The Sanders climate plan would actually achieve something
Updated: Feb 29
Let me begin by briefly indulging in autobiography, because I think it's relevant. I have spent much of my adult life and energy engaged in ecological politics, working in the domains of direct action and policy. This means I've spent much of my life confronting the horrifying disconnect between scientific and political reality. An astute commentator once said that organizing often resembles a manic phase followed by a depressive phase. For me, the depressive phase, the phase of political disengagement and general dissolution, is always precipitated by the behavior of ostensible allies.
For instance, I spent 2012-2018 organizing campaigns to municipalize energy systems, teaching people how to blockade trains, locking people to refinery gates, writing meta-analysis of regional climate plans, writing parallel versions of those climate plans, getting beaten up by riot police, sleeping very little, and generally devoting most of my time to desperate attempts at intervening in the ecological trajectory. I spent 2019, however, wandering the west coast in a depressive haze, not getting up off of people's couches until noon. One of the only things I wrote the year before was called “Jay Inslee made me give up on climate change”.
Washington governor Jay Inslee has spun himself as a tireless climate campaigner for years, and the spin carries over in media stories as a self-evident truth, as if we've all been exposed to so many of his ardent efforts that citing them isn't necessary. But the actual policies he has overseen as governor aren't any better or worse than that of establishment Democrats everywhere—which is to say, they're a guaranteed prescription for ending the world. Inslee has made no attempt to curtail new fossil fuel infrastructure, sparking mass protests at the many sites of new fossil fuel infrastructure construction throughout the state. As a result of litigation, he was handed a breathtakingly wide mandate by the courts to institute comprehensive rules limiting emissions, but chose not to do so. Washington has no particular plan or policy to significantly limit, for instance, emissions from automobiles or heavy industry. The official statewide target is a global atmospheric CO2 concentration of 450 ppm, or about 100ppm more than than that to which "life on earth is adapted". The spin is just that. His policies are far worse than California's were under a Republican governor known not for stalwart ecological commitment, but for playing the Terminator.
Obviously, this tendency is not endemic to Inslee. Obama stood in front of a podium at Georgetown University in 2013 and delivered a bunch of soaring climate rhetoric, saying he refused “to condemn future generations to a planet that's beyond fixing”, while doing exactly that. His administration instituted a plan for “deep decarbonization” totally insufficient to meet any meaningful climate target, while helping facilitate a doubling of domestic oil extraction, with executive orders that expedited the review of new pipelines. This general scenario is essentially ubiquitous, at all levels of power, in liberal and progressive politics. Portland, Oregon, for instance—ostensibly a bastion of hyper-progressivism and fervent environmentalism—has been releasing climate plans for years that essentially consist of promises to someday write a climate plan.
It wasn't Jay Inslee specifically that made me give up, it was reading these plans. For as much as they might all start with the same language of hasty action and dire consequences, every policy I have ever known as a climate plan—from statewide carbon pricing schemes to federal power plans to municipal transportation strategies—evinces a fundamental disconnect from physical reality. The one very notable exception to this rule happens to be the policy platform of the Democratic frontrunner in the presidential election.
It is a cliché that Sanders supporters have a sort of messianic fervor for their candidate. I'd like to suggest this is partially because of the love of establishment liberals for sounding reasonable, and partially—embracing the cliché—because Sanders represents a truly profound countervailing force to the apocalyptic evil of our current political system. While Biden and Buttigieg may diverge from Trump's rhetorical style or policy preferences in some ways that place them, in a political taxonomy, in the same very general category as Sanders, politicians can most meaningfully be distinguished by whether they're helping end the world or fighting the end of the world. Biden and Buttigieg belong to the former category, Sanders to the latter.
The Sanders climate plan is truly revolutionary. It addresses core geophysical and sociopolitical realities that everyone else's plans seem to miss. I have never written anything in favor of a political candidate for any office, nor volunteered for any candidate's campaign, but I am doing those things for Bernie Sanders, largely because of the following elements of his climate strategy.
