How Green Is Hillary Clinton?

With her mixed record on environmental and energy issues, and her cautious silence on controversies like Keystone, activists can’t help wondering.

Jacqui Oakley
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Ben Geman
July 17, 2015, 1:01 a.m.

When Hil­lary Clin­ton kick-star­ted her second pres­id­en­tial cam­paign on June 13 at New York’s Roosevelt Is­land, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists were all ears — and so were en­vir­on­ment­al re­port­ers. For weeks, I’d been pes­ter­ing Clin­ton’s Brook­lyn-based op­er­a­tion for in­form­a­tion about her en­vir­on­ment­al plat­form, to no avail. Clin­ton had said little about cli­mate and en­ergy policy thus far in her cam­paign, bey­ond a few shout-outs on the eco­nom­ic be­ne­fits of con­tinu­ing to grow the U.S. re­new­ables in­dustry. She had, to be sure, been talk­ing about the need to ad­dress cli­mate change for two dec­ades, and she’d ini­ti­ated clean-en­ergy pro­grams as sec­ret­ary of State. But she had yet to take a stand on two of the hot­test en­vir­on­ment­al is­sues of the mo­ment — ap­prov­ing the Key­stone XL pipeline and open­ing Arc­tic wa­ters off Alaska’s coast to drilling — much less to roll out an am­bi­tious plan for car­bon re­duc­tion or green en­ergy.

The day be­fore the big speech, I did get an email from a Clin­ton aide: a long memo mak­ing the case that Clin­ton had an im­pec­cable green re­cord as New York’s ju­ni­or sen­at­or, and at the State De­part­ment. This was brute-force polit­ic­al mes­saging: more than 4,000 words of ex­cerpts from press clip­pings and speeches, grouped un­der head­ings like, “Made Cli­mate Change a For­eign Policy Pri­or­ity” and “Pri­or­it­ized De­vel­op­ing Clean En­ergy Around the World.” It looked back nearly 15 years, cit­ing her votes in fa­vor of a lit­any of meas­ures such as ex­tend­ing tax cred­its for re­new­able-elec­tri­city pro­jects, and her co­spon­sor­ship (but not lead au­thor­ship) of failed bills in 2001, 2003, 2005, and 2007 to curb car­bon di­ox­ide emis­sions and oth­er power-plant pol­lu­tion.

The same day, the on­line en­vir­on­ment­al magazine Grist pub­lished a lengthy “open let­ter” to Clin­ton from Bill McK­ib­ben, the Ver­mont act­iv­ist whose anti-Key­stone cam­paign has made him a lead­er of the more in­sur­gent, ag­gress­ive wing of the en­vir­on­ment­al move­ment. It was some­what less wordy than the cam­paign email, and far less bullish on Clin­ton’s com­mit­ment to the green move­ment’s cent­ral fo­cus these days: achiev­ing deep cuts in car­bon emis­sions by keep­ing as much coal, gas, and oil as pos­sible un­burned. McK­ib­ben’s “Five reas­ons en­vir­on­ment­al­ists dis­trust you,” not sur­pris­ingly, chided Clin­ton for her si­lence on the Key­stone pipeline. He also ac­cused the can­did­ate of tak­ing “the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion’s af­fec­tion for frack­ing and [run­ning] with it,” cit­ing a pro­gram ini­ti­ated by Clin­ton’s State De­part­ment to help oth­er coun­tries pro­duce shale gas, the stuff tapped by frack­ing. But McK­ib­ben wasn’t ex­press­ing hope­less­ness about Clin­ton, just frus­tra­tion and mod­est ex­pect­a­tions. His greatest fear, shared by oth­ers on the left end of the move­ment, is not that Clin­ton will be an anti-en­vir­on­ment­al pres­id­ent, by any means, but that she’ll prove to be a “small-bore, play-it-safe, in­cre­ment­al” one.

In her second pres­id­en­tial bid, Clin­ton has sent some en­cour­aging sig­nals to en­vir­on­ment­al­ists about where she’ll end up — none more sig­ni­fic­ant than hir­ing John Podesta, the Obama ad­viser cred­ited with push­ing the pres­id­ent’s second-term ad­vances in car­bon re­duc­tion, to be her cam­paign chair­man. At the least, most be­lieve that her pres­id­ency would build on Pres­id­ent Obama’s second term, dur­ing which he has made lib­er­al use of ex­ec­ut­ive powers to lower car­bon emis­sions from power plants and reach a land­mark green­house-gas ac­cord with China. But en­vir­on­ment­al­ists see a his­tor­ic op­por­tun­ity in a third straight Demo­crat­ic pres­id­en­tial term. They want to go big. They don’t just need an­swers from Clin­ton about her stands on con­tro­ver­sial is­sues; they also need to hear some vis­ion.

