A defining feature of Sen. Bernie Sanders’s political career is his consistency. The economy is rigged against the working class, the independent senator from Vermont charges, and bold political action is necessary to remedy that. His approach to tackling the climate crisis has long reflected that mindset, with Sanders ignoring the advice of the Democratic consultant class to champion taxing the nation’s largest polluters and redistributing the bulk of the earned revenue back to consumers and vulnerable people.
Now, as the 2020 presidential candidate prepares to release his climate change plan, a key element to watch out for is whether Sanders will abandon the tool he’s heralded for years to combat global warming, or integrate it into his push for a Green New Deal. As he makes this decision, Sanders is wading into an increasingly contentious debate among environmentalists about the right role for market-based solutions in progressive policy.
Sanders has long argued that a carbon tax “must be a central part of our strategy for dramatically reducing carbon pollution,” and he’s often touted the consensus behind it from economists across the political spectrum. He’s called a carbon tax “the most straight-forward and efficient strategy for quickly reducing greenhouse gas emissions” and has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”
Sanders has urged his colleagues “to catch up with the scientific community and with the rest of the country.”
But over the last year, some influential groups on the left have soured on a carbon tax, pointing to a recent ballot measure that failed at the polls in Washington state and also the yellow vest protests in France over rising fuel prices — sparked by taxing carbon. And as more conservatives and business leaders have warmed to the idea of a carbon tax, some progressives have grown correspondingly distrustful — skeptical that Republicans will really do anything other than undermine the bold action that is needed.
Sanders, an original Senate co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, has been touting a Green New Deal often on the 2020 campaign trail but has so far been silent on taxing carbon. His campaign website, unlike in 2016, says nothing about it, and in June, a Sanders speechwriter told E&E News, an environmental trade publication, that a forthcoming Green New Deal speech does not say anything about a carbon tax, though he added that doesn’t mean Sanders might not tackle the issue in the future.
“While Bernie has, in the past, introduced federal carbon pricing legislation in the Senate, the IPCC report makes clear that our window for action is closing,” Sarah Ford, the deputy communications director for the Sanders campaign, told The Intercept, referencing a landmark 2018 report from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that underscored the urgency of the crisis. “So, if we are to solve the issue of climate change, a price on carbon must be part of a larger strategy and it must be formulated in a way that actually transitions our economy away from fossil fuels and protects low-income families and communities of color.”
The campaign pointed to Sanders’s Senate office, which is in the process of drafting new climate legislation. A spokesperson for his Senate office told The Intercept over email that “all I can say is that we’re still in the legislative development of our climate policy and GND, which we hope to unveil soon, and we still need to review, get input, etc.” In June, Keane Bhatt, a spokesperson for Sanders’s Senate office told E&E that he foresees his boss’s Green New Deal bill to be “focused primarily on public investment.”
Where the Vermont senator lands on the issue could be a bellwether for what’s to come.
Sanders has never supported a carbon tax as the exclusive measure needed to tackle the climate crisis, but he has insisted it’s an integral one. To protect families from potentially increased energy prices, a 2013 bill he introduced with then-Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., stated that 60 percent of the carbon tax revenue would be rebated, per capita, to every legal U.S resident. He and Boxer also promoted a number of other ideas, including weatherizing 1 million homes per year, funding worker retraining programs, and making massive investments in clean energy research and development. Sanders called it “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States Senate.”
In 2015, after Sanders had mounted his bid for the White House, he used his support for a carbon tax as a way to distinguish himself from the more piecemeal climate proposals pushed forward by his primary opponent, Hillary Clinton. Her advisers, many of them still bruised from the failed cap-and-trade fight from 2010, urged her to steer clear of anything resembling a tax, which they said could leave her vulnerable to Republican attacks of raising energy prices.
But Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in. On the campaign trail, he called for a carbon tax, banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House, and ending subsidies to fossil fuel companies. He also called for increased federal investment in wind, solar, energy efficiency, electric cars, biofuels, high-speed rail, and public transit — items that will likely be central to any Green New Deal.
Sanders, who has never been very fearful of potential Republican smears, leaned into the policy idea he believed in.
“Bernie will tax polluters causing the climate crisis and return billions of dollars to working families to ensure the fossil fuel companies don’t subject us to unfair rate hikes,” his plan stated. “Bernie knows that climate change will not affect everyone equally. The carbon tax will also protect those most impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.”