Reorganization of the federal government. Progressive polities have a tendency to declare targets which, while inadequate, certainly imply significant restructurings of the socioeconomic fabric, and then fail to take the literal first steps toward that restructuring. Most conspicuous of these first steps is the creation of a centralized task force, agency, bureau, or department—with a staff and a budget—to implement a climate plan.
For instance, Portland, Oregon has issued multiple climate plans, aimed at affecting massive changes in transportation behavior, deep restructuring of the energy mix, significant reductions in energy demand, and all the rest. The city needs a dedicated bureau to manage the retirement and disability funds of police officers and firefighters. It needs another one to build tennis courts and mow lawns in its parks. Supposedly, however, the city government is going to orchestrate a massive restructuring of the socioeconomic fabric without so much as a dedicated office or a staff person. The city of Los Angeles is the only municipality I am aware of in the US with a Climate Department (the last time I checked was 2018). The state of Oregon continues the trend, planning to achieve 75% less than 1990 emissions levels by 2050. Who will implement this massive restructuring of the economy? A twelve person steering committee that meets twice a year, consisting exclusively of people with full-time commitments elsewhere (including as CEOs of heavy-emitting industries).
Sanders deviates from the trend of slapping us in the face with an overt lack of effort to achieve a grandiose vision:
… we must eliminate all new fossil fuel production in the United States immediately. This will require reorganizing the Department of Energy, Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management, Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, Energy Information Administration, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and Federal Emergency Management Agency … these agencies will lead a centralized taskforce to phase out fossil fuels … This taskforce will be responsible not only for phasing out fossil fuel production on public lands and waters, but will support the end of fossil fuel production on private property as well.
Commitments to the rest of the world reflecting the United States's unique role in creating the climate crisis. In 2007, a paper was released using game theory to assess international climate negotiations, called “How to save the planet: Be nice, retaliatory, forgiving, and clear”. The strategy it proposes—based on massive simulation experiments undertaken by international cadres of scientists and applied to everything from evolutionary theory to economics—consists of nations taking significant measures in good faith (the “nice” part of the strategy), under the premise that this creates a framework in which other nations can take similar measures. What is remarkable about this paper is not this suggestion, but the fact that it requires game theory to make this intuitively obvious point to the world's policymakers, who have wasted decades in the absurd spectacle of international climate negotiations, refusing to take significant action under the suspicion that other nations won't reciprocate, and failing to agree on respective targets because of disagreements about respective liabilities.
The only meaningful response to this gratuitous display of human small-mindedness is to take action which simultaneously involves considerable sacrifice and considerable benevolence toward others. And no nation is more meaningfully positioned to do that than the United States, which has consumed far more resources per capita and in absolute terms than any other nation on earth. The Sanders climate plan acknowledges this:
In order to help countries of the Global South with climate adaptation efforts, the U.S. will invest $200 billion in the Green Climate Fund for the equitable transfer of renewable technologies, climate adaptation, and assistance in adopting sustainable energies …
The lack of such funding has been a fundamental barrier in all the miserable failures at international climate negotiations to date, and no other presidential candidate has a plan that involves significant international funding, commensurate with the US's responsibilities.
Emissions targets that aren't meaningless garbage. There is something honest and relatable about indulging your cognitive and ideological biases to such an extent that you simply deny the existence of a scientific consensus on mass extinction and the collapse of civilization. There is something far more pathological and disconnected about acknowledging that scientific consensus, making dire proclamations about the consequences of inaction, and then adopting goals which the scientific consensus describes as catastrophic—the strategy thus far adopted by essentially the entirety of the Democratic establishment. The Sanders climate plan, in contrast, mandates profound emissions reductions:
… we will reduce US carbon pollution emissions by 71 percent and emissions among less industrialized countries by 36 percent from 2017 levels by 2030 … These emissions reductions represent the equivalent of reducing US emissions by 161 percent. This effort will be enforced by an interagency council led by Environmental Protection Agency.
