For Voters, Does Climate … Actually Even Matter?

Bernie Sanders released a massive plan for a Green New Deal this week. What’s the point of all these climate plans?

Democratic U.S. 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally in downtown Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 23, 2019.
Bernie Sanders released a plan promising to spend $16 trillion on a Green New Deal. (Lucy Nicholson / Reuters)

It’s a historic week for climate change in the Democratic Party.

In the same 12-hour span, Senator Bernie Sanders unveiled his plan to pass a gargantuan $16 trillion Green New Deal as president, while Governor Jay Inslee of Washington—who ran an unprecedented, bluntly climate-focused campaign—dropped out of the 2020 primary.

Then, this afternoon, the Democratic National Committee rejected a proposal to hold a climate-centered debate in the primary—even though nearly every candidate had endorsed the idea.

The three events left me wondering: How important is climate change, really, in the Democratic Party?

The sheer audacity of Sanders’s plan suggests that it is absolutely essential. He proposes eliminating all carbon pollution from the U.S. electricity and transportation sector by 2030. To get there, he calls for the de facto nationalization of the power grid and for massive subsidies for electric cars, among many other new programs.

At the same time, his plan lays the groundwork for the entire economy to decarbonize by 2050.

These emission cuts are roughly in line with what is needed in order to safely prevent about 5 degrees Fahrenheit of warming on land, according to the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But they may also be, according to many energy experts and engineers, physically impossible. They would require the United States to undertake an infrastructure build-out on a scale not seen since World War II. And many of the same experts say Sanders has made his task harder by insisting on 100 percent renewable energy nationwide, thereby excluding nuclear power.

On the other hand: $16.3 trillion is a lot of money. Sanders’s “Decade of the Green New Deal” would be one of the largest peacetime fiscal-stimulus packages in U.S. history. If parceled out evenly across 10 years, his proposed annual injection of $1.6 trillion would exceed the Obama-era Recovery Act both in inflation-adjusted dollars and as a percentage of national output.

This does give him a lot of wiggle room. Take the electric-vehicle policy, for instance. Sanders wants $2 trillion in grants to help low- and middle-income families buy electric cars, and he proposes a separate $681 billion program that would give Americans cash for trading in their old gas-powered vehicles. When President Barack Obama implemented the “Cash for Clunkers” trade-in program in 2009, nearly 700,000 clunkers were traded in, at a cost of $2.85 billion. Sanders’s program is more than 200 times as pricey, but it must apply to nearly all the country’s more than 260 million registered vehicles.

If the United States wants to decarbonize the transportation sector by 2050, it’s going to need some version of some trade-in policy. And the costs of that program, while very high, are almost certainly smaller than what the United States would suffer under runaway climate change.

Yet I’m not even sure whether Sanders could pass his Green New Deal even if he became president. Many of his proposals will require the approval and participation of Congress—and right now, Democrats control only the House. Even if Democrats won the Senate, Sanders’s plan would be subject to approval from red-state moderates such as Joe Manchin and Doug Jones. And this isn’t true just of the Sanders plan: Almost every ambitious climate plan released by the Democratic candidates would need an assist from Congress. As I scanned the more than 13,000 words of Sanders’s Green New Deal, I wondered: What’s the point? Why put all of this out there? After all, what matters isn’t what Sanders would like to do as president, but how he would prioritize issues once in the Oval Office. And if he and Senator Elizabeth Warren and everyone else publish audacious plans for every issue, we don’t have much of a clue.

Jay Inslee, for his part, made his ranking clear. He entered the primary earlier this year swearing to put climate change front and center, and he did. His more than 200 pages of climate proposals are some of the best and most complete I’ve seen anywhere, and they should serve as a blueprint for the next Democratic administration. (True to form, he released his last climate proposal on the day he dropped out.) He mentioned climate change in every debate, he seemed well liked by both moderate and leftist online tastemakers, and he was even deemed hot.

