A Bernie Sanders Presidency is the Last Best Hope for Humanity
If you think that statement is hyperbolic and melodramatic, then this article is for you.
Presumably you at least “believe in” the science of anthropogenic global warming and the unprecedented threat it poses to the future of life on Earth (if not, then that’s a different conversation). Every few months you probably talk about or share news about the latest troubling UNIPCC report or latest climate disaster headline highlighting what an existential emergency the situation already is, but when it comes to actually deviating from the political status quo we tend to act as if climate change and electoral politics exist on two completely different planets. In Democratic Party politics climate change is often spoken of as if it’s just another issue that should be fine if politicians “believe in it” and give it requisite lip service when in reality it is the entire new world, a world we are quickly entering and not at all prepared, and one that gets worse every day carbon emissions continue to rise.
The principal consideration here is how late we are to climate action. The window to avoid 1.5 degrees Celsius of global temperature rise, where scientists say we should keep temperature rise below in order to avoid catastrophic climate change, has basically closed. Atmospheric CO2 concentrations are now above 400ppm, which is roughly the concentration associated with a 1.5C temperature rise above pre-industrial levels. We’re currently at about 1C above and, even if we could magically get to zero emissions overnight, there are other problematic factors to account for, such as at least a decade of future warming from past emissions, positive feedback cycles, global dimming, the risks of general uncertainty (historic and probable future underestimation of warming), and other lingering or unforeseen long-term effects of such a sudden increase in greenhouse gas emissions.
As we continue emitting carbon we get closer to geophysical tipping points, such as the loss of the Amazon rainforest as a carbon sink or the disappearance of the Arctic albedo effect, where global warming takes on a life of its own and goes outside the bounds of possible human control. Even as I write this, I see that the observatory at Mauna Loa just recorded a record high CO2 level at 415.79 ppm. And despite decreasing costs and increasing rollout of renewable energy across the world, energy demand and global emissions continued to break records in 2019.
As should be crystal clear by now neither markets, nor corporations, nor politics as usual are going to take effective action to reduce emissions on their own. In fact, they’ve been the main opposition to climate action for at least 30 years, since back when achieving sustainability could have been relatively easy. The actions of governments over the next few years will be pivotal in either drastically changing our course to give us a chance of staying below 2C, or not. To achieve the monumental civilizational change before us is going to take bold, radical, unprecedented action, according to the scientists. What again have been the main criticisms levied against Sanders? That his policies are too bold, he’s too radical, too idealistic, and not constrained by fiscal possibility much less the mainstream consensus on our political reality. In other words, he’s exactly the type of leader we need if we’re going to manage this crisis that threatens human civilization and everything we care about.
A common refrain from the pundit class is that Bernie’s policies are too radical. Yet most of his domestic policies are more like centrist common sense in most other developed nations, and similarly, with an understanding of the science, it becomes clear that Bernie actually has the most realistic climate plan. Although Joe Biden might claim otherwise, Bernie’s “Green New Deal” is in line with what many scientists say we must do to avoid unconscionable climate catastrophe, and scientists were quick to defend against Biden’s attack on the future of humanity.
A Green New Deal
Bernie’s climate plan prudently aims for zero emissions from the energy and transportation sectors by 2030 and, with a $16.3 trillion dollar “price tag,” it is the most expensive plan of all the presidential candidates. This fact is often cited by his critics, but when the alternative is risking civilization and the future of humanity itself, what price tag could be high enough? Are the other candidates not the dangerous and unrealistic candidates when they don’t propose spending every dime we can to ensure the survival of our species? What economy do people think will exist if the planet slowly becomes uninhabitable? The business community and financial firms are, like stupefied addicts waking from a binge, slowly and defiantly accepting the realities of climate change. But despite the upward trend in the number of corporate greenwashing campaigns, without serious government intervention markets will remain paralyzed to sufficient collective action.
Bernie’s Green New Deal is how you would act if you really believed the science and the idea that we are in a climate emergency that threatens the planet your children will inherit. His climate plan is arguably the most comprehensive and complex of all the candidates, and there are a few key ideas that will be absolutely vital to adequate climate action that other candidates haven’t endorsed or as fully endorsed.