Absolutely no one has any idea how much more carbon can be put into the atmosphere—if any at all—before the feedback loops that are already occurring—massive fires, melting ice, methane escaping from ice and permafrost—become completely self-perpetuating realities. That's how the end-Permian—the so-called “mother of all extinctions”, in which 97% of organisms went extinct—happened. First there was some climate change from volcanic eruption, then that climate change caused a whole bunch more climate change, in the form of, for instance, methane being released from permafrost and ice, which is happening right now. Even the IPCC's estimates, which tend to understate climate risks, place us in a realm of uncertainty about whether we've already triggered these feedbacks on a massive scale. If you add up all the geophysical uncertainties the IPCC acknowledges, they sum to more than the IPCC's remaining carbon budget to stay below the 1.5° temperature threshold (770 GtCO2 in uncertainties vs. a remaining carbon budget of 420 Gt to have a 2/3rd chance of staying below 1.5°, 840 Gt for a 1/3 chance of staying within 1.5°). We are currently in the margin of error. In this situation, there is absolutely no rate of emissions declines which can meaningfully be described as too hasty, and exactly one presidential candidate with a plan to decline emissions this much this fast.
Legal consequences for fossil fuel corporate executives. Establishment Democrats seem to operate in the paradigm that no matter how apocalyptic the circumstances or manifestly evil the opposition, the only valid political strategy is one of conciliation. When the Republicans take off their humanoid masks, reveal their alien insectoid faces, and begin drinking the blood of infants on national television, chanting the names of Lovecraftian demons, the Democratic strategy is to commission a study on phasing out nationally televised infant sacrifice, to propose a bill to make infant sacrificial practices more humane, and to talk about their electability with voters who are undecided on the issue of alien races using human blood to summon malevolent deities who have slumbered for eons. When confronted with an industry that is changing the composition of the atmosphere to usher in an epoch of storms and fires and extinction, crafting a deliberate web of disinformation around their activities, and furthering their ends with war—confronted, in other words, with the earthly incarnations of comic book villains—the Democratic strategy is to treat these people like they are engaged in a legitimate business, to behave with respect toward them, and to take their money for political campaigns. Sanders deviates from this trend:
President Bernie Sanders will ensure that his Department of Justice and Securities and Exchange Commission investigate these companies and bring suits — both criminal and civil — for any wrongdoing, just as the federal government did with the tobacco industry in the 1980s.
This not only is the only morally coherent approach, it is also sociopolitically salient. To achieve any kind of broad social consensus where collective behavior reflects our crisis, it might help for those in power to act like it is a crisis.
Economic succor for those whose existence is too precarious for climate policy to be all that popular. Any meaningful climate strategy significantly modifies the way we currently live our lives, and therefore no meaningful climate strategy can function without offering something to those who are already on the economic margins, and would be adversely impacted by upheavals in the economy. The mainstream consensus has spent decades dismissing every policy approach as naive and unsophisticated that isn't a carbon pricing scheme, choosing to ignore two empirical realities of such schemes. One, that they don't work—the European Union's massive carbon pricing scheme, for instance, probably actually increased emissions in Europe. Two, that the moment you start imposing economic hardships on people without offering something in return, say by simply raising fuel prices, people have a tendency to start burning things in the streets, as they have in France recently, sometimes in yellow vests. The Sanders climate plan puts money into the hands of struggling people, because Sanders isn't afraid to take money away from people who have too much of it. His plan would:
Directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts, in line with the mobilization of resources made during the New Deal and WWII, but with an explicit choice to include black, indigenous and other minority communities who were systematically excluded in the past.
There is absolutely no one else running for president—or doing much of anything else worth noting—talking about these kinds of sums of money.