Hillary Clinton, former secretary of state and 2016 Democratic presidential candidate, pauses while speaking at her first campaign rally at Four Freedoms Park on Roosevelt Island in New York, U.S., on Saturday, June 13, 2015. Clinton launched the second phase of her presidential campaign today, drawing heavily on her personal story as she outlined her vision for shared prosperity for all Americans. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images) Bloomberg via Getty Images

They didn’t get much of either on June 13 in New York. Clin­ton neither by­passed green is­sues nor gave them much em­phas­is. She called cli­mate change “one of the de­fin­ing threats of our time,” vowed to “make Amer­ica the clean-en­ergy su­per­power of the 21st cen­tury,” and took shots at Re­pub­lic­an glob­al-warm­ing den­iers. Bey­ond the boil­er­plate was only the slim­mest reed of policy — “us­ing ad­di­tion­al fees and roy­al­ties from fossil-fuel ex­trac­tion to pro­tect the en­vir­on­ment” — al­though that was enough to in­spire the League of Con­ser­va­tion Voters Ac­tion Fund, one of the es­tab­lish­ment groups more friendly to Clin­ton than McK­ib­ben’s crowd, to give “kudos” to the can­did­ate for “build­ing on her long re­cord of en­vir­on­ment­al lead­er­ship.”

(RE­LATED: To­geth­er For The First Time, Hil­lary Clin­ton and Her Rival 2016 Demo­crats Still Play Nice)

A protest against the pro­posed Key­stone XL pipeline was held out­side 2500 Stein­er where Susie Tomp­kins Buell held a $2,700 a per­son fun­draiser for Hil­lary Clin­ton. Bil­lion­aire Key­stone op­pon­ent Tom Stey­er earli­er held a fun­drais­ing lunch for her.

Clin­ton’s cam­paign says she’ll be­gin to roll out her en­vir­on­ment­al and en­ergy plat­form later this sum­mer. But for en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, one ques­tion might be more im­port­ant than the par­tic­u­lars of her re­cord and her plat­form: Does Hil­lary Clin­ton have a genu­ine pas­sion for sav­ing the plan­et? Will she make cli­mate change a full-throated cam­paign is­sue — and, if she be­comes pres­id­ent, will it be as press­ing for her as fight­ing IS­IS? As folks in the green move­ment are well aware, not a single ma­jor piece of cli­mate-change le­gis­la­tion has even come up for a vote in Con­gress — much less passed the House and Sen­ate — since 2009. For a pres­id­ent to make ser­i­ous pro­gress on car­bon re­duc­tion, it will take a mighty force of will.

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“She has been an un­abashed hero on wo­men’s rights is­sues, re­pro­duct­ive justice, early-child­hood health care,” says Mi­chael Brune, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Si­erra Club. “As a dad of two little girls, I have a lot of re­spect and ap­pre­ci­ation for what she has done.” But he’s wait­ing for Clin­ton to bring the same in­tens­ity to glob­al warm­ing and green en­ergy. “What we need des­per­ately is that same level of com­mit­ment and pas­sion and will­ing­ness to edu­cate her­self and to be bold and am­bi­tious and ag­gress­ive,” he says. Brune has met with the cam­paign, which says it has reached out to more than 100 people to talk about en­vir­on­ment­al and en­ergy is­sues. But he doesn’t sound con­vinced — so far — that Clin­ton is ready to lead the charge, even though he says her re­cord has been “great.” “We need to rap­idly re­place dirty fuels with clean en­ergy on a scale that we have not yet seen be­fore,” he says. “Do­ing this will re­quire a de­gree of lead­er­ship that we haven’t yet seen from Mrs. Clin­ton on this is­sue.”

