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Bernie Sanders has a $16 trillion plan to avert climate disasters

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“The cost of doing nothing is far more expensive”

An older man with white hair speaks before the U.S. Capitol with a rally taking place behind him.
Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a news conference on climate change in 2017.
Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

This morning, Sen. Bernie Sanders toured Paradise, California, the city that was virtually obliterated last November in the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. It was a poignant location for his latest announcement. Sanders has revealed the most ambitious climate proposal of any presidential candidate—a $16.3 trillion plan that will create 20 million jobs while decarbonizing the country’s energy and transportation sectors by 2030.

The eye-raising cost of the plan—more than triple that of former vice president Joe Biden’s $5 trillion plan—is a small investment compared to the estimated cost of climate disasters like the Camp Fire if the country proceeds without intervention, Sanders said at a town hall in nearby Chico, California.

“It is expensive,” he said. “But the cost of doing nothing is far more expensive.”

Along with several other U.S. senators running for president, Sanders co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution when it was first introduced in February. Although many of the candidates have said they support the resolution, Sanders is the first candidate to officially dub his climate plan a “Green New Deal”—meaning it’s about achieving both social and environmental goals.

“The climate crisis is the single greatest challenge facing us and the single greatest opportunity to build a more just and equitable future,” the proposal reads.

Among the panelists Sanders introduced at his town hall was Steven Marquardt, a local member of the Sunrise Movement, an advocacy group which has pushed back against some candidates’ climate plans as not rigorous enough. On Twitter, the group offered a ringing endorsement of Sanders’ proposal, saying the plan is “not only ambitious in its goals, it also harkens back to the vision of how the original New Deal was won—through a federal government led mobilization of all sectors of society.”

Like the New Deal, Sanders’ plan includes a federal jobs program with a focus on climate adaptation projects like solar retrofitting and green manufacturing. The plan also includes criminal prosecution of fossil fuel industries—something other candidates are suggesting as well.

To reassert the U.S. as a global player in the climate fight, the proposal would also funnel $200 billion into a climate fund managed by the United Nations to help other countries reduce emissions as well.

“Let us be clear, if we do not act together, not only in California, not only in America, but all over the world, we will see more devastating disasters like the terrible wildfires we have seen here in Paradise,” Sanders said in Chico.

With the adoption of renewables trending upwards as energy costs plummet, the U.S. is already on a trajectory towards a decarbonized power grid. Sanders’ plan would create a new energy storage system that would be able to store and distribute renewable power safely and efficiently—and likely prevent utility disasters like the Camp Fire from happening.

What’s not as clear is exactly how Sanders will effectively eliminate the source of half of U.S. emissions by 2030. Decarbonizing transportation—the country’s largest, and still rising, source of emissions—would call for policies that decrease emissions faster than any existing federal timeline proposes. Legislation recently proposed in Congress, for example, would not ban the sale of gas-powered vehicles until 2040. While some specifics are noted in Sanders’s plan, like more tax credits for electric vehicles and increased investments in public transit and high-speed rail, the 2030 deadline calls for a far more dramatic drawdown.

The timing of Sanders’ announcement is serendipitous. Just yesterday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who was running as a single-issue candidate focused on climate change, withdrew from the race. With Inslee out, Sanders may be able to claim the mantle of climate candidate—and just in time for the first climate-focused debate, which will air on September 4 on CNN.