PORTSMOUTH, New Hampshire — The central case of Bernie Sanders’s campaign isn’t the promise to create a single-payer health care system, or to break up the big banks.
The Big Promise is that Sanders will engineer an unstoppable progressive train that carries the country leftward. Sanders promises a no-compromise liberalism powered by millions of activists he can call on at a moment’s notice to force Congress and the rest of the political establishment in the proper direction.
His critics call it naive; the crowds at his massive events call it genius. As a rallying cry, it’s been smart politics. But can it actually solve big problems? Sanders’s newest surrogate, leading environmental activist Bill McKibben, told BuzzFeed News Thursday that radical, movement politics are the only way to beat back the political power of climate change skeptics. In a long interview about the Democratic Party, movement politics, President Obama, and Hillary Clinton, McKibben tried to make the practical case for Sanders’s revolutionary politics.
Compromise won’t work on climate, McKibben said.
“When you're dealing with climate change, your adversary, more than anything, your adversary is physics. And physics is entirely uninterested in spin, positioning, and it's a terrible negotiator — 'Ah well, you know, OK, the economy's in a rough patch, we'll meet you halfway.' — Physics doesn't care.” he said. “Bernie has a good understanding that we're going to have to do big things, not the little easy things because this is not one of those issues. It's different from most of the political problems that we're used to dealing with, where everybody meets halfway and you come back five years later and everyone starts again and whatever."
“That doesn't work here, and it especially doesn't work here because we've wasted 25 years,” he said. “We're now have to work hard, and decisively and adamantly.”
McKibben doesn’t serve as surrogate for candidates very often. Sanders is a friend and fellow Vermonter, and (McKibben said) one of the few in Washington who really get it when it comes to climate change. On Thursday, McKibben was scheduled to criss-cross the state on Sanders’s behalf, appearing with him at a couple of events and stumping on his own at a couple more. His goal: convince people that Sanders’s revolution is for real.
“My job is to vouch for bernie,” he said. “I can straight up tell people he means what he says.”
Though he looked entirely the part of a Middlebury College professor on the campaign trail — dark corduroy pants, a fleece vest over checked shirt, the whole ensemble emblazoned with a large, light blue Bernie sticker — McKibben is no stranger to radical political action. As a leader of 350.org, he helped push the Obama administration to scuttle approval for the Keystone XL pipeline project through a program of modern digital grassroots politics and old-school civil disobedience. McKibben chained himself to the White House fence and was arrested trying to make Keystone a big deal in Washington.
The brash Keystone opposition movement had its detractors. Some in the environmental movement felt that prioritizing the defeat of a popular pipeline project relegated the idea of actual bipartisan compromise on climate change even further into the realm of political fantasy. The green lobby is a well-established part of Washington politics and there are plenty of activists there who still believe in winning Republican support for climate change legislation. Keystone pitted those activists against those from the McKibben school, who believe the climate change cause is too critical to human survival to waste time trying to find middle ground.
The anti-Keystone effort was a success. Hillary Clinton came out against the pipeline project last September and not long after the administration went on record in opposition to it. The fight has now entered the opaque world of the international trade court system, but 350’s goal of making Keystone opposition fundamental to being a political ally of environmentalists was a success.
Sanders has been associated with the McKibben school of environmentalism since the early days. He publicly opposed Keystone from the beginning and has warmly embraced the state-level anti-pipeline protests that have emerged since the Keystone fight was won. He’s already positioned himself for the next big climate change fight, the push for legislation mandating the fossil fuels still in the ground stay there.
In recent days, the Sanders campaign has tried to draw a stark contrast with Clinton over climate. Sanders aides have said Clinton doesn’t have a detailed climate plan and last month a 350 activist confronted her with the suggestion that she’s too cozy with the fossil-fuel industry. Clinton has said repeatedly that fighting climate change is a top priority.
For the most part, McKibben shied away from attacking Clinton over climate. (“I guess I’m not a very good surrogate,” he said, when pressed to talk about Clinton’s climate policy.) But in the past he’s been happy to take her on, writing an open letter to Clinton last summer detailing “Five reasons environmentalists distrust you.”
McKibben said he’s been happier with the way Clinton has talked about climate since then.
“I think she said some of the right things,” he said. “She came out against Keystone after that and she also joined Bernie in calling for an investigation of Exxon, I think. Which is the correct thing to be doing.”
But if Clinton’s rhetoric on climate is good, Sanders’s consistency on the topic is better, McKibben said.
“I was really pleased when Hillary, in September, came out against the Keystone pipeline. I tweeted about it and said good for you,” he said dryly. “I was happier when Bernie came out against it in September of 2011, but, you know...”
Clinton has her own green bona fides to run on this cycle. Clinton won the endorsement from the League of Conservation Voters in November after leaders of the group said Clinton “has proved she’s an effective leader who can stand up to the big polluters.” (Sanders supporters flooded the group’s Facebook page noting he had a higher LCV score than Clinton, a fact the group said was due to a missed vote.)
McKibben chalked up the LCV endorsement to “old habits,” from a quieter, more ways-of-Washington-mindful environmental lobby “still lingering on.”
The Sanders vision of politics — grassroots, angry, active — is more appealing to the new brand of “environmental justice” activists guiding environmentalism to a new, more adversarial stance that crops up around just about every fossil fuel project in the country these days, McKibben said.
“The head of the Natural Gas Association last year complained about the ‘Keystonization’ of every project in the country,” McKibben said. “That made me feel very good.”
“Sanders is a movement politician,” McKibben went on. “His theory of history is that movements change things. I think he’s right.”
Whether or not voters buy Sanders’s promised ability to lead a grassroots movement from the Oval Office that can topple the pillars of the establishment could be the key to whether or not his enthusiastic boosters turn into reliable voters for him. Whether Democrats really believe that kind of active revolutionary politics is possible or not is a key to a Sanders victory.
McKibben is already convinced that kind of politics works. It’s the way forward for the environmental movement, he said — no matter who the president is.
“The cruelest trick would be to elect Bernie and then walk away. Leave him to deal with all this stuff on his own,” McKibben said. “That would be terrible. And I don't think he wants it and I think he'd be mad if people did that and rightly so.”
“I like Barack Obama and went and knocked on doors for him, but also ended up chained to his fence at the White House,” he added. “It's completely possible I'll end up chained to Bernie Sanders's fence too.”