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Bernie Sanders's plan to fight global warming, explained

Charlie Leight/Getty Images

On Monday, Bernie Sanders's presidential campaign unveiled a big new climate platform — Sanders's grand vision for how he'd like to tackle global warming. And there are two main components here:

  1. First, Sanders is proposing a slew of policies aimed at cutting US greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050 while trying to phase out nuclear power. Steps include: a carbon tax, major investments in renewable energy and electric vehicles, and aid for dislocated workers and vulnerable communities.
  2. Second, Sanders is touting a strategy for weakening the influence of oil, gas, and coal companies, which, he argues, is the key reason we haven't solved climate change yet. Actions here include: banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, repealing tax breaks for oil firms, and blocking new drilling and fossil fuel exports where possible. It also includes getting the Justice Department to investigate companies, like ExxonMobil, suspected of funding climate denial. And it includes restricting corporate funding of electoral campaigns.

Much of the coverage so far has focused on the first part, the ambitious targets and the carbon tax. We'll get to those in a bit. But it's arguably the second part, the call for all-out war against fossil fuel interests, that sets Sanders's platform apart from traditional Democratic climate proposals.

Broadly speaking, Democrats like Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton have long approached climate change as primarily a policy problem in need of a policy solution. You figure out what mix of regulations and taxes and technologies can most effectively reduce emissions and go from there, adapting to political realities as necessary. That was the idea behind the doomed 2009 climate bill. Start with a policy that economists agreed was efficient (cap and trade) and then try to get buy-in from interest groups.

Sanders, by contrast, tends to view global warming — and our inability to fix it — as first and foremost a question of political power. Our system is currently rigged in favor of fossil fuel interests, and by far the most important task at hand is to beat back those interests, to erode the status and power of oil, gas, and coal companies, to re-tilt the playing field. "The reason we haven't solved climate change," he says, "is because a small subsection of the 1 percent are hell-bent on doing everything in their power to block action."

This, of course, is how Sanders tends to approach lots of issues; it's core to his political philosophy. But what's notable here is that more and more environmental groups and climate activists have been adopting a similar view — particularly since the death of cap and trade in 2010. Among people who care deeply about climate change, a Sanders-esque theory of political change has become increasingly popular.

You see this theory at the core of the movement to block the Keystone XL pipeline, in the push to get colleges to divest from fossil fuels, in the campaign to prosecute ExxonMobil. None of this stuff is optimal emissions policy; it's not meant to be. Rather, it's a broad effort to chip away at the prestige and influence that oil, gas, and coal companies have long enjoyed. It's a battle to make policy possible. Whether it works remains an open question, but it's a perfectly coherent strategy.

Now, Sanders didn't invent the idea of going after fossil fuel companies, and in virtually all of the examples above he followed the lead of climate activists rather than vice versa. But it's telling that he's usually first to rally to these causes. There's a natural affinity here that helps explain why Sanders is so popular with climate hawks.

The details of Sanders's climate plan

A lot of this, basically. (Shutterstock)

Anyway, on to the fine print. Here's what Sanders is proposing to do specifically about greenhouse gas emissions:

  • First, Sanders would set a goal of cutting US greenhouse gas emissions 40 percent by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050 (compared with 1990 levels).
  • That's basically what the US would need to do if the world wanted any hope of staying below 2°C of global warming (though China, India, Europe, and others would also have to do much more than they're doing). It also goes far, far beyond Obama's goal of cutting emissions 15 percent below 1990 levels by 2025. So it would take a lot more than just tightening EPA regulations, as Obama has been doing. It would require revamping the nation's energy system from top to bottom.
  • The centerpiece of Sanders's plan would be an economy-wide carbon tax. This would require congressional approval, and Sanders plans to introduce a Senate bill soon that would enact a tax on oil, gas, and coal starting at $15 per ton of CO2 and rising to $73 per ton by 2030. The revenue would mostly be rebated back to consumers, though a portion would be set aside to help vulnerable communities.
  • Sanders also would set a goal of a 100 percent "clean" electricity system, which in his view would mean no coal or natural gas but also no nuclear power. Solar, wind, hydropower, and geothermal would play a massive role.
  • He'd have the federal government invest heavily in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit. Again, Sanders plans to release a bill in the Senate soon that would extend permanently most of the existing tax credits for renewable energy, electric cars, and efficiency. The money would come from repealing tax breaks and incentives for oil and gas companies.
  • He'd push to ban fracking on federal lands. He'd support states that want to ban fracking for gas and oil, like New York did. (Constitutionally, there's not much more he can do for the latter than offer moral support.)
  • He'd push to block extending the lifespans of US nuclear power plants. What this means: All existing reactors were originally licensed to operate for 40 years. Now that they're nearing the end of their lifespan, many are applying for an extension to 60 years. Sanders would move to put a moratorium on that process, by either executive action or legislation.
  • He'd push to sharply restrict further fossil fuel extraction in the United States where possible: ban Arctic drilling, ban all new offshore drilling on federal waters, stop exports of oil and natural gas. You can see details in his recent Keep It in the Ground Act.
  • He'd ratchet up fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks. Currently CAFE goals are set to rise to 54.5 miles per gallon by 2025. Sanders wants to increase that to 60. This one he could actually do without Congress.

On the substance, there's room to argue about this stuff all day. Just for instance: Sanders's call to shutter the nation's existing nuclear power plants, which currently provide 20 percent of our electricity carbon-free, would make the task of cutting emissions much harder. (One study by Third Way found that denying extensions for all existing reactors would cause US emissions to be 12.5 percent higher in 2025 than they otherwise would.) Likewise, the idea that we could power the entire country primarily via wind and solar remains subject to much debate.

But really, these disputes are secondary to a more immediate question: Will any of this stuff come to pass in 2017? No, probably not. Odds are, the House will still be controlled by Republicans for the next few years at least, which means that no major climate bills are likely to get through Congress. Instead, any president who wants to address climate change will be limited to squeezing incremental regulations out of the EPA, trying to nudge down CO2 emissions bit by bit, much as Obama has over the past six years. And it's nearly impossible to get an 80 percent cut from that.

That's the prosaic reality of US climate policy right now. Nothing but half-measures are politically possible. But campaigns aren't built on dreariness. Platforms like these are more an attempt to lay down a marker, to define what the party does and doesn't stand for. After all, conditions could shift; Congress could change. So what will Democrats do then? Campaign white papers aren't usually the last word, but they can help shape the party consensus.

Read more: How the next president could expand Obama's climate policies — or dismantle them

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