Andrew Yang's Doom-and-Gloom Climate Statement Shows His Silicon Valley Roots

Yang, the long-shot Democratic 2020 candidate, is playing up his credentials as a pragmatist. But there's nothing pragmatic about letting climate change proceed unchecked.
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Entrepreneur and Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debates, hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, on July 31st, 2019.

Entrepreneur and Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang speaks during the second round of the second Democratic primary debates, hosted by CNN at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan, on July 31st, 2019.

At the Democratic presidential debate Wednesday night, the entrepreneur-turned-candidate Andrew Yang addressed the climate crisis. "The truth is, even if we were to curb our emissions dramatically, the Earth is still going to get warmer," Yang said. "This is going to be a tough truth, but we are too late."

Many climate communicators tend to hate this kind of defeatist messaging, and a few have panned Yang for it. Brian Kahn at Earther called Yang's statement the "most chilling moment of [the] night," and The Atlantic's Robinson Meyer pointed out that Yang's argument was "hyper-conservative." Meyer goes on to say that the argument "does not strike me as one well chosen for a party whose voters care about climate change and who are moving to the left."

Meyer is right; Yang's message is not good for the Democratic Party. His short argument on Wednesday was that, since it's already too late to combat the effects of climate change, we should "start moving our people to higher ground. And the best way to do that is to put economic resources into your hands so you can protect yourself and your families."

Still, while this messaging isn't good for the Democratic Party base, it makes sense when considering Yang's base. His fans aren't necessarily moving the way the Democratic Party is moving; many of the "Yang Gang," like Yang himself, don't follow party lines at all. To understand his argument at the debate, then, you have to understand Yang's campaign as a whole.

Yang's entire campaign platform revolves around the implementation of a universal basic income, or UBI, under a program that he calls the "Freedom Dividend." Under Yang's version of a UBI, each adult citizen in the United States would receive $1,000 a month. It's a solution born of Yang's years working as a relatively successful start-up executive, and inspired by his concerns about automation taking over jobs. It's also a solution that's been gaining clout among prominent entrepreneurs in and around Silicon Valley, where many believe that automation is one of the biggest problems we're facing today, even as their fellow Valley-ites race to automate.

But Yang's stance on automation—a subject other candidates have largely left untouched—is only part of why his base likes him. When asked, many of his followers will cite Yang's "pragmatic" focus on math and data as a point of appeal. Yang's most prominent piece of merchandise is a hat that just says "MATH." He says it stands for "Make America Think Harder," though his campaign manager says that that was a retroactive decision.

These quirks might seem typical of a long-shot candidate trying to stand out in a crowded field, but a closer look at Yang's base suggests that he's tapped into enthusiasm among a group of people that other Democrats—and Republicans, for that matter—haven't been able to capture or mobilize. CNBC's Jennifer Elias, reporting last month from a sold-out discussion held by Yang, observed that Yang "attracts Silicon Valley Democrats, libertarians, and even a few conservatives, all of whom have given up on politicians who don't understand them." When Yang asked the 200 attendees if it was the first political event they'd ever attended, Elias says about a quarter of the room raised their hands.

Part of Yang’s overarching climate plan is to push a federal geoengineering research program, a technology-focused solution that also has some allies in Silicon Valley and the tech world. He's the only candidate to push the issue, and for good reason: While engineering different ways to block sunlight from further warming the planet, or new modes to capture carbon, might sound tempting, studies have shown that they are also dangerous, and should be treated as a means of last resort.

But to Yang, we're already too far in. To some of his Silicon Valley followers who might have read about Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk's respective plans to colonize space as a back-up for if-slash-when the Earth is rendered uninhabitable, Yang's unvarnished "honesty" about the depth of the issue might prove appealing. Remember that he's making this pitch to a group of socially atomized tech devotees; if they wanted social democracy or climate fixes that didn't lean on market competition, they'd be canvassing for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

When we consider the particular kind of people who constitute such devoted parts of Yang's base, then, Yang's argument from Wednesday makes sense. "It's too late to save the Earth" is not the kind messaging that most climate communicators favor, but it's in line with Yang's seemingly pragmatic style of communicating: Climate change is inevitable, and it's already too late to fix it. Thursday, in an interview with CNN, he defended his position by saying that he was "just telling it like it is." For his followers, no candidate can do that like Yang.

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