On the most important issue of all, Bernie Sanders is the clear winner over Joe Biden

Only Sen. Sanders comprehends the grave threat posed by the climate crisis

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published March 11, 2020 6:00AM (EDT)

Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)
Bernie Sanders, and Joe Biden (AP Photo/Getty Images/Salon)

As the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, it stands to reason that America's presidential elections are also referenda on the survival of Earth. Year by year the climate crisis worsens; and year by year, its global repercussions become more obvious.

The spread of COVID-19, currently paralyzing the global economy, is a taste of what will be facing — the World Health Organization has long warned that a warming planet can help increase the pace of the spread of diseases like the novel coronavirus. The Great Barrier Reef is dying, the oceans are littered with plastic, and wildfires of unfathomable scale ravage the Earth yearly. 

Perhaps, then, given the urgency of the situation, media outlets are not sufficiently vetting the two leading Democratic candidates for their climate plans. After all, we are speaking of the ability of humans to continue to live on this Earth. True, CNN hosted a single climate crisis town hall for the candidates earlier in the season; and polls suggested that voters considered it as a priority for them in the 2020 election, which is more than can be said about the 2016 election. And yet, with three candidates left — Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, and Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (who is still in the race, albeit has only two delegates), there has been little discussion of their comparative plans.

Certainly, climate change is a nuanced issue for some voters, particularly for those who don't believe in it or whose jobs are tied to the industry. However, as the United Nations sends out yet another warning this week that the world is "way off track" in meeting its climate goals, I am left wondering where the sense of urgency lies as the Democratic candidate field narrows.

Climate scientists warned in 2016 that the 2016 election would be consequential to the success of the Paris Agreement. This turned out to be true under the Trump administration, which exited the agreement. Considering that mounting reports suggest that way more is needed than merely rejoining a piecemeal agreement, we need a president who comprehends the gravity of the situation. Some argue that anyone is better than Donald Trump, who has launched several attacks on the environment with his policies and rollbacks, and this is true. But can Biden, who is currently the Democratic frontrunner, be trusted to execute the change that is needed at this moment in time? Biden is seen as a more moderate choice as opposed to Sanders, but it won't be a moderate climate change plan that saves us.

When Biden first released his climate plan, it received a "D-" rating on the climate change report card issued by the environmental group Greenpeace, which ranked Democratic presidential candidates' environmental plans. Biden's updated plan was given a a B+; whereas the Green New Deal, as proposed by Sen. Sanders, has an "A+" grade (when first graded, it had a "B+").

Greenpeace isn't the only environmental group to favor Sanders over Biden when it comes to climate. As reported by Vice this week, the Sunrise Movement is mobilizing to stop Biden's momentum. Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, the North America director at, told the Washington Post if Biden is the Democratic nominee, the organization "will unleash everything that the climate movement has to offer to persuade him to recognize the primacy of this issue."

Biden acknowledges that climate change is an existential threat, but actions speak louder than words. According to his plan, he will commit that the U.S. "achieves a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions no later than 2050." His plans states that on his first day in office, he will sign a series of executive orders focused on investing in research and incentives "with unprecedented reach that go well beyond the Obama-Biden Administration platform and put us on the right track." In truth, that isn't hard to do.

Still, 2050 is a long time from now — and many climate experts suspect that by then, it will be too late to act. Even the Paris Agreement states that humans must reduce current emissions by 40 percent by 2030 in order to avoid catastrophic change. Biden does vow to rejoin the Paris Agreement, and agrees it does not go far enough, but 2050 is frankly an unambitious timeline. In the Green New Deal, as proposed by Sanders, a Sanders presidency will seek "to reach 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050 at latest." Specifically, his Green New Deal hopes to reduce U.S. emissions by at least 71 percent by 2030, and to reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36 percent by then, too.

As journalist and Sanders surrogate Naomi Klein said: "Bernie is the only [candidate] talking about what we owe other countries, that we need to move faster, and that climate justice doesn't just stop on the border and that we have to actually help countries in Central America to leapfrog to renewable energy."

In an interview, Emily Grubert, Assistant Professor of Construction and Infrastructure Systems Engineering and Sustainable Communities at Georgia Tech, told me 2030 is not an "unlikely outcome," but it will be hard to achieve. However, Grubert told me she fears 2050 is too far out, or "far enough out that even if it's hard to achieve that 2030 goal, it doesn't provide quite the same urgency that we need in this situation."

What is the most unique about the Green New Deal, as proposed by Sanders, is that it is both an environmental and an economic plan that will drive job creation. "These [Green New Deal] jobs will be good paying, union jobs with strong benefits and safety standards in steel and auto manufacturing, construction, energy efficiency retrofitting, coding and server farms, and renewable power plants," the plan states. Most importantly, Sanders' Green New Deal will create jobs that have purpose and meaning. People who take these jobs will be working to restructure our society. That is a stark contrast to the unhealthy way in which most of us approach employment today, which is generally as a means of satisfying the labor needs of capitalism. 

Sanders's plan is equitable, too, in that it ensures a just transition for fossil fuel workers, who would be unemployed without oil, coal and gas. "This plan will prioritize the fossil fuel workers who have powered our economy for more than a century and who have too often been neglected by corporations and politicians," the plan states. It will give fossil fuel workers five years of their current salaries, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement. These workers can also opt to have early retirement support. Grubert told me this is an important part of the plan, adding it's important for there to be a narrative shift to restore the dignity of these workers, too.

Interestingly, Biden's plan says that his administration will "stand up" to fossil fuel companies and polluters, though there is reason to be skeptical given Biden's reputation as friendly to multinational corporations who use his home state as a tax haven. Biden, unlike Sanders, does not support a fracking ban.

As Grubert told me: "Any meaningful transition is going to have a lot of infrastructure change." As the primary season winds on, the Sanders-Biden race has been depicted in the media as a binary choice between a far-left candidate and a moderate. Yet it could be more accurately recast as a choice between a fit, sustainable future and a muddled, uncertain present.

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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