The Thing We Should Be Talking About When It Comes to the Democratic Presidential Field

Jun 10, 2015 by

 Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee agree on one thing: The urgent need to reduce greenhouse gases and move away from fossil fuel.

Photo Credit: mistydawnphoto/Shutterstock

I’m taking a break from writing “absurd things radical presidential candidates say” to bring you some promising news instead. In addition to Hillary Clinton, there are three new candidates who’ve joined the race for the Democratic nomination for president, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley and former Rhode Island Governor and Senator Lincoln Chafee. Many pundits want to talk about whether any of these men have a chance to beat Secretary Clinton, but I think that conversation misses a more important point.

The real headline here is that every Democratic candidate is in agreement about the urgent need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, move away from dirty fossil fuels and invest in clean sources of energy. Clinton, Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee aren’t quibbling about what a few fringe scientists say about the exact cause of rising air and sea temperatures. They don’t twist their sentences into pretzels trying to deny denying or hoping to make the questions go away.

Instead of talking about if a non-Clinton candidate can win, or “move Clinton to the left,” let’s talk about how a strong and unified message on climate action can clear the way for more bold leadership on this issue, from both sides of the aisle. Let’s figure out how we can use this unity to the public’s advantage to get to a point where climate change isn’t political anymore.

Where the Democratic candidates stand

Sanders, O’Malley and Chafee have long records of leadership on climate change. In their announcement speeches and comments to the press, the need to act on climate was echoed throughout:

 “Climate change is real. We must create an American jobs agenda to build a new renewable energy future.” – O’Malley

“When we talk about our responsibilities as human beings and as parents, there is nothing more important than leaving this country and the entire planet in a way that is habitable for our kids and grandchildren. The debate is over. The scientific community has spoken in a virtually unanimous voice. Climate change is real. It is caused by human activity and it is already causing devastating problems in the United States and around the world.” – Sanders

“We can address climate change and extreme weather while protecting American jobs.” – Chafee

In addition to frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s decision to hire John Podesta as her campaign chairman (Podesta was Obama’s top adviser on climate issues and has been called a key architect of Obama’s more recent aggressive push for carbon pollution reduction), she has also made it clear that climate would be a priority for her in the White House:

“The unprecedented action that President Obama has taken [on the Clean Power Plan] must be protected at all cost.” – Clinton (in 2014)

“I have no doubt that [Clinton] will move forward with an aggressive program to move the country to a cleaner energy system and do what the United States needs to do to meet the target.” – Podesta

“Failing to take steps today to curb carbon pollution and other greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. would endanger our economy, our national security and our children’s future.” – Podesta

Moving the conversation on climate

The American people are ready to move past the discussion about whether or not climate change is happening (80 percent agree). When the Democratic candidates get together on one stage to debate issues, they will display united leadership on climate change, and also perhaps encourage each other to be even bolder.

Sanders — who, despite trailing far behind Clinton, has as much support as any of the leading Republican candidates — calls climate change “the greatest environmental threat facing the planet” and has made it one of the three pillars of his campaign. As Senator, he co-sponsored the Climate Protection Act of 2013, which would put a fee on carbon and methane emissions from coal, oil and natural gas production and use the revenue to invest in energy efficiency and sustainable energy. Sanders also introduced the End Polluter Welfare Act to end subsidies and tax breaks for big oil and fossil fuel companies.

Sanders has been one of the leaders of the opposition to Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. “The idea that we would give a green light for the transportation of 800,000 barrels of some of the dirtiest oils all over the world makes no sense to me,” he said last year. Sanders was also responsible for introducing an amendment to the Keystone Pipeline approval bill to put the Senate on record that climate change is real and human-caused.

O’Malley also boasts a strong record on environmental issues in his time as Governor, including doubling the state’s renewable energy standard to 20 percent. Far ahead of most other states, and even the EPA, O’Malley signed Maryland’s 2009 Greenhouse Gas Reduction Act, which set a statewide goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent below 2006 levels by 2020. By 2012, Maryland had driven down greenhouse gas emissions by nearly 10 percent compared to 2006, and by 20 percent compared to “business as usual” projections.

In 2011, Maryland League of Conservation Voters gave Gov. O’Malley a B+ overall in their Governor’s Report Card (and an A for climate change).

Chafee, who switched political parties from Republican to Independent to Democrat over the last decade in part because of President George W. Bush’s broken promises on cleaning up carbon pollution, left the Senate with a 78 percent lifetime rating from LCV. As Governor, he championed and signed into law a comprehensive climate change bill for the state that aimed to reduce Rhode Island’s greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 (from 1990 levels).

A strong and unified message to #ActOnClimate

I’m glad to see the climate and clean energy message echoed among all four of the Democratic candidates. Let’s hope that this leadership will “trickle down” to the Republican candidates before November 2016 comes.

Heather Taylor-Miesle is the Director of the NRDC Action Fund.

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