One major success of his 2016 campaign was getting language included in the Democratic Party platform in support of a carbon tax. The platform stated that Democrats “believe that carbon dioxide, methane, and other greenhouse gases should be priced to reflect their negative externalities” and that Democrats should “support using every tool available to reduce emissions now.”
One of the most prominent voices in the environmental movement to turn against a carbon tax is Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington state and the presidential candidate who is running primarily on tackling climate change. Inslee has strongly supported taxing carbon in the past (an idea sometimes called imposing a “carbon fee”), but bills in favor of the proposal never made it out of his state legislature, and related ballot initiatives failed in 2016 and 2018. (The fossil fuel industry spent more than $31 million to beat the 2018 initiative, more than twice the amount spent by supporters.)
In January, Inslee announced that he had grown wary of relying on a carbon tax to reduce emissions. “To actually get carbon savings, you need to jack up the price so high that it becomes politically untenable,” he told NBC News, adding that he was more interested in taxing the rich to fund a Green New Deal. His aggressive proposals on the 2020 campaign trail also do not include taxing carbon.
Sen. Jeff Merkley, the original Senate sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution, also pointed to Washington’s failed carbon tax ballot measure as reason to not hold much hope in a similar national effort. “If it can’t pass in Washington state right now, I’m not sure that says that there’s much of a pathway at this moment nationally,” he told Politico in December.
Other proponents of the Green New Deal have argued that a carbon tax just shouldn’t be a primary focus. A set of talking points released — and then retracted — by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s office in February emphasized that any carbon tax “would be a tiny part” of a Green New Deal. A carbon tax generally “misses the point and would be off the table unless we create the clean, affordable options first,” the fact sheet said. Ocasio-Cortez also wrote on Twitter that ideas like a carbon tax can’t be the premier solution to tackling the climate crisis.
Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby, which has been building bipartisan support for a carbon tax and dividend since 2007, has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists who say Democrats can’t afford to compromise with a party that denies climate science and answers too often to the fossil fuel industry.
Paradoxically, the successful grassroots organizing led by environmental groups like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby has now sparked wariness among other environmental activists.
Others on the left have been increasingly skeptical of relying on any sort of market-based solution to tackling the climate crisis. In January, more than 600 advocacy groups including Friends of the Earth, the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch, Indivisible, and People’s Action signed a letter pledging to “vigorously oppose” any climate legislation that promotes “market-based mechanisms and technology options such as carbon emissions trading and offsets, carbon capture and storage, nuclear power, waste-to-energy and biomass energy.” This kind of language kept eight of the largest environmental groups off the letter, including the Sierra Club, the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the Environmental Defense Fund.
Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, separately criticized Democrats for “still seem[ing] fixated on the half solutions of cap-and-trade or a carbon tax.” He argued that “market pricing schemes should no longer be the centerpiece of a comprehensive climate strategy.”
Aside from signing the congressional letter, the youth-led Sunrise Movement has also signaled it’s not very interested in a carbon tax. While Sunrise’s political director, Evan Weber, has said a carbon tax “has the potential” to be part of a Green New Deal, he’s also dismissed the idea that it’s an important tool for tackling the problem. “There’s been a predominant conversation in Washington, D.C., that’s been led by economists and politicos that have tried to frame a carbon tax as the only way,” he told Politico. “It’s proved time and time again to be not politically popular, and we haven’t even priced the policy at where economists say it needs to be. The idea that [a carbon tax is] the way out of this mess is something we need to be pushing back on.” Neither the Sunrise Movement nor Weber returned The Intercept’s request for comment.
Support, however, still exists for a carbon tax, even among environmental groups that have embraced the Green New Deal framework. The Environmental Defense Fund and the Citizens’ Climate Lobby have endorsed both bold public investment and a carbon tax as ways to combat climate change. New polling from Data for Progress, a progressive polling organization, also recently found strong support among Democratic voters for both approaches to tackling the crisis.
Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash., another original Green New Deal resolution co-sponsor, has also pushed back on the idea that the failed carbon tax ballot measure in her state means it’s too politically unpopular to pass anywhere — pointing to the large sums of money the fossil fuel industry had to spend to defeat it. “I am not in the camp that thinks it failed because of a carbon tax, I don’t believe that,” she told E&E. “I think it failed because industry really doesn’t want it to succeed.” She acknowledged that the progressive movement has been “a little bit all over the place” when it comes to carbon taxation.
