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Democratic Candidates Roll Out Aggressive Climate Plans, But Barriers Remain

Kate Payne/IPR
Democratic presidential candidates are rolling out aggressive plans to address climate change. But there are real barriers to whether the country can transition as quickly as they propose.

Likely Democratic caucusgoers say climate change is increasingly among their top issues. In response, presidential candidates are rolling out ambitious policy goals to drastically cut emissions and retool the economy. But there are real questions about if the country can transition as quickly as Democrats are proposing.

In October, one of the world’s leading voices on climate held a rally in downtown Iowa City. Sixteen year old climate activist Greta Thunberg spoke to a crowd of some 3,000 people.

"We will not beg world leaders to care and to act," she told the crowd. "They have ignored us in the past and they will ignore us again. We will instead tell them that if they won't do it, then we will."

Iowans of all ages came to hear her, carrying signs and chanting.

A group of preschoolers waded through the crowd, led by their teachers. 

"We love earth!" they chanted, carrying their own signs. "We love earth!"

Some came to the rally with specific policy ideas in mind, like Iowa City homemaker Terry Jones, who wants the country to entirely end its use of oil and gas.

"It is huge, but we have to come to believe that we have to do it," Jones said. "And events like this, perhaps will help it happen."

Megan Booher of Homestead says she’s ready to sacrifice everyday comforts for future generations.

"I have kids now, I want to have grandkids and I want them to have a promising future. So I'm just ready to make some changes and hope that our politicians can do the same," she said.

Democratic presidential candidates are taking note.

They’ve seen the damage from historic floods that hit Iowa this year, making the trek to visit flood-damaged homes and businesses.

Now, every candidate who’s put out a climate change plan is aiming to reach net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

That’s in line with the recommendations from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"Both domestically and abroad, any one of the Democratic candidates would provide a sea change in climate policy," says David Uhlman, who directs the Environmental Law and Policy Programat the University of Michigan.

Uhlman says there’s general agreement within the field on taking drastic action to address climate, though candidates differ on how they would meet their goals, and the level of detail in their proposals.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is seen as having the most ambitious climate plan, both for the proposal'sscale and its price tag: $16 trillion.

"In the view of the scientists who have studied this issue the most we are fighting for the survival of our planet earth!" he said during the CNN climate change town hall. "Our only planet!"

Democrats want to make considerable investments in the renewable energy transition, as well as research and development.

South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar want to help rural communities and farmers adapt. Klobuchar elaborated on this in an interview with Iowa Public Radio.

"You could actually do more incentives for carbon and carbon reduction with our farmers," Klobuchar said. "There’s a lot going on with using less water, so we can conserve water more and using technology to figure that out. And rotating crops."

Johnathan Hladik is the policy director at the Center for Rural Affairs, and says farmers are in a position to make meaning cuts in emissions, if they have dependable markets and federal support.

"We know there are steps that farmers can take to do that. We know, even cover crops at a base minimum can do that," Hladik said. "But right now, it just doesn't make sense financially for a lot of farmers to do that."

But Hladik notes there are some barriers to clean energy development in the Midwest, too. Earlier this year, officials in Madison County passed a moratorium on new wind and solar development.

Meanwhile, some Democratic presidential candidates are proposing to zero out emissions in the nation’s electricity system by 2030, a goal that would require rapidly expanding renewable energy developments.

Hladik says some rural communities aren’t fully on board with how this much wind and solar development could change their landscape.

"I think candidates need to be serious about addressing what that means," Hladik said. "Maybe propose some ideas that talk about how these landowners are compensated, how the landowners that host those transmission lines are compensated, the role that communities can play in shaping what a development looks like."

If candidates are going to lay the groundwork to decarbonize the country by 2050, advocates say they’ll need a plan for how to include the whole country.

That’s part of what Iowa Democrats will be assessing in the lead up to February 3rd.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter