Climate scientists, economists, and the American people overwhelmingly agree on the danger of human-induced climate change. While economists initially resisted policies to combat climate change on the basis of its price tag, the tide is changing. The question today is not whether we can afford to reduce carbon emissions, but rather if we can find the political will to do so.
Unfortunately for us and the planet, most US politicians show little interest in transitioning away from fossil fuels. While President Obama’s executive actions to increase fuel-economy standards and reduce power-plant emissions are steps in the right direction, they are small steps and we have a very long way to go. Combating climate change should be a central issue in the current presidential election. However, the Republicans actually promise to further deregulate the fossil fuel industry and accelerate climate change. Only the Democrats say that bold action is necessary—and they differ drastically on the meaning of “bold.”
Just how much do the Democratic presidential candidates differ? It’s hard to tell from their talking points—both argue for swift action and for making America a leader in the green-energy transition. Secretary Clinton wants to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions by up to thirty percent in 2025 relative to 2005,” which would meet the commitments the US made at the 2015 Paris climate change conference. However, it isn’t quite clear how Clinton would achieve this goal, and the campaign did not respond to our request for details. Her go-to campaign promise is to install half a billion solar panels, which she claims would be sufficient to power the national grid with 100 percent renewable electricity.
While Clinton plays into popular rhetoric around building renewable energy sources, she has not taken bold action to phase out fossil fuels. She was slow to resist the Keystone pipeline, which would have transported particularly dirty fossil fuels from the Alberta tar sands through the United States. Clinton did not oppose that project when it fell under her jurisdiction as secretary of state, and she only came out against the pipeline as a candidate in the Democratic primary last September. President Obama quickly followed her lead, but the events raise doubts about Clinton’s commitment to addressing climate change when she is in office rather than on the campaign trail.
Clinton has also taken a stance in favor of natural-gas fracturing, which she helped spread around the globe as secretary of state. Although natural gas burns more cleanly than coal, fracking may exacerbate global warming due to methane leaks. The Democratic primary debate on March 6 highlighted this policy difference when the candidates were asked if they support fracking. Clinton gave a long-winded answer, saying that she supports fracking as long as it meets a list of standards. Sanders’s response: “My answer is a lot shorter. No. I do not support fracking”.