On Monday, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang put out his climate plan. And Yang Gang, I am sorry, but your man is still the most dangerous Democratic presidential candidate.
Just as the Bernie plan perfectly characterized the Vermont senator, Yang’s plan is perfectly suited for the entrepreneur. It starts with a doom-and-gloom introduction and veers into committing $4.87 trillion in direct federal spending on an untested techno-optimistic suite of options, including how to make cement carbon neutral or carbon negative, nuclear power, managed retreat, and carbon capture. It also includes $800 million for geoengineering research and testing, giving the plan the feeling of looking at climate change through a Silicon Valley funhouse mirror. All together, it’s a cavalier approach to a monster of a problem with tricky solutions and tradeoffs. And there are questions around equity left largely unanswered that could pose a huge risk to society.
Yang’s plan channels David Wallace Wells’ recent book, The Uninhabitable Earth. “It is worse, much worse, than you think,” is the first line in Wallace Wells’ tome. Yang’s plan was posted to his campaign site on Monday under the headline “IT’S WORSE THAN YOU THINK.” The language itself is almost paralyzing, with Yang intoning that we “waited too long” and that the “right time to deal with this crisis was decades ago” before transitioning to note this means climate change is a “massive opportunity.” The dissonance is jarring, especially because what follows is a wild plan to deploy trillions of dollars in federal spending over the next 20 years to turn the U.S.—and the world—from the burnt hellscape we’re destined for into a still-degraded-but-slightly-less-crispy-than-it-could’ve-been future.
On the money front at least, Yang’s plan is the real deal. While Jay Inslee, the gone but not forgotten climate candidate, had a $9 trillion climate plan, that was a mix of federal money and private investments that money would spur. The Yang plan actually tilts closer to Bernie Sander’s plan, which committed more than $16 trillion in federal money.
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“Yang definitely puts the federal wallet where his mouth is, committing over $4 trillion over 20 years, which is more than any other candidate other than Sen. Sanders in direct spending, but also over a longer timeline,” Sean McElwee, the founder of progressive think tank Data for Progress, told Earther.
There are even some Sanderesque visions for what to do with the money, including $10 billion for debt forgiveness for rural power coops, many of which are saddled with said debt and contracts to buy highly polluting forms of energy like coal. And Yang takes a lot of time to talk some real talk about the fossil fuel industry screwing people and the planet for profit.
In addition, there are some things that feel very Yang-y and also happen to be good. The plan calls for adopting standards for electric car charging stations. Then there’s the call for a new climate scorecard as a form of accounting for the country’s well-being outside of GDP as well as an amendment to the Constitution that would require all states and the federal government to “protect, preserve, and improve the environment.”
“I’m interested by the seriousness of enshrining and codifying some basic right to a clean and sustainable environment within our founding documents,” McElwee said.
Then there’s the uniquely Yang stuff that’s also uniquely problematic. Let’s start with his ideas about nuclear power, which the plan also calls a “stopgap.” He claims in the plan that the “public’s perception of its safety has been skewed by TV shows like Chernobyl and The Simpsons.” In response, he would “engage in a public relations” campaign as president to rehabilitate nuclear’s image. OK, a bit odd but fair.
The bigger issue is his plan to invest $50 billion in R&D on thorium-based molten salt reactors, an unproven next-generation nuclear technology. The investment in itself isn’t a problem. The problem is what University of California Santa Barbara energy expert Leah Stokes called a “magic wand-style” idea that we would deploy those new reactors by 2027.
“We’ve spent 50 years pouring money into nuclear,” she told Earther. “And I’m not anti-nuclear but to say that magically you would put $50 billion in and unlock these solutions that somehow nobody has done in 50 years? And not only that, but you would promise we’ll construct them and bring them online by 2027? And the thing would be cost-competitive? It’s just laughable.”
Then there’s the even more disconcerting language about putting $800 million toward geoengineering, a mix of ideas that range from partially blotting out the sun to cool the planet or seeding the ocean with iron to encourage algae blooms to suck up carbon dioxide. These ideas are untested, potentially catastrophic, and in the case of blocking out the sun, also likely something we will not be able to stop doing once we start.
Yet the plan, like the position page that came before it, glosses over some of these risks. It calls brightening clouds “safe” despite never intentionally being deployed at scale (ships do brighten up clouds unintentionally). Yang’s vision of space mirrors is even more unproven and would be remarkably expensive.
And then there’s the thing about coastal retreat. There’s no denying that as seas rise, coastlines and the populations that live there will be forced to deal with dramatically new conditions. Those conditions, including chronic flooding as well as acute flooding when storms hit, will in some cases force communities to relocate to higher ground. Yang was whacked, including by yours truly, for implying that his universal basic income plan would help Americans who want to retreat from the coast do so. The new plan doubles down on managed retreat, offering $40 billion in subsidies, grants, and low-interest loans to individuals who want to move away or raise their homes.
Miami-Dade County alone has $8.75 billion in homes at-risk of flooding annually by 2050 under a middle-range carbon pollution scenario, according to an analysis by Climate Central. The $40 billion in Yang’s plan is a drop in the coastal retreat bucket, and it doesn’t begin to answer who gets what types of funds—justice and equity are features largely missing in general from the plan aside from a few mentions. Nor does the plan face the reality that managed retreat needs to be just that: managed.
McElwee noted that while retreat may be inevitable in some places, “it is absolutely a question of justice that a President Yang and Congress will have to face in determining who gets what. This shouldn’t ignore the large roles States will play in adapting, too.”
So what are we to make of Yang’s plan? If Bernie’s is a revolution, and Inslee’s was dubbed a blueprint, then Yang’s is Silicon Valley’s entry into how we do this whole climate change solutions thing. It combines unproven technological fixes and magical thinking while also having a bit of a blind spot for environmental justice. It’s a plan that at once makes solving climate change feel hopeless and yet the solutions feel breezy when in some cases, they’ll be anything but. And that heady, strange brew is what still makes this whole thing feel like a house of cards on the beach with a hurricane swirling on the horizon.