Ep. 22: Bern or Burn: The Green New Deal (w/ David Wallace-Wells & Kate Aronoff)

Ep. 22: Bern or Burn: The Green New Deal (w/ David Wallace-Wells & Kate Aronoff)

With the global biosphere teetering on the edge of disaster, Bernie's Green New Deal plan would fundamentally restructure the US economy away from fossil fuels and toward sustainability, development, and justice. Briahna talks to David Wallace-Wells, New York magazine editor and author of The Uninhabitable Earth, about just how bad the climate crisis is. Then, Intercept journalist Kate Aronoff explains what sets Bernie's climate plan apart from the competition. In short, its ambition matches the scale of the problem.

David's book: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/586541/the-uninhabitable-earth-by-david-wallace-wells/9780525576709/

And his 2017 article: https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2017/07/climate-change-earth-too-hot-for-humans.html

Kate's article on Bernie's Green New Deal: https://theintercept.com/2019/08/22/bernie-sanders-climate-policy/


News Montage: The fires have spread a vast plume of smoke across South America and the Atlantic Ocean that’s visible from space. They’re unprecedented in recorded history. Environmentalists say that most of the fires were deliberately set by illegal miners and cattle ranchers. Brazil’s president says the country can handle the situation on its own. We live in struggle all the time. It’s not something new. It’s new for the world now because they affect the big cities like Sao Paulo. The interim Brazilian diplomat says that the government is working to protect the Amazon but also has an obligation to provide economic development and opportunities for the more than 25 million people that live in the Amazon region.

Briahna Joy Gray:  In late August, Bernie Sanders introduced his Green New Deal plan in Paradise, California, the site of the devastating Camp Fire disaster, which all but entirely destroyed a community of 26,000 people. 

Bernie Sanders: If there is any silver lining in this terrible tragedy in this beautiful town, it’s that I hope the people of the United States and the people of the world understand that we need bold and aggressive action to combat climate change, which is the common enemy not just of the United States, but for countries all over the world.

Briahna Joy Gray:  Bernie’s plan takes seriously last year’s IPCC Report, which said that if we want to avoid the most cataclysmic effects of climate change, we have to halve global emissions by 2030, and become carbon neutral by 2050. 

Now, while other candidates are less ambitious, Sanders’ plan will decarbonize transportation and power generation, the two largest sources of US emissions, by 2030. It will also lower US emissions by 71%. We will invest in countries abroad, too, and reduce emissions among less industrialized nations by 36% by 2030. Now, that’s the total equivalent of reducing our domestic emissions by 161%. 

Bernie’s plan will cost $16.3 trillion. But, as always, Bernie has a plan to pay for that. Revenue from publicly owned, renewable energy will generate trillions of dollars. Additional revenue will come from taxes on the 20 million good-paying jobs the plan will generate. We save over $1 trillion from no longer using our military to maintain global oil dependence, and, my favorite part, the plan makes the fossil fuel industry pay for the cost of their pollution rather than the government paying them $15 billion in subsidies every year. 

Bernie’s plan is as big as the problem at hand, and the solutions presented by the Sanders’ campaign are unmatched in the 2020 field. But while some media outlets rightly treated the plan as such, the Green New Deal continues to get short shrift from the mainstream media. In the week and a half since it aired, mainstream cable news channels devoted minimal time to covering it. Perhaps not surprising considering that the major broadcast news shows devoted a combined 142 minutes to climate change in the entirety of 2018. 

On top of ignoring the issue, bad faith articles attempted to minimize the stakes with headlines claiming, “Bernie’s vision of the Green New Deal will accomplish nothing, would take us nowhere, and would be too much for voters.” The New York Times concern trolled about the political prospects of the plan, even though 80% of all registered voters, not just Democrats, support a Green New Deal. The Wall Street Journal even compared Bernie’s climate policy to Mao’s Great Leap Forward. 

But if we’re evoking 20th century heads of state, the three-letter name you’re looking for isn’t Mao Zedong, but FDR. The original New Deal completely transformed the US economy in three years in order to respond to a world war being fought on two fronts. It’s no exaggeration to say the environment crisis at hand is equally dire. 

In his viral 2017 article on the climate crisis, David Wallace-Wells wrote that, “no matter how well informed you are, you surely aren’t alarmed enough.” Two degrees of warming, which used to be considered the threshold of catastrophe is now our best-case scenario. Already, 339,000 people die from wildfire smoke each year. In 2013, smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in China. For every half degree of warming, scientists say we’ll see between a 10-20 increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. There are already over 65 million climate refugees, and as more and more of the world becomes uninhabitable, those numbers will grow. Don’t forget, the Amazon is burning. 

So, why no action? With the stakes this high, and with such popular bipartisan support behind the Green New Deal, you’d think the Democratic party would jump on this opportunity to lead. But the DNC has thumbed its nose at the priorities of Democratic voters, voting down a climate-themed debate last month. Apparently insufficiently moved by the protests from the Sunrise Movement, the DNC voted down a resolution for a climate debate 8-17. “Which side are you on,” the protestors sang. Which side, indeed? 

Symone Sanders, a senior advisor for the Joe Biden campaign, argued that to have a climate debate was “dangerous territory,” because it would open the door to a debate on black women, or Latinx issues, or the indigenous community. But, among other problems with that statement, is that her argument ignores the extent to which those very communities are particularly impacted by climate change. 

Environmental racism isn’t an afterthought in Bernie’s Green New Deal plan, but a priority. Black and Latinx communities deal with 56% and 63% more air pollution respectively than they create. Tribal lands are only 4% of the US land base, but a quarter of our Superfund hazardous waste sites. And the vast majority of our abandoned uranium mines are in Indian country. 