One key idea in his plan is the move towards public ownership of energy production and transmission. This is the most socialistic of all of Bernie’s policies, and it’s absolutely vital to climate change mitigation. Energy production is one of the three big contributing sectors to emissions. It is the low-hanging fruit of climate action, but, thanks to energy companies and decades of their profit-driven amoral obstructionism, we’ve still barely begun to tackle it. We simply don’t have the time to play political games with energy companies who have proven they are not eager to move towards renewable energy at anywhere near the speed the science demands.
Bernie’s plan devotes $852 billion to energy storage and $526 billion to build a smart grid to balance and transmit electricity from renewable sources, all to be owned by and accountable to the public. Public ownership uproots the profit motive and quickly ends all need for compromising our future with the industry that has already done so much to sabotage it. Any other method of moving to renewable energy at the speed required is just not politically realistic at this time. Other methods for making the large-scale rapid transition might sound good on paper, but, in a government where money and corporations undeniably wield so much political influence, we should expect more of the same effective delay and denial and political opposition and cheating for as long as the same corporate incentive structures are left in place.
No one in history has been able to unleash so much death and destruction with so little accountability
Another climate policy that really differentiates Bernie from the rest of the field gets to the same idea. We now know without a doubt that fossil fuel companies have known for decades that ever-rising carbon emissions were almost certain to cause dangerous warming. Throughout that time they continued to oppose political action on climate while also spending billions of dollars to fund a tragically effective propaganda campaign of scientific misinformation. Now that public climate denial is largely untenable, fossil fuel companies have shifted to a disingenuous marketing strategy of acting concerned for climate. Companies like Exxon and BP claim to accept climate science and tout their meager investments in renewable energy to help their public image while still funding climate denial, stalling political action, and committing to future fossil fuel use that will make emissions targets impossible.
In simple moral terms: Fossil fuel companies are killing for profits, and they’ve known for decades, and they’re doing everything they can to be able to continue to do it for as long as they can. No one in history has been able to unleash so much death and destruction with so little accountability. Their actions and inactions are wiping out species and killing and displacing countless people, causing untold suffering, and because the carbon emission-climate-disaster cycle is like a complex Rube Goldberg machine they have been so far able to get away with claiming innocence and continuing their greed-fueled planetary human rights crime spree even though we understand the mechanisms at play and have long had the technological alternatives.
To this day the fossil fuel industry’s part-ownership of our political system ensures that they are all but immune to political pressures. Bernie Sanders, unlike most of the rest of the candidates — and likely with more dispositional authenticity than any other — is willing to change that. Not only does he support civil suits against the fossil fuel industry for their role in climate denial and climate damages, he also strongly supports seeking all possible criminal charges for companies and executives who knowingly sowed deception around climate science. This may seem unnecessary with a proper climate plan in place, but it will be key to the political realization of any sufficient climate action.
Without a real threat, either to their wealth or to their freedom with real legal consequence, corporate executives will continue to fight climate action, and we’ve seen how successful they can be at it. Power only recognizes power, and if these individuals aren’t faced with a credible threat of real criminal punishment, they will only continue their past behaviors which resulted in over 30 years lost to inaction. Bernie Sanders understands that it’s time to stop letting executives launder their heinous crimes through the excuse of fiduciary responsibility, and Elizabeth Warren supports similar action for executives who lie to federal regulators. Serious legal repercussions are the only way to truly stop the climate denial and delay machine at its source.
It’s Time to Pay Our Carbon Debt
Global mitigation will require far more than just the president of the U.S., but it is undoubtedly the most important position in the world with regards to climate change at this pivotal time in history. Without a climate-focused U.S. executive branch, both national and international policies to curb emissions become far less realistic. We saw at COP25 what happens when the U.S. is not a leader on climate policy: Essentially nothing.
