In Iowa, Bernie Sanders Seeks To Cement His Status As The Climate Candidate

Climate is a top issue for Iowa Democrats. And the Vermont senator's embrace of biofuels could broaden his appeal.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is making a big bet that his climate credentials can propel him a victory in the Iowa caucuses and secure him as a front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination.

On Saturday, Sanders is slated to hold a live-streamed summit on the climate crisis at Des Moines’ Drake University. The event will feature Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), author Naomi Klein and U.S. Youth Climate Strike co-founder Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old daughter of Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.).

The event marks a new emphasis on climate for Sanders’s Iowa campaign, as the 78-year-old’s base of 18- to 30-year-old voters looks increasingly up for grabs in a heated competition with fellow progressive Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), ascendant moderate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Vice President Joe Biden.

“The margins are razor-thin here,” said Bill Neidhardt, Sanders’s deputy state director in Iowa. “If Bernie Sanders can consolidate the climate vote, if he can expand what the climate vote means and win over more union workers, farmers and rural people, that can make the difference.”

The campaign spent $1.3 million on a television ad promoting Sanders’ $16.3-trillion Green New Deal as a natural fit for a top wind energy- and food-producing state, as Vox first reported.

Sanders is also scheduled to hold at least two rallies with Ocasio-Cortez, who gave him one of his biggest-name endorsements, before moving on to two town halls on green jobs in Iowa’s deep-red 4th Congressional District, which last year reelected white nationalist Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 1, 2019.
Democratic 2020 U.S. presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Democratic Party fundraising dinner in Des Moines on Nov. 1, 2019.

It’s by no means a pivot for Sanders. The senator, long a climate champion, endorsed the Green New Deal movement early on. He hosted a televised town hall on the climate crisis in Washington, D.C., last December featuring the yet-to-be inaugurated Ocasio-Cortez, teenage activists and climate scientists. As the reality sets in that dramatic economic changes are coming ― either by a proactive, planned federal response to global heating or by cataclysmic neglect ― Sanders sees himself as the candidate best positioned to rally voters.

With polls showing Sanders drawing anywhere from 9% to 19% of Democratic voters, the campaign is vying to sway not just young voters, but Iowans who have been alarmed by events like the historic floods that devastated the state last March.

Opinion polls support the theory that leaning in to climate issues could help Sanders. In a March poll from the Des Moines Register and CNN, 91% of likely Democratic caucusgoers in Iowa said they preferred a candidate who supports a Green New Deal, a sweeping industrial plan to eliminate emissions, transition workers into new jobs and spur new markets for farmers. That same month, a Monmouth University survey pegged climate change as the No. 2 issue that likely primary voters in the state thought about after health care.

In an August survey from the Yale Program on Climate Communication, 69% of Iowa voters said they were worried about climate change, while 74% acknowledged warming was having an effect on the state’s agriculture.

The trend bears out nationally. Roughly 38% of registered voters favored a Green New Deal proposal that spent upwards of $10 trillion eliminating climate-changing emissions by 2030, according to an August nationwide survey the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress commissioned from the pollster Civis Analytics. That compares to 32.5% who preferred a $1.7 trillion plan to zero out emissions by 2050 ― something more in line with what Biden proposed.

“If Bernie Sanders can consolidate the climate vote, if he can expand what the climate vote means and win over more union workers, farmers and rural people, that can make the difference.”

- Bill Neidhardt, Sanders’s deputy state director in Iowa

Between June 2018 and May 2019, Iowa experienced its wettest year since records began in 1895, according to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration data the Des Moines Register cited.

But it’s biofuels, a controversial environmental policy that Sanders excluded from the 13,840-word Green New Deal blueprint his campaign released in August, which could broaden the senator’s appeal.

Iowa farmers who produce corn for ethanol, a fuel that helps lower the emissions and tailpipe pollution in gasoline, saw revenues drop by as much as half in the past year as the Trump administration made changes to federal rules on biofuels, said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group.

“That 50% cut in farm income took them from making money to losing money,” Shaw said. “People are losing their farms.”

It’s an approach that could draw criticism from some in the environmental movement who argue that industrial-scale corn farming poses its own ecological problems and investing in lower-carbon fuel potentially detracts from efforts to rapidly convert the U.S. car fleet to battery-electric vehicles.

But it’s good politics in the near term. The Environmental Protection Agency’s proposal to exempt some small oil refineries from the federal biofuels mandate known as the Renewable Fuel Standard sent markets tanking. Shaw said Iowa farmers saw the move as a “betrayal” by President Donald Trump that could “open the door” to a Democrat like Sanders winning voters even in red districts.

Sanders’ Green New Deal plan calls for 100% electric vehicles by 2030, and the senator once criticized ethanol’s “negative impact on farmers and consumers.” Yet he embraced the industry during his 2016 presidential bid and has repeatedly signaled his support in the past few months.

In May, Sanders described “biofuels like ethanol” as “an economic lifeline to rural and farm commodities in Iowa.” During an interview in Afton, Iowa, in July, he listed “creating sustainable non-fossil fuels” as an example of a “positive role” for “rural America” in lowering emissions. At a popular fundraiser in the state this month, Sanders offered biofuels his full-throated support.

“Under my administration, we will significantly increase funding for wind, for solar, for biofuels,” he said. “We’re going to have an energy standard which will encourage research and development into the most efficient biofuels we can, so biofuels and other sustainable energy is exactly the direction we have got to go.”

Championing ethanol, said Iowa congressional candidate J.D. Scholten, could warm otherwise skeptical Iowans to some of the more novel proposals in Sanders’ Green New Deal, which earmarks nearly $15 billion for worker-owned grocery co-ops and calls for a massive expansion of federally owned power plants.

“People who haven’t voted for a Democrat in years ― maybe never ― are giving us a chance,” said Scholten, the Iowa Democrat who nearly unseated King in the last election and hopes to face off with the nine-term congressman again next year. “I personally think if they do it right, the Green New Deal can be a winning message in rural Iowa.”

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