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US Presidential Elections 101: Everything You Need to Know About Their Environment Policies

The USA presidential race is heating up! And there are a lot of issues to keep track of. But as environmental issues are falling off the news cycle post-COP, we’d like to make sure that they’re on the agenda. In this post, we see where the major candidates stand on climate change and the environment.

The players

In the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders agree on several things:

  • Humans are responsible for climate change.
  • Climate change is a pressing problem.
  • Climate change can be addressed in the form of (a) clean energy tax breaks, (b) rejecting drilling in the Arctic and offshore, and (c) rejecting the Keystone XL pipeline.
  • The transition to renewable energy must keep in mind the livelihoods of those involved in the fossil fuel energy sector.

But before we get to how they differ, let’s take a quick look at the Republican Party.

We have Ted Cruz, who will seize every chance he can to flatly deny climate change. Donald Trump has only recently decided that “a lot of [climate change] is hoax”–we’re guessing that is the bit manufactured by China. John Kasich is moderate as far as the Republican Party goes — meaning that he’s believed climate change is real since 2012most of the time, anyway. However, he doesn’t believe that humans are the primary cause of it.

Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. Modified from NewsNinja.

Presidential candidates Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, and John Kasich. Modified from NewsNinja.

No further analysis of the Republicans needed. Let’s jump to the Democrats! Ding ding ding! Hillary vs Bernie, issue by issue.

Carbon tax

While Bernie supports legislation to impose a carbon tax, Hillary does not (in contrast to her previous presidential run).

Public lands

Hillary’s September 2015 plans for public lands were somewhat conservative. At that point, she was open to the the additional leasing of these lands to fossil fuel companies; climatologist and director of the Penn State Earth System Science Center, Michael Mann, pointed out that, given the cheap nature of those leases, this acts, in effect, as a subsidy to fossil fuel interests. In February 2016, when asked whether she supports banning fossil fuel extraction on public lands, she stated “It’s a done deal… No future extraction. I agree with that.” However, she has not changed her policy to specify how far in the future she is talking about, and her past is mixed on this issue.

Check out the video: Hillary Clinton Thinks Banning Fossil Fuel Extraction on Public Lands is a “Done Deal”

In the fall of 2015, Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the Keep It in the Ground Act to ban all fossil fuel extraction on public lands.

Energy infrastructure

In September 2015, Hillary unveiled her agenda for US energy infrastructure that seeks to transform the country into “the clean energy superpower of the 21st century”. This followed support for renewable energy with a focus on solar in the summer. Her plan incentivizes clean energy, prices carbon emissions, and aims to work with Canada and Mexico in a coordinated effort to lower carbon emissions. It notes the pollution and oil consumption that need to be addressed as a consequence of oil spills, chronic methane leaks, disrepair, and explosions. It also builds upon the Obama administration’s new EPA rules to reduce GHG emissions under the clean power plan. While her plan identified issues of grid security, rail safety, and modernizing the pipeline system, Bernie’s identified issues with the fuel economy standard, mountaintop removal coal mining, and pollution.

Bernie’s goal for clean energy use is  more ambitious than Hillary’s. While he wants to create a 100% clean energy system for electricity, heating, and transportation, Hillary’s goal is to create a system which generates enough clean renewable energy to power every home within 10 years of her taking office (not taking into account transportation). Bernie’s plan has a few more details on how to transform the transportation system (e.g. building electric vehicle charging stations, high speed trains) while Hillary’s remains vague.

Offshore drilling

Bernie wants to ban offshore drilling altogether.

Hillary, on the other hand, supported offshore drilling in 2006 (voting in favour of a bill opening new Gulf Coast areas to oil drilling).  But in December 2015 she expressed her full opposition to offshore drilling, stating that there was “so little to gain and so much to lose” with Obama’s Department of Interior’s draft plan to allow drilling in areas off the east coast.

Fossil fuel subsidies

Bernie is in favor of repealing fossil fuel subsidies. In 2015, he proposed the End Polluter Welfare Act to that effect. Hillary’s plan is also against fossil fuel subsidies, but check out the “Public lands” section (above) to see in what ways her policies could indirectly be subsidizing fossil fuel companies. She has also voted yes on removing oil and gas exploration subsidies in the past.


Hillary’s views on fracking are tempered; not wholly for it, but advocating being “smart”, putting in place the “right safeguards”, and recognizing that “natural gas is no long-term answer”, and with various other conditions. This view has remained stable over the past few years.

Bernie is firmly against fracking, and he has made this a major issue with which to draw the line between himself and Hillary.

