Bernie Sanders' plan for handling the climate crisis is a genuine revolution

Earlier this week, Governor Jay Inslee announced that he was ending his presidential campaign. Inslee’s presence in the race was welcomed because of how he centered his campaign around the climate crisis, but at this point a climate plan has become an essential ingredient for every serious Democratic contender. Both Elizabeth Warren and Joe Biden have released lengthy plans. So has Beto O’Rourke. Both Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders have been strongly supportive of the Green New Deal, but on Thursday Sanders went further, releasing his own extensive plan for dealing with this critical issue.

As The Washington Post reports, Sanders’ plan is enormously ambitious, enough so that it even outdoes Inslee’s when it comes to the scope and timeline of the actions. Sanders is not the first candidate to compare the effort to fight climate change to that of mobilizing for World War II, but he may be the first who is recommended a scale and intensity of effort that would achieve massive goals in a single decade. With an average expenditure of $1.6 trillion dollars a year, the plan would actually exceed the entire annual budget of the U.S. to replace the entire electrical grid with a 100% clean base by 2030.

The last two decades have demonstrated that the way America produces energy can change much more rapidly than most experts expected. Coal, which generated more than half of the nation’s electricity just fifteen years ago, is rapidly heading toward extinction in the marketplace. However, coal still commands about a quarter of all electrical production and much of the space it has surrendered over that time has gone to natural gas, which was suddenly made much cheaper and more available due to fracking. Other plans, such as those of Warren and Biden, had envisioned phasing out the remaining fossil fuels over a period that stretched out as far as 2050. To put in place sufficient wind and solar power by 2030 represents an effort whose scale many find simply overwhelming. And the Sanders plan makes the effort even greater by being the only one that would explicitly phase out nuclear power, which currently makes up about one-fifth of the market.

In addition to remaking the electrical power grid, Sanders would invest heavily in transportation, both to replace gas-powered vehicles with electric and to create an extensive network of public transportation both local and national. That network, like the electrical grid, would not be left to corporations, but would be folded into an overall nonprofit system under much more direct control from the government.

In his two runs at the White House, Sanders has often talked about, or been talked about, as offering a revolution. But nothing he has previously suggested is as anywhere close to as revolutionary as this.

A plan that dwarfs the entire federal budget and which would leave the government in control of a system that provides power, transportation, and tens of millions of jobs isn’t just an energy plan. It’s something that would fundamentally change the role of the government. Such a system would be far from unique—many democratic nations have energy grids that are either directly or indirectly controlled by the national government—but this plan alone would represent a scale that easily exceeds everything rolled into the original New Deal. The $2.37 trillion that the plan dedicates to renewable energy is energy that would be publicly owned. Sanders’ plan wouldn’t just replace the coal and gas plants now in the mix at utilities companies, it would replace the companies.

In many ways, Sanders’ plan is exactly what the Green New Deal has suggested all along—a massive overhaul of the contract between citizen and nation that encompasses not just an energy plan, but an understanding of how corporate interests and short-term thinking generated the crisis in the first place while leaving individuals and communities hostage to fossil fuel extraction. But Sanders’ vision of how the GND is executed on the ground is significantly different from those of Inslee, Biden, Warren, or O’Rourke. Significantly more like … democratic socialism.

The challenges implicit in the deadlines set within Sanders’ plan are daunting. So are the numbers. All of it may be literally impossible.

It’s certainly eye-opening. If you want to know what Sanders means to do, there may be no better glimpse into where he would steer the United States than the contents of his climate plan. And honestly, that’s probably true of every candidate. This is the defining crisis of our age, so it shouldn’t be surprising that how a candidate chooses to address it … defines them.

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