Climate Or Bust: Sanders and Clinton Should Step Up Now

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This is a guest posts by Claire Cohen Cortright.

Claire Cohen Cortright is a mother, climate activist, and biology teacher living in upstate New York. She

is an active member of Citizens Climate Lobby and moderator at Global Warming Fact of the Day.

It is time, now, for climate activists to get vocal.

As it becomes more clear that Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic Party’s nominee for President, there is increasing talk about the importance of unifying the party. Negotiations are on the horizon … for Vice President and for the Party’s policy platforms.

Now, we must be sure climate change and carbon cutting policy are part of those negotiations.

Consider, for a moment, as Bernie Sanders begins to make demands in exchange for his support, what he will insist upon. What are the key policies will he insist be incorporated into the Democratic Party platform?

His campaign’s latest email provides a likely answer to this question:

“What remains in front of us is a very narrow path to the nomination. In the weeks to come we will be competing in a series of states that are very favorable to us – including California. Just like after March 15 – when we won 8 of the next 9 contests – we are building tremendous momentum going into the convention. That is the reality of where we are right now, and why we are going to fight for every delegate and every vote. It is why I am going to continue to speak to voters in every state about the very important issues facing our country. Our country cannot afford to stop fighting for a $15 minimum wage, to overturn Citizens United, or to get universal health care for every man, woman, and child in America.” (Emphasis mine).

Notice what is missing?

The single most important issue of our day. The single biggest threat to national security.

Climate change.

Climate activists have been insisting that climate change be made the top level priority for all campaigns and all elected officials. It is possible that this activism has failed to varying degrees with respect to both the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. That means it comes down to us to insist that meaningful carbon cuts are at the top of the platform.

Hillary Clinton critics are right. Hillary has wrongly called gas a bridge fuel. She absolutely needs to be pushed to make it her goal, and that of the Democratic Party, to END the use of gas and all other fossil fuels. She has good solid plans to regulate fracking. Those policies will drive up the cost of gas and therefore send price signals that, in the absence of a price on carbon, will drive us toward other sources of energy. But it is essential that we have the stated goal of ending gas. That will set the stage for the essential conversations about how we will replace that gas without turning off the lights and heat. Efficiency, lifestyle changes, renewables, and, yes, nuclear.

Bernie Sanders’ stated policy is allow nuclear plant licenses to lapse. If nuclear plants close now, they are likely to be replaced with gas. He has said that he isn’t closing the plants now, just allowing for them to close by attrition. However, the reality is that nuclear plants are already closing now, before their licenses lapse, because electricity is so cheap that regular maintenance is economically unfeasible. Part of that calculation is lifetime return. If you know you won’t be relicensed in 2025, it is all the more reason not to do 2017’s maintenance and instead close down. And once a nuclear plant is mothballed, it’s done. You can’t just refurbish and turn it back on, like you can with gas and coal. Unfortunately, there is little political will to take on the nuclear issue within the party at this point. Maybe that means we can simply accept Hillary’s approach to leave nuclear alone. Perhaps her political calculation on nuclear was simply on target.

Perhaps the one thing all climate activists can agree to demand in these negotiations is a carbon tax. Hillary Clinton has had, for many months, a vague, buried reference to carbon markets in her policy platform.* People have made little mention of it, simply saying she doesn’t support carbon taxes. Why not highlight that she seems to support carbon pricing, insist that she become more vocal about it, and push her to explain why she is supporting cap and trade over taxes? As that conversation unfolds, she will be forced to address the distinctions, and, at the same time, the electorate will become more knowledgeable about carbon pricing. At the end of the day, the party platform may end up with a clear carbon price plan.

Whatever climate policies end up in the Democratic Party Platform, it is clear that climate activists must put aside the horse race between Clinton and Sanders and remember that neither of them go far enough. Neither is prepared to get to zero emissions by 2050. Neither sees climate as the single most important issue to address.

