With the primary caucuses just around the corner, the choice among democrats is primarily between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Both are experienced legislators highly qualified to hold the position. Both candidates support signature progressive reforms such as raising the minimum wage, raising taxes on the wealthy, and tightening gun control. But on climate change, their proposals are very different. Considering that what’s at stake is nothing less than the future habitability of planet Earth, this should be a very important consideration in evaluating the candidates.
The numbers are confirmed: 2015 was by far the hottest year on record. Not only was it the hottest year, but the margin by which 2015 broke the record is also the largest on record. Since 1880, fifteen of the warmest years have occurred since 2001.[i] The one degree of warming experienced by our planet has already caused drastic changes. Sea level has risen by 4 to 8 inches over the last century[ii], storms are occurring more frequently and with greater intensity, droughts and floods are more widespread. Scientists warn that we have to drastically reduce carbon emissions globally to prevent catastrophic climate change, and because decades have already been wasted in inaction, the window for taking effective action is only about 15 years if we are to keep warming within 1.5 degrees. Therefore, who we elect as the next President is critical for determining if we will survive the future.
So what do Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders propose in response to this extreme threat? Let’s get past the pundits and see what each actually say.
The titles of the candidates proposals say something about their approach. Hillary’s is “Climate Change and Energy.” Bernie’s is “Combating Climate Change to Save the Planet.” Right away, we get the impression that for Hillary, climate change needs to be balanced with the need to provide energy for people, while Bernie’s plan casts climate change as a problem worth addressing in itself.
The candidate’s opening statements on the issue provide an overview of their positions:
Bernie: “The scientists are virtually unanimous that climate change is real, is caused by human activity and is already causing devastating problems in the United States and around the world. And, they tell us, if we do not act boldly the situation will only become much worse in years to come in terms of drought, floods, extreme storms and acidification of the oceans. Sadly, we now have a Republican Party that is more concerned about protecting the profits of Exxon, BP and Shell and the coal industry than protecting the planet. While fossil fuel companies are raking in record profits, climate change ravages our planet and our people – all because the wealthiest industry in the history of our planet has bribed politicians into ignoring science.”
Hillary: “Climate change is an urgent challenge that threatens all of us. The United States is already taking steps to invest in our clean energy future, but we need to do more. We need to take bold action to combat climate change, create jobs, protect the health of American families and communities, and make the United States the world’s clean energy superpower.”
Bernie begins his proposal by affirming the scientific consensus around climate change. He states facts that climate deniers have long sought to cast doubt on: “Climate change is real, is caused by human activities, and is already causing devastation…” Hillary’s first sentence acknowledges that climate change is an urgent challenge but does not challenge climate skeptics by affirming the scientific consensus. This may seem like a minor omission, but considering that our failure to respond to climate change has been caused in large part by the efforts of climate skeptics to deliberately sow confusion around its basic premises, including whether it’s actually happening, this omission suggests that Hillary doesn’t think climate denial has been a huge problem, while Bernie’s opening statement unequivocally denounces it.
Their positions diverge quickly after the first sentence. Hillary states optimistically that “the United States is already taking steps to invest in our clean energy future, but we need to do more,” while Bernie blasts the establishment with the statement, “We now have a Republican Party that is more concerned about protecting the profits of Exxon, BP and Shell and the coal industry than protecting the planet.” He lays the blame squarely on the fossil fuel companies that have “bribed politicians into ignoring science.”
The tone is set for the rest of the proposal. For Bernie, it’s about overturning the corrupt and dysfunctional status quo, while for Hillary, it’s about building on the status quo to make America a “clean energy superpower.” She says nothing about the powerful fossil fuel lobby that has blocked climate legislation for decades. Bernie sounds like Teddy Roosevelt blasting industry, while Hillary sounds like…William Howard Taft?
Honestly, we don’t need to go further from here, but the goals the candidates set out clearly sets them apart on their climate agenda.
- Cut US carbon pollution by 40% by 2030 and by over 80 percent by 2050.
- Create a clean energy workforce of 10 million good-paying jobs by creating a 100% clean energy system.