Genuine concern for the interest of black and brown Americans should lead one to endorse a climate debate, not oppose it. And weaponizing identity to derail an opportunity to hold the next president of the United States accountable for how they’ll handle this global crisis, well, let’s just say, that’s not a choice I would make. 

The bottom line is that the cost of inaction is greater than the cost of action. Economists estimate that we will lose $34.5 trillion in economic activity by the end of century if we don’t respond now. By acting, we will save $70 trillion over the next 80 years. David Von Drehle, at the Washington Post, compared Bernie Sanders’ climate plan to Trump’s wall, of all things, arguing that they are equally fantastical. The real fantasy, though, is thinking that there’s any alternative. 

More than half of the carbon emissions that have been produced by the burning of fossil fuels in the history of humanity have been produced in the last 30 years, 85% since World War II. The Green New Deal has been described as a moonshot. But what’s at stake is much greater than the Russians beating us to the moon. It’s the fate of the planet itself. And for that, Bernie’s got a plan. 

This is Hear the Bern, a podcast about the people, ideas, and politics that are driving the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign, and the movement to secure a dignified life for everyone living in this country. 

My name is Briahna Joy Gray, and I’m coming to you from campaign headquarters in Washington, DC. 

This week, I spoke to David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth, about the stakes of this climate crisis. I then spoke to journalist Kate Aronoff about why she thinks Bernie’s plan, because it is more radical than others, is more likely to succeed. 

I’m so glad to be joined today by David Wallace-Wells, author of The Uninhabitable Earth. That book came first from an article that you wrote, and I… I gotta say, I read that article, and I reread it in advance of doing this interview, and it is chilling. (laughing) So what you… what you able to unpa… are able to unpack in the course of, of that piece, is exactly what the stakes are, what the potential possible outcomes are for, are the environmental crisis that we’re in right now. And you’re able to do so in a way, with a specificity, and a kind of visceralness that really drives home the point in a way that I don’t think normally comes across in the way this issue is discussed in the media. 

So, I wanted to ask you to kind of give us a gloss, if you could, of which of the possible climate outcomes rattle you the most. 

David Wallace-Wells:  Well, you know, the thing that I worry about most is probably just the direct heat effects, which is, it’s already being felt in parts of the US, but the impacts are going to be much more intense in other parts of the world, the global south, and really in particular, in India and other parts of South Asia, where, as soon as 2050, which sounds like it’s a long ways away, but it’s, you know, the length of a mortgage, it’s… it, you know, when my daughter, who was just born, is gonna be thinking about having children of her own. Um, it’s not that far away. 

And just by then, we can see direct heat that’s so intense, that major cities like Calcutta, which today have, I don’t know, 10 or 12 million people living in them, would be literally unlivably hot in summer. You couldn’t go outside during summer without risking heat stroke and death. That is one reason why the UN thinks that if we don’t check warming soon, by 2050, we’ll have 200 million refugees, or more. They think it’s possible we can have a billion climate refugees, which is as many as today live in North and South America combined. 

Now, obviously, all of this is up to what we do now. I think it’s really important for everyone to keep in mind, especially in the context of a kind of political campaign and proposals that are being put forward to address this issue, that when we talk about the scary and terrifying outcomes that are possible, ultimately those are a reflection of how much power we still have over the climate. The only thing that’s gonna make the planet really inhospitable is if we choose to make it that way, and that means that we can make a different set of choices and produce a very different world. There will still be some additional warming, which produces some additional suffering. Practically speaking, I think that’s locked in. But how much suffering is really a choice that we can make today based on how quickly we decarbonize, how quickly we start to take carbon out of the atmosphere, and how quickly we can transform all of these areas of modern life which produce a carbon footprint, which is unfortunately just about every area of modern life. That’s how universal this problem really is. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  So, to that point, you know, something that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often points to, is the fact that 50% of the carbon emissions that we’re currently working with were created during her lifetime, in the last 30 years. So that is both some, a fact that I find to be hopeful and extraordinarily alarming. I think that you say in your piece that 80% has happened, or something like that, has been generated since World War I. So, these are… these are very recent effects that have been the result of more proximate industrialization, and therefore, arguably should not be perceived as something that’s like the way the world always has to be. 

David Wallace-Wells:  Yeah, I mean, some of the numbers are even more alarming than that. Yesterday, I was just in New York when Greta Thunberg arrived on her… on her trip from Sweden. She’s 16 years old. More than a third of all the emissions that we’ve ever produced in the entire history of humanity have come during her lifetime. More than a thir… I was just putting some of this stuff on Twitter. But more than a third of all of the emissions that we’ve ever produced have come since Tom Brady won his first Superbowl. 

I think we fall into a trap when we think of this as the legacy of the Industrial Revolution, which started several centuries ago, and it also allows us to not feel personally responsible because if it was something that our ancestors did, in many cases not even our ancestors, but the ancestors of our oppressors, then we don’t necessarily feel so driven to take action ourselves. 

But honestly, you know, I’m a… I’m a relatively well-off white guy who grew up in New York starting in the 80’s and the 90’s. Not only has this damage been done almost entirely during my lifetime, to a degree that when I was born, the planet’s climate was stable, and today, we’re facing the crisis… you know, the… we’re on the threshold of catastrophe. But it was done largely in my name, to benefit people like me, at the expense of people elsewhere in the world who are going to be suffering much, much more intensely, both within the United States, where the impacts are gonna be concentrated in the parts of the country that are least able to respond to them because of poverty and discrimination, but similarly around the world, where it will be those with the least who are being hit most intensely. 

