IF YOU TRIED to design a program with the aim of offending the top brass of the world’s most powerful corporations and the politicians whose careers they bankroll, you’d get something like what Bernie Sanders unveiled today in his $16.3 trillion Green New Deal platform. That’s part of the point. “We need a president who has the courage, the vision, and the record to face down the greed of fossil fuel executives and the billionaire class who stand in the way of climate action,” the plan’s opening salvo states, going on to echo a famous line from Franklin Delano Roosevelt. “We need a president who welcomes their hatred.”
Sanders outlines an expansive system, building on the resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey in April, that would generate publicly owned clean energy and 20 million new jobs, end fossil fuels imports and exports, revivify the social safety net, redress historical injustices like environmental racism, and make prolific investments toward decarbonization at home and abroad—among many, many other things. It would not only transition American society away from fossil fuels but renegotiate decades-old nostrums, championed by the right, about the respective roles of the government and the economy.
“It definitely is the biggest and boldest plan and vision out there,” Evan Weber, political director for the Sunrise Movement, told The Intercept, “both in the sheer scale of it and also in a lot of the mechanisms for achieving that scale, that really seem like [Sanders is] pushing the boundaries of how American society currently is structured.”
There are novel, meaty policy proposals that make Sanders’s proposal stand out from an already ambitious field: a cash-for-clunkers and financial assistance program to scale up electric vehicle usage, and plans to boost public transit ridership 65 percent by 2030; a requirement that the Congressional Budget Office work with the Environmental Protection Agency to give new legislation a “climate score,” like the budget scores it currently doles out; and abiding by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to ensure the free, prior, and informed consent by Indigenous peoples.
It’s also sparked controversy among energy wonks who see anti-nuclear provisions as antithetical to decarbonization. The plan also rules out carbon capture and storage, which experts suggest may be necessary in the short-run to transition hard-to-decarbonize sectors—but that fossil fuel executives have also long pushed as a way to extend its life indefinitely. Carbon taxes have been a mainstay of Sanders’s climate plans, and his Green New Deal blueprint doesn’t foreclose on the option but also doesn’t emphasize it.
Running through the plan is a different and more explicit theory of change than the lofty platforms other candidates have laid out; it’s built on organizing and naming enemies. Sanders promises to take on the “fossil fuel billionaires whose greed lies at the very heart of the climate crisis,” who, he argues, “have spent hundreds of millions of dollars protecting their profits at the expense of our future” and “will do whatever it takes to squeeze every last penny out of the Earth.” Outlining how the plan will be financed, it notes that he will get $3.085 trillion by making “the fossil fuel industry pay for their pollution, through litigation, fees, and taxes, and eliminating federal fossil fuel subsidies.”
“Most importantly,” he says, “we must build an unprecedented grassroots movement that is powerful enough to take them on, and win. Young people, advocates, tribes, cities and states all over this country have already begun this important work, and we will continue to follow their lead.”
IT’S AN APPROACH that distinguishes Sanders’s not just from the primary field but from the last 30-plus years of mainstream climate policymaking in the United States.
The closest the U.S. has ever come to passing comprehensive carbon reduction legislation was the doomed congressional fight over cap-and-trade legislation in 2009 and 2010. There are as many explanations for why that plan failed as there are potential Green New Deal programs, and many unfortunate factors converged to torpedo its chances. One major reason why that plan flopped? Some of its most influential advocates were more concerned about winning over corporations than convincing the public it was a good idea. The key to getting Republican support, they reasoned, was to win over the business community, taking advantage of historically strong ties between corporations and the GOP. The vehicle to do that would be a cap-and-trade program, placing a limit, or “cap,” on the total pollution companies could emit by allocating a set number of total permits. If one firm overshot, it could buy more from another or sell, or “trade,” any excess it had left over on what’s known as a carbon market.
In 2007, the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, or USCAP, helmed by the Environmental Defense Fund, convened Beltway green organizations and Fortune 500 companies—including BP America, PG&E, Duke Energy, and Lehman Brothers—to start shepherding a plan through with allies on the Hill. Because it was thought that climate policy could be designed and passed largely behind closed doors, advocates for cap-and-trade never went out of their way to explain either what the policy meant to the general public, or—in the grips of a deepening recession—how it could improve their lives, opting instead to spread the word about what a grave threat global warming was.
The 1,000-plus-page House cap-and-trade bill, Waxman-Markey, made it through after careful vote whipping and considerable compromise. As climate writer David Roberts has pointed out, the bill itself was more expansive than many of its critics have given it credit for. But the politics driving it—reflecting broader dynamics in Washington, and within the Democratic Party in particular—hinged on a shaky premise: that Republicans and corporations were willing to negotiate in good faith on climate legislation. The tea party movement was quickly gaining momentum, and the Koch brothers spent the summer after the House vote mobilizing its fossil fuel empire against moderate Republicans who had backed the bill and even some who didn’t, bolstering groups like Americans for Prosperity to gin up an anti-“crap-and-tax” revolt and pull the party far to the right. By the time a companion bill to Waxman-Markey arrived in the Senate that fall, the mood for climate action had already chilled.
Corporations, meanwhile, could easily play both sides of the climate policymaking field: watering down bills that seemed like they might pass, while funding effort to make sure they never did. In a 2015 paper, political scientist Jake Grumbach points out that several companies who joined USCAP simultaneously supported lobbying against climate action. Shell, BP, and ConocoPhillips were all members of USCAP and the American Petroleum Institute, and through that helped to bolster API’s “Energy Citizen” campaign, which hosted astroturf rallies around the country in opposition to cap-and-trade, targeting senators in their districts for the summer recess. Those events were planned in coordination with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, of which USCAP members Chrysler, Deere, Dow Chemical, Duke Energy, GE, PepsiCo, PNM Resources, and Siemens were all members.
