Thursday, October 22, 2015

Can Any of the Democratic Presidential Candidates Lead Us “Back to the Future”?

By Andrea Lang, Energy Fellow

At the end of the 1980s classic “Back to the Future,” Marty McFly jumps into a DeLorean fueled by some banana peels and the dregs of a beer can to travel to October 21, 2015. Yesterday marked the day of Marty McFly’s visit, and although we do have biofuel technology, we are far from divorcing ourselves entirely from fossil fuels. So how can we get “back to the future,” and who can get us there?

Back in May, GEI Staff Attorney Amelia Schlusser blogged about the positions of the Republican presidential candidates on climate change (they either deny its existence or think it doesn’t pose any real threats—clearly they won’t be leading the way back to the future). In light of the relatively prominent role climate change played in the first Democratic presidential primary debate, it seems like a good time to explore the positions and histories of the Democratic contenders on climate change and renewable energy. The field of Democratic candidates has narrowed in the last week, with Senator Jim Webb dropping out of the race and Vice President Joe Biden officially deciding not to run. This leaves Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Martin O’Malley, and Lincoln Chafee as the primary Democratic contenders.

Hillary Clinton:

The Democratic frontrunner states two main goals for her climate policy: (1) install a half billion solar panels by the end of her first term, and (2) “[g]enerate enough renewable energy to power every home in America within 10 years of…taking office.” She also proposes a target of producing 33% of U.S. electricity from renewables by 2027. While her position is an improvement over current policy, it doesn’t go far enough to transition to a fully renewable grid. Moreover, Clinton has a spotty history with respect to climate change and related issues. She had been reticent to state a position on the Keystone XL pipeline until recently, and twice voted to allow offshore drilling as a Senator. Additionally, the fact that Clinton resorted in the first debate to touting her role in the controversial and ineffectual Copenhagen Accord as a demonstration of her efficacy on climate issues speaks to her weak history regarding the subject. Thus, although her concrete plans to address climate change are admirable, Clinton lacks a bit of credibility in light of her inconsistency on the issue in the past. 

Bernie Sanders:

When asked “what is the biggest national security threat to the United States?,” Bernie Sanders answered that “the scientific community is telling us, if we do not address the global crisis of climate change, transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to sustainable energy, the planet that we are gonna be leaving our kids and our grandchildren may well not be habitable." Despite the apparent urgency of the issue to the Vermont Senator, his website does not lay out a concrete plan to address climate change in the future, and mentions only what Sanders has done in the past to address the issue. Sanders did introduce a bill with California Senator Barbara Boxer to tax carbon and methane emissions, and he has consistently opposed the Keystone XL pipeline. In contrast to Secretary Clinton, Senator Sanders has been consistently strong on the issue in the past but does not have a concrete plan for the future. 

Martin O’Malley:

I was pleasantly surprised when Governor O’Malley published an op-ed in USA Today calling for a move to a 100% clean energy grid by 2050, which he also repeatedly emphasized  in the first debate. O’Malley’s website also lays out specific actions he would take to achieve this goal. Among his promises: to end fossil fuel subsidies, extend the Production and Investment Tax Credits that encourage wind and solar development respectively, financially support rural clean energy development through new and existing programs, extend the Biodiesel Tax Credit, create a “Clean Energy Jobs Corps,” and  modernize the electric grid to support more renewable energy. And although O’Malley has a questionable record on other environmental issues (see the Chesapeake Bay cleanup), he does have a strong history on climate change. For example, in 2007, O’Malley created by executive order the Maryland Commission on Climate Change to develop a statewide “Plan of Action” including firm benchmarks and timetables. Thus, O’Malley seems to bring together both a history of action and a plan for the future with regard to climate change.

Lincoln Chafee:

Although the former Republican had a poor performance in last week’s debate, he did bring up climate change in his opening remarks as a “real threat to our planet.” This position is consistent with his website, which claims that he “will work tirelessly to significantly reduce greenhouse gasses [sic].” Chafee does have a long history of climate action, even while he was a Republican. Unfortunately, like Senator Sanders, Chafee does not appear to have any specific plans to address the issue. 

So Who Has the Strongest Climate Policy Proposal?

Martin O’Malley's climate policy sets by far the most ambitious goal of achieving a 100% clean energy grid by 2050, and lays out concrete strategies to get us there. While he may be an underdog candidate, I hope that he can push the other candidates towards a more aggressive position on climate change to bring us “Back to the Future” of fossil fuel independence.

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