Bernie Sanders’ climate plan, one of the biggest of the already big climate plans, dropped Thursday.
The strategy (which is the largest by strictly financial measures) outlines ambitious and politically radical change, including a rapid transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and geothermal power over the next decade. But that unprecedented effort is precisely what leading climate scientists emphasize is required to avoid the ever-worsening consequences of a relentlessly heating globe. “Limiting warming to 1.5 C (or 2.7 Fahrenheit above pre-Industrial Revolution temperatures) is possible within the laws of chemistry and physics but doing so would require unprecedented changes,” Jim Skea, a leading IPCC scientist, said last year.
Sanders’ $16.3 trillion plan, formally called the Green New Deal, follows in the footsteps of robust democratic climate or climate-related plans put forward by the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Elizabeth Warren, former candidate Jay Inslee, and Joe Biden. Sanders calls for a national transformation on the scale of America’s mobilization during the New Deal and World War II, ultimately leading to a complete decarbonization of the nation’s economy in three decades, by 2050.
The plan is imperfect. But it captures the scope of what is needed to limit the planet’s warming to manageable levels.
“This kind of ambition gets us into the ballpark that’s commensurate with the scale of the challenge,” said Max Boykoff, the director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research at the University of Colorado Boulder.
Sanders’ plan looks to the looming years and decades ahead, well beyond what’s feasible today, Boykoff added
“If you wrote a plan that pivoted on feasibility, rather than ambition, I think you’d have a pretty paltry proposal,” he said.
One of the first major goals of Sanders’ plan — to produce all the nation’s electricity with renewable sources by 2030 — will require an extraordinary transformation. For context, around 90 percent of all the nation’s wind and solar energy has come online since 2008, explained Ari Peskoe, director of the Electricity Law Initiative at Harvard University.
“Despite that enormous investment in the past decade, wind and solar combine to produce about 10 percent of U.S. electricity today,” said Peskoe. “Bernie proposes to build an order of magnitude more capacity in the next decade.”
What’s more, power generated from geothermal energy, the third major renewable resource in Bernie’s plan, has remained mostly flat for about 30 years, Peskoe noted.
Herein lies a notable problem with Sanders’ carbon-free climate plan. It throws out the use of nuclear energy, which produces no heat-trapping carbon emissions. The plan calls for stopping the construction of new nuclear plants and prohibiting lease renewals on existing plants. But nuclear energy generated nearly 20 percent of the nation’s energy in 2018. It’s a giant part of the carbon-free energy equation.
We need a president who will face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action.
I welcome their hatred.
— Bernie Sanders (@BernieSanders) August 22, 2019
“I haven’t seen a single U.S. decarbonization study that credibly shows net-zero [carbon emissions] by 2030 without keeping existing nuclear power online,” said Narayan Subramanian, a decarbonization expert studying climate policy at Columbia University.
But, the Sanders plan certainly doesn’t underestimate all the massive changes required to completely decarbonize the nation by “at least 2050.”
The plan, emphasized the University of Colorado Boulder’s Boykoff, “puts real Americans front and center,” specifically by calling for the creation of a whopping 20 million jobs as the nation builds and runs a slew of renewable power plants, develops sustainable agriculture, and maintains crumbling infrastructure around the country. Critically, the plan will prioritize job placement for workers displaced from the fossil fuel industry (like coal miners), so they aren’t left behind.
This emphasis on quality jobs is how the plan could potentially engender some bipartisan support in a deeply, embarrassingly polarized Congress. “That’s what is needed to get through this polarization,” said Boykoff.
The plan also has pretty thorough strategies for electrifying the transportation sector, noted Subramanian. This is imperative for reducing carbon emissions, as the transportation sector is the leading contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. “We will invest in nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure, to increase access to these resources for all, just as we built an interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s,” the plan says.
Sanders calls for a program that allows low- and moderate-income families to trade in their gas-powered cars for electric vehicles, electrifies school and city buses, and follows other industrialized nations in constructing high-speed trains capable of rapid regional transport.
But in some areas, the plan is short on details. Powering the nation with solar and wind requires an exceptional amount of battery storage — to store energy for future use. But the plan is thin on how to build this out, noted Subramanian. The plan also doesn’t address perhaps the greatest hurdle to achieving total decarbonization: How to decarbonize the nation’s industrial sector, the likes of steel, concrete, and plastics.
“That’s the elephant in the room,” said Subramanian.
But, the Sanders plan does put a notable focus on holding carbon polluters, specifically Big Oil, accountable for emitting prodigious amounts of heat-trapping carbon into the atmosphere. “That’s where the Bernie plan really sets itself apart,” said Subramanian. Sanders proposes “massively raising taxes” on income derived from fossil fuels and seeks to prosecute fossil fuel companies for knowingly disrupting the climate (there’s ample evidence of that). Fossil fuel companies, thus far, have been able to weasel out of such lawsuits — though there are many more lawsuits to come.
The plan acknowledges that the fossil fuel industry, to keep itself alive, will attempt to block such climate action.
“We need a president who welcomes their hatred,” the plan reads.
What’s more, the end of taxpayer subsidies for the fossil fuel industry will help pay for the sizable $16.3 trillion plan. Sanders broadly accounts for how to pay for the bulk of the plan, including income tax revenue generated from millions of new jobs, revenue from government-run electricity markets, and the scaling back of military spending needed to defend U.S. oil interests and shipping routes abroad.
Sanders’ plan, like all the Democratic climate plans, doesn’t shy from an enormous price tag. Unprecedented change is expensive. All the democratic plans recognize that, though they have differing ideas on how to limit the planet’s skyrocketing carbon dioxide emissions, which are now increasing at rates that are unprecedented in both the historic and geologic record.
“I think one really heartening thing across the board is the scale of ambition that everyone is calling for,” said Subramanian. “It’s just phenomenal.”