Under President Sanders, the Planet Will Feel the Burn

While he calls global warming an “unprecedented” threat, Bernie Sanders’s energy proposals could actually raise, not lower, U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.


Whether on stage during debates or on the stump, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders vows he’ll do more to fight climate change than any other U.S. presidential candidate this year. Yet by kicking nuclear power out of the picture, his proposed energy policies would probably do just the opposite.

The front-runner for the Democratic nomination, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has vowed to continue and expand the environmental policies of the Obama administration; in a Thursday debate against Sanders, she cited “extraordinary threats” that climate change poses to the United States and the rest of the world.

Sanders promises to go much further. “We have got to realize that this is a global environmental crisis of unprecedented urgency,” Sanders said in the debate, which stood in sharp contrast to Republican forums where climate change is but a blip on the radar.

But Sanders’s remedies raise as many questions as they answer. His call to ban fracking and to phase out nuclear power, in particular, could throw U.S. progress on climate change into reverse.

“Wouldn’t those proposals drive the country back to coal and oil, and actually undermine your fight against global warming?” Errol Louis, one of the debate moderators, asked Sanders during Thursday’s debate in Brooklyn, New York.

“No, they wouldn’t,” Sanders shot back. He called for a massive increase in the use of renewable energy, especially solar power, and said that if the United States took the climate threat as seriously as it did the Nazis in World War II, the country could in a few years radically transform its entire energy system.

Energy analysts, if not Sanders supporters, view askance his proposals that could undermine the twin pillars of the progress that the United States has made. Fracking for natural gas has helped utilities mothball dirty coal plants. And nuclear power provides 20 percent of U.S. electricity — and all of it is emissions free. Both energy sources would be targeted by Sanders, yet very hard to replace.

“There is a basic reality here, which is that nuclear energy is the single-largest source of zero-emissions electricity in the United States,” Josh Freed, vice president of clean energy at Third Way, a centrist think tank, told Foreign Policy. “If you care about climate change, that should be a very significant influence on your policy.”

Third Way crunched the numbers and found that getting rid of nuclear power means U.S. carbon emissions would “go up dramatically,” and in the worst-case scenario, could “wipe out a decade’s worth of progress” and return U.S. carbon emissions to levels last seen in 2005. That’s because retired nuclear plants would almost always be replaced by natural gas or coal. Freed said that when the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant was shuttered in 2014, the electricity shortfall was largely made up by burning more coal.

It’s a question that bedevils countries around the world. Germany is phasing out nuclear power as part of its ambitious energy transition, and is betting it can power one of the world’s biggest economies largely with renewable energy. But Germany’s greenhouse-gas emissions rose in the years after the phaseout was reaffirmed in 2011.

Japan shut down all of its nuclear plants after the 2011 meltdown at Fukushima. What made up the electricity shortfall? Crude oil, natural gas, and coal, which together make it a lot harder for Japan to reach its emissions targets.

Even France, the world’s most nuclear-friendly country — where more than 75 percent of electricity comes from atomic energy— plans to throttle back. But renewable energy alone would not be enough to make up the difference, analysts have found, which will mean greater reliance on fossil fuels like gas and coal.

Sanders’s stance on nuclear power has widened a fracture in the environmental community. Some, like Bill McKibben, a climate activist who founded the advocacy group to press for quicker and more comprehensive action on climate change, cheers Sanders’s approach to both gas and nukes.

Others, like former NASA scientist James Hansen, rail against Sanders’s anti-nuclear stance, especially his calls to shut down the Indian Point nuclear plant that powers New York City, as “fear-mongering” that will set back the fight against climate change.

Many Sanders supporters are wrestling with the same questions. That’s largely because climate change is an important issue for Democrats, and particularly for the young voters flocking to Sanders. No issue in the campaign divides Democrats from Republicans more sharply than climate change, Gallup recently concluded.

Ben Zinevich, a freshman at New York University who’s active in “Students for Bernie” at NYU, called climate change “the major issue” in the first presidential race in which he will vote. While Clinton also pledges to take strong action on climate change and boost renewable energy, Zinevich — like Sanders — bemoans Clinton’s “incremental” approach to solving big problems. He figures Sanders’s call to boost renewable energy will work, and said the nuclear phaseout is “not that big a concern.”

Nathaniel Goldbloom, who just turned 18, is also a climate voter. He concedes that in the short term, Sanders’s policies could send harmful emissions rising again. But he says that Sanders’s ll-in approach to renewable energy is needed to spur the investments necessary to really clean up the power sector.

Like many others, Tanner McMahon, a senior at New York University, called Sanders’s clean-energy visions “doable,” and pointed to the rapid growth of the electric-car company Tesla to dispel naysayers. “Many people are just afraid of change,” he said.

But even McMahon takes issue with Sanders’s anti-nuclear stance, whose nasty reputation among many on the left, he figures, is just a relic of the Cold War.

“Nuclear, I think, has enormous potential,” he said. “I trust Bernie to change his mind in the future.”

Photo credit: JUSTIN SULLIVAN/Getty

Keith Johnson is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @KFJ_FP

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