For months now, Democratic primary voters have told pollsters that climate change is a top-tier issue, tied with health care for importance. Inslee made that idea central to his campaign. He is an accomplished politician who oversees one of the country’s fastest-growing state economies. As governor, he passed a health-care public option, a long-term-care benefit plan, and—after three failed efforts—a statewide climate policy.

Yet for all that effort, he never cracked 1 percent in the polls.

Nate Silver, the editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight, tweeted his verdict: “People will try to spin it differently but Inslee’s lackluster performance is an obviously bearish indicator for the prioritization of climate change in Democratic politics.”

Yikes. I think that’s going a little too far, but I agree that Inslee’s lack of success does reveal a political problem for climate advocates. For all the plans, climate change does not seem to function in the Democratic Party the way that, say, abortion does within the Republican Party: There isn’t a well-organized contingent of voters waiting to glom on to a climate champion. There is a large, addressable set of voters who care about climate change—but they mostly seem to be activated Democrats, and as activated Democrats, they care about a wide range of issues, and as such retain a wide range of candidate loyalties. Thanks to years of careful organizing, the banner of climate action can unite the U.S. left’s many constituencies. But they come together as constituencies, and that means that even if they want climate action, it remains only one in a list of demands.

In other words, climate change may occupy a position in the party much like Elizabeth Warren does in the primary: Both are just about every Democrat’s second-best friend.

And therein lies the problem. It suggests that if a Democratic politician fails to act aggressively on climate change in office, then no cohort of voters may exist to “punish” them by abstaining from the next election. And that does augur poorly for the prioritization of climate change.

Now, I think climate advocates are actually aware of this challenge. Right now, groups such as the Sunrise Movement are trying to overcome it through high-profile organizing and newsworthy protests. And that’s working, somewhat: The Green New Deal is all over the news, primary voters are saying they care about climate change, and—hey—at least nearly every Democrat in the primary has gone out of their way to announce a big, ambitious, full-economy climate plan.

And maybe the political rewards for tackling climate change don’t lie within the Democratic coalition. There are signs that climate change is, for many politically jaded young people, a kind of worldview-shaping, pre-political issue. (Just check out all the climate-themed memes and TikToks.) These people aren’t really Democrats, but they’re also definitely not Republicans, and the only elections they may ever turn out for are presidential races. According to Pew data, about one in seven voters ages 18 to 29 voted third party in 2016, far more than any other age group. And an analysis by a student at the University of Pennsylvania found that youth was “the strongest indicator for ‘switching’ one’s vote away from Clinton” to a third-party candidate. A Democrat who leaned hard into climate in the general election may—emphasis here on may—be able to reach some of those voters and narrow the generational turnout gap.

At the same time, 40 percent of Millennial Republicans say that humans are causing climate change. Only about half that many of their older co-partisans say the same thing, according to The New York Times. Whether that group—the long-awaited, climate-concerned young Republican—ever demands real climate policy is one of the most high-stakes electoral questions of the next few decades.

To reach and retain either group of voters, I suspect the next Democratic president must do more than make legal tweaks to Environmental Protection Agency rules. Instead, they must bend the nation’s progress toward battling climate change. And they must promise something more transformative from the energy transition than millions of jobs or invisible cuts to an invisible pollutant. That’s why the most important prophecy in Sanders’s plan is one I’ve also heard from climate-concerned libertarians: that after we cover the country in new solar panels and wind turbines, electricity will be so cheap for Americans as to practically be free.

The morning after he dropped out, Inslee announced he would seek a third term as governor of Washington. A number of journalists tweeted that he would do well as the next Democratic EPA administrator. I disagree. The EPA’s ambit is too narrow, and climate change too sprawling, for Inslee’s time and talents. If the 2020 Democratic nominee, whoever it is, really wants to tackle climate change as their own plan discusses it—as an issue afflicting the whole economy—then they’ll need to show that someone in their administration can tackle it at the whole-economy level. They’ll need to put their money, in other words, where their Medium post is. They could start by calling Jay Inslee. He would make an excellent vice president.