WASHINGTON >> Sen. Bernie Sanders today released a $16.3 trillion blueprint to fight climate change, the latest and most expensive proposal from the field of Democratic presidential candidates aimed at reining in planet-warming greenhouse gases.
Sanders unveiled his proposal one day after Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington, who made climate change the central focus of his campaign, announced he was dropping out of the 2020 race. Inslee’s absence could create an opening for another presidential aspirant to seize the mantle of “climate candidate.”
Sanders was an early supporter of the Green New Deal, an ambitious but nonbinding congressional plan for tackling global warming and economic inequality. He is bestowing that same name upon his new plan, which calls for the United States to eliminate fossil fuel use by 2050.
It declares climate change a national emergency; envisions building new solar, wind and geothermal power sources across the country; and commits $200 billion to help poor nations cope with climate change.
Sanders said in an interview that his proposal would “pay for itself” over 15 years and create 20 million jobs in the process.
Also Thursday, a Democratic National Committee panel rejected a proposal to hold a presidential primary debate dedicated to climate change, voting 17-8 against the idea. The decision was not a surprise, but some environmental activists denounced the vote and said it showed that the DNC was not taking climate change seriously enough.
The committee did reverse a ban on having presidential candidates participate side by side in informal events, a decision that could affect the format of a CNN climate change forum Sept. 4. Ten candidates are scheduled to appear at that event, but they were expected to appear back to back, not onstage together. Sanders is one of them.
“President Trump thinks that climate change is a hoax,” Sanders said in the interview, laying out the case for his climate plan. “President Trump is dangerously, dangerously wrong. Climate change is an existential threat to the entire country and the entire world, and we must be extraordinarily aggressive.
“I have seven grandchildren, and I’m going to be damned if I’m going to leave them a planet that is unhealthy and uninhabitable,” he added.
There is no broadly agreed-upon figure of how much needs to be spent to decarbonize the U.S. economy, but one study estimated that as much as $4.5 trillion could be needed just to modernize the nation’s power grid.
Still, the Sanders plan’s eye-popping price tag is several times bigger than those of his leading opponents. Former Vice President Joe Biden has called for spending $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts has a $2 trillion green manufacturing plan. Other candidates, including former Rep. Beto O’Rourke of Texas, have also put forth ambitious proposals.
Sanders’ plan would be funded in part by imposing new fees and taxes on the fossil fuel industry. He described the proposal as putting “meat on the bones” of the Green New Deal resolution and laying the groundwork for a rapid energy transformation.
Democratic voters are increasingly demanding that candidates show they are prepared to be ambitious in tackling climate change. A recent Yale University survey found that 93% of party voters supported an aggressive plan like the Green New Deal.
Among registered voters, global warming ranked 17th on a list of 29 important issues — but it was the third most important issue for liberal Democrats and the eighth most important for moderate and conservative Democrats, the report found.
United Nations scientists have urged a deadline of achieving net-zero global emissions — that is, eliminating as much greenhouse gas pollution from the atmosphere as humans generate — by 2050. That would stave off the worst consequences of climate change like rising seas, longer droughts and worsened heat waves, experts say.
Virtually all of the Democratic candidates for president have pointed to that deadline as a critical one, and those with specific plans have used it as a broad benchmark. The majority of them also sidestep contentious ideas like a tax on carbon pollution and instead call for a vast infusion of money toward clean energy research and development.
Sanders’ plan is no exception. Though the Vermont lawmaker was an early proponent of a carbon tax — he once called it “the most straightforward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” — his new proposal makes no mention of one.
Instead, he calls for converting the electricity and transportation sectors to 100% renewable energy by 2030 and achieving “complete decarbonization” by 2050 through a massive spending plan.
Robert C. Hockett, a Cornell University law professor who has advised Sanders on climate change policy, said the country now needs more than just a carbon tax. Tackling climate change, he said, demands a vast overhaul of U.S. infrastructure and manufacturing. He said Sanders’ plan, and its substantial price tag, reflected that.
“You’ll see Bernie setting the pace. He’ll be the one who is always prepared to go the furthest,” Hockett said.
Joshua Freed, vice president for clean energy at centrist Democratic think tank Third Way, said he was not impressed with Sanders’ plan. The proposal opposes nuclear energy and carbon capture and storage technology, both of which Freed said must be tools in decarbonizing the economy.
“The Sanders plan appears to be big, but it’s not serious,” Freed said. “We need to have every option on the table.”
The Sanders plan calls for a moratorium on nuclear power plant license renewals, and it says that the goal of 100% sustainable energy “will not rely on any false solutions like nuclear, geoengineering, carbon capture and sequestration, or trash incinerators.”
Sanders’ campaign estimated that roughly $3.1 trillion would be generated from “making the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution” through new but unspecified fees and eliminating $15 billion in annual subsidies; another $1.2 trillion would come from “scaling back military spending on the global oil supply,” and $2.3 trillion would be collected from new income tax revenues from new jobs in the renewable energy industry, among other measures.
The spending would go toward researching energy storage and electric vehicles, supporting small farms and developing ways to “make our plastic more sustainable through advanced chemistry.” Under the plan, the federal government would also provide five years of unemployment insurance, a wage guarantee, housing assistance and job training to “any displaced worker” in the fossil fuel industry.