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Bernie Sanders Has Already Changed the Climate Debate

From his critique of the Paris Agreement last December to his ongoing, insurgent crusade against fracking, Sanders has brought serious climate activism into the mainstream.

By Lucia Graves


Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign event at Drake University on June 12, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On a gray Saturday last December, while world leaders were celebrating the adoption of the Paris Agreement, Bernie Sanders had already issued a withering critique that echoed some of the more outspoken members of civil society — the deal, Sanders said, went “nowhere near far enough.”

A follow-up event Friday only served to underscore his point. At the deal’s signing ceremony at the United Nations in New York — where more than 170 countries representing 93 percent of global emissions formalized their commitments to the Paris Agreement — experts worried that its goals were slipping from reach. Not a single country, for instance, has shared a credible plan for phasing out carbon emissions by mid-century, something scientists believe is necessary to avoid catastrophic warming.

And then there are the more immediate signs that Sanders was right.

Shortly after the deal was finalized, scientists announced that 2015 had been the hottest year on record — and the first three months of 2016 were hotter still. The warming has been particularly pronounced in the global north, where arctic sea ice is at its lowest level since measurements began back in the 1970s. And last week, an aerial survey revealed shocking levels of coral bleaching to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, a result of abnormally warm ocean temperatures.

Sanders’ radical brand of environmentalism includes linking climate change directly with the rise of terrorism; refusing all donations from the fossil fuel industry; introducing legislation for a tax on carbon dioxide; advocating a phase-out of nuclear power; and, most recently, proposing a national ban on hydraulic fracturing.

Meanwhile, views that a year ago might have marked him as leftist — rejecting the Keystone Pipeline, say, or opposing drilling in the Arctic — are increasingly mainstream.

On the heels of hard losses in New York last week and four out of five Northeast primary states Tuesday night, the question for Sanders going forward is less how he can win than whether his ideas will have momentum beyond his candidacy. Considering how he re-shaped the climate debate, the answer appears to be yes.


Sanders’ calls for radical action on a global climate deal may sound unrealistic given the polarization of the issue domestically, but in Paris this winter — at least among civil society advocates — political niceties took a backseat to moral imperative. To quote Bill McKibben: “Physics doesn’t negotiate” — the same sentiment that propelled (McKibben’s group) and other advocacy organizations to flood the streets as the final deal was taking shape in December.

There were elements of celebration to the marches on December 12, but the visually arresting action was mostly a show of political might meant to chastise the self-congratulation among world leaders, and to emphasize how much further climate action needs to go.

The victory in Paris — inadequate and unsatisfactory as the deal was — might never have been possible without the hell raised by Sanders and the grassroots he represents.

It was the sort of demonstration a younger Sanders might have led, were he still wearing his old community organizer hat and not running for president an ocean away.

McKibben was just one of a number of advocates in Paris who expressed to me an affinity for Sanders — and McKibben praised him especially for consistency and early adoption of climate concerns. Sanders had notably come out against Keystone back in 2011; not until 2015 did Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration reach the same conclusion. For McKibben, who describes global warming as “a timed test” with a very hard deadline, those extra four years spent dithering on Keystone represented a problem.

Keystone was never, in and of itself, going to make the difference between catastrophic warming and the status quo from an emissions perspective — but to McKibben, Sanders, and like-minded activists, it was never an end in itself; it was about building an infrastructure for future activism.

Eventually everyone else caught up to Sanders. By the time the Paris climate talks rolled around, for instance, not only had President Barack Obama adopted Sanders’ position on Keystone — the president used a highly publicized rejection of the pipeline to lay the groundwork for a positive outcome in Paris, even going so far as to say that approving the pipeline would undercut America’s climate credibility. The project wasn’t just a way to reduce a specific source of emissions, though Obama certainly cares about that. It was about doing the right thing — and doing it very publicly.

The pipeline theater worked, setting the scene for what would prove to be a historic diplomatic victory in Paris — arguably the greatest of Obama’s presidency, even as Sanders and his contingent continue to push for more.


That mixed sense of victory in Paris, inadequate and unsatisfactory as the deal was, might never have been possible without the hell raised by Sanders and the grassroots he represents. And last week, when world leaders descended on New York in a sea of green ties to sign the agreement — with John Kerry trotting out his adorable two-year-old granddaughter for the cameras and Leonardo DiCaprio pontificating at length on the importance of the climate fight — Sanders was at it again.