It is time for climate voters and climate activists to demand that the Democratic Party serve up more than fiery rhetoric from Sanders and more than visionless bridge fuels from Clinton.

It is time to demand the best from each of them and ensure they don’t simply offer up their worst on climate.

*Here is her vague buried reference to clean energy markets:

“Clean Power Markets: Build on the momentum created by the Clean Power Plan, which sets the first national limits on carbon pollution from the energy sector, and regional emissions trading schemes in Canada, Mexico, and the United States to drive low carbon power generation across the continent, modernize our interconnected electrical grid, and ensure that national carbon policies take advantage of integrated markets.” source

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22 thoughts on “Climate Or Bust: Sanders and Clinton Should Step Up Now

  1. Looks like y’all like BAU.

    I haven’t been paying much attention to Clinton, but I’ve certainly seen Sanders abruptly interrupt interviewers – and his own train of thought – to assert that climate change is the most pressing issue.

    There’s also an interview somewhere up online – excuse me if I can’t be arsed to take you seriously enough to look it up for you – in which Jane Sanders lets slip that they were looking at appointing Bill McKibben to head the EPA. His lack of oil industry experience will, I fear, make him unacceptable to HIllary.

    Et tu, Greg?

  2. Here is the question now.

    If the party nominates Hillary Clinton, which seems increasingly likely, how do we ensure that climate is the first priority?

  3. Time to really push science and climate change as one of the key issues. Hillary–please put the climate deniers on the defensive.

  4. @1. idunno : I looked for your interview with a quick google check and couldn’t find it.

    I did see that Bill McKibbin has endorsed and supports Sanders on a few sites – but this point is now practically moot since it is now clear that Sanders will not be the Democratic party’s nominee and Hillary Clinton will be.

    You “can’t be arsed” to provide citations and it seems you also can’t be arsed looking at what Hillary Clinton has actually said on the issue either much. For instance, from her website here :

    Making America the world’s clean energy superpower and meeting the climate challenge.

    Hillary will:

    Create good-paying jobs by making the United States the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.

    Set national goals to have 500 million solar panels installed; generate enough renewable energy to power every home in America; cut energy waste in homes, schools, and hospitals by a third; and reduce American oil consumption by a third.
    Lead the world in the fight against climate change by bringing greenhouse gas emissions to 30 percent below what they were in 2005 within the next decade—and keep going.

    “I won’t let anyone take us backward, deny our economy the benefits of harnessing a clean energy future, or force our children to endure the catastrophe that would result from unchecked climate change.”
    HILLARY, NOVEMBER 29, 2015

    (All original bold, italics, caps – cut.’n’pasted.)

    If you really think she’s not serious about this, please explain why with sources and show your work and supporting arguments please.

    Also BAU = ???

    I certainly think Climate change should be a top priority and get more attention here.

    Good article Claire Cohen Cortright – thanks.

  5. As with the primary campaign, there seems to be this conflation of rhetoric with action.

    The stage we are at right now is winning the election, which impacts SCOTUS above all, and winning at least the Senate, and making inroads in the House, both being critical as well.

    There are two kinds of people: Those who trust Hillary to take CC seriously when in office, given her statements to now, and those who say she is dishonest and it doesn’t matter what she promises because she is “beholden” to Wall Street. (The latter being self-contradictory, but anyway…)

    I’m going to trust that her team has done its homework on the best approach to using the CC issue to best effect. Saying “she must make CC a priority in the campaign” makes no sense to me. You can’t play if you don’t win, and extreme positions don’t win.

  6. One of the reasons climate change hasn’t been a top priority item is that neither the media nor leading politicians have made it one. Clinton castigated debate moderators for not asking questions about women’s issues. Both she and Sanders should have been more forceful in demanding attention to the issue of climate change. In the coming debates with the Republican nominee Clinton should insist on this, and she should not allow the moderators to let Trump off the hook when he displays his ignorance.

