats is nuclear power, which provides a fifth of US electricity and at half of the country’s carbon-free power. Of the relatively serious candidates, only Booker, Hickenlooper, and Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota were aboard for nuclear energy in a recent New York Times survey. Colorado Senator Michael Bennet also supports more nuclear power. Bernie Sanders is not only against more nuclear plants, he also wants to phase out the existing ones. Elizabeth Warren didn’t answer the Globe’s query about nuclear. A willingness to support all options, even ones that violate lefty dogma, is the acid test of a Democratic politician’s real commitment to reducing emissions.

There are other interesting idea out there. Bennet would mandate that all utilities offer an option for households and businesses to buy emission-free electricity and would require all automakers to sell one affordable zero-emissions vehicle. Biden’s climate plan calls for 500,000 electric-vehicle charging stations.

Voters of all stripes, except those with their heads firmly stuck in the sand, should be pressing the candidates regularly for their bold ideas on how to deal with this increasingly obvious climate crisis. On this issue, there’s little time to waste.