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The Realism of Bernie Sanders' Climate Policy

Sanders believes that as our economy rapidly shifts to renewable energy, power companies should be publicly owned and controlled, and the biggest polluters should help underwrite the costs.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduce public housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) introduce public housing legislation as part of the Green New Deal outside the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, November 14, 2019. (Photo: Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call, Inc. via Getty Images)

As Bernie Sanders brings his plans for a Green New Deal to Iowa, one part is proving most resonant: the idea that, as our economy rapidly shifts to renewable energy, power companies should be publicly owned and controlled, and the biggest polluters should help underwrite the costs.

Interestingly, this is the part of the Sanders plan, which builds on the resolution introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, that has received the most pushback from media commentators—who have been quick to dismiss public ownership over renewables as impractical and radical.

Yet for many Iowans, it is precisely these parts of the Sanders plan that make it most exciting.

Plenty of Iowans support renewable power and feel a tremendous sense of urgency about the climate crisis—after all, their communities are facing historic flooding, and their crops are dying as a result of both record-setting heat and cold. But like most of us, Iowans also have a keen sense of fairness. And they know from hard experience that when for-profit companies own the wind farms that dot their rolling hills, consumers and working people get a raw deal.

For instance, Alliant Energy, one of two major investor-owned utilities serving the state, raised rates in 2017 and 2018 and then sought to hike the average consumer’s monthly bill by yet another $20 this year (an effort that has been unsuccessful so far). Even as Alliant collected $500 million in profits last year, showered money on shareholders, and paid its CEO over $6 million, it blamed the rate increases on the cost of new wind investments.

For the thousands of Iowans who have been packing Sanders rallies over the last few weeks, it’s experiences like this that have made the senator’s climate plans so resonant. They understand that at a time of tremendous economic inequality and injustice, only a plan firmly rooted in both fairness and boldness has a hope of building the support necessary to take on the big polluters and win transformative climate action.

The boldness of Sanders’ plan is not in question. He is proposing to spend an astounding $16.3 trillion to get our economy off fossil fuels, an exponentially greater investment than any other candidate, one that actually meets the scale and urgency of the climate crisis. And yet it is how he is proposing both to raise and spend that money that is the true game-changer.

More than a decade of so-called market-based climate policies have expected workers and consumers to foot most of the bill for climate action. The result is often fierce backlash: In Chile, an increase in public transit fees sparked the recent uprising, and in France, an increase in fuel costs did the same. As in Iowa, it’s not that people are opposed to climate action. They are simply so overburdened by stagnant wages, job losses, and cutbacks to social services that they can’t accept getting stuck with the bill for the climate crisis.

Not only would the entire plan create an estimated 20 million jobs, but through investments in green public housing, health care, and child care, the people who are under the most economic stress would see their lives directly improved.

Sanders’ Green New Deal plan doesn’t ask them to. Instead, it calls for polluters and the rich to pay their fair share, using a range of tools from progressive taxes to litigation and ending fossil fuel subsidies. And rather than watching the profits from a renewable energy revolution flow into the pockets of shareholders and executives, publicly owned utilities would keep the profits in communities, where they can help pay for badly needed services. Not only would the entire plan create an estimated 20 million jobs, but through investments in green public housing, health care, and child care, the people who are under the most economic stress would see their lives directly improved.

Far from an unrealistic fairy tale, this approach—which fuses climate action with a battle to end poverty and close stubborn inequalities—may well be the only way to build mass support for an economic shift on this scale.

Another area where Bernie’s plan stands apart is in its insistence that fairness is not only owed to people in places like Iowa, but to people living on the other side of the planet.

Here are the hard facts: Even if we stopped emitting greenhouse gases tomorrow, the United States would continue to warm because of the rest of the world’s emissions. In other words, the reason to rapidly decarbonize is in large part to motivate other countries to quickly do the same. But how do we do that?

Once again, fairness is key. The United States has contributed the most to the problem, spewing the largest share of the greenhouse gases that over time have accumulated in the atmosphere and now threaten to smother our planet. And, we’re a technologically advanced country that gets the greatest share of the world’s total annual income and thus can contribute the most to solving the problem. In this fundamentally global crisis, America bears the largest share of ethical duty. Which means that if we hope to catalyze the world into action, we’ll need to take the biggest steps—cutting domestic emissions at a breakneck pace while helping poorer countries to do the same.

Sanders’ plan takes the idea of fair shares seriously. On top of its massive low-carbon mobilization in the United States, it commits to a huge push to collaborate with poorer countries to support their transitions.

Accordingly, the plan puts a game-changing sum on the table: a $200 billion contribution to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, which supports projects across the global South to reduce emissions and cope with climate impacts. (The Obama administration pledged a mere $3 billion, delivering only one-third before payments were scrapped by Trump.)

The Sanders campaign also recognizes that, in some cases, no amount of money can keep people on parched or flooded land. And so, on the campaign trail, the senator’s newly released immigration platform includes, among other measures, a call to accept at least 50,000 global climate refugees during his first year as president.

If implemented, all of this would set an entirely new tone in international climate discussions: After decades of finger-pointing and broken promises, the United States would finally be acting from the obvious truth that we are all in this crisis together.

Sanders also makes the common-sense (if politically risky) argument that since the United States spends a fortune protecting oil and gas infrastructure around the world, over a trillion dollars should be cut from military spending and reinvested in his Green New Deal. No single institution on the planet consumes more petroleum than the Pentagon—itself a bigger greenhouse gas emitter than many countries — so this is yet another way that the Sanders platform is demanding that big polluters, and not regular people, pay the steepest costs of the transition.

The persistent refusal by the United States to fulfill its international climate commitments—especially to help finance a just transition in poor countries—has emboldened political figures worldwide who claim it’s now their turn to light the fires of climate disruption.

President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, for example, has declared that international action to protect the Amazon, one of the planet’s most important carbon sinks, is tantamount to treating his country as a “colony.” He is far from alone: Governments who want to continue with pollution-as-usual have consistently used the continuing failures of richer nations as their excuse. But if the United States does its fair share, as it would under Sanders’ plan, we would strip those polluters of this potent argument while showing the world that a post-fossil fuel future is indeed possible.

It’s easy to dismiss all of this as unrealistic, as campaign pundits will continue to do. But the message, from Iowa to Chile, is clear: Fairness matters. Not only because it’s good to be fair; it matters because fairness is needed to win the kind of widespread buy-in that stands a chance of getting the job done.

Alone among candidates, Sanders gets that. And that makes his Green New Deal the most realistic by far.

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein

Naomi Klein is Senior Correspondent at The Intercept and the inaugural Gloria Steinem Chair of Media, Culture and Feminist Studies at Rutgers University. Her books include: No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump's Shock Politics and Winning the World We NeedThis Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the ClimateThe Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism; and No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies.  To read all her writing visit www.naomiklein.org. Follow her on Twitter: @NaomiAKlein.

Sivan Kartha

Sivan Kartha

Sivan Kartha is a scientist specializing in climate risks. He has worked as an adviser to several United Nations programs and public interest organizations.

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