Comparing Biden and Bernie’s Climate Policies

March 5, 2020

Technology Review:

The Super Tuesday primaries all but narrowed the Democratic presidential field to a two-person race, inflaming a heated battle between the party’s moderate and progressive wings.

The differences are particularly stark on the issue of climate change, where the front-runners—former vice president Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders—have sharply contrasting visions of what’s required and achievable. 

Biden has strived to claim the “middle ground” on the issue from the start, hoping to win over environmentalists as well as blue-collar workers, as Reuters first noted. In a nod to the left, his climate plan adopted (or perhaps co-opted) some of the populist language of the Green New Deal, which he name-checked as a “crucial framework.” But his time lines for cutting greenhouse-gas emissions are far looser than the ones Sanders is calling for, stating only that the economy as a whole should reach “net zero” emissions by 2050. And he’s proposing about a tenth of the amount of federal spending, at $1.7 trillion over 10 years compared with more than $16 trillion.

Biden also wants to use a broader mix of tools in the transition, including developing advanced nuclear power plant, and technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel plants.

Meanwhile, Sanders wants all of the nation’s power sector and ground transportation to run on renewable sources like wind and solar within 10 years. He rejects carbon capture because it could extend our reliance on fossil fuels, and he wants to prevent new nuclear power plants and begin shutting down existing ones. The senator also intends to ban fracking, end the import and export of oil and gas, and launch civil if not criminal legal investigations into the fossil-fuel industry. (See our full analysis of Sanders’s climate plan here.)

Like most candidates in the field, Biden pledged to rejoin the Paris agreement, and work with world leaders to boost goals for emissions cuts. In addition, he says he’ll push to end fossil-fuel subsidies worldwide.

Also like others, he’s betting big on the promise of innovation, pledging to spend $400 billion over 10 years and create a new agency, ARPA-C, to accelerate research on small modular nuclear reactors, carbon capture, grid-scale energy storage, and lower-emissions methods for producing steel, cement, hydrogen, and food.

Here are Biden’s positions on other key energy issues:

Electricity: Unlike most of his Democratic rivals, Biden didn’t announce a target date for eliminating emissions from the electricity sector. He only says that all sectors should be carbon free by midcentury, and that he intends to enact legislation in his first year that will create “an enforcement mechanism” with “milestone targets” by 2025.

Vehicles: Biden’s transportation plans are also light on deadlines and funding commitments. But he wants to accelerate the shift to cleaner cars and trucks by restoring tax credits for electric vehicles, building out half a million charging stations around the nation, and enacting stricter vehicle mileage standards. He also wants to find ways to encourage the development of sustainable fuels for aircraft, reduce urban sprawl, and increase public transit and high-speed rail systems.

Carbon price: Biden’s campaign told the Washington Post he supports setting a price on carbon, either through a tax or a cap-and-trade program.

Fracking: Unlike both Sanders and Warren, Biden isn’t calling for a ban on fracking, a drilling method widely used for natural-gas and oil extraction. He does support “aggressive methane pollution limits” and other tighter regulations on the sector.

Nuclear: See above.

Feasibility and risks: By staking out a middle position on climate issues, Biden may be appealing to a broader coalition, including labor unions, which could be key for building necessary political support.

Inside Climate News:

Tropical Storm Irene, which in 2011 caused the deaths of six people in Vermont, forced thousands from their homes, and washed away hundreds of bridges and miles of roads, was a wake-up call for a state where Sen. Bernie Sanders is a thoroughly established favorite son. “No one thought a northern state like Vermont would be hit by such a strong tropical storm,” Sanders said.

Sanders often says he introduced “the most comprehensiveclimate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.” It was a carbon tax-and-dividend bill and accompanying clean energy bill co-sponsored with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) in 2013. The bills were dead on arrival, but they marked an important shift in the Democratic drive for climate action—a pivot away from the cap-and-trade approach that had foundered, and toward carbon taxation.

Sanders’ biggest legislative climate accomplishment was a national energy efficiency grant program he introduced his first year in the Senate. It passed in 2007. He successfully pushed for $3.2 billion for the program to be included in the Obama administration’s 2009 economic recovery package. The grants were the largest investment in energy efficiency and renewable energy at the community level in U.S. history.

