Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Hillary Clinton, Climate Warrior?

The good news about Candidate Clinton's climate-focused speeches this week involve trust: we can trust that Clinton's team have thoroughly tested the waters of public opinion, and her remarks clearly signal majority voter support--some polls say by a 2-1 margin--for action on anthropogenic climate change. While Republicans have more or less trapped themselves in various shades of climate change denial--and will need to be resolute if they hope to tap the $1 billion reportedly available from the Koch brothers' political action funds--Clinton clearly sees the climate issue as a winner. But what will that mean in terms of real policy?

Her headline claim is for massive conversion to solar--a 700% increase over 10 years, so that 33% of US electricity will be renewable by 2027 (i.e. within 10 years of her inauguration). While her emphasis was on solar, observers have noted that wind may be a better bet, especially in Iowa, where the sector is already advanced. Furthermore her pledge is not precisely a call to action: the increase in solar will depend more on Congress and state legislatures, as tax subsidies, net metering, and other public supports will need to drive solar conversion for the foreseeable future while cost advantages still weigh against it. Wind power, currently 10 times larger an industry in the US than solar, may have a better chance of retaining subsidies as it brings more jobs to the table. For all her good intentions, President Clinton may find she has less power than Candidate Clinton suggests, particularly if Congress remains Republican.

Likewise her intention to carry forward President Obama's 'war on coal' is reassuring in comparison to conservative ideologues determined to maintain the coal industry to the bitter end. In the short and middle term, though, the Supreme Court may weigh in more heavily than the President on this initiative. Clinton has focused more on taking care of displaced coal industry workers--fine in itself--but she isn't proposing much that's new to reduce either coal-burning or export.

Meanwhile, Clinton's preternatural caution still contains her positions, despite a certain flamboyance in her presentation. She refuses to pronounce on the Keystone oil pipeline, citing a confused loyalty to Obama as her excuse ('I was involved in that policy and must therefore recuse myself, especially as I haven't been involved in it for the last several years ...'??).  Likewise the problem of methane leakage is absent from her pronouncements so far. And serious carbon taxes, which most experts agree will be the real driver of energy transformation, are not part of her program--not yet.

Candidates Sanders and O'Malley may come to the rescue here. Both intend to outflank Clinton from the left on climate issues. If and when a robust debate opens up within the Democratic primaries, these two may push her to redefine her position. The fact that she already is willing to treat climate change as a major part of her platform is in that sense promising. But her benign, sun-drenched early pronouncements must be met with tough-minded criticism if we are to see more significant and effective policy proposals.

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