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Climate Change: What Would Hillary Clinton Do?

Hillary Clinton Climate Change

Hillary Clinton speaking at a rally in Des Moines in January 2016. (Wikimedia)

As the election season comes to a close, most polls indicate a relatively clear picture. Her latest email scandal notwithstanding, Hillary Clinton is very likely to emerge victorious and give Democrats a third presidential election win in a row. A campaign that has mostly oscillated between agonizing and ghastly has left virtually no room for any discussion of the candidates’ policies. Time to take a look at how Hillary Clinton might deal with climate change.

A glance at global developments reveals improving prospects. In many respects, last year’s Paris climate agreement is a success. Key player such as India, China, and the EU—as well as the U.S.—have ratified the treaty. Prices for wind and solar continue to drop, while 2015 saw renewables overtake coal as the world’s largest source of power capacity. Globally, deforestation rates appear to be slowing down. Last month, countries arrived at an agreement to phase out extremely climate-damaging hydrofluorocarbons.

Congress: What Gives?

Domestic politics reveal a different picture, however. Republicans will almost certainly retain control over the House, and perhaps even the Senate. While President Obama began his first term with Congress firmly under Democratic control, Clinton faces perpetual deadlock on almost all legislative initiatives.

Gridlock will have a particular effect on climate policy. Recent findings suggest that there is more polarization among the U.S public on climate change than on a perennially divisive issues such as abortion and gay marriage. Rather than a debate focussed on substance, climate change has become subject to identity politics and tribalism. The position you take on climate change is a significant part of what it means to be a Liberal or a Conservative today. Ideology is what motivates action.

As a result, there is virtually no appetite within the GOP for any initiative on climate change. In fact, the party is currently supporting a candidate who regards it as a Chinese hoax. Donald Trump has also vouched he would renege on the Paris agreement.

Such outlandishness is not confined to the Republican nominee, however. Many in the party continue to doubt the most basic facts about climate change. When Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma brought a snowball into the Senate as evidence against climate change, it was more a reflection of Republican positions than a caricature. In its stance, the GOP is somewhat of a unique case as the only major conservative party to reject climate change outright.

Prospects for Policy Change: A Mixed Bag

To that effect, realistic prospects for meaningful climate change legislation are strikingly low. Clinton is therefore likely to resort to the same sorts of measures the Obama administration grew increasingly fond of: executive orders. These can be quite effective in the short term. By contrast to legislation, executive orders can be implemented more quickly. To some extent, they also circumvent the multiple occasions in a legislative process on which lobbyists can influence the nature of a particular law.

The Obama administration’s signature executive order on climate change is the Clean Power Plan (CPP). It would require existing coal-fired power plants to reduce their emissions by 30 percent from their 2005 levels. Republicans have fought the CPP tooth and nail. The CPP has also faced legal challenges. In February, the Supreme Court issued a stay on the CPP, questioning whether the plan would require the Environmental Protection Agency to overstep its mandate. If the CPP survives, Clinton will support its implementation.

In terms of legislative initiatives, the Democratic nominee actually has some far-reaching policy ideas. Clinton has proposed to generate a third of electricity from renewable sources by 2027. By contrast, President Obama has suggested a figure of only 20 percent by 2030. In addition, Clinton wants to install 500 million solar panels by 2020, a significant increase over current installations. The campaign has also revealed a program called the Clean Energy Challenge, which would provide grants to states, cities, and communities to the tune of $60 billion over ten years. This is the backbone of her plan to make America “the world’s clean energy superpower”.

At least in policy terms, the Clinton campaign seems to take the issue seriously. Clinton’s rhetoric reflects as much. At an energy conference in 2014, she referred to climate change as “the most consequential, urgent, sweeping collection of challenges” facing the United States. Confronted with a hostile Congress, it is unclear to what extent Clinton can implement any of these policies. Yet, she has suggested she will not wait for congressional approval that will never come.

There are also other avenues to pursue. After an initial refusal to commit herself, Clinton has recently shifted towards opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, an issue of particular salience among environmentalists. She has also become somewhat more critical of fracking, a method to extract natural gas that has led the U.S. to become the hub of the shale gas revolution. Clinton has proposed a range of conditions that would severely limit the number of sites at which the environmentally questionable procedure could be practiced.

The more aggressive stance on climate and sustainable energy issues suggests that Bernie Sanders’ success in the primaries—particularly on climate issues—has driven Clinton to the left. Compared to her first presidential run in 2008, she appears to have shifted her positions on a number of issues, including the federal minimum wage, trade, and Wall Street reform.

The same is true for climate and energy. However, the line of demarcation between her and Sanders remains clear. Leaked Clinton campaign emails suggest, for example, that the pursuit of a carbon tax policy was dropped after polling revealed its unpopularity.

A Democratic transition will likely leave a large chunk of the existing bureaucracy in place. One minor measure could be to give the Special Envoy for Climate Change cabinet status. Currently a position within the State Department, such a move could elevate climate change to a matter of national concern, at least within White House.

More Noise Than Signal

Where does this leave us? The immediate takeaway is that meaningful action is very unlikely. With legislative action not in the cards, a Clinton presidency will be confined to making a difference on the margins. While her campaign’s white papers indicate high ambitions in policy terms, political reality will not allow her the space to put those plans into action.

Clinton’s executive power is therefore limited to symbolic action falling short of what would be necessary to turn around U.S. climate policy. What matters more than the White House now are the results of down-ballot contests. If somehow Democrats were to capture the House, the calculation would change considerably.

In the event of divided government, climate change solutions will be left mostly to the market to figure out. In the sense that climate change is the result of a market failure itself, such policy status is dangerous. It also puts the U.S. at a disadvantage.

On the one hand, America is at the forefront of technological and business model innovation. Companies like Tesla and Solar City are developing cutting-edge products in the sustainable transport and battery storage sectors. On the other hand, policy innovation is at an all-time low, at least at the federal level. It is largely up to states like California to show what good policy can do.

Against this background, it remains extremely unlikely that Hillary Clinton can make U.S. climate policy great again. In a sense, this chimes with the general assessment of a Clinton presidency: evolution, not revolution.



Tim Pfefferle

Tim Pfefferle writes about the politics of climate change, the United Nations, as well as US and African politics. Originally from Germany, Tim has studied in the UK and in the US, and has also worked in Uganda and Brazil. He holds a BA in International Relations from the University of London, and is a recent graduate of the MSc Global Governance and Diplomacy program at the University of Oxford. He's currently a consultant working on climate change. When he is not thinking or writing about foreign policy, Tim enjoys the lighter sides of life, like pop culture.

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