CHICO, Calif. (CN) – Offering a California town that burned last fall as proof of the devastation global warming can cause, Vermont Senator and 2020 hopeful Bernie Sanders promised wildfire survivors Thursday that as president he will hold the oil industry liable for its “criminal behavior.”
Hosting a climate change talk just miles from the city of Paradise, which bore the brunt of the deadly 2018 Camp Fire, Sanders outlined his new climate change plank and told the survivors their “pain and suffering” won’t be forgotten.
“Let Paradise, California, be the wakeup call for our entire nation,” Sanders told a crowd of about 700 people gathered in the nearby city of Chico.
Four years have may have passed since Sanders last barnstormed through Northern California, but his dedicated base of grassroots volunteers flocked to him Thursday. They packed a small venue to hear the veteran senator pin part of the blame for California’s recent mega-wildfires on climate change.
Sanders painted his visit not as a political rally, but a listening session with both Camp Fire survivors and the nearby college town that welcomed in thousands left homeless from the fire. That’s not to say he didn’t get political.
“Donald Trump says that climate change is a hoax. Donald Trump is dangerously, dangerously, wrong,” Sanders said of the president.
After touring fire-ravaged Paradise and the ongoing rebuilding efforts with his wife Jane, Sanders spoke publicly for the first time about his $16.3 trillion climate change plan.
The plan sets a deadline of 2030 to slash U.S. carbon emissions by 71% below acceptable levels fixed in 2017. The blueprint also calls for the elimination of fossil fuel use nationwide by 2050, along with bans on fracking and a divestment of public pension funds from fossil fuel holdings.
While Sanders lost to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in California’s 2016 Democratic primary, he performed admirably, carrying several counties including Butte County. He finished with 46% of the vote compared to 53% for Clinton statewide, and he’s still incredibly popular in the northern part of the state.
Considering California’s history of environmental activism and climate change legislation, there was perhaps no better place to introduce his ambitious plan. His talk – which covered the possibility of mega-droughts, epic floods and mass migrations due to climate change – was well received.
“He’s in tune with our environmental realities, unlike many other politicians,” said Rita Reynosa, 38, of Butte County.
A recent statewide poll found that 71% of respondents are very concerned that climate change is making wildfires more severe, while 80% said a candidate’s environmental positions are important in the 2020 election. In the same poll, Sanders (12%) trailed senators Elizabeth Warren (15%) and Kamala Harris (19%) with likely Democratic voters.
Chelsea West, a registered nurse who helped evacuees escape a hospital and ended up narrowly surviving the Camp Fire after being rescued by a bulldozer crew, said she felt “seen and heard” when she met recently with Sanders in Washington.
“What I found was not just a well-qualified politician, but a man who genuinely cares about the well-being of others,” West said.
The Democrat’s Green New Deal is more expensive than other leading Democratic candidate climate proposals: Former Vice President Joe Biden has called for $1.7 trillion over 10 years while Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has called for $2 trillion.
Aside from slowing the effects of climate change, Sanders says his plan will end tax breaks for the fossil fuel industry as well as its “legal immunity.” He believes companies like Exxon and California-based Chevron have profited for decades while knowingly destroying the environment, and should be held criminally liable.
“They’ve been permitted to walk away from their toxic spills, their abandoned wells and other environmental disasters,” Sanders said. “Make no mistake about it, what the executives of Exxon Mobile and other fossil fuel executives are doing, is exactly what the tobacco industry did when it lied about the health risks associated with smoking.”
The Sanders campaign is spending more resources on California this time around, as the state has moved its primary up to Super Tuesday in March. Thursday’s trip to Butte County kicks off a Northern California tour that will include stops in Sacramento and San Francisco on Friday.
Sanders acknowledged the sticker shock his plan carries, but said the cost of inaction is greater.
“As we look out at the destruction here in Paradise and the pain that this community and others have experienced as a result of climate change, we know that we cannot allow the greed of fossil fuel billionaires to destroy our planet and our children’s future for one second longer,” Sanders said.
Sanders will join nearly all of his Democratic presidential rivals at the Democratic National Committee’s summer meeting in San Francisco this weekend. The event got off to a rocky start Thursday, when the organization’s resolutions committee voted down a resolution calling for a climate-focused debate between the 2020 hopefuls – something former contender and Washington state Governor Jay Inslee lobbied unsuccessfully for in June.
The committee’s 8-17 vote drew immediate protests from several groups in attendance, including the youth-led Sunrise Movement.
However, the committee passed a well-received amendment lifting a ban on presidential candidates participating in non-DNC climate events, and the DNC also agreed to sanction a forum – rather than a debate – on climate change.