This time there was no ocean separating Sanders from the signatories; in the days leading up to the ceremony he was just a few hours upstate, on the campaign trail, calling for something that would have been unimaginable from a presidential candidate during the 2012 election cycle: a national ban on fracking.

Sanders has decried the ills of fracking for years, noting that the methane released during gas extraction contributes to global warming. In 2012, Sanders’ state of Vermont became the first to ban fracking—more than two years before New York followed suit.

Among Sanders’ many activist fans is filmmaker Josh Fox, whose Gasland documentaries helped popularize the case against fracking. “I can’t describe the feeling to you, hearing that. It’s kind of historic,” Fox told me after an appearance with Sanders in Binghamton, New York, during which the senator discussed plans to nationalize the fracking ban. “What people are calling for is an energy revolution … and that’s what Bernie Sanders is saying,” Fox said.

Is it possible for a president in the current political climate to ban fracking nationwide? It seems unlikely. But thanks to Sanders, at least now people are asking the question.

For Wes Gillingham, co-founder of New York State environmental group Catskill Mountainkeeper, there’s a clear connection between the momentum of the anti-fracking movement and that of the Sanders campaign. “In 2007 and 2008 when people didn’t know a whole lot about fracking, the wisdom was, ‘The gas industry is coming to New York and there’s not a way to stop them. You need to get whatever money you can out of them,’” Gillingham told me. Groups like his ignored these seemingly reasonable calls to compromise, and in 2014 they proved the conventional wisdom wrong when Governor Andrew Cuomo banned fracking outright.

That ability to make the seemingly impossible possible is the gift Gillingham seems to admire most in Sanders. Nowhere is that skill more necessary than when it comes to climate change, and the conversation we have (or more often don’t have) around it.

Had Sanders sat out the primary, climate might never have become a flashpoint in the presidential election that it is. The Democratic debates would likely never have featured lengthy exchanges on such questions as the role of a carbon tax, where and whether fracking should be banned, and in what cases coastlines should be protected from drilling. Questions about national security would never have turned into meditations on the grave but often overlooked threat climate change poses to the issue.

Then there are those times when the conversations cease to be just conversations. In New Hampshire, for instance, Sanders was the first candidate to oppose the Kinder Morgan pipeline, which would have carried natural gas fracked in Pennsylvania up through New Hampshire. As soon as Sanders renounced the project, Martin O’Malley started saying he’d “be inclined to be against it” too. Meanwhile, Clinton, who had initially hedged with a line about the importance of local communities in such decisions, finally came out against the Kinder Morgan a few days before the February primary.

The New Hampshire primary was a bright spot for Sanders, but months after his upset victory there, he got what might be considered a more tangible piece of good news for a man so bent on stopping climate change: The Kinder Morgan pipeline had been officially suspended.

It’s hard to say what role, if any, Sanders played. The pipeline was unpopular with local leaders, and perhaps Sanders’ Democratic opponents would have come out against it anyway. It’s also possible they wouldn’t have, or that it would have taken longer, and it’s one more thing for Sanders and his supporters should feel good about — even long after the spotlight of the election has faded.


Sanders’ locally tailored climate policies don’t always have such a satisfying ending. The anti-fracking campaign in New York, while it likely contributed to his winning margins upstate, didn’t ultimately net him a victory in his opponent’s adopted home. On Tuesday night in Rhode Island, where Sanders campaigned over the weekend on the strength of his carbon tax, he did win—but it’s the smallest state in the nation and Sanders is facing a basically insurmountable delegate gap.

But to judge by public opinion, Sanders’ principled stands may have done something more important than a victory in any one state.

New polling data collected by researchers at Harvard University suggests Sanders has already had an impact on the way voters between the ages of 18 and 29 think about climate and other political issues. In one of Harvard’s polls from 2014, 27 percent of young Americans agreed that “government should do more to curb climate change, even at the expense of jobs.” That number jumped to 32 percent last year, and to 37 percent in Monday’s poll.

Harvard polling director John Della Volpe credits Sanders specifically with moving young voters left. As he told the Washington Post: “Whether or not he’s winning or losing, it’s really that he’s impacting the way in which a generation — the largest generation in the history of America — thinks about politics.”

By taking the McKibben/activist approach on everything from carbon pricing to climate talks and offshore drilling; by insisting — insisting! — that his approach be heard and compared with that of the incrementalists, Sanders has already set the Overton Window that much closer to where we desperately need it right now on climate—and where only one of our two parties is even capable of taking it.

In that way, perhaps a better way, Sanders has already won — and Democrats and the planet may be indebted to him for years to come.