    I don’t imagine that extreme weather events will take a break during the campaign. Climate change has made some of these more probable. In these cases Clinton should have a rapid response team that can send her or a prominent surrogate to the affected area. Showing is better than telling, and this can appeal to voters’ identification with the victims. It would also help against Clinton’s negatives by showing her as an empathetic person responsive to the needs of vulnerable Americans.

    Katrina demonstrated Bush’s shallowness and incompetence. Extreme weather events are crises Clinton shouldn’t let go to waste

  7. In recent days I’ve been (re)reading about how Americans have been affected by economic developments. Yesterday an essay in The Atlantic by Neal Gabler
    gave me a better understanding of how far-reaching the crisis is, and how obsessed many Americans must be with simply getting by. It also made me aware that the political discussion about climate change can’t be isolated from the political discussion about the economy. No matter how solid the science, if the Republicans can turn action on climate change into an expense (with a questionable return that benefits a corrupt inner circle), then convincing Americans about the urgency of action will be doomed to failure. A strong case has to be made that not acting will be far more costly than acting, and that not acting will result in worsening weather extremes whose costs will be borne by ordinary Americans. A strong case has to be made that ties healthcare costs to pollution from fossil fuels. A strong case has to be made that continued reliance on fossil fuels costs more than transitioning to clean energy. We have to begin arguing about climate change in terms of negative compound interest. The more we can tie the fight against climate change to the economic struggles of average Americans, the more successful we’ll be.

  8. cosmicomics,

    Worth reading through:

    The Atlantic article did no impress me, because the guy said something like “I know I chose to spend money on stuff but it’s still [ ]’s fault I’m in this situation.”

    Clearly this is not someone with “no resources”– if you can borrow money from your kids, the investment in their education is paying off, at least. People in the USA are always crying poor, even when they have no reason to complain. Of course, some really are poor.

    I also saw an article that said Tesla is up to 400,000 deposits on the new car and projecting 500,000 this year. I think it is stuff like this that will make the changes we need happen, rather than dry “education” about CC. People tend to want to do something positive (and cool) rather than not doing things. Like buying LED bulbs, but not turning off lights when leaving the room.

  9. Sorry, that last sentence didn’t make sense:

    -People like to do positive things like buying LED bulbs

    rather than negative things like

    -turning off the lights when leaving the room

  10. #8
    One can easily argue that Gabler himself has been irresponsible, has made some rather poor choices, and is not representative. What I found eye-opening was the information he provided that went beyond his own personal experience.

    “The Fed asked respondents how they would pay for a $400 emergency. The answer: 47 percent of respondents said that either they would cover the expense by borrowing or selling something, or they would not be able to come up with the $400 at all.”

    “Median net worth has declined steeply in the past generation—down 85.3 percent from 1983 to 2013 for the bottom income quintile, down 63.5 percent for the second-lowest quintile, and down 25.8 percent for the third, or middle, quintile. According to research funded by the Russell Sage Foundation, the inflation-adjusted net worth of the typical household, one at the median point of wealth distribution, was $87,992 in 2003. By 2013, it had declined to $54,500, a 38 percent drop. And though the bursting of the housing bubble in 2008 certainly contributed to the drop, the decline for the lower quintiles began long before the recession—as early as the mid-1980s, Wolff says.

    Wolff also examined the number of months that a family headed by someone of ‘prime working age,’ between 24 and 55 years old, could continue to self-fund its current consumption, presuming the liquidation of all financial assets except home equity, if the family were to lose its income—a different way of looking at the emergency question. He found that in 2013, prime-working-age families in the bottom two income quintiles had no net worth at all and thus nothing to spend. A family in the middle quintile, with an average income of roughly $50,000, could continue its spending for … six days. Even in the second-highest quintile, a family could maintain its normal consumption for only 5.3 months. Granted, those numbers do not include home equity. But, as Wolff says, ‘it’s much harder now to get a second mortgage or a home-equity loan or to refinance.’ So remove that home equity, which in any case plummeted during the Great Recession, and a lot of people are basically wiped out. ‘Families have been using their savings to finance their consumption,’ Wolff notes. In his assessment, the typical American family is in ‘desperate straits.’ ”

    There’s more, so simply seeing the essay as the tale of one man’s experience misses the point. (Especially as a number of other articles have described the decline of the American middle class and the desperation among voters partial to Trump.)

