For Democrats, When Does Climate Change … Actually Matter?

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 Bernie’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 “at latest.”

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 buildout 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.