Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign has become the first in the 2020 race to promise to offset the planet-warming gases produced while traveling the country.
In a statement to HuffPost, the campaign said it plans to fund renewable energy projects to compensate for the carbon dioxide spewed by the planes and automobiles in which Sanders and his staff will travel while they barnstorm the nation ahead of the Democratic National Convention in July 2020.
“Bernie Sanders is a champion in the fight for climate justice and, like him, we know we need to address our emissions through action, not just rhetoric,” Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ campaign manager, said in a statement. “We are proud to lead the way in the fight against climate change by acting boldly to move our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy sources.”
Climate change is already a central plank of Sanders’ second White House bid. In December, two months before he announced his candidacy, the senator from Vermont hosted a televised town hall with climate scientists and advocates to discuss the crisis. In February, he attacked Trump for ignoring climate change in his State of the Union address. During his stump speeches, Sanders routinely skewers the fossil fuel industry and promises to enact a Green New Deal if elected.
Over the past two years, he’s introduced legislation to set a national target for 100 percent renewable electricity by 2050 and spend $146 billion rebuilding hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with climate-resilient infrastructure and clean energy.
The announcement boosts Sanders’ bona fides on the issue and gives him a leg up in a crowded field of Democrats putting more attention on climate change than ever before. The move comes a week after the Sanders campaign became the first to unionize.
Sanders has also drawn heat recently for his uncertain stance on reparations for the descendants of slaves and for quietly hiring a journalist who frequently attacked his 2020 opponents on Twitter as an adviser.
Carbon offsets represent a drop in the bucket on an issue that requires unprecedented systemic change to avert climate disaster. But transportation emissions make up the largest share of the United States’ climate pollution. Sanders’ announcement steels the campaign against accusations of hypocrisy, often made by Republicans who take an ideological stance against the scientific realities of climate change.
In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s Democratic presidential campaign vowed to buy carbon offsets after a conservative political action committee backing Republican Jeb Bush attacked the former secretary of state for riding in a private jet that burned 387 gallons of fuel per hour.
The Sanders campaign is buying carbon offsets from Vermont-based NativeEnergy, the same company Clinton used three years ago. Once dubbed the “celebrities’ choice in offset providers,” NativeEnergy provides third-party verification of how its offsets are used and boasts a high score as a benefit corporation ― a sort of LEED certification of for-profit companies that pay employees decent wages and provide measurable value to society.
Carbon emissions from campaign travel first became an issue during the 2004 election, when the NRDC Action Fund, an affiliate of the Natural Resources Defense Council, began raising concerns about the huge amount of fuel candidates burned crisscrossing the country.
In 2007, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack became the first presidential contender to go carbon neutral. John Edwards followed soon after. By 2008, both Democrat Barack Obama and Republican John McCain “rushed to put themselves on a carbon diet,” according to MSNBC.
During the 2016 Democratic primary, Sanders clashed with Clinton over climate change, attacking her support for increased gas drilling in a heated debate. After Clinton clinched the nomination, the issue disappeared, without a single question asked during three debates between Clinton and her Republican opponent, Donald Trump.
“We are proud to lead the way in the fight against climate change by acting boldly to move our energy system away from fossil fuels and towards sustainable energy sources.”
The 2020 race is already starkly different.
Nearly every major declared contender for the Democratic nomination has expressed support for the Green New Deal, a movement calling for a sweeping national industrial policy that zeroes out greenhouse gases over a decade, guarantees clean-energy jobs to millions and puts the country on course to generate as close to 100 percent of its electricity from renewables as possible in a decade.
In a first, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is centering his entire campaign on climate change, vowing to make it his priority if nominated. He joined Sanders, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii) in signing the No Fossil Fuel Money pledge, an oath promising to reject donations from oil, gas and coal companies and their executives.
The newfound attention on climate change comes after the United Nations’ stark warning in October that world governments have roughly a decade to halve global emissions or face an average temperature increase of at least 2.7 degrees Fahrenheit ― about half-a-degree Celsius more than what the world experiences today. Warming beyond that level is forecast to cause catastrophic flooding, droughts and extreme weather, with economic damages topping $54 trillion.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story mistakenly described the current ownership structure of NativeEnergy. A majority stake is not held by a consortium of American Indian tribes.