    The Vox article you linked to contains a passage that supports my argument:

    “There are reasons to think millennials prioritize climate and clean energy somewhat higher than other demographics, but even for them, the economy, health care, and affordable education come first. Very few voters, including millennials, list these issues in their top tier of concerns.

    So NextGen is setting out to do two things. One, they want to raise the salience of climate/energy with millennial voters, to increase that intensity. This can be done by tying it to more salient issues. For instance, one commonality across all polling of millennials is that they are obsessed with authenticity and disgusted by what they see as the corruption of politics. Insofar as climate/energy can be tied to the nefarious corrupting influence of fossil fuel companies (millennials hate Big Oil), or to economic growth and health, it can play a larger role in their voting choices.”

    Combining climate change with economic concerns is more compelling than climate change in isolation.

  11. cosmicomics,

    I am familiar with the situation, and I would say that the numbers as presented exaggerate things. I could say I lost half the value of my house (and my “net worth”) in the crash, but the value was absurdly inflated in the first place. Nothing really changed. I’m still living in my house. It is wrong to conflate my experience with that of really poor people whose lifestyle was affected at a fundamental level. It is a part of human nature, and particularly in the US, to downplay one’s good fortune.

    But my more important point was that to appeal to millenials and others, you can’t tell them “CC will hurt the economy, we should have a carbon tax”.

    They will not connect with that.

    They will connect with “lets create jobs by putting solar panels on houses and improving the grid and destroying the monopoly of utilities and FF companies”, and so on.

    This is my experience of how people think in the US– if you think you can win them over talking about “sacrifices for some future common good”, I wish you luck. You will need it.

  12. #11
    “I could say I lost half the value of my house (and my “net worth”) in the crash, but the value was absurdly inflated in the first place. Nothing really changed.”

    But the economic despair and discontent isn’t just a consequence of the financial crisis.

    “The share of the gross national product going to labor as opposed to the share going to capital fell from 68.8 percent in 1970 to 60.7 percent by 2013, according to Loukas Karabarbounis, an economics professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
    Even more devastating, the number of manufacturing jobs dropped by 36 percent, from 19.3 million in 1979 to 12.3 million in 2015, while the population increased by 43 percent, from 225 million to 321 million.
    The postwar boom, when measured by the purchasing power of the average paycheck, continued into the early 1970s and then abruptly stopped (see the accompanying chart).”

    “ ‘McJob’ was in use at least as early as 1986, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which defines it as ‘An unstimulating, low-paid job with few prospects, esp. one created by the expansion of the service sector.'[2] Lack of job security is common.”

    The figures for the decline in net worth in Gabler’s essay use 1983 as the base line. And the Vox article that you yourself cite (without further specification) explicitly states that millennials are more concerned with economy related issues such as “the economy, health care, and affordable education.”

    You make things too easy for yourself by writing:
    “But my more important point was that to appeal to millenials and others, you can’t tell them ‘CC will hurt the economy, we should have a carbon tax’.”

    #6 was about the damage that CC is already doing to the economy, human lives, and more, and I didn’t make the argument you’re implying I made. My argument was essentially the same as Steyer’s, i.e. that it’s easier to mobilize voters to consider CC when you can tie it to other, higher priority concerns. We can agree that the other concerns shouldn’t be higher, but we have to face the world as it is. I agree with what you’ve said about solar panels, etc. What I wrote in #7 is not at odds with that:
    “A strong case has to be made that continued reliance on fossil fuels costs more than transitioning to clean energy.”

  13. cosmicomics,

    First, there’s no need to be so defensive all the time– I’m trying to refine the argument, not refute it.