Climate change experts also continue to vouch for a carbon tax. In its report issued last October, the IPCC endorsed pricing carbon to reduce emissions and recommended imposing prices of $135 to $5,500 per ton of carbon dioxide pollution by 2030 to keep global warming in check. But an OECD report from last September found that few countries that do have carbon taxes are setting them at levels high enough to meaningfully curb emissions — highlighting the political challenge at hand.
In many respects, there is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years, and Republicans are increasingly warming up to the idea. While groups like the Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity still adamantly oppose it, other conservative businesses and even fossil fuel companies have come out behind it, though sometimes with conditions that progressives would unlikely support — like environmental deregulation or immunity from any lawsuits.
There is more legislative traction around carbon pricing than there’s been in years.
In May, the U.S. House of Representatives’ powerful Ways and Means Committee held its first climate-related hearing in over a decade, and in late November 2018, three Republicans and three Democrats in the House introduced the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act, the first bipartisan carbon tax proposal in Congress in almost 10 years. Known colloquially as the “Deutch proposal” after one of its Democratic authors, Rep. Ted Deutch, it would direct proceeds from the tax back to consumers in the form of monthly rebate checks. The legislation has been described by experts as a “highly progressive” proposal, given that high-income households would pay a disproportionate amount of the tax, yet the resulting revenues would be distributed equally to all households. Under this bill, a family of 4 with two adults would take home an annual dividend of $3,456 by 2025. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby said it “may be the strongest and most comprehensive climate bill ever submitted to Congress,” though the group also stressed that “no one should expect any single policy to solve climate change by itself.”
There are other carbon pricing proposals on the table. One, known as the “Baker proposal,” has earned the endorsement of many in the business community, and it embraces a carbon tax in exchange for repealing other environmental regulations and limiting legal liability on the energy industry. Another bill, known as the “Whitehouse proposal,” would redirect most of the carbon revenue generated to reduce the employee portion of the payroll tax. Named after Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, the proposal was co-introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, another presidential candidate and original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal resolution.
The idea of a carbon tax came up briefly in last week’s Democratic presidential debates, when “Meet the Press” host Chuck Todd asked Rep. Tim Ryan how he would fund climate projects “if carbon pricing is just politically impossible.”
As Time’s energy reporter Justin Worland noted, the question itself confused the point of a climate tax, which is meant to make polluting the environment more expensive, not primarily finance green projects. Ryan didn’t reference any carbon pricing in his answer, yet former Rep. John Delaney, who co-sponsored the Deutch proposal last November, picked up on the opportunity to tout his work pushing the bipartisan solution. “My proposal, which is put a price on carbon, give a dividend back to the American people — it goes out one pocket, back in the other,” Delaney said. “I can get that passed my first year as president, with a coalition of every Democrat in the Congress and the Republicans who live in coastal states.”
In the second debate, South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg called for “aggressive and ambitious measures” to tackle climate change and cited a carbon tax and dividend as one he’d support. “But I would propose we do it in a way that is rebated out to the American people in a progressive fashion so that most Americans are made more than whole,” he said, invoking bills like the Deutch proposal.
Some commentators online criticized the way Democrats fail to adequately explain how a carbon tax and dividend work to voters.
Though Sanders was not asked anything about a carbon tax and dividend in the debate, he has for years demonstrated how to promote the idea in clear, progressive terms — highlighting the need to make wealthy polluters pay for their planetary destruction, while protecting working people and vulnerable communities from rising energy prices.
In 2016, though not a single question was asked in the general election presidential debates about climate change, Sanders seized on a question in the primaries about fracking to push his opponent on the need for a carbon tax.
“The truth is, as secretary of state, Secretary [Hillary] Clinton actively supported fracking technology around the world,” Sanders said. “Second of all, right now, we have got to tell the fossil fuel industry that their short-term profits are not more important than the future of this planet. And that means — and I would ask you to respond — are you in favor of a tax on carbon, so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”
Three years later, it’s not yet clear how Sanders will proceed. Does he still believe taxing carbon is worth fighting for, or will he eschew consistency in favor of a new approach to tackling the climate crisis?