The importance of Bernie Sanders saying the dreaded words “carbon tax”

Bernie Sanders is now campaigning for an agenda, rather than the presidency of the US. How do I know? He has started mentioning the words “carbon tax” in his stump speeches. Before he would say that “we need to transform our energy system” and use other euphemisms, but now he is willing to say the dreaded words that no other US politician would dare mention, because he now has no chance of getting the Democratic nomination (except if Hillary is indicted in the next 5 weeks). Now he is fighting for an agenda, so he can say what he thinks. His goal is to raise issues and get America talking about what others deem politically impossible.

The politically impossible only becomes possible when people are willing to talk about a verboten idea and mobilize around it. Kudos to Sanders for trying to insert the idea of a carbon tax in the American public sphere.

In order to leave 80% of the hydrocarbons in the ground, we have to put a price on carbon, so that there is an economic incentive to reduce consumption of hydrocarbons and change to alternative energy as fast as possible. The other essential step is designating certain oil, gas and coal reserves as untouchable. Bernie Sanders has introduced carbon fee-and-dividend legislation in 2013 (with Barbara Boxer) and again in November 2015. He also introduced the Keep It in the Ground Act in November 2015 to stop granting permits to extract hydrocarbons on federal lands and ban future deep water drilling and Arctic drilling. The American press has so little interest in covering the issues rather than the horse race, that he was not even asked about these proposed bills on the campaign trail, just like he was not asked about his bill to lower prescription drug prices or his bill to ban private federal prisons.

The press has done such a lackluster job of covering the Sanders’ campaign that it didn’t even bother picking up on this significant change in Sanders’ language (at least I haven’t seen a single article mentioning it). Sanders certainly knows how to phrase his proposals in the most palatable ways when he wants to, but he decided to use the blunt words “carbon tax” rather than sugar-coat the idea as a “carbon fee and dividend” or “a plan to transition to clean energy.”

What is surprising is that many people in the crowd cheered when he said the dreaded words “carbon tax” during a recent stump speech in Bloomington, Indiana. He was speaking in a state which is hardly a bastion of environmental awareness. Over 80% of Indiana’s electricity comes from burning coal, yet that crowd of Hoosiers didn’t boo a proposal to raise their light bills. Admittedly, Sanders was speaking to a younger and more progressive crowd at Indiana University, so they are less likely to reject the science of climate change than most Hoosiers, but Sanders is demonstrating once again that the public is more ready to hear blunt truths than the political pundits believe. We are never going to be able to confront climate change if we aren’t able to speak openly and honestly about the policies which are needed to address the problem.

It is telling that the only senator to defy the Clinton political machine and endorse Bernie Sanders is Jeff Merkley from Oregon, who was one of the cosponsors of the Leave It in the Ground Act. When Merkley endorsed Sanders in a New York Times editorial, he wrote:

He has passionately advocated for pivoting from fossil fuels to renewable energy to save our planet from global warming — the greatest threat facing humanity. He recognizes that to accomplish this we must keep the vast bulk of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground.

At this point, Sanders’ campaign is now a fight for the future of the Democratic Party. Will it be a party of corporatist triangulation or a party of the people that has the freedom to fight for progressive causes because it eschews corporate money?

Hillary’s campaign has pocketed 4.6 million dollars from the fossil fuel industry, which limits its scope of action on climate change. Hillary’s clean energy plan calls for installed solar panels in the US to grow from 25.6 GW in 2015 to 140 GW in 2020, which means roughly 12% of the 1,173 GW in current total electrical capacity would come from solar in 2020. (…/Hillary_Clinton_Climate_Ch…,

This amount of solar energy appears impressive until one realizes that it means an annual growth rate of 41% in solar installation, which is in line with the historical growth rate of 39.4% per year between 2011 and 2015. (…/solar-market-insight-2015-q4) Hillary’s energy plan calls for a “Fight to extend federal clean energy incentives and make them more cost effective both for taxpayers and clean energy producers.” In other words, it will simply continue the current incentives into the future, but work on removing the current barriers preventing solar panel installation.

