Spotlight Elections: Will the United States move forward on climate over the next four years?


The ‘FES Spotlight Elections’ is a series that presents short opinion pieces on social and economic policy topics that are playing a role in the debates and campaigns leading up to the U.S. Presidential elections of 2016. By presenting views from authors from the African American and Latino communities, from female authors, labor representatives and young people, as well as members of the LGBTQ community, from religious groups, and the working poor, the series aims to offer a voice to segments of the U.S. population and shed light on policy issues that do not get adequate coverage in the mainstream media.


In June 2008, then-Senator Barack Obama, having won the Democratic presidential nomination, declared: “…If we are willing to work for it, and fight for it, and believe in it, then I am absolutely certain that, generations from now, we will be able to look back and tell our children that this was the moment when we began to provide care for the sick and good jobs to the jobless... this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal..."

In his January 2009 inauguration speech, Obama proclaimed that his administration would “work tirelessly to (...) roll back the specter of a warming planet." Obama faced tremendouscriticism for not focusing on the climate crisis during his first term, a lapse that was widely seen as having led to the collapse of cap-and-trade legislation in the Senate in July 2010. Less than a year later, climate activists who fought tirelessly for the doomed legislation confronted another challenge: the carbon-intensive Keystone XL pipeline, which President Obama appeared inclined to authorize. Climate activists mobilized to both stop the pipeline and compel President Obama to elevate climate change into the upper echelon of his political concerns. While Obama remained quiet on climate for most of his 2012 re-election campaign, the savagery of Superstorm Sandy compelled him to articulate the rage and sorrow of those alarmed by raging storms – and to take bold and historic action to curb carbon pollution.

"We will respond to the threat of climate change,” Obama announced in his 2013 inauguration address, “knowing that the failure to do so would betray our children and future generations. Some may still deny the overwhelming judgment of science, but none can avoid the devastating impact of raging fires, and crippling drought, and more powerful storms.”

In his second term, Obama led on climate as no President ever had before, challenging Congress to “pursue a bipartisan, market-based solution to climate change,” laying out the moral case for climate action in a stirring speech at Georgetown University, striking a historic climate deal with China, putting together the Clean Power Plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants, and, most importantly, working with 195 countries to craft the Paris climate agreement to prevent carbon pollution from reaching catastrophic levels.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton has vowed to defend President Obama’s climate accomplishments. Declaring climate change “an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” Clinton vows to “Invest in clean energy infrastructure, innovation, manufacturing and workforce development,” remove tax subsidies for dirty energy, slash methane emissions, help displaced coal workers transition to new industries, and “launch a $60 billionClean Energy Challenge to...give [states] the tools and resources they need to go beyond federal standards in cutting carbon pollution and expanding clean energy,” among other initiatives.

Her Republican opponent, Donald Trump, has, like 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, abandoned concerns about climate change to appeal to the most anti-science elements of the American electorate. In late-2009, Trump urged attendees of the 2009 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen to make progress on curbing carbon pollution. However, as his presidential ambitions grew, his concerns about climate began to fade; by late-2012, he was ridiculing climate change as a hoax invented by the Chinese government, and would later suggest that snowstorms disproved climate science.

If elected president, Trump has vowed to abandon the Paris climate agreement, prop up the American coal industry, and block the Environmental Protection Agency’s efforts to curb carbon pollution. His main energy adviser, Rep. Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, reportedly “believes the Earth is cooling, not warming, and he has opposed efforts by the Obama administration to regulate greenhouse gas emissions.” Trump has also vowed to consult right-wing organizations such as the Federalist Society when deciding which judges to appoint to the federal bench – a frightening prospect, considering the scrutiny the federal courts have given to President Obama’s efforts to protect the climate.

Clinton, whose judicial appointments are expected to be far more sympathetic to science than those of Trump, has already ridiculed the former reality show star’s contempt for climate science. Clinton will likely continue her criticism of Trump’s anti-science views, although she will still face strong criticism from climate activists who feel that her policies aren’t extensive enough to thwart the most severe impacts of climate change.

A key tenet of climate-hawk criticism of Clinton stems from her reluctance to support federal carbon pricing. Presumably, Clinton has elected not to endorse carbon pricing due to concerns that such an endorsement would brand the concept as a “Democratic” policy, thus destroying the extensive efforts to forge a bipartisan consensus around federal carbon-pricing legislation. If carbon pricing became a politically polarized issue, then the dream of federal carbon-pricing legislation would be deferred permanently – as well as any hope of drastically reducing US carbon emissions and reaffirming the country’s commitment to climate protection. (At least one prominent carbon-pricing advocate – Henry Paulson, former Treasury Secretary under President George W. Bush – is not deterred by Clinton’s hesitancy on the concept, recently endorsing the former Secretary of State).

Clinton may never officially endorse carbon pricing, but climate hawks will be watching to see whether she will reaffirm her earlier call for a federal investigation of ExxonMobil for potentially engaging in fraud. They will be watching to see if she will follow in the footsteps of Senator Bernie Sanders, her erstwhile rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, and call upon American broadcast networks to dramatically expand their coverage of climate change. They will also be watching to see if Clinton will match--or exceed--Obama’s leadership on the most important issue of our time.


D.R. Tucker is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer. He is a weekend contributor for the Washington Monthly, and has also written for the Washington Spectator, BradBlog.com, ClimateCrocks.com, Huffington Post, the Boston Herald, the Boston Globe Magazine, the Metrowest Daily News and the Concord Monitor.


The views expressed in this publication are not necessarily those of the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung or of the organization for which the author works.


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