    Second, on motivating the public: It’s about “framing” and language:

    “…reliance on fossil fuels costs more…”

    is negative language.

    I may be misunderstanding “We can agree that other concerns shouldn’t be higher…”. But I think other concerns should be higher in the framing.

    Teslas get great acceleration, have good quality, and have all kinds of tech characteristics that would appeal to the iPhone generation. That’s how you advertise them.

    Same with solar panels; jobs and selling electricity and having backup in a storm and all that comes first. Not fear of some bad climate effects in the future.

    Because those are positive incentives, OK? The social responsibility aspect is a bonus– important selling point, but people just don’t connect with the future as much as we would like them to.

    Now, I don’t want to go on forever, but let me say that these comparisons with the supposed “golden age” are not convincing. Remember that the “good manufacturing jobs” created pollution and shoddy products, and minorities and women were excluded from the economic benefits. Why do you think all those union guys supported Reagan?

  14. #13

    A few points.
    Fear can be a very potent motivator.
    Negative things should be described as they are.
    When we use the term clean energy we are either explicitly or implicitly contrasting it with dirty energy. The positive is a contrast to a negative.
    “…that other concerns shouldn’t be higher.” That climate change is more important.
    There’s no talk of a “supposed ‘golden age,’ ” only the reality that socio-economic changes (e.g. concentration of wealth, weakening of unions, globalization, automation) have marginalized a large number of people and caused them to despair and sometimes seek desperate solutions.

  15. cosmicomics,

    ” …marginalized a large number of people and caused them to despair and sometimes seek desperate solutions.”

    I don’t know your personal history, but I think you are ignoring US history. I was there when US cities were burning because African-Americans were “living with despair and seeking desperate solutions”. And I mean, I worked in one of those neighborhoods; I didn’t watch it on tv. A scary commute for a young white guy.

    If people feel despair because they can no longer feel superior to other people, my sympathy is greatly diminished. If they choose to be anti-union, which most of these people do, that is their problem, not mine.

    You seem to be missing the point about wealth concentration. The socio-economic change that had the most profound effect was uplift of women and minorities at the expense of white males. Wealth was concentrated before, in the hands of those white males, but more important was relative position. This phenomenon has been well studied. It’s not how much money you have, it’s how much more you have than those in your approximate class. I assume you have read about this.

  16. #15
    “If people feel despair because they can no longer feel superior to other people, my sympathy is greatly diminished.”

    So would mine be, but you’re reducing despair to one possible psychological cause, while ignoring other psychological causes, and, more importantly, the economic reasons for despair.

    “If they choose to be anti-union, which most of these people do, that is their problem, not mine.”

    To me, this is an example of blaming the victim. There are law firms that specialize in union busting. Many companies oppose unions and persecute organizers. Republican governors and legislatures have repeatedly passed anti-union laws. The mine workers union has been an important line of defense for the people you condemn.

    No, I’m not missing the point about wealth concentration. Once again you’re reducing economy to psychology. It is undebatable that the wealthiest Americans are receiving and possess a greater portion of America’s wealth than they did 40 years ago. Looking at the relative positions of the losers doesn’t change that.

  17. cosmicomics,

    Yes, I absolutely agree that wealth concentration is a problem– but it is in fact an objective economic one. It distorts the working of markets and leads to economic difficulties for everyone except the wealthy.

    But you are the one who brings up psychology when you talk about despair and societal responses.

    As for “blaming the victim”, I don’t really think in terms of “blame” but whether I feel sympathy and/or empathy. We can’t ignore the history. The South has traditionally been anti-union. The South also did not worry about mill workers in New England losing jobs when companies “onshored” there to access lower wages and less environmental regulation.

    The point is, those people were content to make less money and have wealthy overlords as long as they could feel superior to minorities and women. Now, we still don’t see the nice “solidarity forever” sentiment from those great old union songs; they don’t want to raise everyone up together, but rather round up the dirty Mexicans and ship them off.