Current energy policy will generate 16% of electricity from renewables by 2027. Obama’s Clean Power Plan would increase that percentage to 25%, whereas Hillary’s plan would bring it to 33%. In other words, Hillary plans an additional 8% increase in renewables in a sector which only represents 36% of total US energy usage. This is hardly adequate to address the scale of the climate crisis. However, Hillary’s energy plan has the virtue of not effecting the bottom line of the fossil fuel industry which helps funds her campaign and has given numerous donations to her Foundation. When considering the fact that Hillary went around the world promoting fracking and was “inclined” to approve the Keystone XL pipeline when Secretary of State, it is no surprise that she currently doesn’t support any mechanism to put a price on carbon, either through carbon trading or a tax. Perhaps the $1,641,000 in personal speaking fees which she received from two Canadian banks invested in the Keystone XL pipeline explains her lack of enthusiasm for climate plans that confront the fossil fuel industry.

In contrast, Bernie Sanders was the first US politician to publicly denounce the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. He calls for bans on fracking, mountaintop removal and the export of gas and oil. Plus, he proposes to increase the federal fuel efficiency standard to 65 mph by 2025, in order to decrease domestic oil consumption. His proposed carbon fee-and-dividend legislation would cause a 30% reduction in US carbon emissions in a decade. (…/accelerate-a-just-transition-a…/)

What experience around the world shows is that investment in renewable energy as Hillary plans will not cause a significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions since it isn’t coupled with either a rising price on carbon or restrictions on the extraction of hydrocarbons. For example, despite the fact that Germany has invested heavily in clean energy and now gets 20% of its electricity from solar, its greenhouse gas emissions have only reduced slightly, because it has not placed any restrictions on its coal industry. In contrast, British Colombia has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by placing a price on carbon, despite the fact that its energy source which is almost 100% hydroelectric did not change. Under a carbon fee-and-dividend which raised the price of CO2 from CA$10 per tonne in 2008 to CA$30 per tonne in 2012, British Colombia reduced its emissions 6.1% over a 5 year period, whereas Canada as a whole increased its emissions 3.5% over the same period. (…/british-columbias-carbon-tax-by…/)

At this point, the world is headed toward a future which is 2.7 – 3.7 degrees Celsius hotter than preindustrial levels by the end of the century, according to the pledges from the nations at the COP 21 negotiations in Paris. The implementation of a carbon fee-and-dividend in the US could literally mean the difference of a couple degrees of climate change, which means the difference between life and death for millions of people in the future.

Currently, the US is the linchpin holding back the global climate negotiations. In COP after COP, the US has been the global leader in preventing meaningful action on climate change. If the US doesn’t act, it is very unlikely that China, India, Brazil, South Africa and most of the rest of the developing world will feel compelled to aggressively curb their own emissions. Since the developing nations now emit 57% more CO2 than the developed world, the US as the leading historical emitter of greenhouse gases needs to send a strong signal and act as a model for the rest of the world. Currently, there is no hope of staying under 2 degrees of climate change, but if the US doesn’t act boldly, we are probably condemning the world to more than 4 degrees of climate change, especially when the long-term feedback loops come into play.

Bernie Sanders clearly sees the crux of the problem. When he introduced his two bills to tackle climate change in November 2015, he stated in a campaign video:

In my view, it is imperative that we not only talk the talk, but we walk the walk, that the US leads the world in combating climate change — and that is leading and moving aggressively away from fossil fuel to energies which are clean and sustainable. Now, my hope is … that we are prepared to stand up to the fossil fuel industry, that we are prepared to tell them whether they like it or not, their short term profits are less important than the planet that we will leave to future generations.

In other words, we can’t solve climate change unless the US takes a leading role in demonstrating its commitment to solve the problem, and the only way to do that is directly confront ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Peabody, Koch Industries and all the rest of the fossil fuel companies.

We have a clear choice regarding the climate. On the one hand is a triangulating politician who says pretty words, but is so tied to corporate interests that she has no intention to taking any meaningful action to solve the problem. On the other hand, we have a politician who is fearlessly calling for the painful measures which are needed to tackle climate change. The Sanders’ campaign more than anything is now a social movement to reshape the Democratic Party into a mobilized and popular force capable of taking on wealthy interests, like the fossil fuel industry. Nobody thinks it will be an easy fight, but it is the fight which must be undertaken if there is any hope for the future.


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