The United States is the largest carbon emitter in history, and generated much of its great wealth from fossil fuel use, which the world now must wind down even as billions across the developing world struggle to get out of poverty. Ever since international climate negotiations began this has been the primary stumbling block. Developing nations understandably demand that the U.S., Europe, and other wealthy nations that developed with the help of cheap fossil fuels do more to fund their clean energy transition, while the major emitters have been consistently reluctant. In a cruel irony that is not lost on them, these developing nations, who are least responsible, are those most affected and least able to respond to climate disruption.
Bernie and Tom Steyer have the most ambitious plans in this regard. They both have pledged $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund over the next 10 years in order to fund mitigation and adaptation projects in the developing world. Warren’s platform has a similar idea, but only pledging $100 billion. This is the kind of commitment that is desperately needed to keep international climate negotiations from falling apart along the lines of rich and poor countries yet again.
A common argument against climate action among Americans is the idea that China and India and the rest of the world would just continue emitting no matter what we do, but that is absurd, as those nations understand the threat of climate change more clearly than we do, and indeed are already facing it while many countries are outpacing the U.S. in renewable growth and meeting Paris Agreement emissions targets. Only with a U.S. president who is willing to accept the inequities of our carbon past and lead the world to a carbon-free future can there can be a truly viable path forward in global negotiations to get us out of this international existential Prisoner’s Dilemma.
Policy is important, but not exactly most important
In the wake of unprecedented disasters and unprecedented climate protests, climate has become a much more prominent issue, and a top issue with Democratic Party primary voters. Predictably, many Democratic candidates now show an ostensible concern for climate that most failed to demonstrate in their political careers preceding their presidential runs. Many of the candidates climate plans share similar goals, and rhetorically on the debate stage they all sound nearly identical acknowledging the gravity of the crisis. The pressures of an election, especially when it comes to a concrete science-based problem like climate, tend to funnel campaign promises of policies in one direction. This is why policy alone, as important as it is, isn’t the only, or necessarily even the most important, factor that should be considered when voting.
We’ve all seen politicians lie on the campaign trail, or take a bold commendable stance only to walk it back weeks later when public pressure mounts. Climate change is essentially a battle with the laws of physics, and they won’t compromise or hesitate. That is precisely why we can’t settle for a candidate who might waffle on the issue and its urgency if the political winds blow one way or another. Climate change will force on our next president, as it has forced on our current one, the greatest test of integrity in the history of modern politics. As voters, we can’t afford to elect someone who hasn’t proven themselves to be a true leader, especially because of this issue.
If you take climate seriously, even if you don’t support Bernie’s “left-leaning” domestic policies and anti-corporate bias, it would be imperative that you support him, because those tendencies you might dislike in him in normal times are absolutely necessary for a politician confronting the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced at a time when the main opposition is exactly those forces of enormous wealth and corporate greed. The pernicious nature of how money acts on our political system makes a politician’s true character, not just the platform they advertise on the campaign trail, one of the biggest factors in how they govern.
For our next Democratic president, no matter who it is, getting Congress to prioritize climate is going to be the hard part. Whether Democrats control both houses of Congress or not, there will be limited political bandwidth to get massive legislation like a Green New Deal through. The president must personally understand the gravity of the issue or the risk of passing up climate to deal with any one of a myriad of other pressing and important issues like health care or immigration or gun control might override climate action again, and, despite any great short-term societal gains, turn the future of the planet into the darkest of dystopian novels.
As politically difficult as it might be, climate action has to take precedent otherwise nothing else we care about matters. Bernie Sanders has been warning about the existential dangers of global warming since at least 1987, and has had a consistent record ever since. Joe Biden also has a long history of warning about climate change, and even passed the first global warming-related bill in the Senate under Ronald Reagan, but his policies have since failed to keep up with the science.
A Bridge Fuel to Nowhere
One big problem with Democrats is that over the past decade they have made a habit of promoting natural gas as a clean source of energy because it emits around 50% less CO2 than does coal when burned. Over the past few years however, more and more research has made clear that natural gas cannot be used as a “bridge fuel,” as Amy Klobuchar to this day claims in her own form of disturbing climate denial. The reason is because natural gas is itself a greenhouse gas — and it leaks.
