Climate change is the greatest threat facing humanity, and for the past nine months, the Democratic candidates have been jostling to prove which of them is the most serious about tackling the crisis and who has the most effective and ambitious plan to do so. Voters are now weighing the various plans, but some of the country’s leading environmental and climate groups have already singled out a leader in the pack so far: Bernie Sanders and his Green New Deal plan.
In near unanimity, representatives from these organizations pointed to Sanders’s plan as standing above the rest, positioning him as a leader on an issue whose urgency is increasingly recognized by the public.
“At this point, Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal is the most comprehensive and most aggressive of the plans that have been laid out so far,” says Mitch Jones, climate and energy program director at Food & Water Watch. The organization’s national organizing co-director Mark Schlosberg wrote earlier this month that “its scope and ambition dwarf all other proposals,” that it’s a response “big enough and bold enough” to meet the challenge, and that we should “rally around this plan and make it real.”
“From our perspective, Bernie Sanders has the strongest plan when it comes to taking on the fossil fuel industry,” says Jenny Marienau, program manager at 350 Action. The organization’s director, Tamara O’Laughlin, added that Sanders was “leading the field on ambition for a just transition,” and that his legislation would be a “model” for the election season.
Sunrise Movement cofounder and political director Evan Weber said: “The Green New Deal laid out by Bernie Sanders’s campaign is the biggest and boldest and most ambitious we’ve seen yet. It seems to really grasp the scale of the challenge first and foremost, while also recognizing the opportunity we have to transform our economy and stop the climate crisis and so no one gets left behind in the economy.”
Likewise, Greenpeace put Sanders at the top of the heap on its 2020 climate scorecard, giving him the only “A” in the field. (Washington governor Jay Inslee had topped Greenpeace’s rankings with an A- before dropping out.) In advance of last week’s climate town hall on CNN, candidates had scrambled to improve their scores, with several moving dramatically up in the rankings, most notably Elizabeth Warren, who shot up from fifth place, with a B, to second place, with an A-. Even after this last-minute bidding war, however, Sanders stayed at number one.
What Sets Sanders Apart
Those interviewed gave a variety of reasons for scoring Sanders’s plan so highly. Jones of Food & Water Watch pointed not just to the timelines and level of investment in Sanders’s plan, but the fact that it was “economy-wide” and dealt not just with climate, but agriculture, water systems, and a fair and just transition for workers and communities.
“Given the size of the challenge ahead of us, his is the only one that measures up,” he says.
Jones added that the price tag for Sanders’s Green New Deal — $16.3 trillion over fifteen years — is “the sort of investment that needs to be made if you’re going to make the rapid transition off of fossil fuels that’s necessary,” and said it should be viewed as a benchmark going forward. Similarly, 350 Action’s Marienau pointed to Sanders’s commitment to massively raising taxes on corporate polluters, taking on fossil fuel wealth, and building renewable energy.
Weber noted that Sanders’s plan was unique in envisioning “a very robust role for the federal government to drive” the transition, and said its level of federal investment was “on a scale that far surpasses what the other candidates have got so far.” Charlie Jiang, climate campaigner with Greenpeace USA, singled out several factors, including its larger investment in clean energy transformation and helping communities transition, and the plan’s commitment to turn off the faucet of fossil fuel production, which he says “goes further than the other candidates.” Greenpeace’s scorecard notes that Sanders’s Green New Deal would “immediately end federal subsidies and leases for fossil fuel production, halt new oil, gas, and coal projects, and ban harmful fracking and mountain-top removal practices.”
Not all of those interviewed singled out Sanders’s plan. RL Miller, cofounder and political director of Climate Hawks Vote (and chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus), whose organization has scored every congressperson on their environmental and climate leadership over the years (Sanders was rated the number-one climate leader in 2015), called Jay Inslee’s plan “the gold standard,” and praised Warren for pledging to adopt parts of his plan as her own. Famed environmentalist Bill McKibben, cofounder of 350.org, declined to single out any one candidate and noted that climate change was now “a front burner issue for everyone,” a major change from years prior.
