Bernie Sanders releases climate plan, continuing one-party debate

While Democratic contenders for the White House continue an energetic debate on climate change, it is unlikely to factor heavily into the general election.

Jacquelyn Martin/AP
Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders, (I) of Vermont listens during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, Dec. 3, to discuss gun control and related amendments to the reconciliation bill.

On Monday, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders became the third Democratic presidential nominee to roll out a climate change plan, tying the issue to several broader themes in his campaign, including economic inequality and money in politics, in a bid to separate himself from his Democratic rivals.

Specifically, Senator Sanders vows in his 16-page proposal to cut US carbon emissions by 40 percent by 2030, create a carbon tax, repeal fossil fuel subsidies, and invest in clean energy technology as a means to both create jobs and create a "100 percent clean energy system."

While his plan is ambitious – and some may say politically impossible, at least on certain issues – it’s not dramatically different from plans laid out by his Democratic rivals, former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. And with polls suggesting that climate policy is much more important to Democratic voters than Republicans, it underscores the fact that while climate policy will be an important issue in the Democratic primary, it is unlikely to be one in the general election.

Mr. O'Malley was the first to release a climate plan, back in June. His plan proposes making the country powered 100 percent by renewable energy by 2050, banning offshore drilling, and increasing energy efficiency and climate resiliency in the nation’s infrastructure. 

Mrs. Clinton responded with her own plan a month later, underscored by two national goals: to have half-a-billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of her first term, and to have the United States generate enough renewable energy to power every home in the country within 10 years.

In his pledge to put "people before the profits of polluters," Sanders is also tying climate policy to broader issues in his campaign: namely income inequality and corporate money in politics.

In his proposal he says he would "ban fossil fuels lobbyists from working in the White House," noting that oil companies, coal companies, and electric utilities spent $2.26 billion in federal lobbying since 2009 and contributed $330 million to federal campaigns in that period. Citing the impacts of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans’ African-American population, he has also called for a climate plan "that recognizes the heightened public health risks faced by low-income and minority communities."

Several of his proposals are political nonstarters, however. A carbon tax, as noted by Bloomberg, combines everything conservatives are least likely to vote for: a new tax, a more intrusive government, and less coal. His efforts in the Senate to overturn the US Supreme Court's Citizens United decision – which he tied to his climate plan Monday – have been blocked by Senate Republicans.

Instead, Sanders' climate plan is more an issue for the Democratic primary than it would be the general election in 2016. While 76 percent of Americans now believe climate change is occurring, according to a recent University of Texas poll, it will likely be overshadowed by other issues in the general election, such as the economy, immigration, and national security.

"If you ask people if they think climate change is an important issue they’ll say yes, but if you think of it comparatively to other important issues it kind of falls to the wayside," Geoffrey Skelley, a spokesman for the University of Virginia's Center for Politics, told The Christian Science Monitor last week.

And while even most Republican candidates say they believe climate change is happening – though some question whether humans are responsible for it, and whether it’s that urgent an issue – they will likely give it the same level of attention it is receiving from voters in the polls. In other words, not very much.

"It will be something Democratic candidates want to talk about," said Amy Harder, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, at a panel in September. "But it continues to rank low on a list of priorities that voters care about, and I think Republicans will see that."

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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