THE LAST TIME Hil­lary Clin­ton ran for pres­id­ent, dawn had not yet broken on the un­ex­pec­ted oil-pro­duc­tion boom that would soon re­verse a two-dec­ade de­cline in U.S. out­put. The coun­try’s nat­ur­al-gas re­volu­tion was just get­ting star­ted. The ral­ly­ing cry, for both Re­pub­lic­ans and Demo­crats, was “en­ergy in­de­pend­ence,” and Clin­ton’s plat­form re­flec­ted the gestalt of the time, em­phas­iz­ing the dangers of re­ly­ing on for­eign oil (and how those dangers had in­creased un­der George W. Bush). She also sup­por­ted some hefty pro­gress­ive meas­ures — re­du­cing car­bon through cap-and-trade, boost­ing wind and sol­ar en­er­gies and clean-en­ergy tech­no­lo­gies.

Eight years later, the U.S. is the world’s largest oil and nat­ur­al-gas pro­du­cer. Obama has cheered and en­cour­aged the boom — though he can hardly take cred­it for mak­ing it hap­pen — as part of what he calls an “all of the above” en­ergy strategy. Ba­sic­ally, it’s the idea that U.S. policy should sup­port de­vel­op­ment of green en­ergy and fossil fuels alike (though the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has ag­gress­ively pur­sued policies that erode coal’s share of elec­tri­city pro­duc­tion). As a res­ult, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists com­plain, the ad­min­is­tra­tion has lacked a clear mis­sion to achieve the level of car­bon re­duc­tions that sci­ent­ists say is needed to ward off the most dan­ger­ous levels of glob­al warm­ing.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks at the National Clean Energy Summit 7.0 at the Mandalay Bay Convention Center on September 4, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Political and economic leaders are attending the summit to discuss a domestic policy agenda to advance alternative energy for the country's future. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images) Getty Images

Over the past eight years, en­vir­on­ment­al­ists have grown much less will­ing to tol­er­ate, let alone em­brace, the rise of nat­ur­al gas, even though it pro­duces far less car­bon than coal when burned to cre­ate elec­tri­city. The frack­ing meth­ods needed to re­lease the gas, and the emis­sions of meth­ane (a po­tent green­house gas) that oc­cur when the gas is pro­duced and trans­mit­ted, off­set some of the car­bon ad­vant­ages. Plus, act­iv­ists note, the cost of an al­tern­at­ive — re­new­able power — has been drop­ping sharply. In 2007, many en­vir­on­ment­al­ists saw nat­ur­al gas as a less­er evil; now, the fuel is be­com­ing the tar­get of at­tacks once re­served for oil and coal.

(RE­LATED: How Clin­ton and Bush Agree and Di­verge on Work­place Dis­crim­in­a­tion)

The pres­id­ent has been in­creas­ingly ag­gress­ive on cli­mate change in his second term, most not­ably with a plan to im­pose the first-ever man­date on states to cut car­bon emis­sions from coal-fired power plants, which re­main the largest un­checked source of in­dus­tri­al emis­sions. (The plan, which Re­pub­lic­ans have loudly de­cried, will be fi­nal­ized this sum­mer.) But des­pite the ad­vances made un­der Obama, act­iv­ists are in no mood for an­oth­er “all of the above” pres­id­ency. And that’s what some fear Clin­ton would ush­er in.

“I think we would ex­pect a Hil­lary Clin­ton pres­id­ency to look a lot like an Obama pres­id­ency on cli­mate,” says Ben Schreiber of the act­iv­ist group Friends of the Earth. “It’s hard for us to ima­gine her really deal­ing with ex­trac­tion in a way that is more ag­gress­ive than the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has. That, for us, is a gi­ant hole.”

What would con­vince Schreiber and his al­lies that Clin­ton aims to take more dra­mat­ic ac­tion than Obama? She could re­verse her sup­port for frack­ing. She could take a firm stand against Arc­tic off­shore drilling — an is­sue fresh on en­vir­on­ment­al­ists’ minds after Obama’s In­teri­or De­part­ment gave Roy­al Dutch Shell a pre­lim­in­ary green light to start drilling this sum­mer in Arc­tic wa­ters off Alaska’s coast. She could also break her si­lence on Key­stone. The pipeline needed State De­part­ment ap­prov­al dur­ing Clin­ton’s ten­ure as sec­ret­ary, and in 2010 she pub­licly said she was “in­clined” to ap­prove it. But after Key­stone blew up in­to the highest-pro­file en­vir­on­ment­al fight in years, the de­part­ment began to slow-walk the ap­prov­al, which is still of­fi­cially “un­der re­view,” and Clin­ton has de­clined to of­fer a po­s­i­tion since step­ping down, say­ing it would not be ap­pro­pri­ate.

