Clinton, Sanders Flesh Out Views on Climate

Clinton, Sanders Flesh Out Views on Climate

At last! In Thursday’s (possibly final) debate between the Democratic presidential candidates, CNN gave Secretary Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders a fairly generous 13 minutes to elaborate on their approaches to energy and climate change.

While new no ground was broken during the battle in Brooklyn (at least for those who study candidate web sites), television viewers got fuller explanations from the candidates of their strategies and the reasoning behind them than in previous debates.

Clinton, under attack from Sanders for working to facilitate the greater use of natural gas (a fossil fuel) during her time as Secretary of State, had time to argue that gas can be used many places as a “bridge fuel” to displace the use of coal (a much dirtier fossil fuel) and, therefore, to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases. (Locally produced gas could also help countries reduce their reliance on Russian imports.)

In Clinton’s view, clean solar and wind power should be expanded as rapidly as possible. Such growth is occurring at a rapid pace, but the intermittency of wind currents and sunlight require improvements in grid management and storage that cannot happen all at once, no matter how vigorous federal policy. She suggests that an achievable good should not be jettisoned in favor of the not yet ready perfect. She showed she could stand up to anti-fracking zealots who fudge the numbers to suggest than coal is no more dangerous for the atmosphere than natural gas.

Sanders also helped his cause with the extra time to shield himself from some previous criticisms directed at his stands on energy. His opposition to any new production of fossil fuels on federal lands, natural gas on private lands when fracked, several pipelines that transport oil or gas, and nuclear power create the specter for many he’s willing to see the lights go out and to give-up hard won victories reducing American dependence on Middle Eastern oil. As damning, removing natural gas and nuclear from the energy mix will inevitably for some time resurrect the use of coal and likely increase the emissions of greenhouse gases.

In this debate, however, Sanders talked about his proposal to impose a tax on carbon – an approach many experts with different perspectives see as the most effective method for curtailing emissions. Though the carbon tax has been part of the Sanders platform for some time, giving it more visibility with television viewers demonstrated a greater seriousness of purpose on climate than trying to close nuclear plants and block natural gas production and pipelines. Not only has Sanders been the rare politician in office to call for a carbon tax; he’s evolved his proposed legislation to better deal with the challenge of offsetting the regressive effects of an energy tax.

Sanders will need even more time to explain how he would be able to obtain 60 votes for his proposals in the Senate (to break the inevitable threat of a filibuster). Garnering such support is daunting in any case, but will prove particularly hard if Sanders continues his habit of questioning the morality of anyone who disagrees with him. Charging those who raise genuine questions about how to get actual climate reductions in a country where the courts, the Congress, state governments and market forces carry great weight with “not having the guts to take on the fossil fuel industry” is hardly a formula for putting together the coalition needed to fight climate change.

The conversation on energy and environment feels like its just getting started, even though the nomination process is reaching its later stages. But at least the discussion took a big step forward in Brooklyn last week.

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