This allowed companies to effectively weaken policy and collect positive PR in the process by appearing to support a solution to the problem. “The business stakeholders not only maximized their chances by pulling potential climate legislation closer to their interests and shaping future political terrain,” Grumbach writes. “They were simultaneously able to spend resources to shift the political debate in their favor in order to prevent the legislation from passing in the first place.” All this, of course, came after the fossil fuel industry and some of the same companies, think tanks, and business associations that battled cap-and-trade had spent two decades spreading elaborate misinformation campaigns to cast doubt on the reality of global warming, shifting the grounds of the political debate on which the cap-and-trade battle was playing out.
WITH NEITHER REPUBLICAN nor corporate support moving into a Senate fight, and few people outside the Beltway excited to go to bat for it, cap-and-trade died with a whimper. In an extensive 2013 analysis, Theda Skocpol, professor of sociology at Harvard University, wrote, “During this pivotal year, Republicans, including long-time supposed friends of the environmental movement like John McCain, simply melted away; and in the end GOP Senators unanimously refused to support of any variant of cap and trade.”
The upshot here is that Sanders’s Green New Deal plan offers an approach that couldn’t be more different than the climate push on the Hill a decade ago—and by abandoning that insiders-only strategy, it has a real shot at succeeding. As Skocpol wrote in 2013:
The political tide can be turned over the next decade only by the creation of a climate-change politics that includes broad popular mobilization on the center left. That is what it will take to counter the recently jelled combination of free-market elite opposition and right-wing popular mobilization against global warming remedies. … In the meantime, liberals and friendly moderates need to build a populist anti-global warming movement on their own side of the political spectrum.
Sanders, of course, isn’t the only one adopting a movement-centered approach, an extension of his longtime call for a “political revolution.” It’s also core to how Sunrise organizers think about winning climate policy. Among their biggest takeaways from studying the cap-and-trade fight, Weber told me, “is that you really need a movement that is going to push on this during the campaign and beyond, and you have to pressure politicians. It’s not enough to just win elections.” As Weber said, structural reforms like ending the filibuster and abolishing the Electoral College—calls that don’t appear in Sanders’s plan—will almost certainly be key to getting legislation passed. But designing policy aimed at building a movement is what’s needed to make a floor vote possible.
If one major mistake of Waxman-Markey was its backers’ inability to articulate how that climate bill would make people’s lives easier, the Green New Deal framework operates by constantly delivering and broadcasting tangible quality of life improvements, using early victories as an opportunity to enlist more support among the many, many people needed to challenge the colossal power of the fossil fuel executives, who are going to put up a massive fight one way or another. Sanders’s Green New Deal offers voters a vision of how much better the world could be without them; its policy and its politics aren’t unrelated.
Sanders’s plan offers a battery of investments both in workers and communities already being hit hard by a decline in jobs in carbon-intensive industries like coal. His just transition provisions would provide five years of unemployment insurance, a wage guarantee, and a host of other benefits to workers, as well as $5.9 billion in funding to regional economic development agencies like the Appalachian Regional Commission. Undergirding just how substantial the transition will be, the Green New Deal will spend its first two years “very aggressively laying down a social safety net to ensure that no one is left behind,” expanding welfare state programs—like free school lunches and SNAP benefits—that have in recent decades come under attack from Democrats and Republicans both.
There are also frequent references to implementing Medicare for All and dramatically increasing union membership along the lines the Sanders team laid out in another plan this week for sectoral bargaining. Communities around the country could also receive financial assistance to take control of their private electric utilities, and the plan boldly lays out an elaborate blueprint to “end greed in our energy system” and ensure that the “renewable energy generated by the Green New Deal will be publicly owned”—a provision sure to rankle investor-owned utilities that have spent millions blocking climate measures at just about every level of government. While the government will initially collect revenue from new state-owned electric utilities, that renewable energy, the plan notes, will after 2035 be “virtually free.”
Using an old playbook, Republicans will liken any plan to curb emissions at all—be it a revenue-neutral carbon tax or a fuel efficiency standard—to socialism. Sanders’s plan doesn’t dance around the fact that the government will indeed play a more active role in the economy—or that most people’s lives will be better off for it.
Rather than inviting fossil fuel interests to the negotiating table, Sanders targets them as enemy number one. There are practical as well as political reasons not to enlist the likes of ExxonMobil in the transition to a low-carbon economy: Their core business model—to dig up and burn as much coal, oil and gas as possible—has not changed, and is plainly incompatible with decarbonizing along the timeline science is saying is necessary to avoid catastrophe. In addition to banning fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, and extraction on public lands, Sanders plans to “[p]rosecute and sue the fossil fuel industry for the damage it has caused,” making particular reference to revelations in the last several years that Exxon funded climate disinformation while knowing full well the damage warming posed. “These corporations and their executives should not get away with hiding the truth from the American people. They should also pay damages for the destruction they have knowingly caused,” the plan states. On this point, Sanders’s plan is more confrontational than Ocasio-Cortez and Markey’s Green New Deal resolution, which doesn’t mention fossil fuels.
For a climate fight that’s historically been shy about naming enemies—and so often cast as a collective action problem—the Green New Deal framework encourages an “us versus them” strategy not unlike that of its namesake. “I think people generally feel really terrified about the climate crisis. But we’ve also been told a lie, in part, by the fossil fuel industry that it’s all of our fault,” Weber says. “But that’s obviously not the real story. The real story is that a handful of billionaires and their lobbyists and politicians are the reason we’re in this mess. If we’re going to make real progress on the crisis, I think people need to be told that truth, and need to get angry about it and know that if we get these folks out of the way, we can have a better world for everyone.”