SAN DIEGO ― Beto O’Rourke urged ambitious action to confront climate change ― what he called the “mother of all challenges” ― during his first presidential campaign swing through California, a state hit hard by drought and wildfires in recent years.
On Tuesday, speaking to a packed crowd at a community center near downtown San Diego, the former Democratic congressman argued that nearly all of the problems facing the U.S. will become exponentially worse in the future if the world does not address the threat of global warming.
“The places we call home ... any city along the coast or on the ocean will no longer sustain human life going forward on this current trajectory,” O’Rourke said.
He also warned that the levels of migration to the U.S. will become much greater if the average global temperature rises by three to four degrees Celsius as projected.
The day before, O’Rourke unveiled his first substantive policy proposal, a sweeping new plan that would see net-zero carbon emissions in the U.S. by 2050, the re-signing of the Paris Agreement, and $5 trillion in spending over 10 years to invest in clean energy and extreme weather preparation.
The plan drew some immediate criticism from other Democrats, including fellow 2020 presidential candidate Jay Inslee, who has launched a campaign focused solely on climate change. The Washington state governor said that O’Rourke “will need to answer why he did not lead on climate change in Congress and why he voted on the side of oil companies to open up offshore drilling” in his home state of Texas.
O’Rourke responded to the latter criticism during a Monday interview on MSNBC, stating that “those who work in the fossil fuel industry [need to be] brought along as partners to make sure that we make this transition” to a greener economy.
The issue of climate change appears to be weighing more heavily on the minds of Democratic voters than it did during the 2016 campaign. About 96% of those voters surveyed in a CNN poll this week said climate change was “very” or “somewhat important” to them ahead of the 2020 election ― even topping the issue of health care, which came in at 91%.
Speaking in San Diego, O’Rourke blamed the deadly wildfires that have ravaged California in recent years on “our excesses, our emissions and our inaction.”
For the presidential candidates, making early inroads in California is more important than ever now that the state has moved its primaries to March 3, 2020. Winning the Democratic stronghold will likely be an uphill battle for O’Rourke as he faces off against Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and other candidates with heftier resumes.
On Tuesday, O’Rourke also made his case on other issues that resonate with Californians like the availability and affordability of housing. He said communities need to build more housing units and called for “inclusionary zoning” of neighborhoods, which he said means that “poor people are going to have to live next to rich people.”
As someone who jumped into the presidential race as a political phenom after his narrow loss to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) last year, O’Rourke has faced mounting questions about his unconventional campaign strategy, lagging poll numbers and appeal among minorities.
“I wish Beto had spent more time on television. I think he lost a lot of momentum,” said Heidi White, a writer who attended O’Rourke’s event in San Diego wearing a “Beto” cap.
She lamented the makeup of the assembled crowd of approximately 500 people, whom she described as mostly white and “not as young as I’d want,” and suggested that a woman may be the best choice to take on Trump in the coming election.
“I’m not sure he’s got the balls to do what needs to be done,” White said, nodding to O’Rourke, adding that “we know how to squeeze them.”