Outright bans of a number of types of fossil fuel extraction, and all new fossil fuel infrastructure. Confronted with a crisis which requires a cessation of the extraction, transmission, and burning of fossil fuels, a particularly salient category of policies would be those that prohibit the extraction, transmission, and burning of fossil fuels. After all, if carbon pricing schemes were to actually affect emissions, they would do so by precisely this means—just through an elaborate, indirect, and unproven web of market manipulations rather than by direct edict. Mainstream democrats and the ostensible climate intelligentsia continue to deride anyone who promotes the guaranteed policy over the wildly speculative as unreasonable and uneducated, but Sanders proposes simply shutting down the machinery of death:
We will immediately end all new and existing fossil fuel extraction on federal public lands … we must ban offshore drilling … We will ensure fossil fuels stay in the ground by stopping the permitting and building of new fossil fuel extraction, transportation, and refining infrastructure … Fracking and mountaintop removal coal mining are two particularly harmful methods used to extract fossil fuels. They make surrounding communities less healthy and less safe. They must be immediately banned … Congress’ decision in 2015 to lift the ban on exporting fossil fuels was a mistake. We must no longer export any fossil fuels … We will also end the importation of fossil fuels to end incentives for extraction around the world.
I openly confess that I cried when I read this section of the policy. Myself and many others have risked much and endured much to affect far lesser ends. People have been exposed to an awful lot of tear gas, sleepless nights, and prison time in attempts to stop the construction of single pipelines or the operation of single oil terminals. If we are willing to suffer such burdens for such finite objectives—finite objectives we frequently do not achieve—it would seem singularly insane not to expend some effort to achieve such vast, categorical victories.
The use of existing executive power rather than reliance on speculative coalitions passing implausible bills. Mechanisms exist at pretty much every level of power to meaningfully impact the climate trajectory, and pretty much no one—regardless of their rhetoric—is using them. Policymakers largely seem to be engaged in a process of waiting for some greater consensus or more solid coalition or more convenient path to emerge, rather than taking initiative to do what absolutely must be done, making hard decisions along the way, and embracing their associated risk—rather than exhibiting what one might concisely characterize as leadership.
The Sanders climate plan invokes a number of mechanisms that are available to the executive office itself, rather than requiring a legislative process. The plan imposes costs on fossil fuels (and raises money for climate programs) by raising the rates on existing fossil fuel risk bonds to reflect the real risks associated with fossil fuels. It uses the federal power marketing administrations to alter the nation's energy portfolio. It regulates CO2 and methane under the extant regulatory framework of the Clean Air Act. It makes use of the existing regulatory structure and executive powers to take real, decisive, transformative action now on a scale that has any meaningful relationship whatsoever to the scale of the crisis, and thus it is a policy absolutely warranting the description of revolutionary.
The injection of a modicum of hope into the overtly apocalyptic trajectory we are currently on. I've done a lot of things in response to the ecological crisis that seemed, at the time at least, reasonably sophisticated, strategic, and brave. I've won legal victories against massive amounts of logging, participated in many victorious campaigns against new fossil fuel infrastructure, and planned direct actions that resulted in trials with a realistic prospect of changing case law. The world seems to be ending on pretty much precisely the same schedule it would be ending on if I had done none of these things.
That said, trust me when I say I am profoundly aware of how dangerous it can be to hope. The decisions I have made about how to live my life reflected a decision to hope—against the preponderance of evidence of likely trajectories—for a somewhat less tragically inhumane and physically doomed world than the one we currently occupy. I have paid dearly for these decisions. I am, for instance, utterly broke, and the years of traveling and organizing have taken a severe and permanent toll on my health. But I am choosing to do what I can to assist the Sanders election effort, and to expose myself to the psychological hazards of hope in the process, because I have simply never seen anyone with such an alignment of core values and such a coherent strategic approach build so much power.
No one person being elected will result in decisive victory in every aspect of sociopolitics, but it would go an awful long way, and the work people are doing in social movements and other arenas will have vastly more potential for impact in conjunction with a Sanders presidency. If you're as wounded and weary and cynical as I am, but like me, wear this cynicism as a sort of armor to diminish the pain of living in a world that makes so little sense, I encourage you to consider embracing the risk of hope and knocking on doors, making phone calls, making memes, organizing ruthless campaigns of disinformation against rival candidates, or whatever else feels in your power to do.