Climate Change is a Main Issue in 2020

There are 23 Democratic candidates running for President in 2020 so far, and for the first time, climate change appears to be a main topic voters want to hear about. Even Al Gore, the well-known climate activist, didn’t have climate change as his main campaign issue, and climate change was not discussed at all during the 2016 presidential debates.

Why Now?

There are several factors that might be causing voters to put their focus on the environment. For one thing, there have been a lot of news stories that put climate change front and center. The IPCC report recently gave us a deadline of 2030 to drastically reduce emissions if we want to avoid catastrophic results. The next four years are almost half of that time, and if a president gets two terms that effectively makes climate change a one-president issue. Movements like Fridays for Future (led by school-children) and proposals like the Green New Deal have kept our attention on the issue. Besides press coverage, more and more people are also seeing climate change beginning to impact them directly. Wildfires in California, droughts wiping out crops, and unusual weather patterns across the country have turned climate change from a distant concern to a pressing worry we need to address now.

Voters are Motivated

There has been a lot of lost ground for environmental protection and climate change at the federal level over the last few years. This appears to have activated many states and individuals to take stronger action independently. Voter activism around climate change has prompted many of the Democratic candidates to issue detailed proposals as part of their platform. There also appears to be a demographic shift from last election cycle, with groups that see climate change as a major issue making up a larger share of the voter pool for 2020 than ever before.

2020 Has to Be the Year We Take Action

With a tight deadline to make some drastic changes, this election cycle is the time to make sure climate change is the priority. The conditions are right, and the candidates are prioritizing it for the first time, so it’s more crucial than ever to get out and vote.

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Why Nuclear isn’t an Answer for Climate Change

Overall, nuclear power has been on the decline for a number of years. Of the 99 reactors online in the US in 2016, only one had been built since 1996 and it looks unlikely that more will be built. This month, Massachusetts closed their last nuclear power plant in Plymouth. This closure is part of a national trend for nuclear power, as plants in Pennsylvania and Illinois also close ahead of schedule, and another estimated fifteen to twenty plants are likely to close early over the next ten years. The industry is facing mounting pressure both from environmentalists concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear power plants, and from dropping energy prices driven by fracking and new energy sources.

Nuclear Less Cost-Effective

Nuclear power plants are tightly regulated and expensive both to build and to repair. Their main fuel source, uranium, is also costly to obtain and to enrich before it can be used. When nuclear was competing against coal, these figures were cost effective. But the rise of cheap natural gas from fracking, and the plummeting costs of other renewable energies like solar, have brought energy prices down to a point that nuclear power can’t compete with in states with an open electricity market.

Safety Concerns

There is some controversy among environmentalists about closing nuclear power plants. On one hand, they do reduce our carbon emissions, which is something the world sorely needs right now. But when nuclear power plants fail, they can have catastrophic consequences. Infamous incidents like those at Chernobyl, Three Mile Island, and Fukushima gave many second thoughts about using nuclear power. The immediate impact of a meltdown is devastating, but the long-term consequences may be worse. Chernobyl will not be habitable anytime soon, estimates range from a minimum of several hundred years up to several thousand before the radiation levels are safe for humans to live in the area.

In addition, nuclear materials are often cited as a national security threat from would-be terrorists using them to make a nuclear or “dirty” bomb.

No Long-Term Radioactive Waste Disposal Solution

Even when nuclear plants are operating as designed, they put out hazardous waste that remains dangerous for tens of thousands of years. The US currently has no long-term storage solution for this waste; most is stored at the power plants themselves. And recently, there has been a proposal by the federal administration to classify radioactive waste as a lower threat level so it can be more easily disposed of at a lower cost. This is a concern for many states that have waste dating back to World War II, as “The new rules would allow the energy department to eventually abandon storage tanks containing more than 100m gallons (378m liters) of radioactive waste in the three states, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council.” This waste would not be buried as previously thought necessary, and the tanks of waste would remain a threat to nearby residents.

A Better Way to Reduce Carbon

Ultimately, the best argument to keeping nuclear plants is to reduce our carbon footprint. But the health and safety costs of nuclear energy are too high, and we don’t have a solution to deal with the radioactive waste produced. Nuclear is no longer cost effective.  We do have access to other lower-cost, carbon-free technologies, like solar and wind. It would only take installing solar panels on about 17,500 square miles of the US’s roughly 3.7 million square miles of landmass (or about 0.4%) to power the country. This year, the US passed the two million installation mark in the solar industry, and the industry is still growing.

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Fed Up with the Federal Government, States Form Climate Alliance

It’s the two year anniversary of the US government pulling out of the Paris Agreement, but all hope is not lost. Many states and local governments have stepped up and committed to uphold their commitment to fight climate change.

The US Climate Alliance

The US Climate Alliance is, in their own words, “…a bipartisan coalition of 24 governors committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions consistent with the goals of the Paris Agreement. The Alliance represents 55 percent of the U.S. population and an $11.7 trillion economy – an economy larger than all countries but the United States and China.” And states are still joining – this April, Nevada and Pennsylvania became the 23rd and 24th states to join the alliance.

The states in the alliance have not only cut their carbon emissions by 14% from 2005-2016, they also saw an economic benefit. These same states saw a 16% growth in economic output, as compared to the national average of 14%.

Coastal Communities and Cities Lead the Charge

Climate Change may seem like a distant or nonexistent threat to some, but many of the country’s largest populations are on the coast. According to NOAA, as of 2010 39% of America’s population lived in coastal areas. These communities have been increasingly active on the issue of climate change. Florida’s newly elected governor Desantis has made climate change a top priority – a big pivot from the state’s Department of Environmental Protection banning the term “climate change” just four years ago.

New York City and Boston have already accepted that climate change is happening and will have a huge impact on them, and both cities have ongoing initiatives to prepare. Boston also hosted an International Mayors Climate Summit, where mayors from around the world met to share ideas on effective climate action. Locally, cities like Everett are choosing to buy solar credits to offset their municipal carbon footprint and save money.

The key to solving climate change is not looking to come in time from the federal level. It’s up to local action to get us where we need to be – taking individual action and, crucially, voting in local elections will determine our success in tackling climate change.

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