Bernie's dopest climate burns

A celebration of the senator's no-B.S. approach to the climate crisis over the course of two presidential campaigns.

Can you imagine what Democratic climate politics would look like today if Bernie Sanders had never run for president?

I can’t—but only because it’s hard to visualize nothing at all.

That’s perhaps an exaggeration. I’m sure Democrats would still be talking about climate change if Sanders hadn’t run for president in 2016, and again in 2020. I’m sure they’d be insisting the crisis was real and human-caused. I’m sure they’d be bashing Donald Trump for withdrawing the U.S. from the Paris climate agreement, and for reversing Obama administration carbon regulations on power plants and automobiles.

But would Democrats be talking seriously about banning fracking right now if Bernie Sanders had never run for president? Would criminally prosecuting fossil fuel executives be part of the mainstream conversation? Would it be a basic requirement for Democratic presidential candidates to have multi-trillion-dollar plans to decarbonize society by the year 2050? Would multiple climate questions have been asked at nearly every Democratic primary debate this cycle?

I don’t know. But I know that, over the course of his two presidential campaigns, Sanders was ahead of the curve on climate issues. He consistently reamed out corporations, the media, and his fellow politicians for not taking the climate crisis seriously or understanding its severity. And as a climate reporter struggling to get people to pay attention, that was often cathartic to watch—especially during and after 2016 , when the debates all but ignored climate change and the Democratic Party resisted anything that might be perceived as anti-fossil fuel language in its party platform.

So I thought, in the wake of Sanders’ suspending his campaign yesterday, I’d look back on some of the Senator’s dopest climate burns against his competitors, corporations, and the media. For fun. Remember fun?

"This is an existential threat. Do you know what that means, Chuck?"

At the ninth Democratic presidential debate in Nevada, NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Sanders to defend his proposal to phase-out fracking over the next five years. “The industry, obviously, supports a lot of jobs around the country, including thousands in the battleground state of Pennsylvania,” Todd said. “What do you tell these workers, it's supporting a big industry right now, sir?”

Visibly exasperated, Sanders chided Todd for the idea that jobs in the short-term were more important than saving millions of lives in the long-term.

“This is an existential threat,” Sanders said. “Do you know what that means, Chuck?”

It was so condescending and wonderful. (Sorry Chuck).

Sanders’ full response:

What I tell these workers is that the scientists are telling us that if we don't act incredibly boldly within the next six, seven years, there will be irreparable damage done not just in Nevada, not just to Vermont or Massachusetts, but to the entire world.

Joe said it right: This is an existential threat. Do you know what that means, Chuck? That means we're fighting for the future of this planet.

And the Green New Deal that I support, by the way, will create up to 20 million good-paying jobs as we move our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy. This is a moral issue, my friends. We have to take the responsibility of making sure that the planet we leave our children and grandchildren is a planet that is healthy and habitable. That is more important than the profits of the fossil fuel industry.

Moderator: “We’re going to get to climate, I’d like to stay on trade.”

Sanders: “They’re the same.”

Climate change will dramatically affect every single issue we care about: healthcare, war, education, immigration, you name it. This fact, however, been weirdly difficult to convey to the public and mainstream political reporters.

You might remember at the PBS/Politico debate, Sanders tried to answer a question about race by talking about climate change, and both the audience and moderator appeared to nearly die from how offended they were. The audience appeared to change course, though, after Sanders pointed out that “people of color are gonna be suffering most if we do not deal with climate change.”

So during the CNN presidential debate in Iowa this past January, when Sanders was asked about trade, it seemed natural to me when he started talking about the climate impacts of trade. It did not, however, seem natural to debate moderator and Des Moines Register political reporter Brianne Pfannenstiel, who cut Sanders off to ask him to remain on-topic. “We’re gonna get to climate change, but I’d like to stay on trade.”

“They are the same in this issue,” Sanders shot back.

If you follow me on Twitter, you know this was probably my personal favorite moment of the Democratic debate cycle. Anything that gets moderators and audiences of the future to understand that it’s appropriate—responsible, even—to talk about two things at once.

“If you’re laughing, Joe, then you’re missing the point.”

This is maybe a weird one to include in a post that’s trying to be semi- light-hearted. But in the last primary debate, Sanders criticized Biden’s climate plan as weak—and then noticed Biden was smiling. Sanders made clear he was not joking around about an issue that threatens millions of lives. “If you’re laughing, Joe, then you’re missing the point,” Sanders said. “This is an existential crisis.”

Biden responded: “Bingo.”

To be fair, it didn’t seem like Biden was truly joking around. (He smirked more than laughed, I think.) But it was a tense exchange in which Sanders pulled no punches. Sanders said his $16 trillion climate plan was more serious than Biden’s $1.7 trillion plan. “I’m talking about stopping fracking as soon as we possibly can. I’m talking about telling the fossil fuel industry that they’re going to stop destroying the planet,” Sanders said. Biden replied: “So am I.” Sanders hit back: “Well, I’m not sure your proposal does that.” He’s right; Biden’s plan doesn’t stop fracking.

“These guys have been lying. ‘Oh we don’t know if, if fossil fuels, if oil and carbon emissions, are causing climate change.’ They knew! ExxonMobil knew. They lied.”

Sanders willingness to speak plainly and forcefully about the fossil fuel industry’s well-documented, indisputable decades-long deception campaign about climate science was a hallmark of both his 2016 and 2020 campaigns.

His last debate performance with Biden was particularly strong one that point. In it, he mocked his political opponents for being wishy washy on whether it’s known that oil companies lied.

“Look, in terms of the fossil fuel industry, these guys have been lying,” Sanders said. “They’ve been lying for years like the tobacco industry lied 50 years ago. ‘Oh we don’t know if, if fossil fuels, if oil, if carbon emissions, are causing climate change.’ They knew! ExxonMobil knew. They lied. In fact, I think they should be held criminally accountable.” 

Biden has also said he believes fossil fuel companies should be held accountable in court like the tobacco companies, but not criminally. He’s said he’ll leave it to courts to decide whether the oil industry has been lying.

“If you demonstrate that they, in fact, have done things already that are bad and they’ve been lying, they should be able to be sued,” Biden said.

"There is unbelievably little coverage of climate change, and I believe that has a lot to do with a lot of the fossil fuel advertising and the special interests that dominate television.”

If you read this newsletter often, you know I report on the influence of fossil fuel industry advertising and public relations on the media industry quite a bit. As a community, it seems Climate People are just now coming to terms with the influence the fossil fuel industry has over the news we consume.

Sanders, however, has been talking about it for quite some time. Shortly after he dropped out of the 2016 race, he slammed mainstream cable media for its failure to cover climate change as an election issue, and called out the fossil fuel industry as a driving factor:

“If anybody thinks that advertising on television does not play an important role in terms of what gets covered, you are sorely mistaken,” he said. “Climate change, according to the scientific community, is the great global crisis that we face. Yet there is unbelievably little coverage of climate change, and I believe that has a lot to do with a lot of the fossil fuel advertising and the special interests that dominate television.”

Sometimes, you don’t need words

A silent sizzle for Amy Klobuchar:

Have a favorite Sanders climate burn? Thoughts about his contribution to climate policy discourse over the course of his presidential campaigns that you’d like to share?

Drop into the comments—but don’t be dicks to each other, OK? It’s almost the weekend.

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