Nothing to Lose: A President Clinton Should Take Aggressive Climate Action

AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File

Hillary Clinton speaks in Clinton, Iowa.  

Hillary Clinton’s well-known pragmatic streak, which was one factor in her Democratic primary win over the more idealistic Bernie Sanders, may serve her well as president in such areas as economics and foreign policy. After all, both recessions and armed conflicts come and go.

But there’s one area in which Clinton, should she defeat Donald Trump in November, should squelch her impulse to take small strides and achieve incremental compromise: climate change.

As global temperatures continue to rise more quickly than governments can respond, the climate crisis pits any mandate for compromise against the fierce urgency of now. Clinton has boasted that she is “a progressive who likes to get things done,” and who knows “how to find common ground.” But given the opposition she will face from climate-deniers on Capitol Hill, she will have to take a more belligerent, unilateral approach on this issue if she wants to get anything done. It’s a course bound to enrage congressional Republicans, but one that would reap rewards for Democrats both substantively and politically.

Unlike budget and foreign policy debates, which tend to be mired in uncertainty and permanent conflict, the climate crisis is more akin to a wildfire. It is a one-time emergency that spirals farther out of control the longer it is left unchecked. Every annual increase in greenhouse gas emissions adds fuel to the conflagration, creating potentially irreversible alterations to the global climate as we pass each new carbon threshold. It’s not simply a problem for future generations, either; climate change is already wreaking havoc on the nation and the globe via coastal flooding, wildfire, and drought.

That changes the risk calculus for politicians like Clinton. If she beats climate-denier Donald Trump on Election Day, as polls suggest she will, Clinton will not have the luxury of spending four or eight years taking baby steps toward carbon reduction. Cautious and incremental approaches to climate change could put the planet on a path toward civilization-threatening CO2 levels. A more radical policy agenda might fail entirely, but even the chance of dramatically mitigating carbon output makes a wild gamble look responsible. We have reached the stage where only an intensive mobilization effort has any hope of limiting the devastation global warming will cause.

Clinton’s only option, as Obama’s has been, may be to use her executive powers. In Congress, Republican intransigence on climate change—as on a host of other issues—makes meaningful legislative action nearly impossible. Democrats do stand a good chance of claiming a Senate majority this year, but it would take a near miracle to flip the House blue. House Republicans are planning an unprecedented campaign of obstruction against a potential Clinton White House, leaving very little room for compromise. In this context, even passing a budget will turn into a brutal showdown, and whatever horse trading Clinton does will likely be in the service of her more immediate legislative priorities, such as family leave, free college tuition, infrastructure investments, and immigration. It’s possible that some investments in renewable energy and green jobs could be included in an appropriations omnibus, but that’s a best-case scenario.

Having been thwarted by Republicans at every turn six years into his presidency, President Obama slowly backed away from an agenda of compromise and began to use the power of the executive branch to accomplish whatever he could unilaterally—including a number of actions on climate that infuriated conservatives. But Republicans had few tools to punish Obama: They were already stymying everything from immigration reform to his Supreme Court nominee. The president simply had nothing to lose.

Some environmentalists hope that Clinton presidency will chart a similar course, using executive orders and international negotiation to pursue environmental objectives. But progressives are split over how far Clinton should push the climate agenda.

The contentious climate debate going on within left-leaning circles is an extension of Democrats’ dispute over their party platform this summer. Clinton and Sanders appointees fought, sometimes bitterly, over how aggressive the guiding document should be in areas such as carbon taxes, fracking, and renewable energy targets. The Clinton team was characteristically cautious, possibly reflecting a desire to avoid alienating fossil-fuel-dependent interest groups and constituencies in swing states. In the end, the adopted platform was the most environmentally friendly in the Democratic Party’s history, though it didn’t go as far as many advocates had hoped. The question now is how forcefully Clinton should pursue its dictates should she become president.

Democrats are already debating how to position their party for the 2018 midterms and for a presumptive President Clinton’s 2020 re-election campaign. A key consideration is the electorate’s dwindling population of “swing” voters: Many progressives regard getting out the party base as more important than attempting to persuade the shrinking number of voters on the fence about environmental issues. Especially in midterm elections, progressive organizers’ goal will be to rally the voters who reliably vote Democratic, but don’t always show up to vote. Inspiring ideological but infrequent Democratic voters will be crucial to Democrats running for Congress in 2018, and to Clinton in what promises to be a very difficult re-election campaign in 2020. Past elections suggest that Democratic voters in particular tend to be energized by bold visions and positive inspiration, while conservatives respond more favorably to fear- and gridlock-based campaigns.

And Democratic base voters are more conscious of climate issues than ever. Bill McKibben, cofounder of the international climate campaign 350.org, puts it this way: “It's clear that climate justice is now one of the pillars of the Democratic base—and it's a sophisticated enough base that it can't be silenced with small gestures.” Particularly important will be the transition from fossil fuels (particularly natural gas fracking) to renewable energy: “If she moves past gas towards a massive buildout of renewables—then she has the jobs program, the infrastructure spending, and the legacy she wants. And it's doable, since solar and wind enjoy massive bipartisan support.”

Also crucial will be including climate impacts in the evaluation of infrastructure projects, regulating greenhouse gas polluters, and doing everything possible to keep oil in the ground. “The thing Clinton can do to act on climate and mobilize the base—which favors strong climate action—is to act on the [Democratic] platform,” says R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus and founder of Climate Hawks Vote, a climate-focused PAC. “That means considering the climate test in approving all new fossil-fuel infrastructure, choosing an attorney general who will investigate Exxon and other fossil fuel companies for failing to disclose their global warming research in the 1970s, prioritizing renewable energy over natural gas, and pricing carbon.” Miller also recommends a moratorium on any new fossil fuel projects.

None of these policies will get a hearing from Republicans in Congress, and they may rankle fossil fuel interests. But they will appeal to the progressive voters on whom Democratic chances rest in 2018 and 2020, who expect to see bold leadership on these and related issues. The voters who strongly oppose such initiatives have mostly already gravitated to the Republican Party. 

In short, a hypothetical Clinton administration should act as aggressively as possible on climate change, notwithstanding the prospective incoming president’s natural instincts toward incrementalism. The problem’s urgency demands a forceful response; obstructionist and climate-denying Republicans will almost certainly not compromise legislatively with Clinton in any case, and the increasingly leftward tilt of the Democratic electorate on climate issues suggests that Clinton and her party would reap significant political rewards down the road.

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