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Opinion

Sanders: The Only Climate Candidate

On September 1, 2019, Hurricane Dorian made impact with the Bahamas. A Category 5 Hurricane, Dorian hit the Bahamas with prolonged winds up to 185 miles per hour and gusts up to 220. At least 50 Bahamians have died with another 70,000 left homeless. After passing through the Bahamas, Dorian, having weakened, traveled up the East Coast of the United States and Canada, shutting down power, destroying homes and infrastructure, and killing ten more. On September 10, it at last dissipated after significant destruction of life and property.

The increased frequency and intensity of hurricanes is just one of the many potential drastic effects of human-induced climate change, including rising sea levels, droughts, food shortages, and the mass death of species and ecosystems. In October 2018, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a harrowing report stating that we have 12 years to significantly cut carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gas emissions to avoid exceeding a 1.5º C warming. A rise of just 2º C would be catastrophic. 

Addressing the issue of climate change has been of utmost importance in the United States for decades. Despite this, both Democratic and Republican administrations have failed to act, with Republicans expounding climate denialism and the expansion of fossil fuels, and Democrats paying lip service and passing meager reforms without actually addressing the severity of this existential crisis. However, climate change is now at the center of American politics, primarily due to the meteoric rise of Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the Sunrise Movement, a climate network of mostly young people, who have put a Green New Deal (GND) at the center of their platforms. Since then almost all of the 2020 Democratic Presidential contenders have come out in favor of the GND, with it meaning something different to each, making the endorsement of the proposed legislation a performative gesture. 

Of the different candidates’ proposals, it’s clear that Senator Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) most reflects what grassroots climate activists are demanding. His GND calls for a $16.3 trillion federal investment in completely rebuilding society and the economy around green principles, effectively socializing the energy sector through the shift to green public utilities, modelled after the Tennessee Valley Authority, and a direct phase out of fossil fuels via federal defunding, the banning of fracking, extraction on public lands, offshore drilling, coal mining, and intense fines and sanctions. His is also the only plan to provide detailed plans to build out vast modern green public transportation and light-weight rail, necessary alternatives to our current transportation system. It’s no wonder Sanders’s is the only plan to receive an A from Greenpeace, a leading environmental organization. Interestingly enough, Jay Inslee, who, before he dropped out, was known as the climate candidate for admirably centering his campaign around this dire issue, only received an A-. 

It’s most interesting to compare Sanders’s GND to Senator Elizabeth Warren’s (D-MA), due to her recent adoption of Inslee’s plan, as well as the mainstream narrative of her as the pragmatic alternative to Sanders, but with more thought-out plans than him––her campaign leaning into this with the technocratic slogan “Warren Has a Plan for That.” 

Warren’s climate plan is actually multiple plans, most significantly, ones on Green Manufacturing and Clean Energy. They all together amount to $3 trillion in government spending, less than a quarter of the amount that Sanders’s calls for. And unlike Sanders’s direct investment in a transition to a green energy system, Warren’s plan pieces together the greening of the federal government with different market incentives and regulations. Warren’s plan assumes that private enterprise and an incentivized market can and will carry out the bulk of the transition to meet the lofty and admirable goals of decarbonization that she proposes. During the seven hour climate town hall hosted by CNN in September, when Warren was asked if she would pursue a public ownership model to carry out the transition, she responded that she’s “perfectly willing to take on giant corporations” but that public ownership is not “what gets you the solution.”

Warren’s reliance on markets and inability to see the importance of public ownership is based on a defunct market fundamentalism. The short term profits of the fossil fuel industry and industries reliant on it are directly at odds with the transition to a truly green and sustainable economy. Shareholders, executives, corporations, and institutions reliant on fossil fuel profits are not only those who have a direct material interest against said transition, but hold the structural and institutional power over the energy sector and a transition. 