Support from grassroots environmental groups

When the League of Conservation Voters (LCV) endorsed Hilary in November 2015, headlines boomed that she had widespread environmentalist support. But despite the backing of this particular environmental group, Hillary generally does not have the support of grassroots environmental groups, such as Friends of the Earth and 350.org. However, the LCV does have ties to the Clintons, and their support was more indicative of hedging political bets rather than disagreement with Bernie. (Bernie’s LCV “scorecard” has a higher score than Hillary’s!)

There are many reasons for widespread disapproval of Clinton by grassroots environmental groups. One is her longtime silence and “waffling” on the Keystone XL pipeline; although she finally stated she is against it, she did so after it had already been rejected. Her calling it “a distraction” from more broad climate change policy also alienated her from many grassroots groups who considered the issue emblematic and representative of American climate change policy, rather than a specific issue. Her statement that the Copenhagen 2009 [climate] talks were a victory also indicated her being out of touch with the reality of grassroots environmental groups, which considered those talks a massive failure. Even at last year’s COP21 in Paris, the failures of Copenhagen loomed large.

Bernie, like many grassroots environmental supporters, not only found Copenhagen to be a failure but was critical of COP21 as well. In proposing a worldwide climate summit involving engineers, climate scientists, policy experts, activists, and indigenous communities, his plan states: “The [UN] Paris climate talks in December are an important milestone toward solving climate change, but even optimistic outcomes of these talks will not put the world on the path needed to avoid the most catastrophic results of climate change. We must think beyond Paris.” This not only agrees with grassroots environmental group assessment of the talks, but mirrors their language (many groups talked of “planning through Paris”).

Tweets from Mother Jones.

Tweets from Mother Jones.

Hillary also became known for her “flip-flopping” on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and her mixed support for other free trade partnerships (including CAFTA and NAFTA); most grassroots environmental groups are firmly against free trade agreements.

Bernie has a good record of pro-environmental policies and proposals that further indicate he is well attuned to the needs of grassroots environmental movements. His “Keep It in the Ground Act”, mentioned above, is a direct reference to a particularly large and loud one. His climate plan also differs significantly from that of Hillary’s in that it directly and heavily focuses on the impact of the fossil fuel lobby on politics.

Another reason Bernie is favoured by grassroots environmental groups is that he is known for (and still actively advertises) his having “the courage to stand up to big oil, because he won’t take their money”. Meanwhile, Hillary’s ties to the fossil fuel industry are well documented–see this, this, this, and this article. What’s made it arguably worse is her denial of knowledge and distancing herself from these donations.

Environmental justice

Bernie has been responsive to addressing issues that tie together race, class, and gender, and has further attempted to address issues of environmental justice that are widespread in the United States. Sanders has offered an environmental-justice amendment to legislation. This legislation  calls on Congress to affirm a wide array of statistics that point to the public health risks faced by minorities in the United States as a result of air pollution, and pushes for the creation of “a national environmental and climate justice climate change plan” intended to address “the disproportionate impacts of air pollution to low-income and minority communities”.

Hillary has connected climate change to women’s rights in her advocacy for clean cookstoves and her launching the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves for the UN. However, she has not had a history of “connecting the dots” in the United States.

The verdict

There are many issues to consider when evaluating a political candidate–environmental ones are a subset of these, but not more or less important than others!

Hillary’s plans are likely to be appealing to those who see climate change as a technical problem that can be changed by modifying a few rules, and slowly. They are also likely to appeal to those who see social and environmental problems as separate from each other. She finds the politics of climate change very daunting, and only takes a position on them when she feels politically safe doing so. She is a highly strategic and tactical politician, often fond of waiting for a decision to be made before she publicly expresses her opinion of it. While this can be frustrating–Anderson Cooper put it best: “Will you say anything to get elected?”–it is part of her package of her highly polished diplomatic and political skills and a large reason for her success.

Bernie’s plans tend to appeal to those who see climate change as a problem that cannot be distinguished from wider social issues, and to those who want to see a lot of things done differently and quickly. Bernie has shown great consistency in understanding, representing, responding to, and defending environmental groups. He appeals to many environmentalists because he is known for his “straight talk” and “what you see is what you get” persona. As far as environmental issues go, that is rare and thirsted for–more than any other set of issues, except perhaps foreign policy, they are obtuse and filled with rhetoric that often obscures intended action. For many an environmentalist, Bernie is a dream candidate. But his style of politicking may not be as well suited to other realms.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Photo modified from PopSugar.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Photo modified from PopSugar.

The majority of Carbon Analytics is not eligible to vote for this election. At any rate, we wish the United States a President who not only sees climate change as a pressing problem but can help the country become a world leader in addressing it!