There was a recent study, quite eye-opening to me, that showed that, already, many countries in the global south, have already lost about 25% of potential GDP growth over the last four decades because of climate change. And by the end of the century, if we continue on the path that we’re heading on now, many of those countries will have the very hope of any economic growth at all wiped out from climate change. 

It’s a little misleading to talk in economic terms because real estate in Bangladesh doesn’t count the same as real estate in Miami Beach, and these things don’t always add up neatly, but on… on another level, I think it does give you a nice sense of just how all-encompassing and total this challenge is. That no one will escape it, that everyone’s lives will be affected to some degree, whether you’re a Midwestern farmer who’s been dealing with, you know, flooded cropland now since the end of the Fall, to California, where we’ve had wildfires burning through millions of acres every year. 

I did a piece a few months ago about the California wildfires, and I spoke to Eric Garcetti, the mayor of L.A. He’s 48 years old. The year he was born, California burned… 60,000 acres were burned, um, in California forest fires. The year he was re… he was elected mayor, in 2013, it was 600,000. So, a tenfold increase. The year he was re-elected mayor, in 2017, it was 1.2 million, so doubling in just two year… in just four years. And last year, 2018, it was 1.9 million. 

Now, so far, this year, luckily, the fires have not been as intense in California as in the last few years, but scientists say they’ll probably double, and probably, perhaps quadruple by mid-century. And then beyond mid-century, they say we can’t even make reliable predictions because the entire ecosystem would have been so burned over at that point, we don’t know what kind of plant life will grow back in the aftermath, and so we can’t make predictions about how flammable it will be. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Well what’s… what’s so extraordinary is in your piece, you say something about how, um, you… you raised the concerns about one… once every hundred year drought that apparently happens in the Amazon that results in all these forest fires, and, you know, what would we do if some day, these fires became more rampant and could burn up the, the whole Amazon. And here we are, just two years later, looking at that speculative eventuality. Like, it is truly galling, the breakneck speed of which this stuff is coming upon us, which begs the question of why more politicians haven’t been responsive with the level, the exigence that’s required to meet this. 

And there is a political answer, I think. But, also, there’s this kind of, um, psychic answer, which, which, which is to why citizens, even though, you know, I’ve heard you describe yourself as someone who is, before writing about this stuff, interested, aware, but not as engaged as you are now. Why are so many of us interested, well-meaning, engaged, but not necessarily acting with the level of immediacy that this crisis requires? 

David Wallace-Wells:  To start with, I think, we don’t want to believe that we’re facing a scale of crisis and danger that we truly are. We find it much more comfortable to think that our lives will continue in much the ways that we expected them to a decade or so ago. 

I think it’s also a really powerful reminder that when we look out our window every day, when we walk down the street every day, we are having experiences of the present tense climate, which sort of make us believe that that will continue, even if we know at some abstract level that things are changing and they will continue to change, our expectations for the future are so anchored in our experience of the present that it’s sort of hard for us to even take seriously projections that suggest things are gonna change quite dramatically. 

I also think, at the political level, our politics, really across the West, have been so focused on the principle of economic growth for several decades now. And for a long time, it was kind of economic conventional wisdom that climate change could be tragic in a humanitarian way, but that it’s economic impacts were gonna be relatively small, and taking action against them would be quite expensive because you’d have to invest dramatically in certain things, and also you’d have so sort of, you know, retire coal plants before they were of retire… retirement age. And that meant that the sort of conventional wisdom of econom… of economists was we don’t need to rush into action here. Even if the scientists are worried, the math doesn’t add up for us. And that really shaped, I think, our policy approach to this subject for a very long time. 

Now, thankfully, I mean in a certain sense it’s grotesque, but thankfully, we now have a new economic conventional wisdom, in part because the people studying this stuff most intensely are raising their estimates for expensive inaction on climate would be, and in part, because they see much more growth opportunity in reimagining our economy along the lines that climate action would require. And so, it’s now the case that almost all economists agree that fast action would be better for us economically than slow action. 

There was report last year suggesting, globally, we could add $26 trillion to the global economy through rapid decarbonization by just 2030, which is really quite fast. And I think that we’re beginning to see in the commitments of, say, UK Parliament, to zero out… zero out the carbon emissions by 2050, or the government of Denmark, who’s cutting their… planning to cut their emissions by 70% by 2030. We’re beginning to see this new economic wisdom sort of shape our policies for the first time, but it’s only happened in the last year, and only with the help of these incredible climate mobilization movements Red Eye mentioned earlier with the Climate Strike, Extinction Rebellion in the UK, Sunrise and Zero Hour here in the US. 

These movements were, on some level to me, as someone who, until relatively recently, was, as you say, engaged but not an activist on this subject. Frankly, I’m shocked and astonished on how much movement there’s been politically on this subject over the last year, really in the aftermath of this quite alarming UN report from last October. But it’s also exhilarating. It shows just how much people really do care about this issue, which we were told for so long that people just didn’t care enough. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  It feels to me, as someone who’s, you know, a part of a campaign that is the part of a genuinely populist movement… What it feels like to me, is that as we continue to decouple both parties from a more corporatist world view, where they’re both historically very beholden, at least for my lifetime, a lifetime of the exacerbation of the climate crisis, let’s say the last 30 years or so, have been very much captured by corporate interests, you do have the sense that there’s more balkanization, in part because those… those areas that, that they don’t agree on, you know, if both parties are agreeing that they’re gonna take money from big business, that they’re generally gonna deregulate the banks, etc, etc, what we’re left with is those issues that are extremely polarizing. So, the entire conversation revolves around, you know, issues of, of around which there’s still a lot of controversy, abortion, affirmative action, things like that. 