En­vir­on­ment­al­ists also want Clin­ton to make cli­mate change a center­piece of her cam­paign — to fuel the kind of polit­ic­al de­bate on the is­sue in 2016 that was largely miss­ing in re­cent elec­tion cycles. Sev­er­al said they’re hope­ful that the pres­ence of former Mary­land Gov­ernor Mar­tin O’Mal­ley and Sen­at­or Bernie Sanders of Ver­mont in the race will help force Clin­ton’s hand. O’Mal­ley, who op­poses the Key­stone pipeline (as does Sanders), has re­leased an ag­gress­ive plan that would ex­pand EPA’s car­bon-emis­sions rules bey­ond power plants to cov­er oth­er pol­luters. He takes a dim view of crude-oil ex­ports, and wants to bar drilling off Alaska and the At­lantic sea­board. Sanders, who hasn’t yet un­veiled his form­al plat­form, has long been a hero to cli­mate act­iv­ists, a pas­sion­ate ad­voc­ate for tax­ing car­bon emis­sions, among oth­er meas­ures — and he has be­gun to goad Clin­ton to take defin­it­ive stands.

On Face the Na­tion in mid-Ju­ly, the sen­at­or was asked how he dis­tin­guishes him­self from Clin­ton with Demo­crat­ic voters. After tout­ing his propensity for tak­ing on “the big money in­terests” and his vote against the Ir­aq War, Sanders turned to the en­vir­on­ment: “I have worked as hard as I can to kill the Key­stone pipeline pro­gram,” he said. “You will have to ask Hil­lary Clin­ton what her view is on that. She has not been very clear.”

IN LATE JUNE, Clin­ton’s former Sen­ate col­league from New York, Chuck Schu­mer, caused a stir when he en­gaged in some spec­u­la­tion about a fu­ture Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s en­vir­on­ment­al agenda. The Demo­crats’ Sen­ate lead­er-in-wait­ing was ad­dress­ing a group of people his fel­low cli­mate-change foe, Sen. Shel­don White­house, had brought down from Rhode Is­land for a daylong sym­posi­um with law­makers and fed­er­al of­fi­cials — and a few re­port­ers. While he was giv­ing the folks a pep talk about the Demo­crat­ic Party’s com­mit­ment to tack­ling cli­mate change, Schu­mer figured he’d dish about the pro­spects for ac­tion if Clin­ton wins. “Are we on the re­cord here?” Schu­mer asked. “Can I go off the re­cord, or no?” He answered his own ques­tion: “We’re off the re­cord.” Told that be­ing off the re­cord wasn’t really pos­sible, since the event was be­ing web­cast, Schu­mer shrugged it off as the Rhode Is­landers chuckled. “OK, well, I’ll still say much of what I was go­ing to say.”

What he said was strik­ing: If Demo­crats re­claim the Sen­ate ma­jor­ity in 2016, a Pres­id­ent Hil­lary Clin­ton might put a tax on car­bon di­ox­ide emis­sions. Schu­mer un­spooled a rather elab­or­ate the­ory about how a car­bon tax could emerge as a com­prom­ise dur­ing a budget­ary dead­lock — offered by Clin­ton and the Demo­crats as a way to raise rev­en­ues without in­creas­ing in­come taxes or oth­er cor­por­ate taxes. “I think in 2017 people in both parties might come to that as the best way to fund the gov­ern­ment,” he said.

(RE­LATED: Rumble at the Su­per PAC)

Schu­mer didn’t ex­actly con­firm that Clin­ton was gung-ho for a car­bon tax. But Re­pub­lic­an op­er­at­ives eagerly jumped on his com­ments, de­lighted that a lead­ing Demo­crat had put the words “Clin­ton” and “tax” in­to the same sen­tence. “Folks — Simple Ques­tion,” began a Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee email blas­ted to re­port­ers the next day. “Will Hil­lary Clin­ton back a car­bon tax, which would dra­mat­ic­ally raise en­ergy costs in an already weak eco­nomy?”

