In a move epitomizing his campaign’s often-questionable political strategy, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont released his climate change plan during the U.N. climate negotiations in Paris. What would normally have drawn immediate attention from climate politics reporters was ignored by the many who were in France covering the most important climate conference in history. To make matters worse, this was shortly before Christmas and New Year’s.
Now that the Christmas trees have been dragged to the curb, the mistletoe is being turned to mulch, and the champagne left in the fridge has gone flat, your correspondent has found the time to examine the plan from one of the Senate’s top climate hawks. It turns out to contain both exciting and frustrating elements: Sanders clearly understands and cares about climate change in all its particulars, and he has many shrewd ideas for addressing it. But he is still approaching the issue like a legislator rather than a president, and he doesn’t give any insight into how he would try to maximize climate progress through the powers of the presidency in the face of a hostile Congress.
Here are the highlights of what Sanders proposes to do
- Pass a carbon tax. Sanders has introduced a bill in the Senate that would create a tax on greenhouse gas emissions, and his presidential platform calls for the same thing. Starting at a low level of $15 per metric ton of CO2 (or equivalent in methane) in 2017, the tax would gradually increase to $73 per ton of CO2e in 2035. This is exactly the approach recommended by economists both left and right. It would efficiently disincentivize carbon pollution without causing economic turmoil. Sanders’ proposal would return 80 percent of the tax revenue to taxpayers, with the remainder going to climate resilience infrastructure and community planning.
- Ban offshore drilling. Environmentalists view permitting more offshore drilling as one of the biggest mistakes of the Obama administration. Not only does oil and gas extraction threaten the climate, but offshore drilling in particular leads to hard-to-clean-up spills, which can devastate marine life and coastal ecosystems. Sanders calls for disallowing offshore exploration completely.
- Ban fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Now that Keystone XL has been rejected, climate hawks say this is their top priority for 2016. By selling leases to private companies to drill and mine for oil, gas, and coal on public land, often at below-market rates, the federal government is subsidizing fossil fuels. Hillary Clinton wants to continue the leasing but maybe at higher rates. Sanders has introduced a bill in Congress to ban fossil fuel leasing on public lands going forward, and he echoes that call in his campaign climate plan.
- Increase fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks to 65 miles per gallon by 2025. President Obama gets props for raising fuel economy standards to 54
mphmpg by 2025, but that still leaves us behind most of Europe and other wealthy nations. Sanders would raise them to a more competitive level.
- Build more mass transit and high-speed rail. Recognizing that less energy-intensive transportation is essential to sustainability, Sanders would try to start closing the gap between the U.S. and all other major economic powers by increasing the availability and speed of subways, buses, and inter-city trains.
- Invest in renewables. Sanders has proposed a host of bills to promote clean energy and create jobs in that sector, including permanent extension of tax credits for renewable energy generation, and for buying hybrid and electric vehicles. His climate plan makes the same calls.
- Eliminate fossil fuel subsidies from the tax code. Oil, gas, and coal companies benefit from a bunch of outdated, market-distorting production subsidies and tax credits, worth billions of dollars each year. Sanders would get rid of them.
What’s missing from Sanders’ plan
Many of the above proposals would require bills to be passed by Congress. But with Republicans likely holding the House of Representatives on lockdown until 2023 because of gerrymandering, there is no reason to expect Congress would pass anything Sanders proposes.
Sanders’ inclination to issue legislative policy proposals is normal. Republican presidential candidates are laying out massive plans to dramatically cut rich peoples’ taxes, eviscerate regulations, and abolish entire cabinet agencies, even though they’d have a hard time getting them through a Senate where Democrats are certain to at least hold enough seats to mount a filibuster. All presidential candidates lay out big visions that they wouldn’t have the power to enact themselves, but that signal where they stand ideologically. That’s useful because it tells voters what their priorities and goals are.
So Sanders’ big vision for climate change is welcome. The issue desperately needs candidates like Sanders, and like Martin O’Malley, who are moving the public debate toward more bold, aggressive solutions, even if those solutions are not yet politically viable. Both of them have offered bolder and more detailed plans than Hillary Clinton has.
But given the reality of Republican control of the House, fantasy legislation is not enough. Democratic candidates for president also need to lay out their plans for what they would do within the president’s existing legal authority.
And this is where Sanders’ plan needs more specifics. It makes no mention of expanding Clean Air Act regulation of greenhouse gases. The next president could expand carbon regulation beyond power plants and cars to factories and farms. Rules are already in the works to curb methane leakage from new oil and gas wells and pipelines; a new administration could adopt rules to cover existing wells and pipelines too.
Candidates need to say what they would actually do in the world we will likely inhabit in 2017, not just what they would if they could dictate new laws to Congress. Sanders’ legislative focus is so pronounced that he neglects to specify that he would use executive authority to stop fossil fuel leasing on public land if Congress didn’t pass his bill doing so. Surely he would, of course, but it’s worth stating outright.
What’s a little weird about Sanders’ plan
The first section of Sanders’ plan is not about the carbon tax or any other big proposal that would directly cut greenhouse gas emissions, but about a promise to “Reclaim our democracy from the billionaire fossil fuel lobby.” Sanders is a self-described “democratic socialist,” but, even so, that’s an odd place to start a climate agenda.
And the very first bullet-pointed action Sanders would take to combat climate change as president? “Ban fossil fuels lobbyists from working in the White House.” If that sounds a little small-bore and off-topic to you, it should. Sure, ban fossil fuel lobbyists from working in the White House, but it’s not like President Sanders would be hiring them anyway.
That first section also includes a pledge to “Fight to overturn Citizens United.” Citizens United was the 2010 Supreme Court decision that threw open the floodgates for corporate cash in federal elections. Overturning it would require a constitutional amendment or a new justice replacing one of the five conservatives on the Supreme Court. Other than appointing ideologically friendly judges, the president can’t do much to affect it.
Although it has exacerbated the influence of the fossil fuel industry, Citizens United isn’t the only thing, or even one of the main things, standing in the way of climate action. The cap-and-trade bill that passed the House in 2009 failed to make it through the Senate in 2010, and that was before Citizens United had spurred big injections of cash into the political system.
Sanders sees climate change as a subset of the corporate power problem and the money-in-politics problem. Those are certainly relevant aspects, but it’s a lot more complex than that. Other forces blocking climate bills in Congress include:
- The filibuster’s use to create a de facto 60-vote requirement to pass any significant legislation in the Senate.
- The over-representation of low-population, mostly rural, states in the Senate. These states tend to be more conservative and more economically dependent on fossil fuel extraction, and lend themselves to more energy-intensive lifestyles (rural residents tend to drive longer distances, for example).
- Gerrymandering that has entrenched Republican control of the House.
- Lack of voter enthusiasm. Hardly anyone tells pollsters that climate change is the most important issue facing the nation.
Sanders is working on this last problem by talking about climate change frequently with intelligence and moral clarity. Sanders still needs to demonstrate that he has planned out how to make climate progress in the White House, not through wishing these other stumbling blocks away but through careful strategizing about how to get around them.
Asked about this critique, the Sanders campaign argued that just because a given executive action isn’t listed in plan doesn’t mean Sanders wouldn’t do it. They argue that he would do everything within his power to combat climate change. “He says we should be using every tool,” says Karthik Ganapathy, a spokesperson for Sanders.
And that’s the good news for climate hawks: Sanders and O’Malley have now both offered strong, detailed climate agendas. That leaves just one candidate we’re all waiting to hear from.