The massive scope and cost of Bernie Sanders’ new “Green New Deal” plan to confront climate change encapsulates both the potential appeal and limits of the Vermont senator’s uncompromising presidential campaign.
The $16.3 trillion, 10-year climate plan he released last week envisions a rapid and comprehensive transformation of a key economic sector – in this case both the auto and utility industries – through a huge increase in federal authority and spending.
When combined with “Medicare for All” and other proposals Sanders has already released, his climate proposal would temporarily push federal spending, as a share of the economy, to a level matched in the past century only at the height of World War II. And it would reshape daily life for virtually all Americans by banning the sale of vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine – which account for nearly all vehicles on the road – in little over a decade.
Sanders is betting that voters will find a vision of such transformative change inspiring, especially when aimed at the mounting threat of global climate disruption. Many climate activists have cheered his proposal as the first blueprint fully commensurate with the challenge. After Sanders released the plan, the prominent climate activist Bill McKibben tweeted that his blueprint “is remarkable – it shows what simply must be done to meet the challenge physics has laid out.”
But even some who agree with Sanders’ goals believe that many will find the notion of such seismic change intimidating and unrealistic. Rather than catalyzing Americans to action, these critics worry that proposals like Sanders’ will paralyze them by making the climate challenge look too big to confront without unacceptable disruption to daily life.
Paul Starr, a Princeton University sociologist and co-founder of The American Prospect, a leading liberal magazine, is one of those who think Sanders’ proposal may set back the cause of climate action.
“This is not what the country needs or is likely to support,” he says. “On the climate issue, the first job of Democrats is to convince people that they have an achievable and realistic plan. The Sanders proposal won’t do that.”
Either way, analysts at both ends of the ideological spectrum agree that Sanders’ ambitions, when viewed in full, would shift responsibility and authority from the private to public sector at a level that would reconfigure the US into something much closer to a European social democracy.
“The Sanders climate plan is similar to his Medicare for All proposal,” said Starr. “He’s more of a socialist in the old-fashioned, central-planning sense than many people have realized.”
Jeff Weaver, a senior adviser to the Sanders campaign, counters that the savings to Americans from fewer out-of-pocket health care expenses, reduced electricity rates and lower costs for driving as the automotive fleet shifts toward electric vehicles, will offset any increased taxes they could face to implement Sanders’ plans.
“Overall people will be paying less,” Weaver says. And that, he insists, is even before accounting for the damage that will come from failing to address climate change. “All of the economic and personal harm that is going to come from climate change is going to outweigh the cost of doing something about it,” he says.
Focusing on remaking the power grid and transportation
Like the congressional Green New Deal championed by freshman Democratic New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Sanders’ climate plan sets a wide range of goals only tangentially (at most) related to the climate crisis, such as promoting unions, constructing affordable housing and rebuilding roads and water systems.
But two interlocked mandates provide the plan’s environmental core. Sanders would require all electrical power to be generated from renewable fuel sources, such as solar and wind, by 2030. By that same year, he would ban the sale of new vehicles powered by the internal combustion engine and allow only the manufacture and purchase of zero-emission cars and trucks, principally electric vehicles. This mandate would apply not only to cars and light trucks, but also to buses and long-distance heavy trucks. Sanders aides say he has not set a deadline to require the removal of all internal combustion cars from the road, but the plan budgets about $3 trillion in spending to encourage consumers to trade in their existing cars for new electric vehicles.
These are, to put it mildly, extremely ambitious goals.
All renewable energy sources now account for only about one-sixth of total US electricity generation, according to federal statistics. That includes wind and hydropower, both at around 7%, and solar, now at about 1.6%.
Twenty-nine states have established binding goals for increasing the share of renewable power in their electricity mix. As renewable energy’s cost has fallen, a procession of Democratic-leaning states in recent years have set the goal of generating all of their power from renewable sources. But none is trying to do it as fast as Sanders would mandate. California, Hawaii, Washington and New Mexico have all established a 2045 deadline for relying entirely on renewables. New York is aiming for 2040, Maine and Nevada for 2050. Maryland is seeking 50% by 2030 and studying 2040 for 100%. Colorado’s newly elected Democratic Gov. Jared Polis is also pushing for a completely renewable power system by 2040.
For zero-emission electric vehicles, Sanders envisions even more of a great leap forward. Electric vehicles account for 1.4% of the new cars and trucks sold in the current model year, according to data provided by the market research firm IHS Markit. That’s a solid increase from a little more than half of 1% as recently as 2017, and IHS Markit projects that electric vehicles will increase their share of the total market to about 7% in 2025. But the firm calculates that all of the electric vehicles now on the road account for only one-fifth of 1% of America’s total vehicle fleet. That’s about 661,000 electric vehicles out of 275.4 million total vehicles in circulation.
Even the most ambitious local goals don’t envision change in the transportation fleet at Sanders’ pace. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, for instance, has put forward his own local “green new deal.” He has required that all city buses be electrified by 2030. But for passenger cars, where electric vehicles now account for 5% of the local market, he calls for an increase to 80% by 2035 and 100% not until 2050.
Is 2030 too soon?
Given the distance between the current landscape and the mandates that Sanders would establish, environmentalists are divided on whether these are realistic goals. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who received widespread praise for highlighting the climate issue after he quit the Democratic presidential race last week, would have also required new cars to electrify by 2030, though he would have given the utility sector until 2035 to completely transition to renewable sources.
Carl Pope, a former long-time executive director of the Sierra Club who now consults for foundations on climate issues, believes that technologically Sanders’ goals are largely achievable on both the power generation and transportation fronts. “I don’t think any part of it is particularly hard,” he says.
Pope says states haven’t set a 2030 goal for completely relying on renewable electricity largely because they are uncertain they can build the transmission capacity to ship power to population centers from the generally remote areas where wind and solar is produced. But Sanders plan, he notes, envisions investing over $500 billion to massively expand and modernize the nation’s electrical grid. Reaching 100% renewable power by 2030 might be prohibitively expensive, Pope says, but it would be possible to come close to that without big cost increases or significant disruptions in the system’s reliability.
“My goal would be to move as fast as possible without raising consumer electricity costs,” he says. “They are the right goals, but for 2035 say. We are not talking about a big difference.”
Dan Becker, another long-time environmentalist who focuses on clean air and automotive fuel economy issues, likewise believes it is technologically plausible to require the sale solely of electric vehicles by 2030. “The technology is auto mechanics, not rocket science,” he says.
But he worries that it is unrealistic to believe that government can tell Americans by then that they can’t purchase any other kind of vehicle. “I doubt that anyone hates SUVs as much as I do and even I am not advocating banning sales,” says Becker, director of the Safe Climate Campaign. “So in theory, yes, that could work. But it can’t happen…in this country.”
Other prominent environmentalists I spoke with are even more skeptical of Sanders’ plan and its aggressive deadlines. Without exception these critics did not want to be identified by name because they did not want to engage in a public spat with the Sanders campaign and in particular his legions of combative defenders on social media.
But these people see an array of problems with the Sanders plan. One is that it could threaten the reliability of power by banning not only power generated from fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, but also nuclear power. Those fuels provide the so-called baseload power available at all times; the availability or renewable sources like solar and wind vary depending on the time of day or time of year.
Advocates of the Sanders plan believe that renewables could provide baseload power by 2030 both through advances in storage and also by im