- Return billions of dollars to consumers impacted by the transformation of our energy system and protect the most vulnerable communities in the country suffering the ravages of climate change.
- Have more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of Hillary’s first term.
- Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America within 10 years of Hillary taking office.
Bernie provides a concrete and ambitious national goal: Cut carbon pollution by 40% by 2030; he also addresses the need to protect vulnerable communities from devastating climate impacts. Hillary’s goals don’t even mention climate change. Instead she focuses on one of its solutions: install solar panels and generate renewable energy. If it’s not obvious, there is a big problem with a climate action proposal that does not have cutting greenhouse gas emissions as one of its goals. It’s like having an education proposal that doesn’t include cutting the number of school dropouts as a goal, but instead says, “We will distribute half a billion textbooks and make sure every student gets one!”
Both Hillary and Bernie have as their goal to increase renewable energy generation, but the quantities they propose are vastly different. Hillary says she will have “more than half a billion solar panels installed across the country by the end of her first term.” How much is half a billion solar panels? Are they large panels or small panels? Maybe they are the tiny panels that companies sell to charge your cell phone? It sounds specific but is actually quite vague. Much better if she had said how many megawatts of solar energy she intends to install.
The next goal, “Generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America” is a bit more specific, but how much is that really? The US Energy Information Administration published that 41% of total U.S. energy consumption is consumed by residential and commercial buildings, or about 40 quadrillion British thermal units.[iii] Let’s say of half of that or 20% is used by the residential sector. The average amount of energy consumed by using electricity in the home is 60%, while the rest is used for space heating, which typically is not electric.[iv] Solar panels produce electricity, they do not provide space heating. So the second goal of Hillary’s proposal is basically to generate renewable energy for 12% of our national energy use. Bernie’s proposal is 100% clean energy. Big difference.
Further on under goals, Hillary’s plan states, “We will increase the amount of installed solar capacity by 700% by 2020, expand renewable energy to at least a third of all electricity generation.” Electricity generation currently emits 31% of US greenhouse gas emissions.[v] By reducing one third of that, that leaves 90% of emissions unaccounted for. But the real problem is, renewable energy production could increase 700% at the same time that fossil fuel consumption increases 1000%. What kind of a world would that be? So what if every home has solar panels but total greenhouse gas emissions increase?
How do the candidates plan to achieve their goals? Their proposed policy initiatives is where Hillary and Bernie show themselves to be completely different candidates.
Let’s look at Hillary’s policy proposals first. Stated very simply on her website, her plan is to implement “a Clean Energy Challenge to unleash American innovation.” Here are the elements of the proposed Clean Energy Challenge:
- Give competitive grants and other market-based incentives to empower states to exceed federal carbon pollution standards and accelerate clean energy deployment.
- Give Awards for communities that successfully cut the red tape that slows rooftop solar installation;
- Work with states, cities and rural communities to strengthen grid reliability and resilience, increase consumer choice and improve customer value.
- Expand the Rural Utilities Service and other successful USDA programs to help provide clean, reliable, and affordable energy, not just to rural Americans but to the rest of the country as well.
The federal government will help, she says, by
- Ensuring the federal government is a partner, not an obstacle, in getting low-cost wind and other renewable energy to market.
- Overcoming barriers that prevent low income and other households from using solar energy to reduce their monthly energy bills.
- Extending federal clean energy incentives and make them more cost effective both for taxpayers and clean energy producers.
- Expanding renewable energy on public lands, federal buildings and federally funded infrastructure.
- Increase public investment in clean energy R&D.
In summary, Hillary’s plan emphasizes market based incentives to encourage the widespread deployment of renewable energy, with assistance from the government to improve energy infrastructure.
Bernie Sander’s plan also includes the widespread deployment of renewable energy, but instead of proposing market-based incentives, he puts it simply as “investment.” He is more specific about the kinds of clean energy he wants to invest in. They include:
- Sun, wind, and geothermal
- Advanced renewable fuels like cellulosic ethanol and algae-based fuels
- Energy efficiency
- Affordable energy storage solution
- Utility-Scale Clean Energy Generation
- Greater consumer choice in energy
Hillary also makes no mention of transportation, which accounts for 26% of carbon emissions in the United States.[vi] Bernie includes in his plan:
- Create clean, domestic energy alternatives to power our cars and trucks.
