Green Movement Looks to Clinton, but Divisions Linger

Major environmental groups have rallied around the nominee even as Bernie Sanders backers push for more aggressive policies.

Hillary Clinton campaign chair John Podesta waves as he takes the stage to speak during the first day of the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Monday
AP Photo/Paul Sancya
Ben Geman
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Ben Geman
July 26, 2016, 9:07 p.m.

PHILADELPHIA—“Who is a climate activist in this room?,” asked John Podesta as he stood onstage in a crowded reception hall at the upscale Warwick Hotel. Cheers arrived in reply.

Podesta, an influential Democratic strategist who also happens to be Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, wanted the crowd to give more.

“You can do better than that! Who is a climate activist in this room!?,” he asked, transforming briefly—and a bit awkwardly—from one of Washington’s most powerful insiders to a man trying to pump up a crowd.

He got a louder response this time from the gathering of environmental group aides and officials, lawmakers and staff, and others gathered for the Tuesday afternoon event.

Podesta, who gave a brief speech talking up Clinton and bashing climate-change-denying Donald Trump, was on very friendly terrain among pro-Clinton groups with strong ties to the Democratic establishment. But as is the case on several other issues this week in Philadelphia, there are some intra-party critics who believe that Clinton isn’t far left enough on the environment.

The private reception (though press were allowed) was hosted by the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club, which have the biggest political operations in the green movement, as well as the NRDC Action Fund, Environment and Clean Tech for Hillary, and NextGen Climate, which is headed by billionaire climate activist and Clinton-endorser Tom Steyer.

Multiple members of Clinton’s campaign team were present. So was a who’s who of prominent figures in environmental policy and politics, such as green senators such as Ed Markey, Senate Democratic Campaign Committee Chairman Jon Tester, EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy, former top White House climate aides Carol Browner and Heather Zichal, and more.

Climate change and the environment has been a second-tier focus at the Democratic National Convention so far, although there have been multiple shout-outs to the issues from speakers at the Wells Fargo Center.

But Podesta’s appearance, not to mention LCV President Gene Karpinski’s speaking slot at the convention Thursday, are a sign from the Democratic establishment to environmentalists that Clinton will seek to make good on her pledges to push an aggressive climate-change and green-energy agenda.

Her platform includes protecting Obama’s climate-change executive rules, one of the biggest of which—the Clean Power Plan to slash utility emissions—is on hold pending court challenge, and expanding them to more parts of the economy. She has also vowed to prevent drilling in Arctic waters and off the East Coast.

And she has several green-energy goals, pledging that the U.S. will have more than a half-billion solar panels installed by the end of her first term, and that the U.S. will generate enough renewable energy to power every U.S. home within a decade.

But the more aggressive wing of the environmental movement, and the overlapping crowd of Bernie Sanders supporters, want more. A lot more.

It hasn’t gotten the attention of, say, the Sanders delegates’ repeated calls to block the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

But a substantial chunk of his backers want an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing, something that Clinton has rejected, even as she has said the controversial oil-and-gas excavation process would become much less frequent on her watch.

It’s a fight that’s not going away even though Sanders is backing Clinton. Amid a fierce political and policy debate over the role of natural gas in climate policy, fighting fracking has become a top priority for many activists.

(The fight largely centers around the total global warming impact of natural gas. It emits far less carbon dioxide when burned than the coal that it’s displacing in power markets, but leaks of the potent global-warming gas methane in the development process erode that climate advantage to a fiercely disputed degree.)

Elsewhere, a compromise between Clinton and Sanders forces in the tussle over the Democratic platform supports imposing a price on carbon-dioxide emissions, which is typically achieved through a tax or cap-and-trade programs.

But don’t look for the Clinton administration to push for one anytime soon. In remarks to a few reporters (who followed him through a hotel kitchen to win a short press gaggle) on Tuesday, Podesta made clear that Clinton’s green agenda will rest largely on executive actions.

Podesta, in his stint in the administration, was a force behind wringing as much as possible from executive actions in the face of hostility by the GOP and conservative Democrats to climate legislation.

“Right now, our program, we believe we can do under existing authority, and get the emissions reductions that we need to stay on track for 80 percent reductions by 2050,” he said.

Could the Clinton administration ever back a carbon tax, which would require Congress to enact? Here Podesta was equivocal—and put the ball in Capitol Hill’s court.

“We have not proposed a carbon tax, we think we can get the job done, but if the Congress wants to come forward with one, then we will take a look at it,” he said.

Still, interviews here with top officials at two big environmental groups show that they’re not writing off Congress when it comes to climate-change and renewable-energy policy. Instead, they’re looking at a near-term vehicle that’s less controversial and less ambitious than a carbon tax, which has nowhere near enough political traction absent big changes on Capitol Hill.

Clinton has vowed to offer Congress a $275 billion dollar infrastructure plan within her first 100 days in office if elected.

Some prominent environmentalists, while readying to push for continued and expanded executive regulations on climate, see chances for that infrastructure package to include major provisions that support renewable energy-related infrastructure.

Karpinski told National Journal that the infrastructure package is a chance to expand clean-energy development, calling it “the most interesting thing in the short term, assuming Congress is at least somewhat respectable and receptive, but also [GOP Rep. Paul] Ryan still runs the House.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Michael Brune is on the same page.

“Clearly infrastructure is emerging as the top priority, and the jobs associated with it. We have argued for years that there is an enormous opportunity to solve multiple problems with a single set of solutions,” he said on the sidelines of Tuesday’s event.

“These investments are ones that will cut carbon pollution, create jobs, clean up air and water, and promote more climate resiliency,” Brune said.

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