    And you know that is completely illogical. Change will come when the US underclass stops allowing itself to be divided and conquered because they are afraid of people who look different.

  18. #17
    I think we’ve gotten a little too far from the point of departure, which was a greater focus on climate change in the election. A number of real economic factors have resulted in a real economic breakdown for many Americans, and for many simply getting by is the first priority. Many Americans are experiencing a sense of insecurity. This goes for people of all races and ethnicities. For many white Americans, this is coupled with diminished expectations. To the extent that addressing climate change is perceived to make getting by even more difficult, addressing climate change will be more difficult. This is why I’m arguing to tie climate change to the economic (and human) effects of extreme weather, and to other climate related factors that constitute a threat to economic and physical well-being. The obverse is to point out the advantages of dealing with the problem, also the economic advantages. Can we agree on this?

  19. cosmicomics,

    I don’t think we “disagree”; but maybe you have a different goal in mind.

    I want Hillary to win, and even more so I want down-ticket Democrats to win. If that happens, and climate change is never mentioned, I will be happy, and I think progress will be made on the FF issue by the new government.

    I can only go by my best strategic/tactical instincts as a long-time political junkie on this, and I don’t think putting CC front and center actually helps that much with the groups you are talking about.

    Of course it is necessary to show that Dems are on the side of environmental responsibility, but that comes within the context of infrastructure spending and job creation. So, “we’re going to do create jobs in renewables rather than in FF extraction” is the correct platform. This may seem overly subtle parsing to you, but I think it is important.

    What I do disagree about (which may be Greg’s thinking if not yours) is that what is said in the campaign will affect what policies are actually implemented after the election. The reality is that this depends on the makeup of Congress as much as anything. If it is a big Dem victory, I’m sure Bernie will introduce a carbon-tax bill, and if it passes (which will require compromise of course) Hillary would sign it.

  20. #19

    “I don’t think we “disagree”; but maybe you have a different goal in mind.

    I want Hillary to win, and even more so I want down-ticket Democrats to win.”

    This implies that I don’t appreciate how important it is for the Democratic candidates to win. No one has argued more consistently about the need to defeat the Republicans than I.

    “…and I don’t think putting CC front and center actually helps that much with the groups you are talking about.”

    My argument has not been about “putting CC front and center,” but about tying it to issues that have higher resonance, thereby showing how far-reaching climate change is in its effects. Please take another look at what I wrote in #7.

    “So, ‘we’re going to do create jobs in renewables rather than in FF extraction’ is the correct platform. This may seem overly subtle parsing to you, but I think it is important.”

    This is a straw man. No one has suggested that associating renewables with job creation is incorrect. The job creating potential of renewable energy is one of the issues climate change awareness should be tied to. To the extent that your argument is a repetition of your focus on positive messaging, I would repeat that fear, as the Trump campaign has demonstrated, is a powerful motivator, and note that fear and hope are related. This is about dialectics, not either/or. In areas plagued by fossil fuel related pollution, it would make sense to talk about that threat, and also how it can be dealt with. In areas threatened by rising sea levels, it would be foolish to ignore that. An argument for renewable or clean energy is at the same time an argument against non-renewable or dirty energy.

    “What I do disagree about (which may be Greg’s thinking if not yours) is that what is said in the campaign will affect what policies are actually implemented after the election. The reality is that this depends on the makeup of Congress as much as anything.”

    Another misrepresentation. Another straw man. Neither Greg nor I have argued that the makeup of Congress is inconsequential. The only ones who seem to ignore the importance of Congress are some of the less reflective Bernie supporters, and I don’t think you can find any evidence that Greg or I belong to that category. My own position has been that this election is not about major new reforms, which because of Congress will be dead on arrival, but about preventing the Republicans from eviscerating approximately 100 years of progress. But does what is said in the campaign have other consequences? Indeed it does.

    This is my last contribution to this discussion.

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