Biden versus Bernie: Who’s Got the Better Plan to Save the Planet?
Right now it seems like trying to keep up on the news is like trying to swim in a choppy sea.
News stories of climate change triggering wildfires in California, bushfires in Australia, hurricanes, and countless other natural disasters have felt like waves mentally pummeling me while I’m trying to stay afloat juggling the many tasks of daily life.
Now a new wave is gaining strength: the coronavirus, or COVID-19, pandemic which has so far infected over 198,600 people worldwide and killed at least 8,050. (New York Times).
Perhaps one of the most frightening aspects of this pandemic is that the U.S. doesn’t seem to have a clear strategy for handling it.
Although the president is now holding regular press conferences about how the nation is trying to curb the pandemic, in last Wednesday’s address—one of his first addressing the pandemic’s significance—much of it was focused on calling out bipartisan attacks on his administration’s response (or lack thereof) (New York Times).
And there were many inaccuracies, such as saying a ban on European travel would apply to “a tremendous amount of trade and cargo” when in fact it only applies to people. However, I do think to be safe, it's a good idea to practice the social distancing advised by the White House, which includes avoiding gatherings of 10 people or more (NPR).
On top of everything, there’s also a competition heating up for the next U.S. leader who will be at the nation’s helm in less than a year no matter what’s going on.
So if you, like me, are feeling swept away by headlines of the pandemic and candidates dropping out of the 2020 presidential race, I’m hoping this post can be your lifeline.
Sweeping victories in Tuesday’s primaries in Illinois, Florida and Arizona have taken vice president Biden much closer to securing the Democratic presidential nomination, even though Ohio rescheduled its primary due to COVID-19 concerns (New York Times).
However, Sanders is still in this race along with Tulsi Gabbard (who I’ll discuss in a future post if she remains a contender).
Although he seems to have succeeded at building a coalition to win primaries, Biden has struggled in past debates to communicate his plans to tackle climate change.
However, if you go to his website, you’ll see Biden certainly does not consider climate change a joke.
These plans start with Biden using his presidential authority to pass executive orders that put the U.S. on the path to having an economy that runs on 100 percent renewable energy by 2050.
This promise may sound generic, but the phrase that catches my eye is “executive order.”
This means these policies can bypass Congress and become effective in 30 days as long as they are not unlawful or unconstitutional (ThoughtCo).
Biden’s website doesn’t get too specific about these executive orders,. He simply says they will be designed to, “go well beyond the Obama-Biden Administration platform and put us on the right track.”
Sanders, on the other hand, does have a very specific use for the powerful executive order, according to his website—taking direct aim at environmental injustice, or the way climate change and pollution often impact minority and impoverished communities most.
His website states if elected president, Sanders would:
“Ensure that all agencies abide by Executive Order 12898, which according to the EPA requires agencies to ‘identify and address the disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-income populations, to the greatest extent practicable and permitted by law.’”
According to Biden’s website, environmental injustice is also something he’d “demand” Congress to tackle. It’s the third of three major goals he has that he’d aim to work with Congress to accomplish within his first year as president.
His first two priorities to pass through Congress would be “an enforcement mechanism that includes milestone targets no later than the end of his first term in 2025” and “a historic investment in clean energy and climate research and innovation.”
The Senate would be particularly tricky in getting these initiatives passed through Congress since there are a majority of Republican senators who don’t believe in taking ambitious measures to tackle climate change, like the Green New Deal, seriously. In fact, Mitch McConnell has called it “nonsense.” (TheHill).
The Green New Deal is a proposal which aims to mobilize American workers to take on new renewable energy jobs to allow the U.S. to take a leading role in transitioning the world to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 (New York Times).
And back during the Obama administration, which Biden often harkens back to, he and Obama failed to get passed the Waxman-Markey bill in 2009 that would have created a cap and trade system to limit carbon dioxide emissions that fuel climate change (Vox).
However, in Biden’s’s defense, he’s gotten a lot passed in his over four decades in politics on the federal level--of course, most notably, he worked with the Obama administration to pass the Paris Climate Agreement, a huge worldwide pact to limit the Earth’s warming to below 2 degrees Celsius (Vox).
However, in the face of a future with more crises such as deadly heatwaves and wildfires, many say Biden’s policies don’t go far enough.
Green New Deal
On his website, Biden does say he won’t leave behind those who currently have jobs providing them with economic security in the fossil fuel industry, he ensures these workers are treated fairly for fueling “our industrial revolution and subsequent decades of economic growth.”
However, with the dire consequences scientists warn of continuing to dump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, many believe it’s downright dangerous to keep any aspects of the current fossil-fuel dependent economy in place.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, an author of the Green New Deal, has said she “will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need to find a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.”
It’s unclear if Biden would fully implement the Green New Deal. However, his website does say it’s a vital “framework” that stresses some important truths, specifically, “(1) the United
States urgently needs to embrace greater ambition on an epic scale to meet the scope of this challenge, and (2) our environment and our economy are completely and totally connected.”
Unlike Biden, Sanders clearly embraces the Green New Deal and it's the basis of his plan to take on climate change. The Green New Deal gets its name from FDR’s New Deal of the 1930s that put Americans to work to raise the economy out of the Great Depression (Time).
Echos of FDR’s New Deal can be seen in other aspects of Sanders’s plan. For instance, it calls for investing in expanding the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Land and Water Conservation Corps to protect public lands and build eco-friendly infrastructure.