The RNC will have to wait a little longer to find out what policies Clin­ton will ac­tu­ally run on. Aides say that the cam­paign is work­ing on an ex­pans­ive, act­ive pro­cess to craft the par­tic­u­lars of her en­vir­on­ment and en­ergy plat­form. It’s led by long­time Clin­ton aide Ben Kobren, who served as com­mu­nic­a­tions dir­ect­or for State De­part­ment cli­mate en­voy Todd Stern; Tre­vor Houser, an in­ter­na­tion­al-en­ergy ex­pert with the Rho­di­um Group con­sult­ing firm; and Peter Og­den, a former State De­part­ment and White House cli­mate-change aide un­der Obama who’s now with the lib­er­al Cen­ter for Amer­ic­an Pro­gress — the think tank foun­ded by John Podesta, Clin­ton’s cam­paign chief and Obama’s en­vir­on­ment-whisper­er.

If Clin­ton has an en­vir­on­ment­al ace in the hole, it’s John Podesta, her cam­paign chair­man.

The cam­paign says these ad­visers have reached out to more than 100 ex­perts, ran­ging from green-en­ergy en­tre­pren­eurs to former reg­u­lat­ors and gov­ernors. I was giv­en a par­tial list that in­cluded some names that would be re­as­sur­ing to en­vir­on­ment­al­ists — among them, Frances Bei­necke, who is a former pres­id­ent of the Nat­ur­al Re­sources De­fense Coun­cil; re­spec­ted Prin­ceton Uni­versity cli­mate sci­ent­ist Mi­chael Op­pen­heimer; and Car­ol Brown­er, who was Obama’s White House cli­mate czar and headed EPA un­der Bill Clin­ton. It also in­cluded Mi­chael Levi, an en­ergy-se­cur­ity spe­cial­ist with the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions who has pushed back against en­vir­on­ment­al­ists’ harden­ing op­pos­i­tion to nat­ur­al gas. The cam­paign was less forth­com­ing about the ex­perts it has con­sul­ted in the cor­por­ate world, provid­ing none of their names. “We are in­ter­ested in talk­ing to all stake­hold­ers,” the cam­paign said, “and have had frank and open con­ver­sa­tions with oil and gas ex­ec­ut­ives and coal-heavy elec­tric­al util­it­ies as well.”

Tyson Slo­cum, a long­time en­ergy ana­lyst with the Ral­ph Nader-foun­ded ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Cit­izen, says the roster of ad­visers provided to Na­tion­al Journ­al only re­in­forces his sus­pi­cion that a Clin­ton pres­id­ency would mean no “big de­vi­ation from the path that Obama has charted.” Slo­cum, a crit­ic of Obama’s sup­port for ex­pand­ing nat­ur­al-gas ex­ports, noted that Houser re­cently coau­thored a pa­per in fa­vor of re­lax­ing the dec­ades-old ban on crude-oil ex­ports. “It sounds like, for the most part, a kind of Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing, main­stream hodge­podge of folks that will most likely ad­vise Clin­ton on kind of a con­tinu­ation of the cur­rent path,” Slo­cum said.

Levi cau­tions that it’s vir­tu­ally im­possible to pre­dict how a Pres­id­ent Clin­ton’s policies might evolve, whatever she says dur­ing the cam­paign. “Even if you would have known all of Barack Obama’s prin­ciples in 2008,” he says, “you would have been able to pre­dict very little of what he ac­tu­ally did on en­ergy and cli­mate. And that is be­cause the en­ergy world and the eco­nomy fun­da­ment­ally changed.”

Clin­ton’s State De­part­ment re­cord provides some clues to how she might lead as pres­id­ent. She cre­ated a spe­cial en­voy for cli­mate change, and helped to launch a mul­ti­lat­er­al ini­ti­at­ive in 2012 to cut emis­sions of sev­er­al pol­lut­ants that worsen glob­al warm­ing. Og­den, who worked un­der her at State, touts the 2010 launch of a Glob­al Al­li­ance for Clean Cook­stoves as an ex­ample of how Clin­ton com­bined her long­time in­terest in chil­dren’s and wo­men’s health with her con­cern for com­bat­ing cli­mate change. The pro­gram helps re­duce poor coun­tries’ use of tra­di­tion­al stoves fueled with wood, dung, coal, and oth­er sol­id fuels; that’s a big pub­lic-health prob­lem in the de­vel­op­ing world, but clean­er stoves also help the battle against cli­mate change.