When we step back and are able to talk about things that are actually populist, there are a lot of issues that the majority of Americans do agree on. Whether its universal healthcare, $15 minimal wage, or yes, the environment. And it’s fascinating to see… watch this political process, where the pundit class used to be one step behind the political class in this one instant, and they’re still asking questions like, “what’s your top priority,” as though there’s not an existential threat on multiple prongs, where we have to immediately act fast on climate change. 

Immediately implement a Green New Deal, immediately implement Medicare for All, immediately implement all of these things, as though there is, like, a pick and… uh, an ability to pick and choose, like there might have been at some other distant more halcyon point in American history. 

David Wallace-Wells:  Yeah, I mean, it’s… it’s… the way I think of it is, you know, almost a matter of what your political hopes are, climate change has a role. You know, if you care wealth creation, if you care about income inequality, if you care about conflict because there’s a relationship between temperature and war, if you are care about domestic assault, if you care about crime rates, if you care about famine and hunger, and if you care about mental illness. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  You said mental that human cognition will decline 21% if the carbon dioxide parts per million continue along the expected trajectory by the year 2100. Human cognition, 21% decline. I mean, that’s… that’s extraordinary. For every half degree of warming, there will be a 10-20% increase in the likelihood of armed conflict. 

You know, you talk about forced migration. You know, there’s 65 million people already displaced, and the numbers that we can expect for that with continued climate change will go through the roof. I mean, which of those… when I’m reading these stats, every round trip ticket on a flight from New York to London costs the Arctic 3 more square meters of ice. That’s… that’s extraordinary. It makes you want to hop on a scooter home and never get on any other kind of transportation again. But, of course, it’s not individual consumption for the most part that’s driving the bulk of these emissions. Is that right? 

David Wallace-Wells:  Well, it depends on how you calculate it. But what I would say is that individual action alone is insufficient for this scale of the crisis. You know, you can… you can go vegan, you can never fly again, but these problems are so big and so systemic, that we really need a policy response to address them at anything like the scale that is required.

There’s also a kind of, this problem of, um, distributed causes and impacts, in the sense that if I’m flying from New York to London, I’m melting that 3 square meters of ice, I don’t really see that impact in my life. That is, maybe, especially true, and prob… even most problematically true at the international level, where nations could take dramatic, rapid action, decarbonizing, and yet have basically no impact on the climate their l… that they’re living through over the next few decades unless the rest of the world follows suite. 

That’s not exactly true for China, and the US, and maybe India, but if you’re dealing with most other countries in the world, um, most of them are not responsible for more than one or two percent of carbon emissions. And these are some of even the industrialized nations. The less developed nations are responsible for even less. Why should Australia decarbonize? Like, it’s not gonna change anything, unless the whole rest of the world is decarbonizing as well. Which is one reason I think we really need a kind of coordinated global effort to address this problem. 

And it’s one reason why I find the contemporary political moment geopolitically so concerning because, you know, if you had to imagine a challenge that was big enough and urgent enough to call into action, call into being, a real network of genuine global cooperation, it would be the climate crisis. And yet, we’re facing it at this moment when so many nations of the world are retreating from those commitments, retreating from those networks, and embracing a more nativistic, narrowly self-interested idea of, of their own self-interest. 

So, you know, you mentioned earlier that the fires burning in the Amazon. The logic facing Jair Bolsonaro is actually from a narrowly defined, self-interested perspective, you know, encourages the deforestation of the rainforest. He c… he sees opportunities for economic growth in developing that land, and given the system that we live in today, where China’s buying Brazilian beef that’s feed on Brazilian soy beans that are grown in that land, and so are European countries, and so are American conglomerates, there are strong incentives to, to continue that project. Um, unfortunately, globally, if he continues to deforest the Amazon, it’ll be catastrophic for all of us. So, we need some kind of a system that squares those problematic systems and aligns the interest of individual nations with the interest of the planet as a whole. 

One other thing I would mention, is I think that we’ve really underutilized that value of the public health part of this story. There is a way that public health concerns really do feel imminent, immediate, down to the level of the individual. And they are quite concerning. You know, it’s the raised rates of asthma, and dementia, and Parkinson’s. They, um… Pollution changes your, the rate of Schizophrenia, and ADHD, and autism. It makes babies grow less well in the womb. It increases the rate of premature birth and low birth rate. Absolutely everything about the human animal that we would want to protect if we were really designing a system to produce robust individual health, is damaged by pollution and warming. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  At… at some point, you explain that the air pollution in, in China was such that the Chinese apo… airpocalypse of 2013 peeked such that smog was responsible for a third of all deaths in the country. 

David Wallace-Wells:  A million people died that year in China because of air pollution. And China has actually gotten better since then, but India is not hit, um… is now being hit with it most intensely, and, um, will probably continue to be going forward. In a certain sense, India is really the, kind of the ground zero for climate impacts generally. They direct heat, droughts, flooding. Um, they have a lot of river flooding to be expected. And these, these pollutions effects are all quite, quite scary. 

This problem is too big to even describe in any single way. It’s too big to try to rally support or mobilize with any single rhetorical strategy. And it’s too big to try to solve with any one silver bullet solution. It’s an all-encompassing universal story, which includes all of us and all of our lives. In a way, you know, this, this may sound kind of like a naïve revelation, but I’m a lifelong New Yorker. I spent my whole life thinking, because I lived in the modern world, I lived outside of nature. This reporting has really taught me, in a very deep way, that, you know, we are all living in nature. Like, when we go about our lives. Even when we’re walking on concrete streets, taking elevators up to the 70th floor. That’s all happening within nature. And when nature is disturbed and perturbed, it will affect all of us. 

