The World-Changing Choice Between Sanders and Clinton On The Climate

Bill Scher

We’re close to an international climate agreement that most agree will be both a major step forward and insufficient to avert a catastrophe. Energy will quickly turn to what should be our next steps. The rival Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders campaigns lay out two possible paths: continued incremental advancement versus ambitious goals and sweeping agendas.

The pragmatic vs. idealistic divide is a hallmark of the Democratic primary and the party itself. But when it comes to the climate, the debate is not a theoretical one. Time is running out, and the path we choose makes, literally, all the difference in the world.

As I explained in July, “If you want a presidential candidate who supports a carbon tax … you should vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders.” But politics is arguably as important as policy: “If you want a presidential candidate who has thought through how to best communicate to swing voters how a clean energy-fueled America will help, not hurt, economic growth, Hillary Clinton is probably your best bet.”

Sanders has since offered more details about his climate strategy, and an additional fault line has developed: whether or not we need to keep all remaining fossil fuel in the ground.

Last month Sanders sponsored the “Keep It In The Ground Act” which would “ban future fossil fuel leases on our public lands.” He would ban offshore drilling, Arctic drilling, natural gas fracking, new natural gas pipelines, mountaintop removal coal mining and nuclear power plant license renewals.

Clinton has yet to offer as many details, but what she has released indicates relatively modest goals. Her plan talks up investments in renewables, especially a pledge to install “half a billion solar panels” by the end of her first term. Notably, she doesn’t enumerate any additional federal spending to meet the goal, though she expresses support for more “public investment in clean energy” and a continuation of tax incentives. Her more creative ideas seek to reduce regulatory hurdles, such as “awards for communities that successfully cut the red tape” and knocking down “barriers that prevent low-income and other households from using solar energy to reduce their monthly energy bills.”

Unlike Sanders, her plan is silent (so far) on what should remain in the ground. She did move toward Sanders on rejecting the Keystone pipeline, but her reasoning was that the debate had become a “distraction,” not that it was a beginning of a “keep it in the ground” philosophy.

Asked at a town hall meeting in July about “fossil fuel extraction on public lands,” Clinton responded, “not until we got the alternatives in place … We still have to run the economy, we still have to turn on the lights.” That answer hints at another big difference between the two: Clinton seeks a more gradual transition in hopes of avoiding economic shocks to the system. Sanders hopes to avoid economic complications by pairing his quick, deep carbon pollution cuts with a massive public works investment in clean energy jobs and infrastructure generally.

What would the Clinton plan produce? She pledges to increase by 2026 the percent of renewable power that generates the nation’s electricity, from a projected 25 percent under Obama’s Clean Power Plan to 33 percent. That’s moving in the right direction, but nowhere near as fast as Sanders. And time is ticking.

However, the “time is ticking” factor cuts both ways.

On one hand, Sanders’ plan ensures America is doing all that is humanly possible to avert a planetary climate crisis. But that’s only on paper. If you are not sold that Sanders will be able to implement his preferred policies through a resistant Congress, even in part, then you might conclude that Clinton’s incrementalist approach has the better potential for pocketing immediate gains.

The choice between models of social change is at the heart of Democratic primary, and that’s a choice individual voters will have to make for themselves. But when it comes to climate, the debate is not academic. There is a significant difference in approach, substantively and strategically. The choice is yours, and it will impact the world.

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