Natural gas, or methane, leaks from fracking sites, pipelines and other infrastructure and accidents (it is explosive). It is the second biggest contributor to global warming and is 30 times more powerful of a greenhouse gas than CO2, though it acts on the atmosphere on a shorter timescale. Realistically we don’t know exactly how much is actually leaking from the vast and ever-growing network of natural gas infrastructure and fracking sites across our country, or from across the world, though satellites will increasingly help expose more methane leaks coming from the oil and gas industry. Increasing methane is the biggest and possibly least recognized threat to global emissions targets, one that our political-scientific bodies don’t seem to have fully taken into account yet.
The Democratic Party has had extremely problematic ties to the natural gas industry over the years, and primary voters must realize that these ties pose a serious threat to a sustainable future even if Democrats beat Trump in November. Joe Biden, who has been dismissing youth climate and anti-fracking activists throughout the entire primary campaign, has coincidentally hired advisors to his campaign who have worked for the natural gas industry and, despite pledging not to take fossil fuel donations, has had a campaign fundraiser held by the co-founder of a liquefied natural gas firm. Biden’s natural gas ties are even a key part of the ongoing Trump impeachment, as the scandal revolves around Trump’s intent to investigate corruption related to Joe Biden’s son Hunter curiously being paid $50,000 a month to sit on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
Due to fracking, natural gas production in the U.S. has nearly doubled since 1998, rising most rapidly during the Obama administration. Fueling this production is a sharp increase in the export of natural gas. In 2018 total annual U.S. natural gas exports were the highest on record, and the United States was a net exporter for the second year in a row. The EIA expects U.S. net natural gas exports to almost double by 2021. As we domestically wean ourselves off of other fossil fuels, our natural gas exports are becoming an increasing problem and we cannot risk conflict of interest impeding in any way the hard political task of decarbonizing our economy.
The Climate Candidate
While Jay Inslee and Tom Steyer both view climate as a top priority, Inslee has dropped out and Steyer, who is polling in the single digits, is a billionaire who has had extensive fossil fuel investments in the recent past. Sanders, on the other hand, has a long history of involvement with environmentalism and was even introduced by Bill McKibben, one of the foremost leaders of the U.S. climate movement, when he announced his first candidacy for president in front of a small crowd along the shore of Lake Champlain in 2015.
Bernie Sanders opposed the Keystone XL pipeline in 2011, four years before the Obama administration finally rejected it. He opposed the Dakota Access pipeline and has supported a ban on tracking unequivocally. Over and over during both of his presidential runs he has made climate a central issue, bringing it up unprovoked any chance he gets, whether on the late night talk shows or during debates. In an October 2015 Democratic Primary debate when he and Hillary Clinton were asked what they thought was they greatest national security threat, Sanders didn’t hesitate to state climate change even though the answer was much less politically expedient than it is in our election cycle.
Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidency has been endorsed by the incredibly effective youth-led climate organization The Sunrise Movement, and he was the only candidate given an A+ by Greenpeace on climate action. He also received the highest score of any candidate from 350 Action and Data For Progress. His 2016 campaign brought climate activists from across the country together, and he has been endorsed by too many climate activists to name, from Gasland director Josh Fox to Zero Hour founder and teenage climate lawsuit activist Jamie Margolin to climate scientist Peter Kalmus. Despite Joe Biden’s recent claim that no scientists thought Bernie’s climate plan was realistic, his Green New Deal has since received explicit support from a number of climate scientists and researchers including Sivan Kartha, Nathaniel Mulcahy, Isaac Larkin, Eric Holthaus, just to name a few.
For years Bernie has used his social media presence to inform his online followers about climate change and even specific climate issues, from fracking to Arctic methane release, in a way that no other presidential candidate who didn’t once make millions from fossil fuel investments has. Bernie has been one of the few voices in the wilderness on climate issues for years, and his voice has been unwavering to this day. During the most recent debate, Bernie correctly tied trade to climate, a policy position that must to be taken or it will be too easy for us to simply outsource our emissions and put global targets at risk — yet he was the only candidate on stage to say that a lack of attention to climate would be a deal breaker in the new USMCA trade deal.
