The Democratic presidential primary race between front-runners Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton is heating up. So is the planet.
The World Meteorological Organization recently released data showing that 2015 has already set several records related to worsening anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD).
The new data shows that this year is set to become, by far, the hottest ever recorded on the planet. Plus, for the first time, the three-month atmospheric average carbon dioxide level for the Northern Hemisphere surpassed the 400 parts per million level, and the five-year period between 2011 and 2015 was the warmest five-year period ever recorded.
Recent NASA data show that October was, by a stretch, the hottest October ever recorded. In fact, that month logged the highest divergence away from the mean temperature that the space agency has ever recorded in its 1,600 months of temperature records.
This year is set to become the hottest year on record, pummeling the previous record – which was set just last year.
How important is addressing climate change in the Democratic race?
Recent polling numbers indicate that the vast majority of Americans consider ACD to be a “serious problem” and support actions taken now to address it. There is broad support for the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan to limit pollution, and there is massive support for increasing our use of renewable energy sources on a national level.
Both Sanders and Clinton are taking the issue seriously, at least in rhetoric, but there are clear differences between the candidates in how prominent each of them have made the issue in their respective campaigns and proposed policies. Those differences come into even sharper focus when one looks at their stances on the issue throughout their political careers.
Sanders: History of Being a Climate “Hawk”
Sanders has, and has had, an extremely robust Senate voting record in regards to ACD.
According to the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote, Sanders was ranked first place in the Senate for the 133th Congress that ended in January.
Sanders’ ongoing advocacy for the expansion of solar energy across the country fits well with his opposition to the dominance of large corporations: Solar power enables people to generate their own energy as opposed to paying utility companies that are largely reliant upon fossil fuels.
A look at Sanders’ Senate voting record from just the last eight years demonstrates how he walks his talk regarding working to reduce carbon emissions. In 2007, along with then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, he co-authored the Green Jobs Act, which allocated money for clean energy and research aimed at energy efficiency. That year Sanders, alongside Sen. Robert Menendez, cosponsored the Energy Efficiency and Conservation Block Grant Program, which passed, enabling the federal government to assist states and local governments in paying for efficient clean energy programs.
In 2010, Sanders authored a bill titled the 10 Million Solar Roofs and 10 Million Gallons of Solar Hot Water Act, which aimed to create tax rebates and incentives that would cover half the cost of new solar systems, although it did not pass. In 2012, Sanders introduced the End Polluter Welfare Act: an effort to eliminate special tax deductions and credits for coal, oil and gas producers. That bill failed to pass as well.
But Sanders did not give up: In 2013, he introduced the Residential Energy Savings Act, which was aimed at assisting people in retrofitting their homes for energy efficiency. It failed to pass. Undeterred, that same year, Sanders and Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced the Climate Protection Act, which would (had it passed) have taxed carbon and methane emissions and returned some of the fines to citizens, in addition to investing the remaining funds in clean energy and energy efficiency.
There is now a #SandersOnAPlane hashtag celebrating the fact that he flies on commercial planes, coach class (often in the middle seat), avoiding additional fossil fuel emissions, coupled with the fact of him being one of “the people.”
Perhaps most importantly, during the waning days of the COP21 Paris climate conference – before the talks even began, since they are clearly not going to come anywhere close to doing enough toward working to mitigate the impacts of ACD – Sanders’ campaign launched his new platform on climate change and energy policy.
Taking the issue much further than his rival Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ plan aims to cut US carbon emissions by over 80 percent by 2050, create a 100 percent clean energy system that would generate 10 million well-paying jobs, impose taxes on major polluters and return the money to the families most heavily impacted by ACD.
Also unlike Clinton, Sanders would ban fossil fuel lobbyists from working in the White House, end subsidies benefiting fossil fuel companies, create a national environmental and climate justice plan, bring climate deniers to justice via US Department of Justice investigations into companies like ExxonMobil, which have spent millions funding that movement, and work to overturn the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling. All of these acts together show Sanders’ commitment to taking strides to mitigate ongoing carbon contributions to ACD.
The text of his plan states that it will “reclaim our democracy from the billionaire fossil fuel lobby,” and adds, “It is an embarrassment that Republican politicians, with few exceptions, refuse to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone are prepared to do anything about it.”
Greenpeace USA executive director Annie Leonard applauded the plan, and in a statement said, “The climate plan released by Senator Bernie Sanders today shows that he has broken free of the corporate and 1 percent money that has held back climate policy for far too long.”
Clinton and ACD
While Sanders is flying coach on commercial flights, Hillary Clinton is flying in a private Learjet that emits over two tons of carbon per hour while burning through more than 200 gallons of jet fuel per hour.
Clinton, stunningly, won the endorsement of the League of Conservation Voters whose top priority is to address ACD. Her endorsement from this key environmental group is a surprise due to the fact that the group has given Sanders a 95 percent lifetime score, while Clinton only received an 82 percent score.
It’s not all bad on the Clinton front, of course. Her statements about what she aims to do toward mitigating ACD look good (if we overlook the aforementioned glaring hypocrisy). While her voting record for the environment isn’t as consistently solid as Sanders’ record, it is still on the right path.
Clinton has proposed a comprehensive energy plan that does not lean on using nuclear power, and has consistently opposed additional coal-powered plants. Still, she continues to push for “clean” coal; of course, there is no such thing.
She has also consistently supported “green-collar” job training, for job creation in the renewable energy realm, and has taken stands for clean air and for more funding for the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2005, Clinton also voted to limit power plant smokestack emissions, and to place a cap on mercury emissions in 2010.
She proposes to aim for a 700 percent increase in solar installations by the end of her first term if she is elected, and has set a goal to produce one-third of US electricity using renewable sources by 2027.
On the Issues
Thankfully, both Sanders and Clinton clearly state that ACD is real and human-caused.
Both of them have called for significant action toward addressing and mitigating ACD, and have explicitly stated they will work to combat ACD if elected (in addition to their specific proposals aimed at reducing emissions).
Furthermore, both candidates have come out in opposition to the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline, although Clinton only took this position fairly recently, and critics believe she only did so after construction was already in the process of being stopped for economic reasons.
While there is a fair amount of overlap in terms of Sanders’ and Clinton’s positions on many key environmental issues, including ACD, there remain several important differences.
Sanders opposes offshore drilling and drilling in the Arctic, while Clinton supports both. Sanders supports a price on carbon emissions, while Clinton doesn’t, and Sanders opposes tax breaks for fossil fuel companies, while Clinton does not.
It seems that Clinton has quickly moved much further to the left on the environment in part to keep up with Sanders, who has consistently maintained a firmly left position in that realm throughout most of his political career.
Yet while Clinton continues to play catch-up, Sanders keeps pushing the envelope.
He is now pushing for legislation aimed at blocking the construction of any new oil, natural gas and coal projects on federal land and waters.
This move is part of his Keep It in the Ground Act, which he and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Oregon) unveiled in early November. The act would cancel all existing offshore leases in the Arctic, in addition to barring the renewal or extension of existing leases anywhere that are not already producing energy.
Sanders invited Hillary Clinton to join him on the bill, but Clinton’s campaign declined to comment about it either publicly or to Sanders’ campaign.
Finally, a major rhetorical difference between the two candidates is that Sanders regularly talks about taking on the entire fossil fuel industry, whereas Clinton will not. He does so because he can: Both his political history and current efforts reflect consistent support for confronting ACD.
Only time will tell whether – if elected – either candidate will undertake the types of serious, large-scale policy transformations necessary to change the course of planetary warming.
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