Bernie Sanders is the climate hero America needs

Other Democrats should follow his lead

Sen. Bernie Sanders announces his run for the presidency.
(Image credit: (REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst))

Climate politics in the Democratic Party has traditionally been defined by two things: a firm commitment among party elites that climate change is a major problem deserving serious attention, and a basic unwillingness to confront what that actually implies.

President Obama is a perfect embodiment of this contradiction. Behold his "all of the above" energy strategy. He kinda-sorta seems to get our climate peril when he's jacking up mileage requirements for new cars and pushing new EPA regulations that could potentially phase out coal power forever. But at the same time, he's selling publicly owned coal deposits at a loss and boasting about America having built enough carbon pipelines to circle the globe.

At issue is what David Roberts calls the "brutal logic" of climate change. We're not talking about a flimsy, fixable, local issue like too many plastic bags in the gutters. Climate change is a major danger to our entire society. The carbon dioxide that causes it is a fundamental byproduct of our entire industrial system — and we're not reducing our emissions anywhere close to fast enough. It would take a truly gigantic policy effort — an order of magnitude more aggressive than anything Obama has ever advocated — to achieve what most Democrats are theoretically committed to. And it probably won't get better anytime soon: Hillary Clinton, too, is reading from the watered-down Obama playbook (which is better than Republicans at least, who either deny the problem or promise to do nothing).

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However, there is now a major Democratic Party figure who is actually talking about the kind of policy that could conceivably be part of a comprehensive attack on climate change: Bernie Sanders.

Sanders' 2016 presidential campaign may be quixotic in that he stands almost no chance of overpowering the Clinton Inevitability Machine. But his candidacy ought to be an extremely encouraging development for climate hawks — and could have laudable effects on the 2016 Democratic primary.

Greg Sargent has the goods, in an interview he conducted last week with Sanders. When asked to sketch his plan for a climate policy, the Vermont senator said:

It would look like a tax on carbon; a massive investment in solar, wind, geothermal; it would be making sure that every home and building in this country is properly winterized; it would be putting substantial money into rail, both passenger and cargo, so we can move towards breaking our dependency on automobiles. And it would be leading other countries around the world. [Washington Post]

Okay, it's not exactly a fully worked-out policy paper. But in the meantime, here's a more explicit program from Joe Romm drilling in on the actual details, which he summarizes as "deploy every conceivable energy-efficient and low carbon technology that we have today as fast as we can." What Sanders wants is basically a crash program of decarbonization and efficiency, coupled to a strong diplomatic effort to help China and India achieve what is also in their best interests.

Earlier in the interview, Sanders tied his policy ideas to the need to avoid catastrophic climate change in the coming decades. Politically speaking, that's absolutely crucial. Democrats generally do not speak clearly about why climate change is such an enormous problem, because it leads obviously and logically to what sound like extreme positions, and Democrats tend toward melting panic if they suspect they're five percent outside of the center-left mainstream.

One way to challenge that Democratic cowardice is the Bill McKibben way: mass organizing to change the political realities on the ground. Another way, and what Sanders is doing here, is for committed politicians to actually argue the position, and try to convince their constituents. It's hard to exaggerate what a break that is with typical Democratic hand-wringing.

The fact that Sanders is very obviously correct on the merits may present a serious challenge to Hillary Clinton — not electorally, but ideologically. Pretending like climate change is some minor boutique issue is one thing when nobody disagrees, but it's something else when a political opponent outlines a clear and logical explanation for why that is insufficient, buttressed by the best and most comprehensive scientific products ever produced.

Sometimes in politics, simply stating the bleeding obvious counts as a major virtue.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.