- Increase fuel economy standards to 65 miles per gallon by 2025.
- Build electric vehicle charging stations.
- Build high-speed passenger and cargo rail.
- Make our cities more walkable and take more cars off the road.
Both candidates call for more renewables, but where Bernie departs most radically from Hillary is his call to “reclaim our democracy from the billionaire fossil fuel lobby.” This initiative is so important that Bernie lists it first in his list of initiatives for addressing climate change. The problem is enormous but it’s not well known because the issue is not talked about every day on TV. The truth of it however can be verified on corporate donation tax reports and sources like desmogblog. Bernie summarizes the facts plainly:
The fossil fuel industry spends billions and billions of dollars lobbying and buying candidates to block virtually all progress on climate change. At the national level where companies have to report what they spend on lobbying and campaign contributions, the oil companies, coal companies and electric utilities spent a staggering $2.26 billion in federal lobbying since 2009 and another $330 million in federal campaign contributions.
But that’s just the part we know about. Thanks to the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, the fossil fuel industry can pour unlimited amounts of money into the political system without having to disclose how much or where they spend it.
So what does the fossil fuel industry get in exchange for all that money? They get friends who help them keep $135 billion dollars in tax subsidies and corporate welfare over the next decade. They write legislation to build the Keystone XL pipeline. They block efforts to move us beyond oil by blocking the development and deployment of clean, sustainable energy.
Recent studies show that in order to stabilize the climate, the majority of remaining fossil fuel reserves must stay in the ground, including 82% of remaining coal reserves, 49% of gas, and 33% of oil.[vii] Major fossil fuel companies such as Exxon Mobil, BP, and Chevron stand to lose vast amounts of investments and future earnings by leaving these resources untapped. However, they continue to go after these reserves. According to UCL professor Paul Ekins, “in 2013, fossil fuel companies spent some $670 billion on exploring for new oil and gas resources.”[viii] Without government regulation, fossil fuel companies have every incentive to do everything they can to preserve their investments and ensure their future earnings, even though they know that it means climate disaster.
The imperative of business is to make profit, however, we have reached the point where further profit for the fossil fuel industry means certain destruction. Preserving the status quo means that profits win over the health of our planet and our children. Bernie’s proposal to regulate the fossil fuel industry include:
- Ban fossil fuel lobbyists from working in the White House.
- End the huge subsidies that benefit fossil fuel companies.
- Bring climate deniers to justice so we can aggressively tackle climate change.
- Fight to overturn Citizens United.
- Put a price on carbon.
- Close the loopholes that allow the chemical, oil and gas industries to pollute our air and water.
His proposal also calls for the outright ban on practices that are the most damaging to climate change and communities such as arctic oil drilling, offshore drilling, exports of liquefied natural gas and crude export, fracking, mountain top removal coal mining, and dirty pipeline projects like Keystone XL.
In contrast, Hillary’s policies are aimed at protecting the energy supply, and regulating existing extraction practices such as mountaintop removal, fracking, and oil drilling. They include:
- Reduce the amount of oil consumed in the United States and around the world, guard against energy supply disruptions, and make our communities, our infrastructure, and our financial markets more resilient to climate related risks.
- Improve the safety and security of existing energy infrastructure and align new infrastructure we build with the clean energy economy we are seeking to create.
- Ensure that fossil fuel production taking place today is safe and responsible, that taxpayers get a fair deal for development on public lands, and that areas that are too sensitive for energy production are taken of the table.
- Protect the health and retirement security of coalfield workers and their families.
Bernie’s climate action proposal is ambitious, wide ranging, and hits at the heart of the barriers to an effective climate response. It is aligned with the scientific consensus of what is needed to reverse climate change. Hillary’s plan is narrow and fails to address the key issue of the fossil fuel lobby, an omission which would render any climate action plan ineffective.