US presidential frontrunner Hillary Clinton made two promises last week in her initial pledge to make the US a clean energy superpower. In the first, she committed herself to tax incentives that would help install half a billion solar panels nationwide within four years of her taking office. Her second promise: by 2027, the US will be generating enough renewable energy to power every home in the country.
Yet many knowledgeable critics see Hillary Clinton’s goals regarding climate as inadequate. Top scientist James Hansen—former leader of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, the man who first told the US House of Representatives about the “cause and effect relationship” between world temperatures and human emissions, currently head of Columbia University’s Climate Science, Awareness and Solutions Program—finds it downright laughable. The Guardian quotes Hansen as opining, with characteristic directness:
“It’s just plain silly. No, you cannot solve the problem without a fundamental change, and that means you have to make the price of fossil fuels honest. Subsidizing solar panels is not going to solve the problem.”
In Hansen’s mind, none of the current Presidential candidates has a plan that would help keep the world from two-degree C warming:
“A president committed to halting climate change would implement a gradually rising fee for fossil fuel extraction, collected from the fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. In order to keep the policy revenue-neutral, the fee would be evenly distributed back to US citizens in the form of a tax dividend, completely offsetting the rise in energy costs for most consumers. Those with large carbon footprints – like the very rich, with multiple large homes, for example – would bear the brunt. In that way, market forces would be allowed to let renewables compete and lower the cost of clean energy.”
The editorial board of the Washington Post agrees with Hansen’s point about carbon pricing. It says that Hillary Clinton’s goals leave a glaring gap: neglecting to abandon “the country’s complex web of energy subsidies and replace it with a price on carbon dioxide emissions.” The editors see this as a step backward, considering that the candidate advocated a cap-and-trade plan when running against Barack Obama in 2007.
Environmentalist Bill McKibben of 350.org, Grist pundit Ben Adler, and others point out that while Clinton’s support for solar is laudable, it’s nowhere near a comprehensive energy policy. Says McKibben:
“Much of the impact of her climate plan was undercut the next day by her unwillingness to talk about the supply side of the equation. Ducking questions about the Canadian tar sands or drilling in the Arctic makes everyone worry we’re going to see eight more years of an ‘all of the above’ energy strategy, which is what we do not need to hear.”
Potent as their remarks are, these critics do reach beyond the boundaries of what Clinton has chosen to address. Perhaps coyly, she nonetheless clearly declared these plans as only two elements of an overarching strategy to be worked out as her campaign crystallizes. John Podesta, Chair of Hillary for America, reiterated her line of thinking Monday: “These proposals are only the first steps in an ambitious climate and energy strategy.”
Billionaire Tom Steyer, on the boards of the Next Generation nonprofit and Stanford University, also acknowledges this point. He characterizes Clinton as a “strong leader in solving the climate crisis.” The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund recalls Clinton’s prior history and current candidness about climate change denial:
“As a senator, Clinton supported comprehensive climate change legislation and efforts to promote clean energy and energy efficiency. As Secretary of State, she helped lead international climate negotiations and she created the Climate and Clean Air Coalition with other countries to reduce climate superpollutants like soot and methane. We commend Secretary Clinton for calling out climate change deniers and effectively illustrating the urgent need to act on a defining issue of our time.”
US News & World Report sees Clinton’s promises as “ambitious but realistic.” The Associated Press opines that the #1 Democrat “aims high” in her green energy plan. To the right of them, much of the criticism begins with incorrect premises. For instance, New York Sun co-founder Ira Stoll attacks Clinton’s new climate change thoughts for focusing on installing solar panels rather than setting emissions limits or investing in battery storage technology.
Andrew Seifter of Media Matters for America jumps into this fray, saying Stoll apparently hadn’t read the Democratic presidential candidate’s “Clean Energy Challenge” all the way through. Ms. Clinton has indeed spoken up for funding clean energy R&D, including storage technology. Clinton has also noted that she would make the Environmental Protection Agency’s Clean Power Plan, which sets the first-ever federal limits on carbon pollution from power plants, a “top priority.”
In fact, Clinton has even called for higher goals than the current US commitment to cut carbon by 26-28% by 2025. An analysis in Carbon Brief shows that her pledge could shave a further variously cited 4-8% off calculated US emissions. It’s doubtless significant that a major candidate has now raised the bar for the US contribution to worldwide goals, opening a door for raising the American INDC pledge at the United Nations. As Carbon Brief notes, this contribution to emissions reduction would exceed those of either China or India.
Fellow Democrat Martin O’Malley and Independent Bernie Sanders also make cases similar to Clinton’s, though neither has made formal statements as sweeping as hers. Even extremist libertarians and Tea Party boosters have more advanced views on the subject than the overwhelming majority of Republican candidates, who are still wrapped up in climate change causation and perhaps prompted Clinton to jab:
“You don’t have to be a scientist to take on this urgent challenge that threatens us all. You just have to be willing to act.”
Finally (back to Stoll’s criticism), in a stroke of petro-minded illogic, the prime mover of FutureOfCapitalism.com makes the remarkably naive suggestion that Clinton back additional fracking to offset coal use. But then, he’s the guy who sees Ted Cruz as the Republican best able to carry on the “optimistic, pro-growth policy agenda, and underlying vision” of John Fitzgerald Kennedy, and Donald Trump ads currently adorn the pages of his website.
ThinkProgress pointed out several months ago that Clinton is the first major presidential candidate ever to make climate change a central campaign issue. In several ways her comments ring political, though. In broad rhetoric, Clinton meets or exceeds some mainstream and progressive goals, but her statements are veiled enough that at times they seem capable of pandering to conservative interests.
The candidate’s lack of specificity regarding uses of the half-billion solar panels (industrial, government, commercial, or residential; distributed vs. point sources; community solar, and so on) leaves the effects of their use uncertain. PV technology is better suited for certain applications than for others, and the degree of grid “smartness” and flexibility enables differing results. Entirely absent in Clinton’s current figuring is concentrated solar energy use in utility-scale power plants.
Nor does Clinton specify either solely residential use (just because the amount of power could supply all domestic needs does not mean that it would be used residentially) or the sources of the renewable energy to be generated to meet her second promise. These omissions are very important because of the wiggle room they allow for nuclear technology (sometimes linked with renewables as “clean power” because nuclear does not involve sourcing and burning fossil fuels) and increased but environment-unfriendly large-scale hydroelectric power, which she advocates from increasing generation at existing dams. She minimizes discussion of wind power, which many consider a better all-around alternative than solar. Clinton also leaves the door open for use of earmarked R&D funds on untested, expensive, and time-consuming technologies such as advanced nuclear options and carbon capture and sequestration.
In all, as Peter Gleick, president of the Pacific Institute, points out in the Huffington Post, weasel-worded alternatives have little value. He puts the basic climate question that should be asked in upcoming presidential debates quite succinctly:
“Accepting as a given the overwhelming scientific agreement that humans are changing the climate of the planet, what policies or strategies, if any, would you support to address this issue?”
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