Now, all of us will come to that story from different places, and we may have different concerns. We may be motivated by different appeals. We might have… be motivated one day by social justice concerns, and another by public health concerns, and another simply marveling at the kind of, the tragic, poetic majesty of this saga which is unfolding before our eyes, with you know, half of all vertebrate mammals dying since 1970, collapse of insect ecosystems, etc. 

But my own feeling is that for a very long time, climate journalism in particular, but climate advocacy as well, was so narrowly targeted in how it messaged, that very few people really got the full picture of the story. They were not told how fast this was all happening. They were not told how universal it was. We heard so much about the sea level rise that we could’ve thought that if we didn’t live on the coast, we’d be safe. But when you know everything you know about how agricultural yields could be impacted, or the conflict impacts that we’re talking about, the economic impacts, you know that this is, you know, it’s all encompassing. And I think we also were told that it was not nearly as bad or not nearly as scary as it truly is. 

We heard a lot about this level of warming, 2 degrees, which scientists call the threshold of catastrophe, and island nations of the world call genocide. And whenever we heard about it or read about it in the newspaper, it would be scientists saying we need to do everything we can to avoid this level of warming. 

I think, practically speaking, it’s about our best-case scenario. But I think all of that messaging led us to believe that it was something more like a worst-case scenario. And that has left us, I think, really unprepared until quite recently, to respond to this crisis with the urgency that it really demands. I think the last year has changed that landscape quite a bit. The politics around climate have really moved quite a lot, and the plans being put forward in the Democratic, um, primary are one of many signs of that. This is a whole different category of seriousness than any American politicians have every proposed before. 

And yet, we’re still so far from where we need to be if we take seriously the UN’s admonition, that in order to avert catastrophic warming, we need to halve our global carbon emissions by 2030, which means, they say, a World War II scale mobilization against climate change starting this year, 2019. Now for all of the good feelings that you could have thinking about the Green New Deal, thinking about Greta, thinking about Extinction Rebellion, I think it’s clear that we’re still quite far from inputting… from implementing a World War II scale mobilization. And that’s just another argument for more activity, more urgency, more immediacy. And I think it’s also an argument for more political change. 

So, the path is clear to me. It’s through a new kind of politics, to a new kind of policy. But we need that very, very quickly, um, in order to avoid some of these truly scary, even catastrophic impacts coming in the next couple decades. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Coming up next, is my interview with journalist Kate Aronoff about how Bernie Sanders’ solution to the climate crisis works, and why it’s likely to succeed. 

I’m so happy to be joined today by my former colleague at The Intercept, Kate Aronoff, who is an incredibly important climate writer, and who has recently penned a piece about Bernie Sanders’ new climate policy.

Thank you for joining me today, Kate. 

Kate Aronoff:  Thanks for having me. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  So, the title of your piece is Bernie Sanders’ Climate Plan is More Radical Than His Opponents and More Likely to Succeed. 

So, can you start by telling me what is so radical or unique about Bernie Sanders’ plan? And how does it compare favorably to other plans that are floating around out there? 

Kate Aronoff:  Sure, yeah. Well, I mean, it’s a very long plan, so I’m not gonna pretend to be able to cover all of it. But I think there’s a couple things that really stand out. 

I think one, just the scale is so much bigger than other plans, so $16.3 trillion toward the clean energy economy is something that even stands out in a field where presidential candidates seem, I mean happily so, to be competing for how many trillions of dollars they can spend on a clean energy transition, which is a great place to be compared to where we were in 2016. So that, I mean, I think that that figure alone is certainly what’s made headlines, and that’s been seen as something that really sort of makes his plan stand out. 

The extent to which his plan was crafted sort of in conversation with groups that have been doing work on these issues for a long, long time. So, climate justice groups, environmental justice groups. Um, I think that really transforms the plan. I mean, I… I don’t think there’s another plan that mentions the Jemez Principles of Environmental Justice quite the way this does, or if at all. 

Making equity non-negotiable, I think is something that this plan does. Um, that’s a bit unique in, in other plans. And that extends not just to looking at the US itself, um, but also looking internationally. And so, um, the plan sort of gets into this idea of fair shares, which is something that particularly groups, and, and sort of delegates coming from the global south have voiced for a long, long time in places like the UNFCCC, um, United Nations Framework on Climate Change, um, talks. Accounting for the fact that the United States is a historical emitter, has gotten very rich by burning fossil fuels for a very long time. 

And so, this plan sort of attempts looking at, you know, some of the latest research on this to account for that, to say, you know, what has the US done, what is it that we sort of owe to the global community. 

Another thing that really stands out to me, as someone who has been looking at a lot of this, is the idea of public ownership as something that really has not sort of factored in. I think we see a lot of talk about investing in renewable energy, investing in solar and wind. We don’t really see a lot about who owns that, right. And so solar and wind right now is predominantly dominated by the private sector. And that leaves some gaps, right. However much, uh, investment there is, however excited, um, these companies are to invest in the clean energy future, there will, inevitably be gaps because the private sector, you know, has a certain set of motivations that public bodies don’t. 

And so, sort of drawing on the legacy of the New Deal, drawing on sort of legacy in particular of institutions like the TVA, but sort of saying, you know, the power can be run on the public interest, right. And we can have power that, you know, the whole goal of it, right, is to give people electricity. Um, and this case, make sure that that electricity is not sort of cooking the planet. 

And so really, you know, extending financing for communities to wrest control over their utilities and to make sure that they’re run really in the public interest, make sure that they’re run on renewable power. That’s something that I think is sort of unique, and actually, you know, looks a lot like proposals that we see abroad, where public ownership is not sort of as taboo as it is here in the US. 