  • The sweeping energy and social transformation known as the Green New Deal is central to the Sanders campaign, and he has left more fingerprints on it than any of the other senators running for president who co-sponsored it. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who propelled it into the center ring in Washington, got her electoral start working for Sanders in his 2016 campaign. And with its emphasis on social justice, working class jobs, health care and spending without regard to revenue sources, it echoes the ideas of Sanders’ long-time economic adviser, Stephanie Kelton.
  • On Aug. 22, Sanders announced the most ambitious climate plan yet among the candidates. It promises to declare climate change a national emergency and put the Green New Deal into action by investing $16.3 trillion in a 10-year mobilization “that factors climate change into virtually every area of policy.” That dollar figure is far higher than what other candidates are proposing.
  • His mobilization includes creating 20 million new jobs in clean energy, energy efficiency and technology; transforming the agriculture system for more sustainable farming and breaking up big agribusinesses; and getting to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030 and complete decarbonization by 2050. In doing so, he focuses heavily on environmental justice and equity.  
  • To pay for it, Sanders says he would eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, cut back military spending related to oil, increase penalties for power plant emissions, and “massively” raise taxes on fossil fuel income and wealth, among other steps. His plan doesn’t specifically mention a carbon tax, though Sanders has long advocated an aggressive carbon tax, and one was included in the Democratic Party platform in 2016 at his campaign’s behest. He also relies on expected new tax income from the jobs created and a drop in social safety net costs if more people are working and mentions “making the wealthy and large corporations pay their fair share.”
  • Sanders’ consistent climate change message can be summed up in a few words: it’s real, it’s here, we caused it, and we need to shift the whole economy away from fossil fuels. So he supports nationwide bans on fracking, on new fossil fuel infrastructure, and on fossil fuel leases on public lands. He supports high speed rail, electric vehicles and public transit. He has called for phasing out nuclear energy, and he supports spending money to adapt to climate change, such as defenses against wildfires, floods, drought and hurricanes.
  • Having built his last campaign on small individual donations, Sanders was the first presidential candidate to sign the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge launched by climate and justice groups in 2016.

Our Take

Sanders, with his open defense of democratic socialism, defines the leftist boundary of presidential politics while also staking out a populist territory that resonated well in 2016. His explicit aim is  to “keep oil, gas and coal in the ground.” Although his signature campaign proposals (Medicare-for-All, raising the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour) aren’t about climate, the Green New Deal allows Sanders to use climate action as a vehicle for his economic and social justice aims. His proposal for a federal jobs guarantee would be tied to the need for workers to build infrastructure to aid in a clean energy transition as well as to help communities with restoration and resilience. Whether or not he emerges as the nominee, his base of voters, and his ideas, will deeply influence the 2020 campaign.

14 Responses to “Comparing Biden and Bernie’s Climate Policies”

  1. ecoquant Says:

    Facts are, neither candidates plans are adequate. They are good only in contrast to the utter incompetence of the incumbent President.

    A rapid path forward will require a broad coalition both internationally and in the United States, and this coalition will need talents and help from many sectors, including corporations and, in some cases, fossil fuel companies.

    Still, by compromising enough to build such a coalition, any plans attached to it will be less stringent, less hurtful to the economy, and thus emit more greenhouse gas emissions over its lifetimes. It is thus inevitable it will help the planet miss key climate targets.

    A stringent, ideologically based plan based upon the premise that corporations cannot be trusted will alienate important sources of capital and skill, especially engineering skill, and is also likely to be a big hit to the economy of the United States, something which will make it unpopular and, to the degree it preserves jobs and commerce, won’t meet the demands of do it yesterday climate activists.

    The net effect of being zealous and ideological will be to help the planet miss key climate targets.

    The transition to zero emissions wherever possible (difficult for agriculture and flying) will take quite some time. Fossil fuels need to be stop being extracted and processed, but the glide path without a deep worldwide recession is going to be much longer than 2050.

    What needs to be done is to try as hard as can be managed, and, concurrently, invest heavily in negative Carbon emissions technology to learn how to scale that up and how to do it more cheaply than today’s prohibitive prices. If these were available, an undershoot of targets could be compensated by deploying these and letting them operate for the needed 2-3 centuries. This will not be as good as not emitting in the first place, and it will not reverse some climate disruption and its damage, including loss of all coastal cities and property within 2 centuries. But it provides an option given how late it is and reluctance to precipitate a deep global recession.

    • Gingerbaker Says:

      “The net effect of being zealous and ideological will be to help the planet miss key climate targets”

      That Sanders is an ideological zealot who will hurt any effort is meme pounded into your brain by MSNBC and other establishment media.

      It’s everywhere. It’s bullshit.

      • ecoquant Says:

        Case in point: Sanders refuses to consider negative Carbon emissions technology, funding, or deployments. A reasonable person would listen to the scientific advice.

        Sanders and company has rejected it before doing so.

        I do not know if that qualifies as being “a zealot” or not.