“She had a really stra­tegic ap­proach to bring­ing and find­ing ways in which you could move mul­tiple is­sues for­ward sim­ul­tan­eously,” Og­den says. And she did it, he em­phas­izes, dur­ing a time when cli­mate change was not a top White House fo­cus — the peri­od after cli­mate le­gis­la­tion col­lapsed in Con­gress in 2010 and be­fore Obama an­nounced his mus­cu­lar second-term agenda. “It was a dif­fer­ent polit­ic­al en­vir­on­ment,” Og­den says, “and it was a dif­fer­ent kind of chal­lenge to con­tin­ue to build mo­mentum for these is­sues and to keep it alive as she did over those four years.”

This image can only be used with the Ben Geman piece that originally ran in the 7/18/2015 issue of National Journal magazine. Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis

A protest against the pro­posed Key­stone XL pipeline was held out­side 2500 Stein­er where Susie Tomp­kins Buell held a $2,700 a per­son fun­draiser for Hil­lary Clin­ton. Bil­lion­aire Key­stone op­pon­ent Tom Stey­er earli­er held a fun­drais­ing lunch for her.

But what act­iv­ists who are sus­pi­cious of Clin­ton re­mem­ber from her years as sec­ret­ary of State is the way she punted on Key­stone, and her friend­li­ness to­ward frack­ing for nat­ur­al gas. In 2010, the de­part­ment launched the Glob­al Shale Gas Ini­ti­at­ive to help oth­er na­tions de­vel­op the re­source. Ac­cord­ing to State, it was a way to give al­lies tech­nic­al as­sist­ance, in­clud­ing en­vir­on­ment­al safe­guards, to help them di­ver­si­fy their en­ergy sup­plies with a fuel that’s less car­bon-heavy than coal. Some en­vir­on­ment­al­ists, however, saw the pro­gram (re­christened the Un­con­ven­tion­al Gas Tech­nic­al En­gage­ment Pro­gram in 2012) as an at­tempt to spread frack­ing across the globe that would be­ne­fit private en­ergy com­pan­ies — and one more reas­on to ques­tion how much Clin­ton could be trus­ted as an ally.

IF CLIN­TON HAS an en­vir­on­ment­al ace in the hole, it’s John Podesta, per­haps the most power­ful fig­ure in Amer­ic­an polit­ics whom en­vir­on­ment­al­ists see as one of them. When I was first try­ing to find out who was ad­vising the cam­paign on cli­mate and en­ergy is­sues, one of the people I asked was Ju­li­an Boggs of the lib­er­al group En­vir­on­ment Amer­ica. His reply: “God, I hope John Podesta.” Un­like his cur­rent boss, Podesta has long been on re­cord against both Key­stone and Arc­tic drilling. His pres­ence at the top of the Clin­ton cam­paign’s hier­archy is a hint of policy in its own right.

When I in­ter­viewed Podesta by phone at the end of June, he wasn’t about to get ahead of the cam­paign’s com­ing rol­lout of Clin­ton’s en­ergy and en­vir­on­ment­al plat­form. But in his first ex­ten­ded com­ments on the cam­paign’s ap­proach to these is­sues, Podesta sug­ges­ted that as pres­id­ent, Clin­ton would con­tin­ue Obama’s ef­forts to cut harm­ful emis­sions — and that she would do it largely the same way, by min­ing the pres­id­ent’s “enorm­ous au­thor­ity” to act without Con­gress. “I think we want to build on Obama’s sub­stan­tial re­cord in try­ing to use ex­ist­ing au­thor­ity to move for­ward,” he said. “You have to look at all sources of emis­sions: in the trans­port­a­tion sec­tor, in the elec­tri­city sec­tor, in the built-space sec­tor, in the in­dus­tri­al sec­tor.” The cam­paign is also work­ing, he said, to find new ways to help states that want to go bey­ond Obama’s man­dated cuts on power-plant emis­sions.

With the cur­rent Re­pub­lic­an-con­trolled Con­gress, Podesta said, there’s little op­tion but ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion, though he held out some hope for bi­par­tis­an col­lab­or­a­tion on clean-en­ergy tax in­cent­ives. “I think, in the short term, the chances of this Con­gress be­com­ing a real part­ner with an ad­min­is­tra­tion that wants to both at­tack the prob­lem and build the op­por­tun­ity [are] small,” he said. He ac­know­ledged that real­ity lim­its the chances of ad­van­cing a big, sweep­ing policy idea through Con­gress. When I asked Podesta about Schu­mer’s car­bon tax sug­ges­tion, he brushed past it, though without re­ject­ing the idea out­right. “We will lay out our policy over the course of the sum­mer,” he said, but ad­ded: “Sen­at­or Schu­mer speaks for him­self, not for Sec­ret­ary Clin­ton.”