The plan also lays out kind of a theory of change for how to get this. And so, we have seen, I think, a lot of very detailed, and I think very impressive, plans coming from across the field. But I think what, you know, really differentiates this is saying, for one, that we have clear enemies in this fight. That, you know, it’s not that we’ve all sort of landed in this place, um, by happenstance. Not that we’re all sort of collectively, individually responsible in the same way for this. Some 90 companies are responsible for two thirds of emissions in the last several decades.

And so, the fossil fuel industry is a clear enemy. Fossil fuel interests have reliably stymied action, reliably stopped progress on this front, and, this plan says, is that they are to blame, right. And, and sort of raising the possibility that they should be held accountable for lying to the public as companies like Exxon and Shell have, and really naming the fact that, altogether, there are more of us than there are of them. 

And I think that extends a lot from, you know, something we’ve seen a lot through, through the Sanders’ campaign, which is that we’re not going to win this fight particularly along climate by having the best plan, right, even if this is a very good plan, but by sort of leveraging the political power to make that necessary against, sort of, incredible, incredible odds, which is the most powerful industry this world has ever known. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  I think that’s such a really important point, the extent to which, throughout the… all the plans that are kind of being introduced by this campaign, that it’s not enough just to say what is intended, but to have a strategy, a political strategy, for getting there. 

And that’s part of what was so interesting about your piece, is that you spent some time talking about how cap and trade, which at some point was put forward as what was going to get us out of this mess, ended up falling apart because of a lack of, um, a political movement behind us… behind it, rather. 

Can you tell… explain to us a little bit what cap and trade was thought to be able to do, what it… what it means, what it meant, and why it didn’t end up panning out the way people intended? 

Kate Aronoff:  I think there are two things to consider when we talk about cap and trade. So, one, I think is the policy itself, with cap and trade. And so, on a basic level, a cap and trade system is one in which the government sets a limit on the amount of, um, whether it’s carbon dioxide or greenhouse gas emissions, where generally, that can be, you know, emitted throughout the economy. You can pick and choose which sectors are included in that. But you set that limit, and then you allocate… the government will allocate a certain number of credits to various polluting firms. If a firm falls under that cap, then they can sell their credits to another firm, and that creates this thing called a carbon market, which, you know, sparked a lot of debate around the time of cap and trade. So that’s a big part of what the policy was, and certainly kind of what most of the conversation revolved around it. 

As many journalists have pointed out, the bill that was being discussed in 2009 and 2010 was much more than that. So, there were some, you know, really sort of interesting parts of, of, you know, the house bill was called Waxman-Markey, that would have done a lot of things that I think, you know, Green New Deal proponents would be very excited about. Electric charging stations, RND, all this stuff. And so, it was this sort of wide-ranging bill, but all sort of centered around the same idea of cap and trade.

That’s the policy of what that was, and then there’s the politics behind it, which were a bit different. And so, there were a lot of groups sort of interested in getting climate policy at the time. The sort of strategy that ended up carrying the day was that, um, Republicans were the main barrier to climate action, understandably so. And what a number of cap and trade advocates thought, particularly groups like the Environmental Defense Fund, you know very, very large green organizations, and a number of Democrats thought that the way to get Republican votes was to go through the industry. And so very early on, um, entered into agreements and negotiations with members of the fossil fuel industry, big utilities, a number of Fortune 500 companies, and asked them, you know, what do you want to see from a climate bill. What, what should this look like? 

That worked for a little while. They did come up with a bill. It got through the House. What ended up staying was that the, the industry backed out as soon as they could. And not only that, but even when they were sort of on board, the companies were a part of the US Climate Action Partnership, which was one of the main groups that was pushing for this. At the same time, were a part of groups like the American Petroleum Institute, like the Chamber of Commerce, who are actively pushing against the idea that there should be climate legislation undermining the chances of that bill to get through. 

And so, this whole strategy, the idea that we have to, you know, be negotiating with corporations at this sort of, seeing bipartisanship as a virtue, getting a policy by any means necessary, that that would be the way to get climate action just didn’t work. Um, it didn’t work out. And, you know, there’s a whole other conversation about cap and trade, which is whether it would’ve done what we needed it to do. And I, I don’t want to get into that here, but I think there are big questions as to whether, even if the policy had passes, as loaded up as it was compromises, would’ve expanded offshore drilling, um, severely limited the decision-making authority of the EPA. Would that have been good for the climate? Who knows? 

Many groups at the time, like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, argue that it wouldn’t, that it actually would have been worse than nothing. In large part because it had been so watered down by the industry. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Despite this consistent reality that, uh, these compromised positions, this effort to compromise with the industry, this idea about getting Republican buy in is going to be what actually advances the net good of our progressive policies, you know, you see again and again that not come to fruition. But there are still people today who, including those who are also in this 2020 race, who still seem to see some innate value in bipartisanship, and who will still continue to downplay the extent to which industry interests, financial interest, corporate interests, um, are actively thwarting the policies that our side, you know, progressive actually want to advance, and still framing it as about good guys versus bad guys, well intentioned actors versus bad actors. And who aren’t looking, you know, very, you know, closely at the extent to which money and industry interests are moving the needle here.

So that we have Democrats as well who are from states with large, let’s say, coal or other fossil fuel interests, who also repeatedly end up on the wrong side of this issue, that can use their kind of capital D, Democrat status as a way to kind of, you know, shield themselves from broader, at least national critique. And again, including some people who are still in this race. 