Good Ideas Abound
Those praising Sanders’s Green New Deal also noted that virtually every plan put out so far had at least one idea of note that was worth looking at and adopting by other candidates.
“While we think he’s the leader of the pack, there are some strong ones,” says Marienau.
Former San Antonio mayor and Obama’s Housing and Urban Development secretary Julián Castro was singled out in particular for his plan to create a new category of climate refugees.
“It’s an interesting innovation that seems important,” she says. “We hope other candidates will borrow that from him.”
As in the Greenpeace rankings, Warren was typically cited as second best to Sanders. Brad Johnson, former executive editor of Climate Hawks Vote, who runs the news site Hill Heat and sits on the board of several environmental organizations, praised her idea to make all future trade deals not just subject to the Paris Agreement, but independently verified by a third party to ensure they satisfy its goals.
“That would be radically transformative,” he says.
One candidate who didn’t fare so well was Joe Biden, currently clinging to his front-runner status even as Sanders and Warren have tied or overtaken him in key states in polls. Owing to his self-proclaimed “middle ground” approach to tackling the crisis, Biden initially received a D- rating from Greenpeace, the second worst Democratic score after fracking fluid connoisseur John Hickenlooper. Biden’s campaign has since worked to improve his standing, shooting up to sixth place with a B+ on the Greenpeace scorecard.
Nonetheless, environmental groups are not yet sold on the former vice president.
“He’s still missing some of the key commitments we want to see, which include how are they going to phase out fossil fuel infrastructure in a responsible way,” says Jiang.
Jones criticized Biden’s omission of a ban on fracking and exporting oil and natural gas.
“He’s not taking seriously the supply side, which has to be the center,” he says.
Miller called out Biden for what she describes as “weaseling around” the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, attending a fundraiser hosted by Andrew Goldman, the cofounder of a liquefied natural gas firm, the day after the climate town hall. The campaign insisted that Goldman wasn’t involved day-to-day in the company, so didn’t count as a “fossil fuel executive,” as per the pledge. Marienau called his plan a “mixed bag” whose timeline is “nowhere near as ambitious” as other candidates and should be viewed as “the floor” when it comes to proposals.
“The question is where this falls on his list of priorities,” says Weber. “It’s unclear if he’ll continue the Obama-Biden ‘all-of-the-above’ approach.”
The Dividing Lines
Since the town hall, and as the Democratic bidding war over climate change proposals continues, several issues have emerged as points of contrast between the candidates. One is a proposed nationwide ban on fracking. Sanders has been virtually alone in calling for such a ban since his 2016 presidential run, continuing to do so this year even before releasing his Green New Deal proposal. Other candidates have been slow to follow. Kamala Harris officially signed on during her climate town hall segment, while Warren finally came out for the ban this past weekend.
Environmental groups say the policy is critical, as the unleashing of fracking on US soil under Obama is arguably the single biggest reason the United States has become one of the world’s biggest fossil fuel exporters.
“Having a fracking ban as a component of your climate plan is a litmus test for how seriously you’re taking the problem of climate change,” says Jones. “Unless you target that, you have no way to seriously reduce greenhouse gas emissions that we have at the rate we need to do it.”
“Banning fracking is an important indicator of whether candidates are willing to move as quickly as the crisis requires,” says Marienau.
It was a point echoed by every other environmental representative interviewed. Most noted that this was only the minimum, with the need to choke off the supply side of fossil fuels encompassing not just a fracking ban, but ending fossil fuel extraction on public land, new fossil fuel infrastructure like pipelines and power plants, and exports of fossil fuels out of the United States.
“I don’t look at banning fracking so much as which steps are they willing to take to ultimately turn off the flow of oil from American land, as well as coal and natural gas,” says Miller.
“Stopping fossil fuel infrastructure is right there with banning fracking,” says Jones. “The more pipelines we build, the more import-export terminals we build, the more we lock ourselves into greenhouse gases for decades.”
