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A satellite image, August 6, 2018, shows smoke from multiple large California wildfires. Image: NASA
Super Tuesday is just a day away and there’s been a glaring omission from the pundit analysis happening on cable news: how climate change will shape the vote in California, the looming prize that will help (barring an unforeseen circumstance) either Joe Biden or Bernie Sanders clinch the Democratic nomination. While several polls have shown that Democratic voters overall are increasingly worried about climate change, in California the state of the planet truly is a key voting priority. In a state where wildfires are exacerbating already high levels of housing insecurity, fire-season blackouts are putting into question the future of investor-owned utilities, and where drought is threatening the world’s 5th largest economy, how candidates talk about climate action is shaping important political endorsements and the calculations voters are making before heading to the polls.
So since cable news won’t air a segment about climate change in the California primary, this is how we’d produce the segment to compare the ways in which leading Democrats Bernie Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, and Joe Biden’s climate plans stack up in the Golden State:
Housing: The three top issues for California voters are homelessness, housing affordability, and the environment. And in California, all three of these issues are intrinsically linked. Wildfires are increasing in severity in California and each year, more housing is destroyed in a state where affordable housing is already in a crisis situation. Bernie Sanders, most boldly of all the candidates, has proposed to expand the National Housing Trust Fund in order to build the units necessary to guarantee housing as a right to all Americans. Meanwhile, Joe Biden vows to fight housing shortages through the same mechanisms that he’d use to combat urban sprawl–mainly linking dense housing to public transportation. Both Biden and Bloomberg have similar aspirations in subsidizing rent, building more affordable housing units and helping renters transition to homeownership. However, unlike Bloomberg, Biden has vowed to support California Rep. Maxine Waters’ $13 billion Ending Homelessness Act.
Bernie Sanders has come out swinging for PG&E, naming the greed of its executives as the reason for the mismanagement and chaos as well as reiterating the need to have the state take over the utility. As a result, PG&E’s largest union has taken aim at Sanders, saying that his endorsement of a public takeover would be prohibitively expensive and misguided.
And while Biden’s wildfire mitigation plan isn’t as robust or detailed as Sanders’, California’s largest firefighter union endorsed Biden after the support he showed them in the wake of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire. Though it’s still unclear how much these unions will affect that way in which Californians vote, Joe Biden is more aligned with the specific California labor groups most affected by wildfires.
The type of future investor-owned utilities face in California will be an important development for the rest of the nation to watch. After all, if California’s utilities aren’t able to provide steady, reliable energy, then how can the state maintain its status as the world’s 5th largest economy?
Drought: In the new century, California has had to grapple with an intensifying drought that’s threatening not just the state’s agricultural sector, but is forcing cities to grapple with water rationing and more stringent water management practices. Though there have been years where atmospheric rivers have brought floods, much of California is back to drought conditions. A federal plan to help manage water will be key, especially with looming Colorado River water shortages threatening the lifeline of cities like Los Angeles.
While Joe Biden identifies the water problems the West is facing, neither his plan nor that of his closest Democratic competitors have a clear outline of how to grapple with uncertain water resources for a state of 40 million people. At the same time, they haven’t been pressed by the media to clarify how they would handle this threat. If Cape Town running out of water was any indication of how dire circumstances can become, candidates need to be prepared to address a water crisis in America’s second-largest city.
Why This Matters: The adage goes that the future happens first in California. When it comes to preparing for climate change and a green energy future, that’s certainly the case as California is a prime example that comprehensive strides to limit GHG emissions do not have to harm the economy:
California voters are climate voters and economic issues in California are fundamentally climate issues. When Californians cast their votes tomorrow, they will in large part be choosing the candidate whose climate plan is best suited to limiting emissions while preparing the nation for a future where we’ll be feeling the effects of a rapidly warming planet. Whether it’s Sanders, Biden, or Bloomberg, the winner of California’s primary will set the tone for how climate issues are talked about throughout the 2020 presidential election. That’s why any Super Tuesday coverage that doesn’t cover climate change as a top issue in California is missing a key part of the factors motivating the state’s electorate.
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