        It is no less ideological than the claim “corporations can’t be trusted; that’s completely reality-based” (not yours, @J4Zonian). As a class, corporations are doing more to reduce greenhouse gas emissions than countries are. They are doing that along with cities. See the summary, one which recently passed peer review (see Table 1 of ite online supplement).

        You guys sound like Trump.

        • J4Zonian Says:

          Corporations and the rich run the US and most of the world through application of incredible, never-before seen amounts of money and the power that comes with it; lobbying; manipulation of democracies, dictatorships (which they’re often identical with; witness Russia, eg.) and whatever the hell we have in the US. They’ve used and continue to use massively lying corporate media, which are also corporations, btw. For more than half a century, Koch, Exxon, BP, ALEC, US Chamber of Commerce, the Mercers, Donors Trust, Donors Capital, the rail industry, Microsoft, Koch Industries, Altria (parent company of Philip Morris) RJR Tobacco, and many others have collaborated with other tobacco and other corporations, law firms, a jackalpack of alphabet PR firms masquerading as think tanks, and right wing politicians to devise and use the techniques of fomenting doubt.



          Exxon, for example, did a lot of the original research on climate change, then stopped researching and started lying about it. They’ve repeatedly said they stopped funding denial while they kept on doing it. Exxon’s behavior is well-documented, including on this site.

          “As Brad Johnson reported today at ThinkProgress, (2012) confirmation that Heartland is working with David Wojick, a U.S. Energy Department contract worker and coal industry consultant, to develop a ‘Global Warming Curriculum for K-12 Schools.’ ”


          Big tech corporations have recently started making a big deal out of beginning to power themselves with clean safe renewable energy, after decades of doing less than nothing and monstrously expanding humanity’s energy and GHG footprint.

          “Google, Facebook, and Microsoft Sponsored a Conference That Promoted Climate Change Denial”

          The latest thing is for fossil fuel corporations to say they’re going zero-emissions, a ludicrous thing they can actually do only by shutting down and doing nothing but tree planting and organic permaculture for several hundred years.

          Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway
          Republican War on Science, Chris Mooney

      • rhymeswithgoalie Says:

        That Sanders is an ideological zealot who will hurt any effort is meme pounded into your brain by MSNBC and other establishment media.

        Amen. For one thing, American people (including blue collar people who are realistic about the manufacturing sector), are for the components of the Green New Deal*. Bernie is a threat to both established lobbying industries and (to a lesser extent), the well-paid opinion-spouters on cable news shows.
        *Many may still be against the “Green New Deal” while being for the actual implementation, just as many who were against “Obamacare” while being for the ACA.

  2. J4Zonian Says:

    I’m with you on the general thrust there, but there’s nothing ideological about understanding that corporations can’t be trusted; that’s completely reality-based. The corporations involved have spent billions lying to the public, buying government, destroying unions, bilking hundreds of millions of people out of hundreds of billions of dollars, and trying to end civilization and nature. So sure, what’s not to trust? We know exactly what they’re up to, and how much to pay attention to what they say.

    Because the overwhelming majority of ecological activists are attuned to reality better than almost anyone else, they simply want nations, leaders, corporations, and the public to get on with the only program that will avoid catastrophic climate change and preserve as much of civilization and nature as we can hope for at this point:

    A massive, comprehensive, radical, immediate, emergency Green New Deal. We know what we need to do. While it will be practical to bring as many of the recalcitrant unaware along as we can, we know what we need to do and must do whatever it takes to do it. There is no decision to be made about it. If the rest of them can make it back to reality, great. If not, fuck em. We’ll try to find resources to get their mental illness treated somewhere along the way.

  3. gmrmt Says:

    Put the most extreme, “balls-to-the-wall” climate action plan on the left end of the scale and the Trump “ignore it” plan on the right. The “middle ground is between the left end and “survival”.
    “Survival” is a lot closer to the left end of the scale than a lot of people are willing to admit.

  4. dumboldguy Says:

    Candidate positions on the climate change issue are meaningless. The ONLY thing that matters is getting Trump out of the WH and as many Repugnants out of elected office as possible, and climate change is not very high on the list of voter concerns.
    Once that house-cleaning is accomplished, we can go back to arguing about how slowly we should go on addressing climate change—-too slow or WAY too slow.

  5. rhymeswithgoalie Says:

    Biden also wants to use a broader mix of tools in the transition, including … technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from fossil-fuel plants.

    It’s more efficient to develop technologies that can displace fossil-fuel plants.

    Also, we gotta get rid of that Ethanol Mandate used to bribe Iowa Caucus voters.

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