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Hillary Clinton’s Copenhagen Climate Work & Claimed Success

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Hillary Clinton climate changeOn Hillary Clinton’s campaign website, “Environment” is the third issue in line, behind “Economy” and “Education.” Underneath that, “Climate change” is the first of three sub-issues. That’s a rather notable placement since the Democratic Party obviously has “climate” thoroughly wrapped up in the competition with the Republican Party, since the GOP is infamously the only major political party in the world that denies the extremely broad and deep scientific consensus on climate change (so, Democrats probably don’t have to work that hard to bring in voters concerned about this issue).

When you go to the climate change page of Hillary’s website, the first line (in very large and blue text) is a strong November 2015 quote from Hillary: “I won’t let anyone take us backward, deny our economy the benefits of harnessing a clean energy future, or force our children to endure the catastrophe that would result from unchecked climate change.” Further down the page, she lists several practical and leading-edge policies that would carry on Obama’s climate legacy and presumably even improve on it. Naturally, that will be harder to do if she is competing with a GOP-controlled Congress, but several of the commitments are in the hands of the president, and on the Congress-related matters, she would (presumably) at least not approve absurd policies if they got to her desk from a GOP-controlled Congress.

But commitments/pledges of a presidential candidate are only that — it’s always hard to know exactly how much they will be prioritized or implemented once the winner is in office. Thus, we often judge a candidate on what she or he has previously done in office (how you judge a candidate who has vague pledges and absolutely no history in public office is, I guess, a more complicated and subjective matter). So, while highlighting his wife’s achievements during his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Bill Clinton pulled out one of Hillary’s: “She put climate change at the center of our foreign policy. She negotiated the first agreement ever — ever — where China and India officially committed to reduce their emissions.”

Unfortunately, this is a rather debatable achievement for a couple of reasons, and Politifact (I would say rightfully) gives it a “Half True” rating.

The first thing to consider, imho, is whether or not Clinton negotiated the agreement. The agreement with Chinese and Indian leaders was certainly made after “lobbying” from US leaders, but it wasn’t just Clinton at the table for the US, and I think it’s incorrect to imply that she led the negotiation (which is how that Bill Clinton claim reads to me). After all, President Obama and Todd Stern, the United States Special Envoy for Climate Change, were also part of the group who searched out Chinese and Indian leaders to try to persuade them to take strong climate action. My guess is that Obama and Stern took the lead in various ways, and Clinton played a top but supportive role. (If anyone has more details on this process, please share.) Still, it’s surely a positive thing that she was heavily involved in this matter.

The second thing to consider here, though, is whether the result of the negotiations was a positive for “team climate.” The Copenhagen climate agreement was widely considered a “failure” among climate activists and wonks, but many others have claimed that it was a key stepping stone to the Paris climate agreement that is widely touted as a success. I don’t know if I’ve ever tossed my own two cents into this discussion, but I will here.

The UN effort leading up to Copenhagen was to get official, binding pledges from all countries to cut greenhouse gas emissions and keep global warming below 2°C. Though, that was proving to be essentially impossible. Reasons for the roadblock included the need for US Congressional approval on any such commitment (which was basically impossible with extremist anti-science GOP Congresspeople having so much power) and the need for China and India to make strong commitments despite having much lower per-capita GDP compared to rich, chief historical emitters the US and Europe. The argument the Chinese and Indians were using was that it wasn’t fair for them to have to slow economic growth via strong climate commitments (whether that would slow economic growth is a matter for another debate) while the EU and USA benefited economically from decades of pollution — in other words, the EU and USA needed to make stronger pledges.

Facing a stalemate on the topic, it was basically impossible that the world would get a binding agreement. So, instead, what Obama, Clinton, Stern, and others went after (and achieved) was a vague commitment from all countries to reduce their carbon emissions, and as Bill Clinton rightfully claimed, this was “the first agreement ever — ever — where China and India officially committed to reduce their emissions.” In many respects, one could argue (I certainly would) that this commitment underpinned subsequent efforts to change the way the UN was approaching the challenge, and laid the base groundwork for the eventual success in Paris. Given the challenges present leading up to Obama and Clinton coming over to try to influence the matter, I think it would be hard to claim that what they achieved wasn’t a success.

Obama and Clinton came over toward the end of the negotiation process and “Obama” was pretty widely credited with persuading Chinese and Indian leaders to do their part make this happen. Of course, “Obama” didn’t do this alone, and how much it was his work vs Clinton’s work vs Stern’s work that led to the agreement is something that very few people know, and can’t be quantified anyway. My hunch is that Obama was the most powerful force on this — from the push of top advisors who were more deeply involved in climate matters. But in any case, as president, it was his job to be the biggest force.

What’s really important, I think, is what Clinton would do in the same or a similar scenario if she were president of the United States. Given her prioritization of this issue, her choice of John Podesta as chairman of her presidential campaign, her previous work, her keen efforts to work hard and achieve results (she is widely credited with being a very hardworking and results-oriented politician), and her experience and interest in foreign negotiations like this, I’m convinced she would. Even if you are very cynical and presume that she is where she is today out of an egotistical desire to be the first female president of the United States, ask yourself if she wants such a presidency to be seen as a failure or a success. The answer is obvious. Then, ask yourself if she sees action on climate change to be key to her presidency being a success. While the climate doesn’t seem to be her #1 focus, I think she has a clear enough sense that climate change is an existential threat to society that she’s keen to be a clear climate leader on the right side of history.

Photo of Hillary Clinton at COP15 in Copenhagen by U.S. Department of State

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Zach is tryin' to help society help itself one word at a time. He spends most of his time here on CleanTechnica as its director, chief editor, and CEO. Zach is recognized globally as an electric vehicle, solar energy, and energy storage expert. He has presented about cleantech at conferences in India, the UAE, Ukraine, Poland, Germany, the Netherlands, the USA, Canada, and Curaçao. Zach has long-term investments in Tesla [TSLA], NIO [NIO], Xpeng [XPEV], Ford [F], ChargePoint [CHPT], Amazon [AMZN], Piedmont Lithium [PLL], Lithium Americas [LAC], Albemarle Corporation [ALB], Nouveau Monde Graphite [NMGRF], Talon Metals [TLOFF], Arclight Clean Transition Corp [ACTC], and Starbucks [SBUX]. But he does not offer (explicitly or implicitly) investment advice of any sort.


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