The longer you look, the more it becomes clear that Bernie is the climate candidate, and, like it or not, this is the climate election. If the next president doesn’t have the political courage to take unprecedentedly bold action, as well as stop all the environmental deregulation the Trump administration has in the judicial pipeline, the consequences for the future of our planet will be disastrous.
Not Me, Us
As much as some perpetual Bernie-haters might take some glee in ostensibly bombastic article headlines like this one that suggest anything like a cultish devotion to the man, one thing I am not suggesting is that a Sanders presidency is enough in itself, but, considering the time frame and other candidates running, it’s absolutely necessary. I’m certainly not suggesting that Bernie Sanders is a lone superhero who is going to single-handedly save the world from destruction as if we were living in the latest Marvel movie. Bernie Sanders himself will be the first person to tell you, as his most popular campaign slogan goes, that it’s “Not Me, Us.” It’s this movement that coalesced behind him that is absolutely key to taking climate action from “unrealistic” plans to enacted legislation, and no other presidential candidate has anything comparable.
As the movement was key to his rise from relative obscurity to one of the most popular politicians in the world, it will also be the key to him getting elected president and getting anything done with a crooked Congress. Much of the foundation of the grassroots side of Bernie’s 2016 presidential run came from activists from many different movements joining together behind his candidacy, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Fight For $15 to labor organizers, and of course the anti-pipeline and climate protestors. Bernie has shown strong support for all of these movements over the years, and has a habit of joining picket lines and marching with protestors, including at the massive 2014 People’s Climate March in New York City.
Bernie is completely unique in this presidential race with regards to his personal grassroots activism. He alone has a long history of organizing, protesting, and even being arrested in acts of civil disobedience to combat injustice. With his lifelong position at the crossroads between activism and electoral politics, he is unique in his understanding of how a president and a climate movement could work together to achieve climate policies that seem politically impossible but that are absolutely necessary to prevent the unfolding devastation and extinction wrought by rapid global warming from unchecked emissions. With continuing influences of the fossil fuel industry on our political system, from campaign donations and lobbying to advertising dollars and astroturfed campaigns to politicians themselves owning fossil fuel company stocks, it’s going to take an unprecedented movement to counteract the unlimited funding of this deeply-embedded corruption.
In the words of Bernie’s climate plan:
“Most importantly, we must build an unprecedented grassroots movement that is powerful enough to take them on, and win. Young people, advocates, tribes, cities and states all over this country have already begun this important work, and we will continue to follow their lead.”
The movement can’t do it alone though, at least not in the timeframe we are left with. As is made apparent by steady U.S. carbon emissions, record natural gas production, Trump’s rollback of various environmental rules, and the approval by his administration of both the Dakota Access and Keystone XL pipelines, activism without equivalent electoral success can do little in the grander scheme. But an unprecedented coordination between the climate movement and the President of the United States could completely alter the political scales on the issue. With his past of civil disobedience, there’s even a remote possibility that the power of presidential pardon could be used to drop federal charges for nonviolent civil disobedience or direct action pressuring Congress, government agencies, corporations, or politicians to take sufficient action on climate.
When Obama was president it appeared to the public that he was generally concerned about climate and wanted to do the right thing, and yet he dragged his feet and certainly failed to prioritize climate action on any level, especially during his first term. Although the fight against the Keystone XL pipeline galvanized a national climate movement, it also took years of pressure until it was finally rejected by the Obama administration in 2015, and in the meantime, while the climate movement was focused — or maybe ‘distracted’ would be a more accurate word — a network of other pipelines and countless more fracking wells had been constructed across the country. The Obama years are proof that a decent Democratic president even with a growing climate movement is not enough to tackle this problem. What we have yet to see the power of is a climate movement that is able to work with a President to pressure Congress instead of a climate movement focused on applying pressure to influence the President.