The CCC is one of perhaps the best-known FDR New Deal programs and it put Americans to work planting around 3 billion trees while also building dams in addition to dams and buildings in national parks that are still widely used today (Treesource).
The Investments in Renewables
In total, Biden wants to invest about $5 trillion to accomplish these major goals to save the planet, which includes building out renewable energy infrastructure. And how would he pay for them? By literally flipping Trump’s initiatives to give tax breaks to the rich (which, I’m not going to lie, would be fun to help play out!)
Biden would stop letting corporations get away with avoiding taxes and paying their “fair share” would help generate revenue to help pay for these initiatives.
Biden’s website says a “Clean Energy Revolution” he’d get going would do the opposite of Trump’s tax cuts that incentivized investing outside the U.S.--it would give investors more confidence in millions of jobs being created right here in the U.S.
Sanders certainly doesn’t consider climate change a small issue and he’s willing to invest a much more staggering amount of money to curb the U.S.’s dependence on fossil fuels.
In August 2019, he unveiled a plan to spend over $16 trillion designed to eradicate fossil fuel use in the U.S. by 2050. It’s the most expensive plan to fight climate change of any of the Democratic candidates who have run in the 2020 campaign (New York Times, Columbia.edu).
Sanders’s plan also includes having the U.S. rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement and investing $200 billion in a Green Climate Fund to reduce emissions not just in the United States, but worldwide.
The plan would also aim to have the U.S. electricity and transportation systems off of fossil fuels no later than 2030.
Personally, I love Sanders’s urgent call to put as many resources as possible toward saving the planet. I like how he’s also talked about his personal stakes--he’s told the New York Times: “I have seven grandchildren, and I’m going to be damned if I’m going to leave them a planet that is unhealthy and uninhabitable.”
Sanders is also serving on some very important committees in the Senate that are taking on issues related to climate change, including the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works (GovTrack.US).
However, he’s definitely taken some heat for just how far the plan goes—and for ways it doesn’t go nearly far enough.
When asked about how this plan could possibly be affordable, Bernie has said it would “pay for itself” in about 15 years. This is in addition to creating around 20 million jobs (New York Times).
However, some aspects of paying for the plan are not totally clear. For instance, he’s said it would make fossil fuel companies pay for their damage to the planet and it would end their subsidies, but it doesn’t exactly say how far this would go (New York Times).
In addition, Sanders’s plan doesn’t include much on carbon capture technology which pulls greenhouse gases from the atmosphere that many experts say is vital to avoiding the worst-case scenarios for climate change. Sanders’s website calls this a “false solution.”
However, many experts say pulling carbon from the atmosphere, not just through natural carbon sinks like trees but also through technology that does the same thing, is necessary to avoid the worst-case climate change scenarios with all the carbon that’s already been dumped into the atmosphere.
The U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the National Academies of Sciences, and scores of other researchers agree on the importance of pulling carbon from the air to avoid the catastrophes linked to global warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) (Rollingstone). It could also become a trillion-dollar business! (Vox).
Biden’s plan isn’t the most detailed, but he calls for more investment in carbon capture, also called sequestration.
His website states if elected president, Biden would, “double down on federal investments and enhance tax incentives for CCUS [carbon capture, use, and storage].”
Though nuclear energy’s radioactive waste has been called out, it emits hardly any greenhouse gases compared to fossil fuels, and it is already the nation’s third-largest source of energy.
However, this is another “false solution” to the climate crisis, according to Sanders’s plan.
In fact, the USA Today editorial board called out Bernie and Elizabeth Warren, when whe was in the 2020 presidential race, for not supporting nuclear energy in their climate change policies (USA Today).
But what do the scientists say? The Union of Concerned Scientists does not praise nuclear power as a climate change silver bullet due to its safety risks and consumption of resources like water, but they do say it can be a much cleaner source of energy than fossil fuels.
Overall, the union supports, “continued research and development of nuclear power technologies that are safer, more secure, and lower cost.”
Biden’s view of nuclear energy is more accepting. His website states his administration would fund more research into the waste and disposal systems that today are a major challenge for nuclear energy. Nuclear energy would also be considered among “all low- and zero-carbon technologies,” to fight the climate crisis, according to Biden’s plan.
Which Potential President Can Save the Planet?
When it comes to taking on climate change, there’s so much to digest.
Our entire economy runs on fossil fuels, which cause unhealthy air pollution, climate change, and dependence on often unstable oil-rich countries (HowStuffWorks). Turning it around seems like trying to stop a bus with broken breaks as it rolls down a steep mountain.
However, if there’s one thing I’m continuously learning from life, it’s that we can determine our future based on what we think and believe is achievable.
I’ve found it cathartic to write this post and focus on proposals from potential future presidents who have plans to protect our planet and our future.
Just think of what a better world even just some of these proposals could create if they are passed? Limiting our dependence on fossil fuels can create cleaner, healthier communities, less violent conflicts with countries that supply us with oil, a less volatile economy, and the reassurance of a more livable planet for the young people alive today and who have yet to be born.
Now, I certainly couldn’t cover everything in this post, so I encourage you, dear reader, to stay informed and curious by paying attention to credible news sources and of course the candidates’ websites: https://berniesanders.com/; https://joebiden.com/.
My hope: instead of feeling drowned by waves of negative environmental, political, health, and economic news, we can feel like we are riding these waves. Is there anything more pacifying than a calm, reflective pool of water?
Maybe that’s where these waves can finally push us--toward a future where we can reflect on this chaotic past and feel secure with a competent, wise president as our guide.