Clinton v. Sanders on Climate

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So, this friend of mine tends to procrastinate. After finally finishing his taxes just before the Monday night deadline (11:59!), he is now giving final thought to his options in tomorrow’s New York primary. “What is a good progressive focused on climate change to do?” I ask myself. Um, I mean, my friend asks me.

If you look at their policy statements, there isn’t all that much daylight between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. Does Sanders have a better position because he promises to cut emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels by 2050 in contrast to Clinton’s promise to make 80% cuts by 2050 based on 2005 levels? (Emissions were lower in 1990 than in 2005.) Or does Sanders’ baseline just demonstrate that he is marching to his own drummer while Clinton is more in tune with the current dialogue? The United States’ commitment under the Paris Accord references (as an aspiration) reductions of 80% or more from 2005 levels by 2050.

Both Clinton and Sanders have a laundry list of policy prescriptions on their campaign websites, though one gets the sense that Sanders will back anything that sounds green. For example, digging deeper and looking at legislation Sanders has introduced, I see that he backs making the tax credit for renewables permanent.  That’s silly. Once renewables reach cost parity, they won’t need subsidies. Ironically, making the tax credit permanent is basically a gift to certain large banks. Maybe Bernie has a soft spot for Wall Street after all?

Even the climate policy differences to emerge in the debates may be more a matter of style (and political posturing) than of substance. Discussing fracking, during their March 6 debate in Flint, Clinton outlined her concerns, including methane release. She elaborated a somewhat nuanced position and concluded, “by the time we get through all of my conditions, I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.” (I half expected her to say it depends on what the meaning of the word “fracking” is.) Sanders, taking a more black and white view of things, simply stated he opposes fracking, winning loud cheers from the audience. Which position is better from an environmental standpoint, though, is not obvious.

Similarly, in their April 14 debate in Brooklyn, Sanders declared he supports a carbon tax and pressed Clinton on the issue. She dodged the question. It’s hard not to conclude that Clinton is looking toward the general election while Sanders is hoping to outflank her on the left to win the primary.

The end result is that Sanders’ positions on climate issues seem more straightforward. Clinton’s positions on climate issues, though perhaps more thoughtful, take more explaining. She pays a price for nuance, perhaps extra since her style is closer to Obama’s and, as is natural, Americans may be seeking a change in style as much as a change in substance. (And I had made it so far without alluding to Trump.)

In the end, the best that I can do is to reframe the issue. President Obama has pushed the executive action approach just about to its limits and we need a President who will be able to bring Congress along on climate issues to get legislation passed. And, as importantly, we need a president who will be able to strengthen the international commitment to real greenhouse gas reductions.

So, is it Bernie’s passion or Hillary’s cool calculation that is most likely to bring us the radical change we need? Who can build a congressional coalition that will adopt a bold carbon-slashing policy along the lines of Pure Cap-and-Dividend?  Who can unite the international community and build on the Paris Accord?

Do we fix the climate with passion or calculation? My crystal ball does not give me a definitive answer. Don’t we need both?  What’s a procrastinator to do?

I guess I’ll sleep on it.