Climate change takes center stage among the Democratic presidential candidates

Living on Earth
Bernie Sanders

The much-talked about ad from Bernie Sanders is a visual montage set to Simon & Garfunkel's "America."

Phil Roeder/Flickr

The recent Democratic presidential candidate debate, hosted by CNN in Las Vegas, set a precedent for the debate season and perhaps for the longer campaign, as well: Every one of the candidates directly addressed climate change.

Unlike the Republican debates so far, in which climate change was scarcely mentioned, four of the five democratic contenders referred to the issue in their opening remarks. But they differed about global warming’s importance.

When CNN moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidates to name the greatest threat to national security, only Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders named climate change.

“The scientific community is telling us that if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy, the planet that we're going to be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable. That is a major crisis,” Sanders said.

Later in the debate, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley responded to a videotaped question submitted by a young person concerned about how climate change is going to affect her future:

“We did not land a man on the moon with an all-of-the-above strategy. It was an intentional engineering challenge, and we solved it as a nation. And our nation must solve this one,” O'Malley responded. “As president, I intend to sign as my very first order in office an order that dedicates our resources to solving this problem and moving us to a 100 percent clean electric grid by 2050.”

Former Senator Jim Webb, no longer in the race, described himself as an “all-of-the above” energy voter and insisted the US could not solve the problem of climate change simply by changing its own laws.

“If you look at China and India, they're the greatest polluters in the world. Fifteen out of the 20 most polluted cities in the world are in one of those two countries,” Webb pointed out. “We need to solve this in a global way. ... The so-called agreements that we have with China are illusory in terms of the immediate requirements of the Chinese government itself.”

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton disagreed, calling the bilateral agreement that President Barack Obama made with China “significant.” “Now, it needs to go further,” Clinton said. “There will be an international meeting at the end of this year, and we must get verifiable commitments to fight climate change from every country gathered there.”

But Sanders insisted that, among the Democratic candidates for president, he has the most passion for the issue and noted that he has written specific legislation to address it. “I am proud that, along with Senator Barbara Boxer, a few years ago we introduced the first piece of climate change legislation that called for a tax on carbon,” Sanders said.

The centerpiece of that bill is a mechanism Sanders called a ‘fee and dividend' on carbon emissions. It would focus on the 3,000 largest greenhouse gas emitters in the US, putting a $20 per ton fee on carbon or its methane equivalent.

“This is not going to be a fee which impacts tens and tens of thousands of entities,” Sanders told PRI’s Living on Earth in 2013, not long after he introduced the bill. “It's kind of what we call an ‘upstream,’ where the emissions take place.”

Coal mines, oil refineries, natural gas processing plants and energy import companies would pay the new fee, which Sanders said would cover about 85 percent of total US greenhouse gas emissions. 

The money from the fee — the dividend component of the plan — would be used in a variety of ways. “The majority of it would go back to the people of the United States to help them with any increased energy costs they may incur as we begin to transform our energy system away from fossil fuels,” Sanders explained. The bill also earmarks funds for improved weatherization of residential homes, research and development into sustainable energy and worker training.

The Sanders/Boxer bill did not pass in Congress, which clearly angered Sanders.

“My greatest embarrassment, as a member of the United States Congress right now, is that we have a major political party, the Republican Party, who refuses to listen to what the scientists are saying,” Sanders said. “We have a ranking member of the Environmental Committee telling us, if you can believe it, that climate change is a hoax perpetrated by Al Gore, the Hollywood elite and the United Nations. I mean, that's where we are.”

This article is based on a story and interview that aired on PRI's Living on Earth with Steve Curwood