Where They Stand: On Environment, Democrats Vie to Be "Greener than the Next Green"

Aug 7, 2015

In this year’s Democratic primary, several candidates have made action on climate change a major part of their campaign. This time around they think it could be a winning issue for them in the general election, and they’re also more comfortable using it to draw distinctions between each other.

Case-in-point: This past weekend, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders accepted the endorsement of the international environmental group, Friends of the Earth. He used the opportunity to take a swing at an opponent.

“It makes no sense to me, to have candidates come forward and say, well I’m concerned about climate change, but I just don’t know where I am on the Keystone Pipeline,” Sanders said, “If you’re concerned about climate change, you’ve got to be against the excavation and transportation of some of the dirtiest fossil fuel on earth. Say no to the Keystone XL pipeline.”

This is an implicit jab at former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The week before at a town hall in Nashua, she dodged a Keystone question.

“This is President Obama’s decision, and I’m not going to second guess him,” she said, after a long pause. “So I want to wait and see what he and Secretary Kerry decide; if it’s undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.”

Daylight Between the Candidates

Environmental policy is one area where voters are starting to see daylight between the Democratic candidates for president. On one end, you’ve got former governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, who has an aggressive goal of powering America’s electric grid entirely with clean energy – solar, wind and other sources -- by 2050.

“I believe that the challenge presented by climate change is the biggest business opportunity to come to the United States of America in 100 years," O'Malley said.

On the other end is former the senator from Virginia, Jim Webb.

Webb hasn’t been talking about much about climate change issues, though he told the Des Moines Register’s editorial board that he thought America is in a “good place” with regards to its efforts to cut emissions. However, he’s got a voting record that’s not likely to appeal to the environmentally minded.

“He wanted to delay EPA greenhouse gas emissions regulations. He’s not sure the Clean Air Act should be used to regulate carbon dioxide,” said Ryan Koronowski, an editor with the pro-environment, climate-focused news blog Climate Progress, who ticks off the votes that enviros view skeptically. “He’s been a big advocate for fossil fuel extraction; he wanted to approve the Keystone XL pipeline.”

Somewhere in the middle is Lincoln Chafee, who Koronowski says has simply not been talking much about climate.

Sanders advocates for many policies most favored by climate hawks: for instance, a tax on carbon emissions.

Clinton recently put forward a renewable energy plan that has been well received, but has not talked as explicitly about fossil fuel extraction, among other energy issues.

Where the Democratic Candidates Stand on Environmental Issues*

*Candidate positions reflect information available as of August 2015.

“Nothing to be Lost”

In general terms, the political strategy is simple: Candidates try to appeal to liberal voters who will turn-out for the primary election, while not alienating the general electorate. In that regard, climate is increasingly looking like an issue that is very safe ground for liberals.

“Because independents are very much like Democrats on this issue, that there’s nothing to be lost in terms of the independents by Democratic candidates taking a green position during the primary,” says Jon Krosnick, a Stanford political scientist who has argued that environmental issues are actually a winner, both among hard-core Democrats and the general public.

The polling seems to back that up. For instance, just this week a poll by left-leaning Public Policy Polling, paid for by a coalition of environmental groups, found 69 percent of New Hampshire voters would be less likely to support a candidate who opposes regulating carbon emissions.

Numbers like that have got candidates talking. That’s quite a change from the 2012 election, when President Obama largely avoided global warming on the campaign trail.

Professor Krosnick says after the catastrophic failure in 2009 of a sweeping bill that would have regulated carbon emissions, Democrats shifted away from climate as a campaign issue.  But now, he says, candidates are increasingly seeing an opportunity.

“You want to somehow make yourself out to be more green than the next green Democrat” is the strategy Krosnick sees Democratic candidates seizing.

And that's exactly what’s happening on the campaign trail.

When Sanders was endorsed by the Friends of the Earth in Concord last week, a Buzzfeed reporter asked if focusing on climate was a waste of time.

Sanders called to the crowd of sign-wielding supporters behind him: “Hey guys, is climate change an important issue?” The crowd called back, “Yes!”

“We are fighting to save the planet for our kids and our grand-children, so it doesn’t matter to me what it polls!” said Sanders.

It might not matter to Sanders. But, regardless, this year it might not be a bad strategy either.