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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