So, I don’t know. Does that… does that become, you know, frustrating to you as a political matter as someone who is so knowledgeable from both the scientific and political perspective, that there are people who are still having this argument, that we shouldn’t be following the dollars, you know, that… There was this huge controversy earlier this year when some leftist that Beto O’Rourke, for instance, was taking fossil fuel money, and people acted as though it was an ad hominem attack, right. Like we were just mad at O’Rourke or, you know, hating on O’Rourke, as opposed to saying, hey, there is a fundamental conflict between people who are taking money from this industry and the ability to pass genuinely progressive legislation. 

Kate Aronoff:  Yeah. I mean, I think on a certain level, it’s just a little bit lazy not to look at that, right. Um, to see that whatever it is that Exxon Mobile or BP is saying about climate policy, they have a very different material interest in the fate of that policy, right. 

I think, you know, we saw this recently in Washington State, where in the 2018 midterm elections, BP a company which, you know, for a long time, has said that they support a carbon tax, a global carbon tax. They spent, I believe it was $13 million, fighting a very modest carbon tax in Washington State, and, you know, I think that should be proof enough, as if everything else, you know, in these, these companies’ business model weren’t, that we shouldn’t take these companies’ talking points at face value, right. 

And, and I think that extends in, in a big way, to politicians who, who, you know, have had their careers bankrolled by these same industries, right. And that, you know, you can, on the one hand, sort of, you know, see Republicans saying that they believe in climate change, that they believe the science, or, you know, whatever else there, there, you know, is popular to say at the time. They may well say that, but, um, you know, look at their voting record, look at who they’re taking money from. 

Exxon Mobile is not just giving money to politicians for fun, right. It’s like they have a real goal in mind when they make political donations. And they make political donations mostly to Republicans. The fossil fuel industry is one of the most partisan political donors out there. But they, they, you know, also give across the political spectrum because they’re trying to hedge their bets, right. 

Don’t take for granted, just very, very, you know, real material interests that corporations especially have, and, you know, don’t seek to, to, like, hinge climate policy on making it appeal to either the fossil fuel industry or it’s political arm, which, you know, at this point, is functionally the Republican party. And, and I think that, you know, we don’t have time for a sort of lowest common denominator approach, especially on climate, right. 

There is a very clear realities about what we need to do. The science is very, very clear, um, about what needs to happen, and, and sort of, you know, watering down a policy so that it gets through just isn’t enough, right. I mean, it could be, you know, as many argued cap and trade was worse than nothing. To, you know, expend all this political energy, enter into this huge fight, uh, for a policy that actually doesn’t get us where we need to be. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  I mean, I think we are in a place already now, knowing that we are in a political climate where we have people like Bernie Sanders coming out with these meaningful policies, and everyone is kind of being pressured in a way they haven’t been historically to pay serious attention to this. 

But how do you go about conveying to people the enormity of what, um, is required? So that they don’t see a, you know, $16 trillion price tag, and say, “Gosh, that’s expensive,” they say, “Gosh, that’s a real steal compared to what we would be spending to try to dig us out of the hole that we are barreling toward at breakneck speed.” 

Kate Aronoff:  Yeah. I mean I think the plan actually does this kind of well in doing exactly that, right, is to say, you know, this is how much this plan will cost, here’s how much not doing anything will cost. Or here… here’s how much only doing a quarter as much as what we need to will cost. 

Because I think it can be difficult, you know, especially for folks, you know, living in the US, and particularly if you’re not in a particularly climate vulnerable part of the US. If you’re, you know, living, you know, a life like I do, that’s fairly comfortable and, you know, insulated from climate impacts, it’s, it’s, it is, you know, can be difficult to recognize this sort of very, temperature changes and things like that, right. 

I think there are moments that can sort of jar people out of that. I live in New York. Hurricane Sandy, I think for a lot of people, was this big eye-opening moment. I think part of it, you know, is not only to say sort of how grave the situation is, which it absolutely is, but also to recognize that sort of the economy we’ve built, the economy that’s gotten us in this mess, is not doing right by a lot of people for other reasons too. 

It’s like the fossil fuel funded system that we have built is screwing over workers, uh, it’s screwing over working people kind of across the board through sort of big differences between corporate profits and wages, through, uh, you know, staggering inequality. Um, it’s only gotten worse in the last several decades, as, you know, along the same timelines that carbon emissions have been put in the air. 

Um, so to say that actually the world a Green New Deal can build is one that, you know, fixes a lot of other problems to the economy too. We need a society that’s resilient to be able to handle the kinds of changes that are already coming toward us. Um, and that requires a society that is more equal than, than the one we have now. Um, that can, you know, make more people’s lives better. 

And I think that’s kind of what the Green New Deal sort of brilliantly does, is to say, look, like, there’s other things wrong with the economy other than the fact that it runs on fossil fuels. Um, how can we sort of think about those problems too, and, and to see those two problems as really one in the same. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  What would you say to folks who have critiqued, for example, the increased role of the government in the energy sector, who look at something like the TVA, the Tennessee Valley Authority, model and say, you know what, here’s just some more Bernie socialism, and we’re not Venezuela, and I don’t like that, I’m scared. You know, what, what would you say to those folks? 

Kate Aronoff:  Energy has never been a free market. I mean in the United States or elsewhere. Like, I, and I’m, you know, myself or other socialists are not the only ones saying that. Rick Perry said that last year, that there is no free market (laughing) when it comes to energy, right. Globally, fossil fuels are subsidized by $5.1 trillion, the IMF found. 

Um, there is an enormous amount of state control, and state support, that goes into keeping the fossil fuel economy afloat, right. There was just a utility in Ohio, which pushed to be bailed out by the government in order to keep coal plants and nuclear plants running. That is not, you know, the free market in action. That is active state support for a certain type of energy. 

