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Bernie Sanders, Candidate With Most Ambitious Climate Plan, Drops out of 2020 Race

Politics
Bernie Sanders, Candidate With Most Ambitious Climate Plan, Drops out of 2020 Race
Bernie Sanders announces he is suspending his campaign via a livestream Wednesday. berniesanders.com via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders, the Independent Vermont Senator who campaigned for aggressive action on the climate crisis and environmental justice, has dropped out of the 2020 Democratic primary race.


His announcement, made Wednesday morning during a conference call with his entire staff, means the more moderate former Vice President Joe Biden will face off against President Donald Trump in November, POLITICO reported. In a speech livestreamed to supporters, Sanders said his campaign had won the "ideological battle" on issues ranging from universal health care to climate action, but that he could see no clear way to secure the nomination.

"Together we have transformed American consciousness as to what kind of nation we can become, and have taken this country a major step forward in the never-ending struggle for economic justice, social justice, racial justice and environmental justice," he told his supporters, according to a transcript provided by The New York Times.

When Sanders first entered the race in February of 2019, he promised to release his own version of the Green New Deal, an ambitious plan to transition the U.S. from fossil fuels to renewable energy while providing jobs and addressing inequality.

When his plan dropped in August, many said it was the most progressive of the proposals of the Democratic candidates contending for the nomination. Verge summed it up at the time:

At $16.3 trillion spent over 15 years, Sanders' climate deal is by far the priciest of all the Democratic candidates left in the primary race. It's also arguably the most progressive — pushing for the US to have a carbon-free economy by 2050. The senator from Vermont also set a 2030 benchmark goal of reaching 100 percent renewable energy in the country's two most carbon-intensive industries, transportation and the power sector, by investing in solar, wind, and geothermal power. Sanders' plan would also declare climate change a national emergency, bring the US back on board with the Paris climate agreement, and commit $200 billion in funding to help developing nations cut their emissions and adapt to the effects of climate change.

His plan earned a 94 out of 100 on Greenpeace's climate scorecard and an endorsement from pro-Green New Deal group the Sunrise Movement.

But after early primary victories in New Hampshire and Nevada, Sanders began to falter beside the more moderate Biden, who won in South Carolina, and then in 10 out of 14 Super Tuesday states after other more moderate contenders threw their support behind him, POLITICO explained. Biden continued to do well throughout March, and now has 1,127 delegates compared to Sanders' 914, according to the most recent delegate count from The New York Times.

Biden's climate policies are more moderate than Sanders' as of now. His plan has a much lower price tag of $1.7 trillion dollars and a score of 72 out of 100 from Greenpeace. The organization applauded his commitment to achieving climate neutrality by 2050, investing in clean energy and restoring international climate leadership, but faulted him for not promising to ban all oil and gas drilling on public lands and to end all federal permits for fossil fuel infrastructure.

There is a chance Biden will ultimately run on a more ambitious plan, however. Sanders said he would keep his name on the ballot in the remaining primaries to boost his delegate count in order to have more influence over the party platform.

The Biden campaign is also working to bring in Sanders' supporters by incorporating some of his policies, The New York Times reported. In a virtual fundraiser Wednesday, Biden hinted he would add some more progressive ideas to his climate plan, and POLITICO reports he is in talks with the Sunrise Movement.

The Sunrise Movement is also one of a coalition of youth-led groups that sent a letter to Biden urging him to endorse certain policies including a Green New Deal.

"If Joe Biden is going to be the nominee on the Democratic side, we are going to champion Joe Biden and put all muscle behind" his election, Sunrise Movement Executive Director Varshini Prakash told The New York Times. But then she addressed Biden directly, suggesting he also had work to do. "You haven't earned our vote yet," she said.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

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With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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