The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Sanders’s climate proposal is the best way forward

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) on Thursday tours a mobile home park that was destroyed by last year's wildfire in Paradise, Calif. (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)
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As I’ve written previously, the major Sunday talk shows are the best reflection of what topics our political and media establishments believe worthy of attention. So this week, with the Amazon on fire, a grand new climate plan from one of the top Democratic presidential candidates (Sen. Bernie Sanders) and the departure from the race of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who had championed climate change as his signature issue, you’d hope those shows would devote a little time to this critical topic.

No such luck: There was nothing more than a cursory mention on four of the five shows. In some cases, such as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” the guest would try to bring up climate only for the host to settle on another topic. CNN’s “State of the Union” even had Sanders on as a guest but didn’t ask him about his new policy. Only one show, ABC’s “This Week,” discussed climate change for the grand duration of one question.

The urgency of climate change is beyond dispute. The world is warming faster than we previously realized. Unless we cut emissions in half by 2030, scientists expect “more heat waves for tens of millions of people. Far greater species loss. Increased water scarcity in some of the world’s most unstable regions. A ten-fold increase in Arctic ice-free summers. And a total wipe-out of the world’s coral reefs.” Is it too much to ask that the topic come up more than once per five hours each week?

Then again, why should the major talk shows spend much time on climate when the Democratic Party — the more vigilant of the two parties on the issue — dampens discussion of it? Last week, Democratic National Committee delegates voted twice against allowing a debate dedicated to climate change. (The first vote blocked an official party debate on the topic; the second preserved sanctions against candidates who participated in unofficial climate debates.)

DNC chair Tom Perez and other opponents argued that doing so would unfairly privilege one issue over others, and perhaps he’s right when it comes to further crowding an already full calendar of official debates. But it wouldn’t require any effort on the DNC’s part to allow unofficial debates on climate change. Perez’s concern about promoting specific topics could be addressed by lifting sanctions for debates on other important subjects. Candidates could decide individually which debates were worth their time, just as they do now with televised town halls and other campaign events. That DNC delegates voted against even unofficial debates suggests the votes may have less to do with scheduling and more to do with preserving donations from the fossil fuel industry.

But even if the Democratic and media establishments do start to give the climate more time, those discussions can’t just stop at “how much will this cost?” The one mention on ABC was host George Stephanopoulos asking panelist and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel if Sanders’s plan, projected at $16 trillion, is “something Democrats can run on?” No, Emanuel said, “that is a big hit.” Democrats, he said, need a smaller, “responsible climate change plan.”

Sorry, but as fellow panelist and Democracy for America chief executive Yvette Simpson said: “Where we are now with the environment, people need extreme aggressive action on it.” Sanders’s plan isn’t perfect. (Its proposed phaseout of nuclear power would make hitting urgent emissions targets more difficult, given that nuclear provides more than half of America’s low- and no-carbon electricity.) But the sheer size of his vision, as author Bill McKibben puts it, “shows what simply must be done to meet the challenge physics has laid out.” Yes, “reaching 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030” may be incredibly ambitious, but as laid out earlier, we desperately need drastic emissions cuts by that year, and the deadline won’t wait for us.

Furthermore, Sanders recognizes most frequently among the current candidates that climate change threatens poor and minority communities the most, and that large-scale infrastructure and jobs projects, as well as expansion of public transit, are the best routes toward the emissions reductions we need. Oh, and as for spending concerns, the Sanders plan actually aims to pay for itself over 15 years.

Regardless, when it comes to climate change, Democratic leaders shouldn’t just blanch at a price tag. For decades now, liberals have been offering half-measures on climate and other issues out of fears of political backlash. Too often those compromises have neither helped them politically nor fully solved the policy problem. Saving the planet won’t be cheap or easy; decades of dawdling by past leaders mean that we need radical remedies. Sanders gets this. Too many in power don’t.

Read more:

Paul Waldman: The single clearest choice voters will face in 2020

Hugh Hewitt: If you take climate change seriously, get on the Bernie bus

Paul Waldman: The 2020 Democrats are having a real climate debate. We should take notice.

The Post’s View: Bernie Sanders’s climate plan will take us nowhere

The Post’s View: Want a Green New Deal? Here’s a better one.