Why the Left Needs More Climate Infighting

Beto’s $5 trillion plan looks ambitious and impressive. The Sunrise Movement panned it.

Photo illustration of Beto O'Rourke juxtaposed with climate protesters wearing shirts that say "Climate Inaction Is Mass Murder."
Beto O’Rourke Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Stephanie Keith/Getty Images and Ethan Miller/Getty Images.

Beto O’Rourke released his first major policy proposal this week, a $5 trillion—yes, trillion with a T—plan to combat man-made climate change through a combination of executive, congressional, and private-sector action. Coming from a man who entered the 2020 race as a political cipher and who has since shown a preference for policy half-steps, the plan was shockingly detailed and ambitious. But even viewed without the lens of low expectations, O’Rourke’s proposal still looks remarkably bold. It calls for a “legally enforceable standard”— think carbon tax—to force the United States to be carbon neutral by the middle of this century, and a federal investment in renewable energy that is greater than what the nation spent to put a man on the moon.

Sounds ambitious, right? Now for the shocker. The Sunrise Movement, an upstart advocacy group that has been loudly calling for climate action, responded with a giant thumbs down. O’Rourke, according to Executive Director Varshini Prakash, got “the science wrong” when he chose 2050 as his carbon-neutral deadline instead of 2030. “Beto claims to support the Green New Deal,” Prakash said in a statement, “but his plan is out of line with the timeline it lays out and the scale of action that scientists say is necessary to take here in the United States to give our generation a livable future.” For good measure, Sunrise cited the previous times when O’Rourke had pointed to 2030 as his ideal target.

Then came the backlash to the backlash, from progressive policy wonks who see the 2030 target as unattainable, including Vox’s David Roberts, the original climate hawk, who has defended Sunrise in the past. And then another surprise followed before the week was up: Prakash walked back her criticism of Beto, considerably, by way of a Twitter mea culpa.

The week’s twists and turns originally had me fearing that the climate movement was about to eat itself at a moment when the stakes are higher than ever. But now I think that Beto’s rollout, the insta-backlash, the counterbacklash, and the semi-retreat, taken together, illustrate how climate infighting on the left is more productive than destructive. To understand why, first let’s look at the fault line from which this fight erupted: the target date by which the United States needs to be carbon neutral.

Climate math, to put it mildly, is complicated. It does not lend itself easily to pithy summary, which is why the focus on specific dates can be a bit counterproductive. The broad brushstrokes, though, are important: While the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change does not address what individual countries need to do, it does lay out a timeline for the world as a whole. And while there’s some wiggle room around the edges depending on what happens down the road, the IPCC has concluded that the world most likely needs to cut its carbon emission in half by 2030 and to become carbon neutral by roughly 2050 in order to keep warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius, the point at which the damage caused by a warming world would go from bad to really, really bad.

And so many climate-conscious Democrats have settled on 2050 as their goal for the United States—including presidential hopefuls like Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who has made global warming the signature issue of his campaign (and who rolled out a sweeping climate plan of his own on Friday that takes a creative sector-by-sector approach). Even Sunrise’s beloved Green New Deal is a little fuzzy on its timeline. It calls for a 10-year “mobilization,” but one of its co-authors, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, has been clear that’s not the same thing as complete decarbonization.

Things only get considerably more complicated from there, as they tend to when you’re talking about an existential crisis. The world’s governments are not going to move in unison toward that goal. And so many believe the United States and Europe will need to lead the way—for reasons of morality (the West has been burning obscene amounts of fossil fuels for far longer than the rest of the world), practicality (the West has more money to invest in clean energy), and geopolitics (the United States, in particular, has given everyone good reason to doubt its commitment to the fight).

Again, estimates vary, but some experts see 2030 as the date by which the United States would need to be carbon neutral in order to give the rest of the world the cushion it will likely need to get there by 2050. In order to hit that expedited timeline, though, the United States would have only a few years to fundamentally reshape American life—from how we travel to what we eat to where we live. That is not going to happen as long as there is a climate denier in the White House, but even a climate-focused Democrat would face myriad and possibly insurmountable challenges—both practical (how to decarbonize the aviation industry) and political (how to overcome GOP climate denials in Congress)—should one be sworn in as president in January 2021.

So, if the world can’t get to carbon neutral by 2050 unless the United States does by 2030, but the United States can’t get there by then, what’s the answer? I don’t know! No one does yet. But I am pretty confident the solution to that quandary isn’t in the existing advocacy playbook that pushed Congress to the brink of major climate action a decade ago but has yet to come anywhere close since. That’s why I was excited to see the Sunrise Movement instigate this week’s push and pull among a host of well-meaning actors, even though it was messy and a bit awkward.

Sunrise is relatively new to the scene, and it’s still finding its footing. But the fact it isn’t always marching in lockstep with the larger climate community is a feature, not a bug. The group’s defiant streak has enabled it to harness the energy of so many young progressives, and then to use that energy to push the Democratic establishment to do more—by taking to the streets, by confronting lawmakers in their D.C. offices, and by releasing strongly worded press releases even when White House hopefuls unveil proposals that are quantum leaps forward from the status quo. That’s a good thing because doing more is clearly what’s needed.

Yes, there are risks to being the progressive gadfly. If Democratic candidates start to think proposing anything short of a 2030 goal is going to get them ridiculed by the climate crowd, they may decide to focus their attention on other issues on which their base is more easily pleased. But Sunrise doesn’t represent the entire climate movement, merely the leftward flank of it. By creating a little chaos, as Sunrise tends to do, the group make it harder for candidates, the media, and voters to complacently downplay the full scale of the climate crisis. And in the process, these rabble-rousers can notch a few tiny victories along the way, as they did this week when O’Rourke announced Wednesday—after Sunrise had softened its criticism of him—that he’d no longer accept campaign donations above $200 from fossil fuel company executives, which Sunrise had been pushing him to do. A small step, to be sure, but a step nonetheless.

There won’t be some buzzer that sounds on Jan. 1, 2030 or Jan. 1, 2050 to confirm whether the United States has averted climate disaster. Progress on global warming is not a binary. Success, both literately and figuratively, is a matter of degrees.