Numerous times in recent years when there has been significant national climate action in wealthy countries, whether in France in 2018 following Macron’s fuel tax, or in 2010 in the U.S. as a strong bipartisan cap and trade bill was making its way through Congress, we have seen a more powerful, coordinated, and ultimately successful revolt against such action. Although there is significant economic and demographic context around the rise of the Yellow Vest movement in France and the Tea Party in the U.S., in both cases the specific trigger was concrete climate policy.
As — or if — the United States is to move forward with climate action that is anywhere near adequate, it will be important to have leaders with both integrity and the support of a mass movement to ensure that the climate progress made has sufficient public buy-in that can’t be manipulated by industry propaganda and isn’t subsequently revolted against and undone. In addition, it is political reality that Republicans inevitably will take back Congress and the White House at some point, so it is helpful from a long-term political strategy perspective that Bernie’s Green New Deal is such a massive project that will go out of its way to not leave fossil fuel industry workers behind and will affect many peoples lives in positive ways that will leave them supportive of at least some aspect of it while also making climate policy less of a massive, distant, and abstract concept.
At this juncture in history, and as horrendous as Trump is in almost every way, it is too late to “Vote Blue No Matter Who” and think it will be enough to tackle the climate emergency simply because four more years of Trump would be worse. That’s not how the laws of physics work. Whether through coal or natural gas, Republican or Democratic administrations, we risk creating a future that is nothing but one long rolling disaster that only gets worse, and once the emissions are in the air there is little we can do, even though some Democratic candidates think a responsible climate plan is to throw money at the hope that we can pull it back out in time to avert disaster.
One last important feature that differentiates Bernie’s climate plan is that it doesn’t gamble the future on the hope that nuclear power or carbon sequestration can realistically solve our emissions problem. These technocratic faith-based solutions haven’t proven viable at scale yet, and certainly aren’t sufficient for the short-term emissions reductions necessary in high-emission rich countries. What they do is offer politicians another easy excuse to put off our needed emission reductions.
If any climate plan is unrealistic, it’s one that relies on natural gas, new nuclear power, or carbon capture. We need to face the hard task of emissions reductions, and, like him or not, Sanders has never been afraid to honestly face the hard facts of our environmental problems, even those that politicians have tended to shy away from like overpopulation or factory farming or questioning the notion of perpetual economic growth. And while Bernie gets criticism for his plan to phase out existing nuclear power and the impact it would have on emissions, from a strategic standpoint this could be a helpful bargaining chip to hold when it comes time to get his Green New Deal passed in Congress. One thing Democrats could really learn from Sen. Sanders is that you don’t go to the bargaining table with a reasonable compromise plan that you think Republicans will agree to.
It’s important to remember also that a Bernie Sanders presidency doesn’t solve the climate crisis, it’s how we begin solving the climate crisis. The same movement that gets him elected and helps pass the Green New Deal will need to continue for the rest of their lives the hard work of adapting to and mitigating the climate crisis and the whole suite of environmental issues that unsustainable consumerism has brought us. But without the starting point of a Sanders presidency in 2021, the task of averting worse-than-catastrophic climate change becomes all that much more impossible.
The Democratic field offers a number of good candidates to vote for this time around, but we are about to make a choice about an existential risk that threatens future generations and so much of life on Earth, and we can’t afford a merely good candidate who would suffice in normal times. This crisis demands a true leader, one who never bows to the pernicious pressure of political expediency and who we won’t have to worry about being cowed or manipulated by the political influence of the fossil fuel industry, the billionaire class, and the massive corporations that have a financial interest in continued unsustainable environmental devastation.
America, over the coming months you will be making a choice that will have repercussions that will ripple throughout the world for centuries, shaping the future of your children and grandchildren and the course of human civilization itself. Greta Thunberg, whose fame is rooted in her deep understanding of the climate crisis, rightly said in her most famous speech, “Solving the climate crisis is the greatest and most complex challenge that homo sapiens have ever faced.”
On election day, whether you recognize it or not, you will be choosing to solve it, or to ignore the greatest challenge that our species has ever faced. Please vote like your house is on fire. Because it is.