Could Bernie Sanders be our best hope to save the planet from catastrophic climate change by leading a clean energy revolution in the United States? The 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, whose populist message has been drawing big crowds across the country, is gaining on Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton. On Sunday, the Clinton campaign announced her plan to combat climate change. The following day, in an email to supporters, Sanders laid out the problem and solution. Sanders put the climate crisis in stark terms: “The scientific community is virtually unanimous in telling us that climate change is real, is caused by human activity, and is already bringing catastrophic damage to our planet. Yet, the Republican Party is prepared to reject science in order to gain campaign contributions from the Koch brothers, Big Energy companies and others who make billions on fossil fuels. If we do not act boldly on climate change, the planet we leave to our grandchildren may be uninhabitable.”
And how would a Sanders administration tackle global warming? Again, from the campaign email: “The United States must lead the world in reversing climate change and make certain that this planet is habitable for our children and grandchildren. We must transform our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energies. Millions of homes and buildings need to be weatherized, our transportation system needs to be energy efficient and we need to greatly accelerate the progress we are already seeing in wind, solar, geothermal and other forms of sustainable energy. Transforming our energy system will not only protect the environment, it will create good-paying jobs.”
So would Sanders be a climate champion in the White House or is all this climate talk just politicking for the environmental vote? The independent Vermont senator’s voting record clearly demonstrates a strong commitment to addressing man-made global warming. The self-described democratic socialist was recently ranked by new Super PAC Climate Hawks Vote as the most climate-friendly senator in the 113th Congress that ended in January. In 2013, Sanders introduced the Climate Protection Act with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to tax carbon and methane emissions. And in 2007, Sanders co-authored with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) the Green Jobs Act. The measure, which passed as part of a larger energy bill, trains workers for careers in energy efficiency and renewable energy. The bottom line is that, while Sanders is certainly more progressive than Clinton on many issues, they both bring solid environmental credentials to the presidential race. But how then can Sanders separate himself from Clinton?
One potential pathway is to discuss his consistent and vocal opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline while contrasting his anti-KXL stance with Clinton, who has not taken a position on the controversial project. But with Clinton going on offense with her climate change agenda, there could potentially be pressure put upon the Sanders campaign to get more specific with their policy proposals and release an official climate plan.
According to the fact sheet, Clinton’s plan would install more than half a billion solar panels across the country by the end of her first term and generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America within 10 years of Clinton taking office. These two goals would increase installed solar capacity by 700 percent by 2020 and expand renewable energy to a third of all electricity generation.
These bold initiatives would “prevent thousands of premature deaths and tens of thousands of asthma attacks each year, meet our national and international climate targets, and move our economy along a path towards deep decarbonization by 2050,” the Clinton campaign claims. How realistic are these targets? That is open for debate. But they are specific numbers. And they are ambitious. While Sanders and Clinton compete to see who has the most green cred in the race for the White House, the Republican side is another story entirely. Current GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump is a climate change denier, tweeting last year that “this very expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit has got to stop.”
Ultimately, if China, India and other developing nations don’t grow their economies with clean energy and energy efficiency it won’t matter what the United States does in terms of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. That’s why President Obama’s recent climate deal with China is so important. Sanders understands this and told Vox’s Ezra Klein that working with emerging nations on climate targets will be at the top of his foreign policy agenda:
“I happen to believe that when you talk about foreign policy, at the very top of the list is the need for the United States to lead the world, to work with China, work with Russia, work with India in transforming our energy system away from fossil fuels and into energy efficiency and sustainable energy. This is not just an ‘environmental issue,’ this is also a global national security issue as well.”