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The 2020 Election: Why Sanders is Better than Warren on Climate Change

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Land-ocean temperature index, 1880 to present, with base period 1951–1980 (Author: NASA Goddard Institue for Space Studies; Source: Public Domain)

This past week, the big gossipy news story of the 2020 Democratic Primary was the end of the non-aggression pact between Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. First, Politico reported on a volunteer script floating around the Sanders campaign slack channels that (very mildly) criticized Elizabeth Warren (“I like Elizabeth Warren,” the script began, which to me doesn’t feel like too heavy of a criticism). This was followed by a CNN story reporting (via four anonymous sources who weren’t actually in the room) that Sanders had told Warren in a private meeting that he didn’t think a woman could beat Trump. Sanders denied saying this, Warren said he did, and the whole thing blew up into a full-fledged media shitstorm when Warren refused to shake Sanders’ hand after the Democratic debate the following night and accused him of calling her a liar on national television (CNN “discovered” the audio of their back and forth on stage about a day after the debate ended, very clearly eager for the story to live on for another 24-hour news cycle).

The media loves nothing more than this kind of interpersonal bullshit. To them, policy details are boring, but “he said, she said” stuff deserves a full week of coverage. I’d be irritated at them for this, but I’ve long since given up believing that media conglomerates are actually interested in “doing the news” (whatever television shows like Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom want us to believe). In the end, they’re just corporations, and they simply want to make money, and they know that stories like the Warren/Sanders spat get people to tune in.

Of course, the problem is, there are legitimate differences between Warren and Sanders that are worth exploring in detail. As a progressive leftist, when the primary began, I wanted to give all candidates a fair shot, even though I’d supported Bernie in 2016. Ultimately, though, I chose Sanders over Warren because I found his policies bolder and more progressive across the board — but there was one in particular that stuck out to me, one policy which I don’t think gets enough attention and which I want to discuss in some detail in this post: their respective feelings about the relationship between capitalism and climate change.

Now, I’ve long since recognized that capitalism is one of the primary causes of climate change. This, I think, should be obvious to anyone who takes even a cursory glance at graphs of global temperature changes over the earth’s history: aside from natural fluctuations such as the Ice Ages and the Medieval Warm Period, global temperatures were largely stable until the late-1800s, when they suddenly skyrocketed.

For those of us who aren’t aware of world historical shifts, the late-1800s corresponds with the latter half of an economic transformation known as the Industrial Revolution, when economies across the world from Europe to Japan to the United States shifted from agriculture to manufacturing. This shift was not only the result of global capitalism, which economic historians date back to the 1600s, when European countries experienced a commercial revolution as a result of new products brought from the New World and, of course, their dominance of the Atlantic Slave Trade, but also the cause of its continued growth, as these industrial economics sought new markets overseas to sell their manufactured goods. And over the course of the twentieth century, amidst the turbulence of two world wars and a shift from an imperial world to a globalized one of sovereign states, capitalism reigned supreme, defeating the Soviet Union in the ideological struggle known as the Cold War, and since then dominating the world economy in the era of globalization. With the rise of the internet and the emergence of a new neoliberal political consensus, capitalism has entered its most triumphant period yet.

Capitalism’s wild success, though, has come at a very obvious cost. The last twenty years, corresponding with the neoliberal era, have seen even starker signs of climate change than ever before, and in the last few years in particular the signs have become dire: sea levels rising in Bangladesh, droughts in India, fires in Australia and California, higher temperatures everywhere in the world, and the loss of natural wonders like the Great Barrier Reef. It’s unquestionable that capitalism’s unregulated growth has contributed to the increased use of fossil fuel energy, which has caused the increase in carbon emissions that has made climate change worse and worse. The trend that began with the Industrial Revolution has reached a breaking point, and as the United Nation’s widely shared IPCC report of 2018 made clear, we have only twelve years to keep global warming from getting to a catastrophic point of no return. The world has experienced 1 degree of warming (Celsius) since the Industrial Revolution, and we’re on track for that to double to 2 degrees very soon. The IPCC report stresses that our goal is to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, because a difference of even half a degree could lead to droughts, fires, and massive sea level rise that would affect tens of millions of people. And the only way to do this is to rapidly reduce our carbon dioxide emissions by 45% by 2030.