And so, what I would say is, it’s insane to argue there isn’t sort of government intervention in the economy right now, particularly with regards to energy, which is, you know, one of the most regulated sectors. Regulated, sort of badly, in favor of the fossil fuel economy. And what I would say is that, you know, we need to sort of shift the priorities that right now are embedded into our energy system. Um, to shift it away from fossil fuels, to incentivize, incentivize renewable energy, to invest directly, and make public investments in renewable energy. To give tax breaks, you know, in the way that we give tax breaks to the fossil fuel industry year after year after year. 

There’s plenty of quote unquote sort of market mechanisms and market signals that are embedded in the Green New Deal. And it, it says, you know, we should not be afraid of public ownership, of, you know, things like the TVA, extending that very successful model, of getting affordable power to the big parts of the country that wouldn’t have it otherwise. And to, you know, really just see that as where we’re headed. 

Particularly, as coal is actively being out competed by things like natural gas, as even oil companies are sort of fretting right now about their profits. We have an energy system which is, is bound up with all, all kinds of state support. Let’s redirect that. Let’s, like, actually make this, this work, you know, toward the future, and toward a healthier world. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Well I’m convinced, Kate. But what do say to folks that say, “Sure, it sounds good. Like, I don’t want that planet to implode. But this will never work. This isn’t going anywhere. Um, the plan is too big and too ambitious.” 

In your, the title of your article you say, “because it’s so ambitious, it’s more likely to succeed.” What do you mean by that? 

Kate Aronoff:  I think what the plan does really well, what the Green New Deal does really well is to make the case that, you know, it’s not just that we need to take this on, not that just we need to solve this very dire problem, but that in the course of taking on this problem, people’s lives can get better. That we can, you know, really sort of improve living standards across the board. 

And so, in doing that, I think it really reframes something that has plagued environmentalism for a long time, which is this idea that we needed sacrifice in order to solve this, right. And not everybody needs to give something up. Everybody needs to sort of tighten their belts and, and, and… basically austerity politics, for lack of a better word, right. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Right. Give up, give up our straws, and that’s gonna get us there. 

Kate Aronoff:  Yeah. We give up our straws and recycle more. If everyone, you know, eats more organic salads, or something like that, that’ll solve the problem. 

And I think, you know, what, what Sanders, what I think folks of the Sunrise Movement have emphasized, what Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has emphasized is that a couple people need to sacrifice, right. That, uh, you know, fossil fuel executives certainly cannot live their lives if you own a private jet. That’s something that will become problematic in the course of dealing with the climate crisis. But that, you know, for most people, we are simply not consuming enough in order to be the problem, right, in the way that fossil fuel executives are. 

And, that’s not to say that parts of our lifestyle won’t change. That’s not to say that, you know, you shouldn’t be eating less meat, you shouldn’t be flying as much as we do. Um, but there are big societal factors which keep people from making those choices, right. And that we just don’t live in a society right now that really sets people up to live low carbon lives. 

That is for any number of reasons. You can get into, sort of, a 300, 400, 500-year history of capitalism to tell you why that’s the case. But it’s all to say that, uh, you know, we need to build a society in which that is possible for many, many people. Whether that’s, you know, investing in meat alternatives, um, through a Green New Deal. Whether that’s in, you know, making a high-speed rail and building out that network so that people don’t need to fly as much or drive as much, making public transit accessible, making housing more efficient and affordable for more people. 

That, you know, the Green New Deal, and I think Bernie Sanders’ plan sort of articulates this really well, it’s about investment. It’s about investing to make that kind of world possible, which is, you know, I think a happier world overall. 

Briahna Joy Gray:  Bernie often encourages us to recall that in a country much less wealthy and technologically sophisticated than the one we live in today, FDR transformed the American economy for the better in just a few short years. 

Thanks to the New Deal, seniors can rely on at least some material support in their later years. We don’t have to worry about our local bank collapsing and taking our life savings with it. Federal agencies like the National Labor Relations Board and the SEC provide some protection from greedy employers and Wall Street firms. Somehow, it feels like older generations responded to the challenges of their time not with, “how can pay for this,” but rather, “how can we make this happen?” And very often, they did.

Here’s the thing, though. Americans didn’t just randomly become pessimistic about the government’s capacity to solve problems. There has been a concerted effort to convince us that there’s nothing the government can do that private enterprise cannot do better. It’s a tragedy really that climate change, the greatest collective action problem humanity has ever faced, comes at the tail end of a 40-year campaign to convince us that we cannot solve problems together. 

That is why Bernie’s campaign is so truly revolutionary. Not because he wants us to replace capitalism with some Soviet-style bureaucracy, as some on the right seem to believe, but because for the first time in generations, someone is standing up and saying, “Yes, together, we can tackle these problems. Yes, we are up to the enormous tasks that lie before us.” 

Take a step back. We have all the information we need about climate change. We know for a fact that our current course will end in disaster for billions of people. As David said, everyone’s life will be affected, from the farmer facing droughts and floods, to the homeowner facing storms and fires. 

Earlier this year, the UN warned that climate change threatened our very food supply. We understand the problem. We know what needs to be done. And, yes, we have the means to do it. We don’t have a lot of time, but we do have time. 

What stands in our way are a handful of very powerful people and institutions that benefit from the status quo. It’s not going to be easy. But never forget, there are a hell of a lot more of us than there are of them. We can do this. 

That’s it for this week. Let us know what you think at [email protected]. Or send us a tweet with the hashtag #hearthebern. 

If you haven’t already, please take a moment to rate, review, or like us on Apple Podcasts, SoundCloud, YouTube, or wherever you’re listening. Transcripts will be up soon. 

Till next time.