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Over 150 middle and high school students demonstrated at the U.S. Capitol building urging senators to back the Green New Deal. (Photo: Sunrise Movement)

Biden Must Become the Climate-Commander-in-Chief

Given the climate emergency, the difference between a candidate who is good enough on the issue and one who is great, could be the difference between a livable planet and not.

Karyn Strickler

Now that Bernie Sanders has suspended his run for President Joe Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee. But not so fast. Sanders’ voters are going to support Biden, when he earns it. Sanders blazed new trails of climate leadership, making it compulsory to have multi-billion dollar plans to decarbonize. He defined the terms of the climate change debate by relentlessly insisting that his fellow candidates understand the meaning of an existential threat and take appropriate action. Biden must follow Sanders’ example, not just for Sander’s voters, but for humanity itself.

A classic exchange during the last primary debate shows the gulf between lip service and true command of the issue, Sanders challenged Biden’s climate leadership. “I’m talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they’re going to stop destroying the planet,” Sanders said. Biden responded, “So am I.” Sanders pressed him, “Well, I’m not sure your proposal does that.” He said, instead of spending 1.8 trillion on weapons to kill each other, let’s fight our common enemy, which is climate change.

"He seems satisfied with half measures like his promise to recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement, a necessary, but insufficient idea. That approach will not suffice for Sanders’ voters. Biden must become the Climate-Commander-in-Chief."

Sure Joe Biden advocates for action on climate change, but not as an urgent, top priority issue. He seems satisfied with half measures like his promise to recommit to the Paris Climate Agreement, a necessary, but insufficient idea. That approach will not suffice for Sanders’ voters. Biden must become the Climate-Commander-in-Chief.

Excessive CO2 from the burning of fossil fuels is driving up the average global temperature which is driving deadly, destructive weather extremes of all sorts. Joe Biden’s climate plan currently calls for a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by no later than 2050, likely two decades too late. He needs to commit to 100% renewable energy by 2030, as Bernie Sanders did.

In order to slow climate change, America must get off fossil fuels. Biden signed the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, but subsequently violated it by attending a fundraiser co-hosted by Western LNG’s co-founder Andrew Goldman, demonstrating a weak commitment, and an affinity for the fossil fuel industry and their money. You can’t fake your way off of fossil fuels, you can’t say one thing and do another and your commitment can’t waiver.

By contrast, Sanders was always ready to challenge the powerful fossil fuel industry. In the last primary debate where Sanders and Biden went mano e mano, Sanders said, “Look, in terms of the fossil fuel industry, these guys have been lying,” Sanders said, “They’ve been lying for years like the tobacco industry lied 50 years ago. ‘Oh we don’t know if, if fossil fuels, if oil, if carbon emissions, are causing climate change.’ They knew! ExxonMobil knew. They lied. In fact, I think they should be held criminally accountable.”

Biden supports a fee on carbon pollution, but needs to prioritize and publicly advocate for a fee on fossil fuels to dramatically reduce and ultimately eliminate the emission of carbon dioxide from those sources. Such a fee should set an ambitious, concrete goal for emission reductions that is adequate to slow climate change and its impacts. The fee itself, the price per ton of carbon dioxide, paid by the polluter, likely needs to start in the triple digits and rise from there, in order to get the job done.

At Mauna Loa, where the government tracks atmospheric carbon dioxide, it currently measures 414.5 parts per million (ppm). Carbon dioxide exceeded 400ppm for the first time in 3-5 million years, the first time in human history in 2014. In his paper, "Target Atmospheric CO2:  Where Should Society Aim," former NASA Climate Scientist Dr. James Hansen said, “The safe upper limit for atmospheric CO2 is no more than 350ppm." 

If Americans have learned one thing during this COVID 19 pandemic, it’s the critical importance of national leadership in a time of crisis. The World Health Organization warns that, “The climate crisis is a health crisis.” They say, besides health emergencies stemming from extreme weather events, climate change fuels the spread of infectious diseases.

Dr. Aaron Bernstein, a pediatrician and Interim Director of The Center for Climate Health at Harvard’s School of Public Health said, “The bottom line here is that if you wanted to prevent the spread of pathogens, the emergence of pathogens, as we see not just with people and COVID, but as well with wildlife, you wouldn't transform the climate. Because that forces species to come into contact with other species that may be vulnerable to infections.”

In 2018, the United Nation’s IPCC report said the world had 12 years to limit the climate change catastrophe and keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius. Given the climate emergency, the difference between a candidate who is good enough on the issue and one who is great, could be the difference between a livable planet and not, when electing a U.S. President in 2020.

With scientific estimates of about 11 years to slow climate change, the 2020 election may represent one of our last chances to prioritize climate change in the voting booth. The next 4 years is more than one third of the time we have for action, signaling the crucial need for Joe Biden to emulate Bernie Sanders’ tough stand and prioritize climate change. We have more immediate needs in the face of a global pandemic, which is itself exacerbated by climate change, but if we don’t slow climate change in short order, no other issue will matter.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

Karyn Strickler

Karyn Strickler is a political scientist, grassroots organizer and writer. She is the founder and president of Vote Climate U.S. PAC, working to elect candidates to get off fossil fuels and put a price on carbon. Karyn is the former producer and host of Climate Challenge on MMCTV. You can contact her at

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