While all the major candidates have committed to banning oil and gas drilling on public lands and offshore, and several are now supporting a nationwide ban on fracking, only Sanders has thus far committed to restoring the ban on crude oil and gas exports, and putting a moratorium on fossil fuel infrastructure projects. He’s also the only major candidate so far to pledge to end mountaintop removal coal mining. Even so, environmentalists say all the candidates could go further.
“We would love to see more candidates adopt Inslee’s approach to freedom from fossil fuels,” says Jiang. “That means taking concerted and coordinated steps to stop the expansion of fossil fuel production and to start to phase out existing production in a really intentional way.” Jiang points to Inslee’s proposal for tackling fossil fuel extraction from non-federal land, which involves creating a presidential commission on phasing out fossil fuel production and a proposal to buy up and decommission existing fossil fuel assets, as well as Harris’s idea of convening global negotiations over the managed decline of worldwide fossil fuel production.
Another issue dividing the field is that of democratizing electricity generation. Doing so is a major part of Sanders’s plan, which proposes the US government take a leading role in creating renewable energy infrastructure and providing power to the country, while leaving a role for private ownership of renewable power. Other candidates have not gone so far, including Warren, who said last week she wasn’t “sure that’s what gets you to the solutions.”
While they don’t see the issue as a litmus test akin to banning fracking, their views on the idea range from seeing it positively to regarding it as a crucial instrument for reaching decarbonization goals, particularly given the speed that will be necessary.
“That component is really key,” Jones says about Sanders’s plan to prioritize federal dollars for utilities that are publicly owned or demonstrate that they operate in the public interest. “The utilities operating in the country are being driven by the profit motive. That conflict is a central problem.”
“Electric utilities have made themselves very toxic political players,” says Miller. “Anything that can be done to neutralize bad faith utilities is a positive step.”
“Nationalizing clean energy transition is a way the government can have control over the way that transition happens,” says Marienau. “It’d be wishful thinking to assume incentives and market demand will lead to a just transition.”
Another issue is nuclear power. Sanders and Warren have both pledged not only to build no new nuclear power plants, but to gradually dismantle existing ones, making them outliers in the Democratic field. (Even Inslee is pro-nuclear.) It’s a contentious stand that has drawn criticism from not just the center, but some parts of the Left, too. The conventional wisdom is that, being an almost entirely carbon-free energy source, nuclear power will be an essential part of any transition away from fossil fuels, despite the safety and ecological risks.
Those interviewed took a dim view of this argument. They point to the fact that nuclear power plants built over the past twenty years have taken an average of nearly sixteen years to build — longer than the ten-year timeline scientists have given us to transform our energy system — though South Korea has taken an average of around four and a half years. They also point to the enormous cost involved, running into the billions, which could instead be invested into renewable energy. There’s also the fact that nuclear power plants in both the United States and Europe are struggling to operate in the face of increasingly frequent and record-breaking heat waves, forcing plants to cut back their power generation or even shut down.
“We should be transitioning off nuclear power same time as we go off fossil fuels,” says Jones.
“If we’re looking to move to carbon-free power as soon as possible, it’s not the most expedient ground to get there,” says Weber. “In terms of what is shovel-ready and ready to go right now, renewable energy is a much more promising answer.”
It’s a debate that will surely continue to rage in the years ahead.
A Victory for Activism
As it stands, with Inslee out of the race, Sanders is now the leading candidate on climate, having proposed the boldest and most ambitious plans for tackling the climate crisis and setting the bar for even the most progressive candidates. By contrast, Biden is, besides Pete Buttigieg, the candidate environmental groups are most leery of, and continues to waver in signaling how seriously he takes the issue.
Whoever wins the nomination, the Democratic climate debate will remain a testament to the power of activism to transform the mainstream political terrain. Five years ago, simply acknowledging that climate change is real and caused by humans was considered the progressive litmus test. Now nothing less than trillions of dollars of investment and ending the practice of fracking, at minimum, will do.
“A great deal of credit goes to the movements that have pushed long and hard,” says McKibben. “They’ve changed the zeitgeist within the party, and also I think within the country.”