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Bernie Sanders’s Green New Deal Is a Climate Plan for the Many, Not the Few

In his just released Green New Deal proposal, Bernie Sanders brings the kind of bold, large-scale plans as well as the moral fury we need — not just to save the planet, but to create a just and equitable world.

Democratic presidential candidate US Sen. Bernie Sanders tours a mobile home park that was destroyed by the Camp Fire on August 22, 2019 in Paradise, California. Justin Sullivan / Getty

Yesterday, Bernie Sanders launched his Green New Deal (GND) platform in Paradise, California — a community literally burned to the ground by fossil fuel company greed and state collusion less than a year ago, when the deadliest fire in California history ripped through the state’s northern forests, dried out after baking in intense summer heat. Those fires killed eighty-six people and destroyed tens of thousands of homes. PG&E — the state’s mammoth electric utility — has been found responsible.

Climate-fueled fires are still burning — not in Paradise, but in the Arctic, where Greenland has seen a massive blaze that threatens to drive up ice melt, and in the Amazon, where the rainforest has been burning for three weeks, likely due to intentional arson by ranchers to clear land for cattle. Thousands of miles apart, these fires have common threads: They’re being sparked by the rich and powerful, whether by agricultural conglomerates, complicit right-wing governments, or fossil fuel executives who’ve lied to the public so they can keep spewing heat-trapping carbon up into the atmosphere for a quick buck.

This moment demands urgency and moral clarity about who’s to blame. Bernie’s approach to climate provides both. It’s extra, in the language of the internet. On everything.

Before today, Bernie hadn’t positioned himself as a climate-first candidate. That lane was taken by Washington governor Jay Inslee. Inslee dropped out of the race on Wednesday, having failed to poll above 1 percent despite pushing other candidates to sharpen their climate proposals. But Bernie’s GND proposal is in many ways even more sweeping than Inslee’s.

We shouldn’t be surprised: climate change isn’t just one issue among many. It’s a part of the class war that capitalists are waging on the rest of us, from the forests of northern Brazil to those of northern California. So it’s not a coincidence that the most ambitious climate plans with action on necessary scale, from AOC’s GND resolution in February to Bernie’s climate plan today, are coming from the socialist left.

Bernie’s vision is noteworthy for its aggressive stances. The timeline is rapid, in line with the findings of climate science and the demands of the climate justice movement: it calls for decarbonizing energy and transit by 2030, and full decarbonization by 2050 — a standard that sets both near- and longer-term goals that are ambitious but possible.

But it’s also aggressive in the sense of confrontational: it minces no words about the deep culpability of the fossil fuel industry, calling not only for phasing out fossil fuels but for holding the executives who have delayed climate action responsible.

All in all, the platform dramatically shifts the policy conversation, putting forth an insurgent and detailed policy vision grounded in the work of the vibrant social movements pushing climate politics. It both draws on what’s positive about the New Deal legacy — massive federal investment in the public interest — while also explicitly centering those who were excluded from its coalition, with particular attention to indigenous peoples and communities of color.

In fact, Bernie’s plan is even better than it had to be. The bar for climate policy is woefully low — though it’s been inching up in recent months, thanks to the GND resolution and a set of bold proposals from Inslee. This plan sets a new standard on familiar issues like green jobs — Sanders’s proposal to create twenty million new jobs, for example, more than doubles Inslee’s promise of eight million, while his comprehensive plan for a just transition for fossil fuel workers, including a wage guarantee and pension support, blows Obama-era “retraining programs” out of the water. But it also ventures into territory rarely touched by presidential candidates, from regenerative agriculture to the Jemez Principles for Democratic Organizing, developed to facilitate organizing around environmental justice.

First, Sanders goes after not only fossil fuels but the role of private interests in our energy system more broadly. The major flaw of the AOC-Markey GND resolution was that it failed, like the Paris Agreement, to mention fossil fuels at all.

By contrast, the Sanders GND includes measures intended to sharply curtail the ability of the fossil fuel industry to profit off the destruction of the planet. He proposes a ban on imports and exports of oil and gas, a ban on mountaintop mining and fracking, and a moratorium on permits to drill on public lands — all of which represent a dramatic reversal not only from Trump’s much-maligned efforts to open up new public lands to drilling but from Obama’s drastic expansion of domestic oil extraction.

The tide is starting to turn against the fossil fuel industry: every major candidate has signed a pledge not to take money from oil and gas companies. But Sanders brings the kind of moral fury we need, pledging not only to take on oil companies but to hold them responsible for obfuscation by pursuing civil and criminal lawsuits in a manner similar to the cases brought against tobacco companies for covering up data on smoking and lung cancer.

No one is better positioned to take the fight to these merchants of doom than Bernie, who has been railing against corporate power for decades. And there was no better place to launch his GND platform than Paradise.

But Bernie also goes beyond the fossil fuel industry to point a finger at the broader system of private utilities and public agencies colluding to block renewables and prop up dirty fuels. His plan proposes creating new agencies to produce and distribute publicly owned clean power on the model of the original New Deal’s Tennessee Valley Authority. And his plan would encourage the formation of “municipally- and cooperatively-owned utilities with democratic, public ownership,” providing financing to communities that want to take literal and figurative power back from investor-owned electric companies in their own backyards.

Climate justice groups and eco-socialists have long put forward similar visions of energy democracy as a public good. Their presence in a frontrunning presidential candidate’s platform is a remarkable sign of the times.

Second, the Sanders GND also offers a refreshing vision of the role of the United States in the world and the form that global cooperation around climate ought to take. Instead of positioning the GND as a way to cement American dominance, “green” the US military, or even to “lead the world” morally on climate change — something the United States has steadfastly failed to do — the plan recognizes that the United States “has for over a century spewed carbon pollution emissions into the atmosphere in order to gain economic standing in the world,” and has a commitment to take on an accordingly “fair share” of emissions reductions.

Sanders calls for “reducing domestic emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030 and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by 2030 — the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161 percent.” Toward that end, his plan pledges $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund, a fund set up as an outgrowth of the UNFCCC process and governed by a board of representatives from around the world. President Obama, by contrast, pledged just $3 billion before leaving office.

Sanders also calls for making climate a centerpiece of American diplomacy, and seems to suggest building relationships not just with sovereign governments but also with like-minded parties and social movements abroad: “We must recognize that people from every country in the world — Russia, India, China, Japan, Brazil — are all in this together. Instead of accepting that the world’s countries will spend $1.5 trillion annually on weapons of destruction, Bernie will convene global leaders to redirect our priorities to confront our shared enemy: climate change.”

And Sanders understands the deep link between fossil fuel capitalism and militarism — and the need to dismantle both. Indeed, a substantial amount of the GND’s funding ($1.215 trillion) will come from “Scaling back military spending on protecting the global oil supply.”

We know that getting any climate policy passed will require serious structural reforms to American democracy, first and foremost abolishing the filibuster. And of course, the wonks are already grumbling that none of this is realistic. Let’s be real: no serious climate action is realistic without major popular support.

But Sanders’s announcement in Paradise is the beginning of a tour that will take the GND directly to the people. Climate change isn’t just an issue for wonks: the Sanders GND is for the coal miners being stiffed on pensions and indigenous peoples protecting their water; it’s for the neighborhoods bearing the toxic brunt of environmental racism and the coastal communities facing rising seas. It’s a climate plan for the many, not the few. And, “From the Oval Office to street marches,” it’s the climate plan we should fight for.