“Let us go forward together. The struggle continues.” This memorable tweet has since garnered close to one million likes and 122,000 retweets since Bernie Sanders typed the words on April 8, 2020; ending his campaign but not the movement.
The disappointment felt around the world at the news of the Vermont Senator’s exit from the US Presidential race was bigger than him. It was even bigger than the movement which had overcome barrier after barrier, just to fall at the unfair final hurdle. It was grief for the planet and those in the Global South who will suffer from the repercussions of the second term of Trump, and arguably the first term of Biden.
With the coronavirus pandemic shaking the world, we cannot go back to normal, and Bernie’s push for universal basic income and healthcare for all is now more than ever far from “radical”. The threat that countries are using the pandemic to roll back environmental protections is also causing unease. For example, Kentucky, South Dakota and West Virginia recently banned anti-fossil fuel protests, which was barely noticed in the US media as a result of Trump’s gross mishandling of the virus response – which is still leading to mass death. We are heading towards the worst recession since the Great Depression, but recovery programmes cannot return to high emissions.
One of the reasons why Sanders and his message resonated with young people was his climate policies – not just empty lip service like that of Biden, who has been close to fossil fuel lobby groups and major corporate interests for his entire career. The candidate, who is set to go head-to-head with the current President, once told the Sunrise Movement to “vote for someone else” after they asked him to ban fracking.
Sanders has been a leader of climate policy, unveiling a Green New Deal plan in August of 2019 that supporters referred to as a “game-changer.” Co-sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who has been supporting Sanders since his heart attack last year – the bill was ground-breaking in its promise of millions of green jobs, justice for those who have been exploited and clean energy, paid for by the culprits of the earth’s deplorable carbon emissions.
The democratic socialist earned the endorsement of major climate justice groups, including Greenpeace and the Sunrise Movement, which expressed its heartbreak at Sanders’ loss: “We’re not going to sugarcoat it: Our hearts are heavy,” Aracely Jimenez, a spokeswoman for the youth-led Sunrise Movement, said in a statement.
“The ball’s now in Joe Biden’s court. To avoid a repeat of 2016, he needs to show young people that he’s going to stand up for them by embracing policies like an ambitious Green New Deal that led young voters to Bernie.” Jimenez added that gathering the young generation to defeat Trump would be significantly harder unless Biden takes on progressive policies. Obama’s own Biden endorsement video encouraged a pivot leftwards, with the former President even stating that he would run on a more progressive platform if he were seeking the nomination in 2020.
Biden has called the Green New Deal “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face,” yet, there is an undeniable air of mistrust surrounding him, especially with those under 35. While socialist policies are now in the public conversation since Covid-19 hit, Biden remains sceptical of adding a national Medicare-for-all system into the climate package. Sanders was the hero of “healthcare is a human right”. What is Biden a hero of? He has yet to make a convincing case that he genuinely believes in any significant policy at all.
“Sanders was certainly more ambitious in many of his public discussions on climate policy than Biden I would say. But, perhaps only marginally so,” said Dr Constantine Boussalis, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Trinity College Dublin.
Biden is certainly promising to bring the US back to, and actually beyond, the Obama-era policy positions. He has set a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, which is consistent with emission pathways that limit the average global temperature rise to 1.5C above the pre-industrial era.
“He has promised to push for a large investment in clean energy and has said that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement in force,” Dr Boussalis added. “For sure, there is room for improvement with his climate plan, but in the context of the election, the main point is that Biden is miles beyond Trump on environmental policy.”
Is the fact that Biden is “beyond Trump” good enough for the planet’s survival? The Sunrise Movement, 350.org and Greenpeace all gave mediocre grades to Biden’s climate plan, which foresees a slower transition from fossil fuels. Biden has said he would approve no new fracking permits on federal land or waters, but existing permits should be evaluated on a case by case basis. This directly contrasts with Sanders’ pledge to “keep fossil fuels in the ground”.
Following coronavirus, the Cop26 talks on climate will be a chance to completely transform the global economy into a sustainable one. Donald Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the Paris accord takes legal effect on November 4, but if a Democrat wins the Presidential election, it could change the course of the world’s most powerful economy and second biggest emitter. The US could establish vital climate leadership if the political will is there – which it currently isn’t. Moderate politicians like Biden often enact moderate results, but Sanders and the progressive movement may shift Biden’s agenda leftwards enough for the climate to have a glimpse at hope.
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