Bernie Sanders out-greens Hillary Clinton: Will she be able to hold her own in a climate hawk runoff?

How much greener than Clinton is Sanders? And does it matter?

Published July 3, 2015 11:59AM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Jim Cole/Photo montage by Salon)

Now that President Obama has established that the executive branch can and should take a strong stance on climate change, it's safe to say emissions reductions and the like are key issues for the Democratic candidates vying to be his successor. (In the Republican primaries, calling climate change a hoax or just ignoring the problem completely continues, somehow, to be acceptable.) And as Bernie Sanders gains early momentum for his decidedly left-of-center campaign, a big question is whether Hillary Clinton's climate platform can compete.

As far as most issues are concerned, there's a bit of an "anything you can do, I can do better" dynamic between the Democratic frontrunner and the democratic socialist nipping at her heels. Both, to be sure, can boast of their impressive environmental records -- but while Clinton has a respectable 82 percent lifetime score from the League of Conservation Voters, Sanders' is 95 percent, and the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote named him the 113th Congress's top climate leader. As the primaries heat up, the differences between them just might illustrate the vast gulf between someone who hits the right talking points and someone who understands the true scope of what's needed to prevent catastrophic climate change (in a word: everything).

Vox's David Roberts argues that in our current political climate, the difference between their platforms might not matter much. "No president -- not Clinton, not Sanders, not the risen Christ -- could persuade the House GOP to pass aggressive restrictions on carbon," he writes. Then again, President Obama may not have Congress on his side, but he's managed to do a whole lot for climate action anyway. Where he's proved to be a disappointment has been in weighing the grave risks associated with climate change on the one hand while waving Shell on to drill in the Arctic with the other. If America's going to lead the world in fighting climate change, it's going to need an executive branch ready to nix pipeline projects, to shut down oil wells and to use the EPA to rein in as much carbon emissions as possible. Even if Sanders can't nudge Clinton to the left on climate issues, he, along with Democratic contender Martin O'Malley, can at least show voters what a truly Green platform looks like. (And if they can, as Roberts suggests, make Clinton look centrist by comparison well, that's not so bad either.)

Here's how their actions and promises compare thus far:

How seriously they take climate change

Clinton called it “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges we face as a nation and a world.”

Sanders' campaign website asserts, "Unless we take bold action to address climate change, our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are going to look back on this period in history and ask a very simple question: Where were they? Why didn’t the United States of America, the most powerful nation on earth, lead the international community in cutting greenhouse gas emissions and preventing the devastating damage that the scientific community was sure would come?"

Keystone XL pipeline

Clinton has been aggressively silent on whether or not she supports the controversial pipeline, but back when she was Secretary of State, she said she was "inclined" to approve it. The addition of former TransCanada lobbyist Jeffrey Berman to her campaign is being read by some as an ominous sign.

Sanders' staunch opposition to the pipeline is vouched for by Bill McKibben, a leader of the anti-Keystone movement. “He’s been the most consistent and proactive voice in the entire Keystone fight,” McKibben said. “Everything that’s been needed -- from speeches on the floor to legislation to demands that the State Department change its absurd review process -- he and his staff have done immediately and with a high degree of professionalism."

Offshore drilling

Clinton voted in favor of a 2006 bill that ended protections for Florida's Gulf Coast and opened up an additional 8 million acres in the Gulf for offshore drilling.

Sanders wrote an op-ed for the Guardian in the aftermath of the BP oil spill: The lesson, he wrote, is that "there must be no new offshore drilling. Not now, not ever." To that end, he introduced legislation that would have banned offshore drilling along the coastlines.

Arctic drilling

Clinton does have a record of voting against efforts to open up protected areas of the Arctic to oil and gas interests; she also supported a 2007 act that would have conferred additional protections on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

Sanders, too, has never been known to vote in favor of Arctic drilling. In May, he signed a letter expressing disappointment in the Obama administration's decision to open offshore wells in the region.


Clinton promoted fracking abroad during her tenure as Secretary of State, ostensibly to fight climate change while adding to the global energy supply. Domestically, she appears to support, if extremely cautiously, the idea of natural gas as a bridge fuel: she expounded on its potential benefits as compared to coal in a 2014 speech, although she did emphasize the need to "put in place smart regulations and enforce them."

Sanders, if you couldn't guess, is an outspoken opponent of fracking. “I’m very proud that the state of Vermont banned fracking,” he said last year when the state of Vermont banned fracking. “I hope communities all over America do the same.”

Clean Power Plan

Clinton came out strongly in support of the EPA's efforts to limit greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants during a 2014 speech to the League of Conservation Voters. "As you know so well, power plants account for about 40 percent of the carbon pollution in the United States, and therefore must be addressed," she told her audience. "And the unprecedented action that President Obama has taken must be protected at all cost" -- a clear reference to the near-certainty that a GOP president would try to dismantle it.

Sanders, in defining his position in relation to Clinton, takes that a step further: "It is not only supporting what the president has done;" he told the Washington Post, "it is saying we’ve got to lead the world."

Fossil fuel subsidies

Clinton, in that LCV speech, bemoaned the fact that “tax incentives for alternative energy investments are unpredictable at best, while generous subsidies for fossil fuels are still too easy to come by." And while she praised Obama's efforts to phase out subsidies for dirty energy globally, she added, "I know we can do better."

Sanders recently introduced legislation in the Senate, the aptly named End Polluter Welfare Act, that would end tax breaks and other subsidies for oil, gas and coal altogether. It wasn't the first time he's tried that.

Green jobs

Clinton and Sanders teamed up to author the Green Jobs Act in 2007, which dedicated funding to training in "green collar jobs" that involve the "design, manufacture, installation, operation, and maintenance of technologies associated with energy efficiency and renewable, clean energy options."

By Lindsay Abrams

MORE FROM Lindsay Abrams

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

2016 Elections Bernie Sanders Climate Change Democratic Primaries Hillary Clinton