State of the Planet

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Biden vs. Sanders: Who Has the Better Plan to Fix Climate Change?

Climate change is a major issue in the 2020 election, despite President Trump’s denial of its existence. With Super Tuesday behind us, the race for the Democratic presidential nominee has narrowed to a close fight between Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Vice President Joe Biden. Between the two current Democratic frontrunners, who has the best plan to confront climate change?

sanders vs biden
Artwork by Sophie Capshaw-Mack, created for as part of an independent study entitled, “Art, Ethics, and Climate Change.”

Both Biden and Sanders have crafted their environmental policies based on the Green New Deal, a comprehensive Congressional proposal that confronts climate change and its deleterious effects by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and championing environmental equity and justice for all. Sanders calls his environmental plan by the same name, The Green New Deal, while Biden’s plan is known as the Clean Energy Revolution.

Both Biden and Sanders have pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on Day One of being president.

Sanders’ plans to fight climate change include spending $16.3 trillion over the next decade on environmental measures. He estimates that his plan will end unemployment by creating 20 million new jobs as part of a green economy. In contrast, Biden proposes spending dramatically less — $1.7 trillion — on the environment over the next decade, creating 10 million new jobs.

Sanders’ Green New Deal aims to have all of our electricity and transportation fueled by 100 percent renewable energy by no later than 2030. He has pledged to wean the rest of the economy off of fossil fuels by 2050. Biden plans for the United States to have net-zero emissions by no later than 2050. This means that although the country might still be burning fossil fuels and releasing global warming emissions by mid-century, we would make up for it using other techniques, such as carbon capture, to remove an equivalent amount of gases from the atmosphere.

To achieve their goals, both candidates champion setting new regulations that ultimately bypass congressional approval. Biden plans to reverse Trump’s tax cuts for large corporations in order to fund his initiatives. Sanders intends to do the same, perhaps more dramatically, stating he will “massively” raise taxes for corporate polluters and fossil fuel investors. He also says he will raise and aggressively enforce penalties for polluters under the Clean Air Act.

Biden and Sanders similarly emphasize a commitment to environmental justice, specifically for people of color and low-income communities, both of whom are disproportionately harmed by the effects of climate change. Biden states that people of color and low-income communities will have preference in competitive grant programs as part of the Clean Energy Revolution. Alternatively, Sanders promises that communities harmed by the fossil fuel industry, including Native American Tribal communities and rural populations, are guaranteed to receive “dedicated grant funding.”

As for technology, Biden intends to “identify the future of nuclear energy,” investing in further research of nuclear power and implementing small modular nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Sanders, on the other hand, plans to phase out nuclear power until there is a safe and viable solution for dealing with the radioactive waste it produces. Sanders contends that nuclear power and carbon capture and storage are “false solutions.” Biden wants to accelerate carbon capture and storage technologies, making the technology widely available.

Sanders seeks to declare climate change as a national emergency, while Biden has no plans to do so. This is part of the reason why the Sunrise Movement, a youth-based climate activist group, gave Sanders’ environmental plan a score of 95 percent and Biden’s 35 percent for their respective “Green New Deal visions.” Scores were based on the candidates’ plans regarding emissions reductions, economic growth and stability, environmental justice, sustainability, and investments in infrastructure and industry. Greenpeace, another environmental nonprofit, gave Sanders’ Green New Deal an A+ and Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution a B+.

"i voted" sticker
Photo: Unsplash

Sanders’ environmental agenda is more aggressive than Biden’s and is the polar opposite of Trump’s deregulations and climate denial. Critics question, however, the probability of a democratic socialist gaining enough delegates to earn the party’s approval, believing instead that moderates are more likely to support Biden. As of now, Biden leads with 513 delegates compared to Sanders’ 461.

Regardless of who gains a place on the Democratic ticket, one thing is for certain: we cannot fight for a better future under a president who denies that climate change exists.

Sophie Capshaw-Mack is a graduate student in the MPA in Environmental Science and Policy program. This post is part of an independent study entitled, “Art, Ethics, and Climate Change” led by sustainability ethics lecturer Adela Gondek, in which Capshaw-Mack creates art and accompanying written pieces about the present environmental crisis we face.

If you’re interested in learning more about the MPA-ESP program, please contact assistant director Stephanie Hoyt ( with any questions or to schedule a campus visit.

Editor’s note: This post was updated at 1:45pm on March 5, 2020, to reflect the fact that Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race. 

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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Al Lawson
Al Lawson
4 years ago

Using the Sunrise Movement scores as an example of anything is a bit… I dunno. Much of their scoring system is based on entirely subjective rankings how much they “feel” a particular candidate backs a a particular idea. It’s not really representative of actual policies or proposals.

Reply to  Al Lawson
4 years ago

What about the greenpeace rating? Genuine question