The Democrats and the Climate Crisis

CNN performed a public service with its Climate Crisis Town Hall in late August 2019.

Democratic presidential candidates facing the climate change monster

Democratic presidential candidates (Joe Biden (D-former vice president in the Obama administration), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Sen Amy Klobuchar (D-MN), Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Mayor Pete Buttigieg (D-South Bend, IN), Beto O’ Rourke (D-former Congressman from Texas), Julian Castro (D-former Secretary of Housing, Obama administration) and Andrew Yang (D-businessman), spoke eloquently about the policies they would advocate and advance, should they become president.

They all expressed sincerity and some passion when they said this was a life-threatening crisis facing not merely the United States but the entire world. They promised climate change would be weaved into everything they would do in the White House.

All candidates demonstrated some grasp of what it means to fight climate change in two fronts. First, try to protect the country from real storms, forest fires, sudden rains or sudden draughts, potentially millions of climate refugees, and rising sea water levels and warm and rising temperature. Second, and even more difficult than the real violence of abrupt climate change, would be convincing millions of Americans, including the petrochemical-agribusiness-military-industrial complex, that global warming is here with us now and not a hoax, as president Trump foolishly, irresponsibly, and maliciously has been saying for years.

The candidates, especially Bernie Sanders,  gave us to understand their proposed task would be even more difficult because the United States has been so intertwined with fossil fuels. The last century of American history was a history of petrochemical supremacy.

But each politician framed his / her speech or answer to questions to practical measures that would not be an immediate threat to the reigning petroleum kingdom of Exxon Mobil and a few other oil companies.

For example, all candidates promised to end the anti-environmental sleaze of the Trump administration, including terminating any fracking in federal lands and oil exploration and drilling in coastal waters.

Bernie Sanders

Senator Bernie Sanders has an extensive climate change plan, which, in honoring President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he calls Green New Deal. This proposal promises to remake America the way Roosevelt did to fight and win WWII.

Sanders will do “massive investments” in transforming the United States from the greatest polluter in the world to a model world citizen. By 2030, Sanders’ America is projected to reduce its carbon footprint by 71 percent. This would guarantee 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation. However, complete decarbonization (meaning zero fossil fuel use) would have to wait till 2050.

Joe Biden has also been arguing that his Clean Energy Revolution — solar and wind technologies – would end transforming US economy to zero carbon emissions no later than 2050.

Pentagon and agriculture

The unspoken elephants in the room are the Pentagon and agriculture. Their carbon footprint is gigantic. The Department of Defense is the world’s largest institutional user of petroleum and “the single largest producer of greenhouse gases in the world.” In 2012, one-third of all greenhouse gas emissions came from agriculture, worldwide. In the United States, in the age of Trump, we don’t know the exact contribution of agriculture to making out planet warmer. But we can safely assume agribusiness is responsible for more than one-third of all US greenhouse gas emissions.

Existential threat

In 2019, climate change is an existential threat. Scientists have been documenting this looming emergency. In a recent 2019 report, Patricia Espinosa, Executive Secretary of UN Climate Change, said that “climate change is now an existential threat.”

All democratic candidates made statements to that effect, too. Accepting the burning of petroleum (as well as natural gas and coal) beyond 2030 undermines the political promise of the presidential candidates and makes a mockery of the reality of environmental emergency. The year 2050 is too far into a dangerous future. Decarbonization should be over by 2030 – in the United States and throughout the world.

Most of the presidential candidates made it clear they would cease subsidies to oil, natural gas, and coal companies, while taxing them to reflect the pollution and harm they have been causing.

New Deal for a green America and world?

Sanders would spend 16.5 trillion dollars for remaking America ecological and just.

Start with a fast transition to non-polluting and carbon-neutral solar and wind energy. And integrate this technical work to social transformation by resurrecting key institutions of the Roosevelt New Deal.

Sanders says the federal government would demand federal dollars open opportunities for women and minorities earning a livable wage in the development of green technologies against climate change.

Second, the federal government would reauthorize a Civilian Conservation Corps, a Land and Water Conservation Corps, and regional authorities to generate solar and wind electricity. This means hiring millions of Americans to be trained for cleaning up pollution and bringing ecological order in the use of land and water. These are necessary and gigantic tasks. Other millions of workers would be employed in the creation of solar panels and wind technologies for the production of energy.

Other democratic candidates had similar proposals, though none could match those of Sanders in bringing about the fundamental metamorphosis necessary to slow down and even put a break to climate change – in this country and the world.

Sanders recognized that the billionaires have been responsible for the crisis –ecological, climatological and political. He promised to tax them and put them out of business.

