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Bernie Sanders Has a Plan to Take on the Fossil Fuel Industry

The Vermont Senator unveiled his ambitious plan to tackle global warming as leaders in Paris make final pushes to secure a global climate deal.

by Liz Fields
Dec 7 2015, 8:40pm

Photo by Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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As ministers at the world climate talks in Paris gathered to hash out final negotiations in a bid to secure a pivotal global climate change deal, Bernie Sanders became the latest US presidential hopeful to put policy where his mouth is on the issue, unveiling on Sunday an ambitious plan to tackle global warming, which he called the "single greatest threat facing our planet."

The senator's plan looks to speed up the retirement of America's coal power plants, as well as shrink reliance on oil, and nuclear energy and transition instead to a 100 percent clean energy system. It would also put a price on carbon, and cut back greenhouse gas emissions at a much faster rate than proposals by President Barack Obama in his Clean Energy Plan.

"It's time for a political revolution that takes on the fossil fuel billionaires, accelerates our transition to clean energy and finally puts people before the profits of polluters," Sanders said in a statement announcing the plan.

Sanders has previously linked climate change to the rise of the Islamic State and labeled it as one of the key contributors to global conflict and unrest.  On Sunday, he wrote in his policy statement that while global warming is "the single greatest threat facing our planet," our politicians have been "bribed" into complacency and inaction by money from big oil companies like BP, Exxon, and Shell.

Related: Hillary Clinton's Climate Change Pledge Is Only 'Half the Way There,' Say Environmentalists

The proposal contains some of the strongest language used yet by any presidential candidate on climate change. Sanders, who previously pledged not to take any donations from the fossil fuel industry, would now also ban fossil fuel lobbyists from working in the White House under his new climate action plan.

Jason Kowalski, a spokesman for 350 Action, the political arm of climate change activist group 350.org, told VICE News that the most significant aspect of Sanders's plan is his promise to keep over 90 percent of potential carbon emissions from fossil fuels underground forever.

"His 'keep it in the ground proposal' — as I would call it — is the strongest element of his plan," said Kowalski. "This is something that activists and scientists have been saying for years. It was a rallying crying around the fight to stop the Keystone XL Pipeline when people said we don't need this pipeline, what we need is to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground starting with tar sands oil."

In stark contrast to Obama's Clean Energy Plan, Sanders has also proposed to follow scientists' recommendations to decrease carbon pollution emissions by at least 80 percent from by 2050 from 1990 levels. The president has aimed for a reduction of only six percent by 2030.

Related: The Battle Over Keystone XL Is Far From Finished. Here's What Comes Next.

Sanders and his other Democratic presidential candidates including frontrunner Hillary Clinton and Former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley have departed in broad fashion from the views of Republican politicians, some of whom continue to deny that climate change exists. Some presidential rivals like Texas Senator Ted Cruz have even written off climate science as a "religion," while GOP frontrunner Donald Trump has attributed changes to global climate — such as rising sea levels — as simple cases of "bad weather."

In July, Clinton released her action plan for the environment, which looks to move a third of America's power supply from fossils to renewables by 2027, and also included a pledge to subsidize half a billion solar panels within her first four years in the oval office, if elected. At the time, climate researchers criticized Clinton's policy for failing to address the fossil fuel factor, including notable silence on the Keystone pipeline proposal, which the president rejected last month. In the same plan, Clinton also proposed an expansion of oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

"Hillary Clinton got it half right," said Kowalski. "She realized we need to move as quickly as possible to clean energy. Where I found her plan lacking is the emphasis on keeping fossil fuels in the ground. Sure it's easy to talk about clean energy, but it's harder to say no to fossil fuel projects like Keystone."

Recent campaign filings have revealed that many of the lobbyists bundling contributions for the Clinton campaign have worked for the fossil fuel industry and represent a broad range of large companies, including Chevron, ExxonMobil, and British Petroleum America. Others include Cheniere Energy, which is pushing for new liquefied natural gas export terminals, and the Edison Electric Institute, which has lobbied against the Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) rules limiting power plant emissions.

While Sanders and O'Malley both signed a July pledge put forward by 350 Action and The Nation to reject money from fossil fuel companies, Clinton did not respond to the petition. No Republican candidates signed it either.

Some elements of the two plans are similar, including both Clinton's and Sanders's stated support for displaced workers in the fossil fuel industry and their plans to provide them with benefits, job training, and healthcare, as the country transitions to renewables. But Sanders has also departed from Clinton's climate action proposal on a number of fronts, including a bid to ban Arctic oil drilling as well as all offshore drilling and fracking for natural gas.

The biggest difference between the plans, and the "strongest element" of Sanders's proposal, however, is his "keep it in the ground" proposal, said Kowalski.

"What the science says we need to do is to keep 80 percent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground forever," he said. "What Senator Sanders is going for is something that's aligned with what the scientific community is telling us we need to do."

Leading scientists and environmentalists have said that at least three-quarters of known fossil fuel reserves must stay underground to prevent the catastrophic scenario of a two degree Celsius rise in global temperate above pre-industrial levels.

VICE News' Darren Ankrom contributed to this report.

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