Beto O’Rourke moves to establish himself as a climate candidate in a crowded field

Climate has emerged as a leading issue going into the election.

Former U.S. Representative and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke speaks during a town hall event, April 17, 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Former U.S. Representative and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Beto O'Rourke speaks during a town hall event, April 17, 2019 in Alexandria, Virginia. CREDIT: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Beto O’Rourke on Monday released a sweeping proposal to address climate change, his first significant policy plan and the most specific climate-related proposal released by a Democratic presidential contender so far.

The former Texas congressman’s four-part proposal would put the United States on a path to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, with $5 trillion spent on infrastructure and innovation in the first decade upon him becoming president. O’Rourke released the proposal to coincide with a campaign trip through central California, with the backdrop of Yosemite National Park to provide added emphasis to his call to combat climate change.

O’Rourke is the third 2020 hopeful to release a climate-related policy proposal. He follows Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) who was the first to stake out a stance on this issue with a public lands proposal package that included renewable energy targets and a pledge to ban all new fossil fuel projects on federal lands. And last Friday, Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) unveiled a proposal on the campaign trail that he describes as an environmental justice agenda, which includes working with impacted communities to strengthen environmental rules targeted by the Trump administration.

The plan unveiled by O’Rourke on Monday echoes tenets of the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), including addressing infrastructure, clean water, public health, and focusing on populations often considered most vulnerable to climate change and its impacts. Specific dates, dollar figures, and emission targets are also offered throughout the plan to provide details on how its goals should be achieved.


Unlike the Green New Deal resolution, O’Rourke’s proposal also touts legal accountability for polluters — which could mean that companies like Exxon might face repercussions for their historic contributions to climate change — as well as requiring public companies to monitor and disclose their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Climate change is the greatest threat we face. And we won’t solve it with half measures or half the country. It will take all of us,” O’Rourke said in a statement Monday unveiling his proposal.

If elected, O’Rouke said he would spend his first day in office issuing a series of executive orders meant to curb pollution and recommit to the Paris climate agreement (something a growing number of candidates have voiced support for). He would also set a “net-zero emissions by 2030 carbon budget” for public lands in addition to leveraging $500 billion in annual government procurement for decarbonization across “all” sectors, including cement and steel. These sectors contribute to climate change but have often gone ignored in the broader conversation, which is typically directed specifically at the fossil fuel industry.

Subsequent action would include a 10-year, multi-trillion dollar mobilization investing in “infrastructure, innovation, and in our people and communities,” funded by “structural changes to the tax code” that would target the wealthiest Americans along with corporations. 

O’Rourke’s plan would prioritize disaster aid and elevate climate change as a national security issue. Military bases would be fortified against climate change, while the private sector would be incentivized to invest in “evidence-based, risk reduction measures” to address the impacts of global warming. The government would also increase “by ten-fold” its spending on pre-disaster mitigation grants.

Components of the plan are likely to face scrutiny from climate advocates, specifically the 2050 timeframe. The Green New Deal resolution calls for a massive national energy shift over the course of a decade to phase out fossil fuel emissions from the sector — many argue this must happen by 2030. That date is in keeping with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report released last fall, which found that the world had only around 12 years before crossing a dangerous threshold of global warming before facing catastrophic climate impacts on a scale not yet seen.


“We’re glad to see Beto release a climate plan as his first policy and commit to making it a day one priority for his administration. He gets a lot right in this plan,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said in a statement. Sunrise has played a key role in influencing the federal resolution for a Green New Deal. The group, however, criticized the O’Rourke plan’s 2050 timeframe as not reflecting established climate science.

Broader criticisms O’Rouke is facing from some environmental groups like Sunrise extend to his congressional record, which includes a 2016 vote in favor of offshore drilling. He has also declined to take the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, saying he doesn’t want to turn down donations from individual workers. Eleven presidential candidates have taken the pledge so far, which bars donations from PACs, executives, or front groups linked to fossil fuels, according to the 501(c)(4) group Oil Change U.S.

Other environmental groups have praised the plan, including the Sierra Club, Greenpeace — which called it an “important contribution to the national effort to boldly tackle the climate crisis” —  and the League of Conservation Voters, which said it was “the kind of leadership we need from our next president.”

Global warming has emerged as a leading topic going into 2020, with polls showing that Americans are increasingly worried about climate change and that many want action. “It’s no surprise the climate crisis is now taking center stage, because it’s clear that it is a top priority for voters across the board,” the Sierra Club’s national political director, Ariel Hayes, said in a statement.

Democratic presidential contenders have largely embraced the language of the Green New Deal resolution, supported the Paris Agreement, and emphasized the need for sound climate policies. But few have provided specifics, a trend that may now be changing.

In addition to Booker’s and Warren’s proposals, other Democratic candidates have elevated their own approaches to climate change. In remarks made over the weekend, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, a Texas Democrat, said  that as president, he would issue executive orders to grow the green energy industry, creating jobs while addressing global warming. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) have indicated they would take action on issues like offshore drilling, while Gov. Jay Inslee (D-WA) has structured his entire presidential campaign around climate change.


“We’re excited to see consensus building among 2020 candidates that stopping fossil fuel expansion — starting with oil, gas, and coal production on public lands — is necessary to protect our most vulnerable communities from climate catastrophe,” said Greenpeace USA climate campaigner Charlie Jiang. “But this is just the start.”