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Ad­voc­ates of ag­gress­ive steps on cli­mate change are in­vest­ing a lot of faith in Podesta. Henry Wax­man, the former House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee chair­man, told me he plans to en­dorse Clin­ton. Wax­man, who made the en­vir­on­ment and cli­mate change a huge fo­cus of his dec­ades in Con­gress, coau­thored the suc­cess­ful Clean Air Act re­vi­sions of 1990, and later steered a massive cap-and-trade bill through the House in 2009. (It stalled in the Sen­ate.) Asked if he’s con­fid­ent that Clin­ton will be a war­ri­or on cli­mate if elec­ted, Wax­man waxed op­tim­ist­ic — and im­me­di­ately brought up Podesta. “I feel very hope­ful that she will,” he said. “I haven’t talked to her dir­ectly, but I think John Podesta has talked to her about a lot of dif­fer­ent things, and he is well versed on the cli­mate change is­sue … and I am sure will have an im­port­ant in­flu­ence on her.”

While Podesta steered clear of policy de­tails, he was em­phat­ic about what’s to come in 2016. “This will be a front-and-cen­ter is­sue in the pres­id­en­tial cam­paign,” he vows. That would be a break from past elec­tion cycles, when cli­mate and green en­ergy made only cameo ap­pear­ances, but Podesta said this time will be dif­fer­ent, partly be­cause of the shift­ing polit­ic­al land­scape. “Polit­ics is all about fric­tion,” he said, and there’s plenty of it between Clin­ton and the GOP field, which is heavy on can­did­ates who ques­tion or out­right deny hu­man-in­duced cli­mate change, and who uni­formly op­pose Obama’s new power-plant rules. “That is a very, very dif­fer­ent per­spect­ive than the one Hil­lary Clin­ton holds,” Podesta said, “and I think that you will see this, par­tic­u­larly in a gen­er­al elec­tion, squarely de­bated.” He said the cam­paign is eager to have that de­bate. “I think that the Re­pub­lic­ans are in a po­s­i­tion where they are go­ing back­wards not for­wards,” Podesta said, and he thinks their biggest fin­an­cial back­ers won’t help. “They will have to carry the money that is back­ing them up from the Koch broth­ers and the coal in­dustry, et cet­era, and ex­plain to the Amer­ic­an people why they don’t want to do any­thing about this prob­lem.”

But can car­bon re­duc­tion and green en­ergy be win­ning is­sues in a pres­id­en­tial elec­tion? Polling cuts both ways. Sur­veys in re­cent years by the Pew Re­search Cen­ter con­sist­ently show that when Amer­ic­ans are asked to name top­ics most im­port­ant to them, cli­mate change comes in at the bot­tom of the list. But ask voters ques­tions about glob­al-warm­ing policy, and the an­swers fa­vor ac­tion — of­ten strongly. (An ABC News/Wash­ing­ton Post poll re­leased in June of 2014, for in­stance, found 70 per­cent sup­port for lim­it­ing green­house gases from power plants.) If the Clin­ton cam­paign does make the en­vir­on­ment a driv­ing force in the cam­paign, it will be a polit­ic­al ex­per­i­ment.

Of course, con­trast­ing her­self with Re­pub­lic­ans on cli­mate and en­ergy won’t likely be enough to mol­li­fy rest­less en­vir­on­ment­al­ists wor­ried that Clin­ton will take a go-slow ap­proach at best. Cer­tainly, if Clin­ton wins the nom­in­a­tion, the green move­ment will back her against any Re­pub­lic­an. Wheth­er en­vir­on­ment­al­ists will ul­ti­mately view a Clin­ton ad­min­is­tra­tion as a his­tor­ic missed op­por­tun­ity, however, is harder to know. A few days after I spoke with Podesta, the lib­er­al Na­tion magazine is­sued the Demo­crat­ic can­did­ates a chal­lenge: Vow you won’t take any money from oil, gas, or coal com­pan­ies. Sanders and O’Mal­ley agreed. Clin­ton did not re­spond.


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