Democratic presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand is taking aim at fossil fuel companies in her new climate plan released Thursday. The New York senator outlined her proposal during a panel discussion at Coe College in Cedar Rapids.
Gillibrand began her remarks by speaking of the floods that devastated western Iowa this year, when the Missouri River reclaimed vast portions of its historic floodplain and swamped homes, farms and entire communities. She, like a number of presidential candidates, visited residents and local officials in western Iowa to take in the extent of destruction.
The senator, who served one term in the House of Representatives before succeeding former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the U.S. Senate, says Iowans are already experiencing global climate change; she attributes this year’s historic flooding to just that.
“So if anybody wants to tell you that global climate change isn’t real, or that severe weather doesn’t destroy families and communities, they just haven’t talked to people who have suffered,” Gillibrand said. “I can tell you, it’s crippling.”
Now Gillibrand wants to drastically cut greenhouse gas emissions, reaching net zero emissions by 2050, and work toward a 100 percent renewable energy system within the next decade, all while empowering rural and underserved communities to have a part in this wholesale economic transformation.
Gillibrand estimates her plan would cost $100 billion, and she wants fossil fuel companies to help pay for it by ending federal subsidies to them, implementing new taxes on fossil fuel production and putting in place a carbon tax.
“Because if you put a price on carbon, it allows market forces to work forces," she said. "Because if you’re a polluter, you’re going to pay, and if you’re not and you’re an innovator and you’re in renewables, you’re going to get a lower tax rate. It’s going to be much less expensive to produce all things that you want to produce.”
In a report published in 2018 by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a coalition of scientists warned the world doesn’t have much time left to avoid the worst impacts of global warming, including deadly heat waves, more intense droughts and flooding rains that can threaten communities and industries.
Jerry Schnoor, a climate specialist and environmental engineer at the University of Iowa says the U.S. has to take decisive action very quickly, drastically cutting emissions and investing in renewable energy technologies. He was featured on the panel Thursday, which was put on by Iowa State Senator Rob Hogg.
“We need to go there and we need to go there fast,” Schnoor said. “I think the urgency is very evident.”
Farmer and Linn County Soil and Water Conservation District Chairperson Laura Krouse says the agriculture industry has an important role to play in the climate transition as well. Krouse says current policies like federal subsidies and crop insurance programs incentivize many Iowa farmers to produce “cheap” commodity crops, and not necessarily implement conservation practices that mitigate their greenhouse gas emissions.
“We mine our environmental resources to sell them cheap to someone who makes the money farther up the chain, not on the farm,” Krouse said. “We do that because we are incentivized by the farm programs. We don’t do that because we like it, and we don’t do it for any (rational) reasons.”
Gillibrand agreed with Krouse, saying “the whole system is rigged” and the Farm Bill is “a disgrace.” But incentives can change, Krouse said.
“If we reward farmers for providing environmental services and not just production, they’ll change," she said. "They’ll change fast.”
Gillibrand says lobbying and campaign fundraising by those who profit from fossil fuels are major barriers. But she’s calling for reforms to political spending too, including allocating public funding for elections.
Overall, Gillibrand says fighting climate change should entail a nationwide mobilization on par with the space race of the 1960s, when President John F. Kennedy marshalled massive amounts of public funding and the country’s imagination to get a man on the moon, “not because it’s easy, but because it’s hard."
“How about take on the whole globe, the whole world community and say, this is going to be a measure of how, how successful you are as an economy, how successful your engineers and mathematicians are, how big your vision is and how entrepreneurial your spirit is?” she asked.