Joe Biden

Joe Biden left the billionaires out of his talk. He supports the Green New Deal, promising that the products of clean energy made here at home and exported all over the world would raise the income and the standing of the middle class and increase prosperity in the country.

However, his most convincing argument to be the next president had to do with his past experience of bringing international leaders together for the resolution of global problems.

Climate change is the mother of all global political crises. It is extremely controversial and difficult. Unless the next president can bring world leaders to agree on a zero-carbon emission strategy by 2030, the fight for a livable planet may be at risk.

Biden is still the top Democratic vote getter. Should he win the nomination, and, in all likelihood, become the next president, he would be wise to draw on the wisdom of all Democratic candidates.

Cory Booker

Sen. Cory Booker admitted he is a vegan. This is important because the food one eats determines other important priorities in life. Stopping the eating of animals, for example, would reduce substantially the considerable carbon emissions of agriculture and nullify the burning of the Amazon and other tropical forests for cattle feed and beef exports.

Eating no animals would also restructure the dogmatic ideology and practice of giant one-crop plantations sprayed by deadly carcinogens and neurotoxins.

Booker did not make these fertile and timely political connections of food. Instead, he spoke with knowledge and conviction about the hazardous state of animal agriculture in the United States – and its hazardous impact on black communities. Yet, he failed to say anything about the near extinction of black farmers in America, their terrible treatment at the hands of racist large white farmers and US Department of Agriculture.

Booker also muddied the waters with his bad choice of favoring the continuation of nuclear power plants and, even worse, his delusion that science can invent harmless nuclear power plants. He is obsessed that huge government grants for research can have miraculous cures for our ills, including climate change harms.

Elizabeth Warren

Elizabeth Warren ranks high among Democrats. She, like Sanders, is not afraid of large corporations. She has been fighting on behalf of consumers for a long time. She is against the corruption of the government in Washington, DC, favoring the wealthy and the well-connected.

She spoke confidently of “taking on Big Ag,” paying the farmers a fair price and employing them in the fight against climate change. This is an extremely important proposal, though we don’t know how a Warren administration would accomplish such a miracle.

Farmers are at the heart of climate change. They raise our food, but put us all at risk with their toxic methods of farming. Warren needs to give us details how would she bring agribusiness under the law and under the strictures of ecology, including those of climate change.

Warren is for taxing the superrich, including the fossil fuel billionaires, in order to fight climate change and raise the middle class and introduce a sense of equity and justice in America. She speaks about “bold action” by the federal government, but does not see a major role by the government in the long-term struggle to save ourselves and the planet.

The remaining candidates (Julian Castro, Andrew Yang, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, Beto O’ Rourke, and Pete Buttigieg) expressed anger against the fossil fuel companies, but their vision of what to do was limited by their unspoken perceptions of what is possible in an oligarchic America.


In watching this fascinating drama on the CNN stage, I was caught in my own experience as well.

The entire country is addicted to petroleum. Outside of trees and a few flowers, the petroleum-burning car is everywhere you look. They make me mad as hell. But they exemplify the shrewdness and almost criminal intent of the petroleum elite that carefully designed a country based on petroleum.

The burning of petroleum by billions of cars and trucks (all over the planet), and numerous other machines like tractors, airplanes and factories, is responsible for the emission into the atmosphere of enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and other gasses raising global temperature.

In addition, petrochemical pesticides, which no Democratic candidate mentioned in his / her talk, have been the columns supporting industrialized agriculture. Petroleum merchants and their spokesmen at the land grant universities trained farmers in raising crops by spraying those crops.

Growing food with pesticides and tractors and machinery dependent on petroleum is a major source of greenhouse gas emissions raising global temperature.

Industrialized agriculture is also responsible for two more practices inimical to life. One, its inhumane animal farms are factories emitting methane and other greenhouse gasses. Countless animals packed like sardines next to each other are responsible for these gases.

The animals are being fatten for slaughter. The result is the annual “production” of millions of tons of meat from cattle, chicken, hogs, ducks, lamb, sheep and goats. Second, loggers clearcut forests for land growing hay, soybeans and corn for confined animals.

The democratic opportunity

These private thoughts bounced on and off the Democratic agenda: virtuous in goal, rich in content, not fully documented, but courageous in taking on the most devious and unpatriotic people on this warming planet: the fossil fuel billionaire class.

Chances are good we will reclaim the White House and the Senate. Then, no matter who the Democratic president is (Biden, Sanders or Warren) this country can be brought together to fight its greatest struggle ever: by 2030 reducing and eliminating greenhouse emissions while spreading the economic and political benefits of this remaking of America and the world.

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Evaggelos Vallianatos is a historian and environmental strategist, who worked at the US Environmental Protection Agency for 25 years. He is the author of 6 books, including Poison Spring with Mckay Jenkings.

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