WASHINGTON ― Two years can be a split second in geological time and an eternity in politics, but it may also be just long enough for an issue ignored in one election to reach center stage in the next.
At least, that’s the bet Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is making.
On Monday the Vermont senator packed two rooms of the Hart Senate Office Building for a star-studded town hall meeting on climate change, demonstrating a knowledge and urgency not yet seen from any Democrat likely to challenge President Donald Trump in two years.
“Tonight we are dealing with what the scientific community tells us is the great crisis facing our planet and facing humanity,” Sanders said in his opening statement. “That is climate change.”
Speakers included 350.org founder Bill McKibben, The Green Collar Economy author Van Jones, activist and “Big Little Lies” star Shailene Woodley, climate scientist Brenda Ekwurzel, activist and musician Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and Mayor Dale Ross of deep-red Georgetown, Texas, whose pragmatic embrace of newly cheap renewable energy has made him a poster boy for how Republicans could quit climate change denialism.
Rep.-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), who has made championing a so-called Green New Deal her first priority since arriving in Washington, emerged as the fiercest voice on the panel Monday.
“This is going to be the Great Society, the moon shot, the civil rights movement of our generation,” she said. “That is the scale of the ambition that this movement is going to require.”
In the 2016 presidential election, Sanders staked out the most ambitious climate platform of any candidate, vowing to slash carbon dioxide pollution 40 percent by 2030, end fossil fuel subsidies and ban fracking. Despite stark policy differences with his chief rival in the primaries ― former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported fracking and raised twice as much from the oil and gas industry as her Republican opponent ― climate change remained a policy backwater in the election.
Now Sanders seems bent on making climate change the central issue of a second White House run as his advisers openly speculate about when, not if, he declares his 2020 candidacy. Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another big-name progressive expected to run, outlined a climate policy in the form of a bill to require public companies disclose financial risk from warming or regulations to curb emissions.
The event on Monday ― broadcast live on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter ― was designed to propel the senator to the front of a crowded field of likely presidential contenders on an issue urgent to the young and to communities of color, who bear the brunt of increased air pollution and more extreme weather.
“In 2016, Senator Sanders made addressing climate change a critical part of his bold plan for the United States, and has been talking about the very real threats presented by a changing climate for the past three decades,” Dulce Anayasaenz, a co-founder of Organizing for Bernie, said by email. “Trump is investing in the millionaire and billionaire class through a corporate welfare program that reduces their fair share of taxes, while Senator Sanders will invest in working families and frontline communities.”
The effects of climate change became highly visible in the last two years. Records for everything from global temperatures to climate-related property damage were set and broken. Unprecedented storms deluged states from Texas to North Carolina and devastated Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. History-making wildfire seasons incinerated 3.2 million acres of California.
“You have a diaspora in the country moving to other states,” Ekwurzel said of the thousands displaced by wildfires and hurricanes over the past two years. “They may be temporary, they may be long term. These people are on the move, creatures are on the move, adapting to climate change. But it doesn’t have to be that bad.”
The town hall meeting took place one day after the 24th United Nations Conference of the Parties, the leading international summit on climate change, convened in Katowice, Poland. That gathering was aimed at translating the October report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change into policy. The report warned that world governments must reduce global emissions by half within 12 years to avoid warming that could lead to $54 trillion in damage.
Sanders’ event also came amid a swell of grassroots support for Ocasio-Cortez’s Green New Deal, a sweeping federal stimulus package to drastically scale up renewable energy infrastructure. More than a dozen sitting and incoming members of Congress have already backed a resolution calling for a House select committee to focus on the matter.
The climate crisis and burgeoning political movement calling for action to address it hasn’t translated to coverage on the most influential medium in American political discourse.
Just 29 percent of major televised debates in the 2018 midterm elections mentioned the issue. Of the 107 news segments that ABC, CBS and NBC aired from Nov. 8 to Nov. 13 on the deadly wildfires that scorched California last month, just four discussed climate change. In 2017 the influential Sunday morning talk shows on ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox News aired a combined 260 minutes of climate coverage, 79 percent of which focused exclusively on Trump’s personal beliefs on science and his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
“Unlike commercial television, this event is not sponsored by Exxon Mobil,” Sanders said. “Nor is it paid or sponsored by the Koch brothers, who made most of their fortune in the fossil fuel industry.”