Hillary's climate opportunity: Here's how she fights and wins on global warming

Clinton has the tools and opportunity to go big on climate policy, and she absolutely should

By Simon Maloy

Published April 13, 2015 2:04PM (EDT)

  (AP/Cliff Owen)
(AP/Cliff Owen)

The end of the 2008 Democratic primary was a weird, drawn-out exercise in face-saving and point-making. Sometime around the end of March or the beginning of April of that year, it became apparent that Hillary Clinton had no viable path to the nomination other than a spectacular flame-out by Barack Obama, which wasn’t in the offing. Hillary, of course, refused to give up the fight that easily, and she kept right on campaigning, pushing hard for each and every vote and convention delegate she could get her hands on, even as party elites and the press came to see it as a hopeless crusade. At some point she resigned herself to the reality that she wasn’t going to beat Obama, but she nonetheless wanted to make him earn every scrap of his victory.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this as Hillary’s 2016 campaign kicks into gear, and a lot of my thinking has been about climate change policy. The nature of Hillary’s quixotic end-stage 2008 campaign required that she pour absolutely everything into each successive primary and treat each state as THE MOST IMPORTANT STATE when it comes to choosing a president. As a consequence, states that had scheduled their primaries for later in the year got a lot more attention than they normally would have. It just so happened that a number of these late-in-the-game states were in coal country: Indiana, West Virginia, and Kentucky. This meant that coal miners and the coal industry were enthusiastically pandered to in an all-out effort to secure every vote possible.

“Clean coal” was the oxymoronic and unfeasible policy championed by Clinton during her swings through Appalachia in 2008. “I want us to begin to use the power of the sun and of the wind, to look for geothermal energy, to be the first in the world to do whatever we must to try to get to clean coal,” Clinton said in Kentucky in May 2008. “We don't even know how to do it, but we should lead the rest of the world, because the rest of the world is using coal. We are dependent upon it. We're going to have to have a transition.” (To be clear, it wasn’t just Hillary doing the pandering: Obama represented a state with a substantial coal sector, and he’s not been a saint on “clean coal” either.)

I bring this up not to shame Clinton or anyone else, but to highlight how the vastly different political circumstances Hillary faces in 2016 present her with a real opportunity to stake out a strong climate change policy platform that builds on Obama’s achievements.

As the New Republic’s Rebecca Leber points out, Clinton is at the moment “the only legitimate contender for the White House—declared or presumptive—who embraces the scientific reality of climate change.” Assuming Martin O’Malley, Bernie Sanders, and Lincoln Chafee (hah!) continue to pose no real threat to her chances at the nomination, she’ll be able to set the terms of the climate change debate. And she’ll have an opening to tear into literally every candidate on the Republican side as backwards, anti-science fools who are pretty much the only people on the planet who still deny climate change is happening.

But there’s also an element of political protection here. First of all, being the only game in town for Democrats means that she’s going to come under a lot of pressure from the left on climate change – one environmentalist group is already urging her to take a stand on the Keystone XL pipeline. She could buy a lot of goodwill with liberals and the Democratic base if she moves leftward on issues like Keystone and fracking. More than anything, though, she’ll need to pair her climate change advocacy and policy prescriptions with a strong economic message.

Republicans gain traction in the climate change debate by harping on the supposedly disastrous economic effects of switching away from dirty fuels like oil and coal. President Obama’s new regulations on coal-fired power plants offer a fine example of how the GOP attacks climate policies, and those regulations – which Hillary supports – are going to be an issue in the presidential race. You’re going to see advertisements about how Hillary and Obama want to destroy the mining industry and drive your electricity bills up and kill jobs by making energy more expensive.

The “war on coal” that came up so often in the 2014 midterms will absolutely persist into 2016. The question for Hillary is: how does she counter those attacks?

Politically, she could borrow a page or two from her pal Terry MacAuliffe, the Democratic governor of Virginia, who won election in a coal-friendly swing state while being aggressive on environmental issues. But she’s also going to have to put together a policy platform that addresses the economic impacts of climate change remediation and encourages government investment in clean energy infrastructure. Luckily, she has close access to someone who thinks a lot on the subject: Bill Clinton.

The Clinton Foundation does a lot of work with renewable energy and green technology, and Bill Clinton loves to talk about it. Here he is at the Brookings Institution last May talking in detail about strategies for investing in and revamping electrical infrastructure to better exploit clean energy technology and lower energy costs. (Starts at 59-minute mark)

Last June, on Bloomberg TV, Clinton gave his stamp of approval to the EPA’s new coal regulations, but also called for economic programs to help revitalize local economies that have cratered as the coal industry has shrunk, and suggested pairing those programs with a push towards immigration reform:

CLINTON: We should couple immigration reforms, for example, with an economic transition plan for coal country. I strongly support the EPA rules on coal. And the coal areas have already lost two-thirds of their employment having nothing to do with this, just from greater efficiency and a lower price of natural gas and other things. But we haven't done anything for them. When we had the tobacco initiative when I was president, we had a really aggressive economic transition plan for the areas in North Carolina and Kentucky that were affected. I think if we did that and we showed a really serious effort, I believe it could help us pass immigration reform.

These are interesting ideas that, if fleshed out properly, could allow Hillary to credibly argue that the government can fight climate change without all the economic disruption and havoc her Republican critics will accuse her of inviting.

Maybe I’m being overoptimistic and Hillary will use the freedom of a largely uncontested primary to stay safely within a mushy muddle of vague policies that “skew left” but retain “centrist appeal” or whatever. I hope not. She has the tools at her disposal to fight hard and win on the politics of climate change, and she should seize the opportunity.

Simon Maloy

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