On Thursday, Bernie Sanders released his long-awaited presidential climate plan. And folks, Bernie is gonna Bernie.
You can hear his voice in everything as it spits hot fire about prosecuting the fossil fuel industry, uplifting workers, and creating a whole swath of new public works programs and infrastructure. It also calls for 100 percent renewable energy for transportation and electricity sectors by 2030 while eschewing nuclear power and demilitarizing the world, setting a goal that’s somewhere between wildly ambitious and out of reach. In that regard, it perfectly captures the iconoclastic nature of the Vermont senator himself. But whether it can be implemented is a big question mark.
Former presidential candidate Jay Inslee, who exited the 2020 race on Wednesday, made waves when he announced a $9 trillion plan to combat climate change, a large portion of which would be leveraged investments from the private sector. Sanders’ plan goes much, much further. It guarantees a $16.3 trillion investment through 2030 to radically reshape American life and address the climate crisis.
The plan itself doesn’t focus on where the money will come from, though the campaign did say it would come in part from new taxes on the rich, raising revenue from the plan itself, reduced social safety net costs, and a few other sources. Instead, it focuses on who gets the money. The plan commits trillions of dollars to grants for low- and middle-income families to do everything from home weatherization to buying a new electric vehicle, and it would create a whole new host of publicly owned energy and internet infrastructure. It also uses language like “we will spend,” “we plan to provide,” and “give.” I’m not going all bUt HoW wIlL wE pAy FoR iT, given that we need a livable planet, but the language and the recipients themselves are the message: This is a goddamn revolution.
Among the outlays, Sanders would commit $2.37 trillion to renewable energy and storage, which the plan says would be enough of an investment to meet the country’s energy needs. Any renewable energy the government generates would be publicly owned, and a Sanders administration would prioritize selling it to publicly owned utilities and cooperatives at current rates to keep costs down. The campaign estimates that alone would raise $6.4 trillion of the $16.3 trillion needed to fund the transition. The plan highlights this under a bullet point about needing to “end greed in our energy system.”
To that end, the plan also says Sanders would instruct the Department of Justice (DOJ) to go after fossil fuel companies for both civil and criminal penalties. So far, cases winding through the state court systems have largely failed to hold Big Oil accountable for lying to everyone from the public to shareholders. There may be a federal precedent, though.
Michael Gerrard, the director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, told Earther that Sanders “is trying to replicate and go beyond what happened in 2006, when after a lengthy trial DOJ obtained the civil conviction of eleven major tobacco companies under the Racketeer Influenced Corrupt Organization (RICO).” The result of that case changed how Big Tobacco could advertise and forced them to issue corrective statements about the adverse effects of smoking, though no fines were levied. I would venture to guess a Sanders’ DOJ would hope for a stronger outcome.
Then there’s the transportation sector, which is the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. Sanders would provide more than $2 trillion in grants for low- and middle-income families as well as small businesses to buy electric vehicles. It would also invest heavily in public transit, electric buses, high-speed rail (as the plan notes, “[t]ogether, we will create the movement needed to see high-speed rail come”).
“The recognition that electrifying vehicles and decarbonizing the grid entirely are not only both entirely possible, but they are cost-effective and are doubly so when done together,” Daniel Kammen, an energy researcher at the University of Cailfornia, Berkeley, told Earther. “The 2030 goal for 100 percent clean electricity and 100 percent EV use will draw the most fire, but it is a goal worth fighting for.”
The thing is, Sanders won’t make this easy. The plan explicitly says it will not rely on nuclear power, a move that will resonate with activists but could also wreak havoc on the electrical grid. Nuclear provides a baseline type of energy because it can, if needed, always be on.
“Does that mean that all existing nuclear plants that are still running in 2030 would be shut down?” Costa Samaras, the director of Carnegie Mellon’s Center for Engineering and Resilience for Climate Adaptation, told Earther. “That seems like an unnecessary fight and expense at a time where every bit of carbon reduction counts.”
Renewables like wind and solar only provide power when the wind blows or the sun shines. The plan calls for big investments in energy storage, which will be crucial to have any shot at working. But it could wreak havoc with the grid and everything that relies on it.
“The higher the penetration of renewables you get on the grid, the more overbuild you have to do in terms of storage capacity and generation capacity,” Leah Stokes, an energy policy expert at the University of Cailfornia, Santa Barbara, told Earther. “Which means sometimes the grid will be overproducing and other times it will be underproducing. So you either need vast amounts of storage or a crazy flexible demand side, where you would have industries that would have to go off and on. So do you pay those workers in those industries when they’re not working? The entire system would have to change. That’s how Bernie operates. He draws outside the lines.”
Beyond Democrats holding the House, Sanders would also need the Senate to flip Democrat and abolish the filibuster (something he supports). Otherwise, this whole plan depends on a whole lot of executive actions and agency directives that are likely to get tied up in court. Ethan Elkind, director of the Climate Change and Business Program at the University of California, Berkeley, told Earther that “legislation from Congress would be much faster and more legally secure.”
All this is the easy stuff compared to Sanders’ international ambitions. The plan calls for working with the Global South minus China to reduce emissions 36 percent by 2030, a move that would chart a new world order and economy. Beyond that, Sanders plans to tackle world peace. Specifically, the plan calls for bringing together “major industrialized nations with the goal of using the trillions of dollars our nations spend on misguided wars and weapons of mass destruction to instead work together internationally to combat our climate crisis and take on the fossil fuel industry.”
At the end of the day, Sanders’ plan is a $16.3 trillion microcosm of his entire ethos. His theory of change is that the system is broken so we have to tear it down and start anew. Reading his plan, it’s clear he’s not messing around about the idea of revolution. But it also fails to offer a clear roadmap with guideposts along the way aside from the carcasses of the fossil fuel industry and a slew of publicly owned goods; occasionally, it veers into the realm of dreams (at least if you believe we have to keep operating in the current system and world order that exists).
“Let’s just say we have a political revolution and Bernie is president,” Stokes said, trying to imagine how this plan would actually play out. Whatever you imagine comes next will probably clarify whether you’re actually ready for the revolution or not.