The race for the office of the President of the United States is heating up. While the presidential elections may be a temporary phenomenon witnessed every 4 years, greenhouse gas emissions continue unabated, polar ice-caps continue to melt, and the Earth continues to heat up.
So what does the 2016 U.S. presidential election mean for climate change, and how do the candidates stack up? The kind folks over at the Washington Post already compiled a list of the Republican nominees and their various shades of climate change denial which you can read here. Most of the GOP candidates’ positions boil down to: well-I-am-not-a-scientist-so-I-don’t-know-if-the-earth-is-warming-or-cooling. A republican senator from Oklahoma, Jim Inhofe, brought snowballs to the senate floor to prove that global warming was a myth. As Colbert pointed out, that’s like saying world hunger is over because you ate today. Senator Inhofe just so happens to be the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works.
I am not a scientist either, but I do understand science. CO2 emissions add to the greenhouse effect which heats up the earth, melts the polar ice caps, and causes changes in weather patterns—droughts in some places, hurricanes and floods in others. When an overwhelming 97% of climate scientists agree that the earth is warming and that humans are causing it, then you don’t have to know the exact science to believe in the diagnosis. That’s like going to a bunch of dentists to get your teeth checked out and then doubting 97% of dentists who think you should get your molars removed, because well, you are not a dentist! Bankrolled by billionaires who wouldn’t like to see their profits dwindle due to climate change regulation, most GOP candidates continue to deny climate science for reasons of campaign funding or just plain stupidity—it’s usually a combination of both—but it doesn’t matter because we have come to expect very little from the GOP on climate change policy.
On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton continues to be the front-runner in a relatively rarefied field, and her record is centrist and similar to Obama’s. She is for emissions cuts at the national level, and has endorsed Obama’s executive action under section 111(d) of the Clean Air Act which gives the EPA the authority to set emissions targets for coal plants. But Clinton has also promoted domestic drilling for oil, fracking and natural gas. She has not expressed an opinion on the Keystone XL pipeline. She is also close to the big billionaires and her foundation has taken money from ExxobMobil and ConocoPhillips, so any expectation of decisive action on climate change from Clinton must be discounted. She is hardly the climate hawk that environmentalists are looking for.
Luckily, Bernie Sanders is for real. The seemingly nutty Senator Bernie Sanders from Vermont is seeking the democratic nomination for President in a direct challenge to Hillary Clinton whom he “respects very much, but disagrees with”. More relevant to us, he has a solid record of supporting climate change legislation. In fact, according to rankings released by Climate Hawks Vote, a new super PAC, Sanders was the No. 1 climate leader in the Senate for the 113th Congress that ended in January. He is not only pro-environment, he is also pro-taxes. A leftist’s dream, he has laid out the broad contours of what could turn out to be a pretty exciting agenda that will see U.S. emissions go down in the coming decades. Once the U.S. takes the leadership on climate change seriously, a global treaty to cut emissions elsewhere will not be far. His extreme left positioning is bound to alienate big corporations on everything from taxation to labor laws to trade and climate change; so any expectation of climate change policy should be tempered because the corporations are going to fight him, and Sanders, if elected, will have to work with Republican majority in both houses. But perhaps, most of all, Bernie Sanders has to win the nomination first, and that is unlikely to happen.
As of now, the range of menu options for 2016 elections does not look very appetizing from an environmental standpoint. Among other democratic hopefuls, Jim Webb is known to have a terrible environmental record who doesn’t think that reducing emissions should be a priority. Gov. O’Malley while being a strong advocate for the environment, especially from his record of implementing the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative program in his state of Maryland as governor, has a long shot at the presidency. If nothing changes in the next 12-16 months of campaigning, we will be stuck with Senator Inhofe and his snowballs. Perhaps by then, Inhofe’s balls would have melted and he will come to see the light of his own twisted logic.