Despite climate change coming into the public discourse in 1988, Exxon Mobil had already known about it for 11 years without releasing the information to the general public. In fact, they upgraded their oil rigs in response to the effects that rising sea levels would have on their ability to extract oil, while simultaneously waging a misinformation campaign to convince the public that fossil fuels weren’t causing global warming. Only Sanders’s plan adequately “takes on giant corporations,” pursuing the necessary steps to transition to a green economy by directly challenging their profits, control of the system, and the right to dictate our lives, and in this case our future. 

Even if market-based solutions could successfully move the entire economy away from fossil fuels, it cannot do it in an equitable and just manner, nor in the necessary timeframe outlined by the IPCC. Climate change is already, and will continue to drastically disrupt people’s lives, disproportionately those in the Global South, the working class, and black and brown communities. Above all, climate change must be approached as a racial, economic, and global justice issue: any plan to address climate change that doesn’t seek to uplift those most marginalized is both doomed to fail and misses the whole point of building a world that works for everyone, not just those with means. 

A prime example of a failure in climate policy was the regressive gas tax the Macron government passed in France in 2018, which helped catalyze the Gilets Jaunes (yellow vest) movement. This tax, which was meant to decrease the consumption of gas, increased the cost of living and economic burden on working class French citizens who commute into Paris to work. The tax inadequately focussed on the main contributors to climate change––large corporations and systemic reliances on fossil fuels––and put the burden on the poorest and most marginalized, unnecessarily pitting the working class against efforts to create a green future. 

Sanders’s platform is the only one in the Democratic field that contains extensive plans and investments to ensure racial and economic justice as well as a just transition for workers who may be displaced by a changing energy industry, committing $1.3 trillion to the latter. His plan contains direct economic investment in deindustrialized and low-income communities, the development of public broadband, energy assistance and food programs, as well as the creation of millions of new units of social housing, alongside repairing and modernizing of existing stock.

It’s easy to speak of the Global North’s impending climate catastrophe, but much of the Global South is already experiencing these effects. Warren’s approach to the global reach of climate change is her Green Marshall Plan, which commits $100 billion toward aiding American companies export and sell green technology to other parts of the world. Sanders’s plan on the other hand, commits “$200 billion [to] the Green Climate Fund for the equitable transfer of renewable technologies, climate adaptation, and assistance in adopting sustainable energies.” In other words, their policies can be summed up by green imperialism versus green internationalism: spreading vital green technology in the pursuit of profit or in a solidaristic manner. 

This same dynamic is perhaps most starkly reflected in the differences between Warren and Sanders’s climate orientations toward the military. Both campaigns acknowledge the insane carbon footprint of the Pentagon, but have radically different conclusions. In response, Warren wrote a Medium post titled “Our military can help lead the fight in combating climate change,” devoted to outlining her Defense Climate Resiliency and Readiness Act, which would attempt to encourage defense contractors to reduce the carbon emissions of their destructive instruments of war. She argues that staving off climate change is vital to ensuring military readiness. Not only is this line of argument morally reprehensible due to the crimes against humanity carried out by the U.S. military, often with the explicit purpose of protecting American oil interests, but it will not achieve its stated goals due to a series of loopholes and convoluted mechanisms outlined in the bill itself. 

On the other hand, Sanders directly calls out the “Pentagon [as] the largest institutional emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world” and the “$81 billion [spent by the US] annually to protect oil supplies and transport routes.” Sanders’s plan decisively recognizes this reality as the U.S.’s unique position and moral imperative “to lead the planet in a wholesale shift away from militarism.”

Last week, over one thousand Yale students demonstrated this moral imperative against climate change and imperialism by walking out of classes to demand Yale’s divestment from fossil fuels and cancellation of Puerto Rican debt. Each speech demonstrated a systemic understanding of the impending climate crisis and its disproportionate effects on marginalized communities. As the presidential election nears, Sanders is the only candidate for students who want the next president to treat the climate crisis with the seriousness and boldness it demands. Warren may “have a plan,” but it is nowhere near as thoughtful, pragmatic, and progressive as Sanders’s.