That kind of stark shift will not happen under our existing capitalist energy system. The problem is that fossil fuels are too cheap, and corporations will never shift to green energy in time to meet the IPCC deadline. The only way to achieve this kind of rapid and overwhelming shift in our energy system is through large scale government intervention — and this is where the differences between Bernie Sanders’ and Elizabeth Warren’s progressive visions start to matter. Bernie Sanders supports a plan known as the Green New Deal, a specific policy proposal that builds off of the broad goals originally set by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Massachusetts Senator Ed Markey. Bernie’s plan involves, among other things, an FDR style government-guided transformation of the American energy sector that would bring the industry under public ownership and build new, green infrastructure to move the United States to 100% renewable energy by 2030. Beyond just making the U.S. a global leader in combatting climate change, such a plan would have the added benefit of creating 20 million new jobs and helping revive our country’s post-industrial economy.

By contrast, Elizabeth Warren believes in what can most charitably be described as green capitalism. In a climate forum hosted by CNN back in September, Warren’s vision clashed most noticeably with Bernie’s when she answered a question about the role of capitalism from audience member Robert Wood, a writer and climate organizer from Brooklyn. “Bernie Sanders has endorsed the idea of the public ownership of utilities,” Wood said, “arguing that we can’t adequately solve this crisis without removing the profit motive from the distribution of essential needs like energy. As president, would you be willing to call out capitalism in this way and advocate for the public ownership of our utilities?” Warren responded by saying, “Gosh, you know, I’m not sure that that’s what gets you to the solution,” and then adding that “if somebody wants to make a profit from building better solar panels and generating better battery storage, I’m not opposed to that.”

To me, Warren’s response demonstrated a fixation with capitalism and a frustrating unwillingness to challenge an economic system that has been responsible for the climate crisis we find ourselves in. Warren has described herself before as a “capitalist to her bones,” and she even stood up and gave Donald Trump a standing ovation at his 2019 State of the Union when he declared, in what was clearly a pointed jab at Bernie, that America would never, ever be a socialist country (Bernie, of course, stayed seated and didn’t applaud) — but this answer at the climate forum, I felt, was even more troubling and disappointing. When faced with overwhelming evidence that capitalism is responsible for climate change, and when faced with a stark timeline by the U.N. that requires active government intervention for the world to meet, a leader needs to be willing to challenge the status quo. Warren’s unwillingness to link capitalism to climate change and her refusal to entertain removing the profit motive from the energy sector in order to make the necessary transition from fossil fuels to green energy is a sign that she is not the leader we need in this moment of climate crisis. Green capitalism will not solve our problems, and the clearest evidence is that we’ve known about climate change since the 1980s, and corporations have continued to do nothing but pursue their short term profits. In fact, ExxonMobil and Shell knew about the dangers of climate change as early as the 1980s, but actively lobbied to suppress and distort the research. What makes Elizabeth Warren think that these corporations will be willing to switch to green energy now when for over thirty years, as climate change as gotten worse and worse, they’ve continued to pursue the easy profits of fossil fuels?

The truth is, we need a president who’s willing to recognize the links between capitalism and climate change — and Bernie Sanders is the only one. His Green New Deal is a detailed and ambitious plan that goes much farther than anything Elizabeth Warren has proposed (even though the media was quick to brand her as the “plans” candidate). If we can make his vision a reality, then the U.S. will become a leader in the climate fight, and it just may be possible for us to save our planet from the brink.

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Debut novel PORTRAIT OF SEBASTIAN KHAN (2019, 7.13 Books). Writes about politics and literature.

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