The Democratic Candidates’ Answers on Climate Change Exposed the Central Flaw in Each of Their Campaigns

Hillary Clinton And Bernie Sanders Spar At Democratic Debate In Brooklyn
Flawed humans.Photo: Justin Sullivan/2016 Getty Images

Crisis reveals character, or so some novelists say. It’s fitting, then, that the most revealing exchange in Brooklyn’s Democratic debate was the one focused on the greatest crisis facing mankind.

For two hours Thursday night, Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders stood in uncomfortably close proximity and loudly accused each other of either lacking the political bravery to meet the profound challenges of our moment (Sanders, re: Clinton) or else the technocratic pragmatism necessary for making change in the real world (Clinton, re: Sanders). During their discussion of climate-change policy, each aided the other’s argument.

The front-runner was the first to underwhelm. Sanders came to Brooklyn with a “gotcha” question in tow, and Clinton gave just the non-answer he was looking for.

This is a difference between understanding that we have a crisis of historical consequence here, and incrementalism and those little steps are not enough,” Sanders said. “Are you in favor of a tax on carbon so that we can transit away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy at the level and speed we need to do?”

Clinton refused to endorse a carbon tax. She also refused to mount an argument against it. Instead, she hid behind Barack Obama’s popularity while implying that Sanders’s proposal was unserious and impossible.

CLINTON: You know, I have laid out a set of actions that build on what President Obama was able to accomplish, building on the clean-power plan, which is currently under attack by fossil fuels and the right in the Supreme Court, which is one of the reasons why we need to get the Supreme Court justice that President Obama has nominated to be confirmed so that we can actually continue to make progress.

I don’t take a back seat to your legislation that you’ve introduced that you haven’t been able to get passed. I want to do what we can do to actually make progress in dealing with the crisis. That’s exactly what I have proposed.

Answering, “will you support a carbon tax,” with “I want to do what we can to actually make progress” is unfortunate on two levels. First, and most importantly, the carbon tax would make progress. It would acknowledge that the burning of fossil fuels comes with external costs that the industry burning them offloads onto the rest of society. Carbon emissions have a destructive impact on the stability of our climate and the quality of our air and water. The costs of mitigating those impacts should be borne, at least in part, by the emitters. What’s more, when these costs are priced in up front, less carbon-intensive energy sources become more economically competitive. Thus, a carbon tax would help speed the transition to alternative energy through the market mechanisms we already have in place. Pretty pragmatic, if you ask me.

But don’t ask me, or Bernie Sanders, or his hoards of “doped-up beatniks” — ask British Petroleum or Royal Dutch Shell. Last summer, six chief executives from leading European oil and gas companies issued a plea for a carbon tax. Which is to say, taxing carbon emissions is both good on the merits and not at all radical. It’s a policy that enjoys widespread support among economists and environmentalists, in addition to the aforementioned oil tycoons. And this is the second unfortunate aspect of Clinton’s answer — by justifying her lack of support with an appeal to realism, she is actively shrinking the window of political possibility. Her answer to Sanders’s inquiry is precisely why so many young progressives still aren’t “ready for Hillary.”

Once Clinton was through disappointing, the Vermont senator immediately did the same, when NY1’s Errol Louis asked him the following:

LOUIS: You’ve said that climate change is the greatest threat to our nation’s security. You’ve called for a nationwide ban on fracking. You’ve also called for phasing out all nuclear power in the U.S. But wouldn’t those proposals drive the country back to coal and oil, and actually undermine your fight against global warming?

Confronted with concerns about his plan’s potential unintended consequences, Sanders did not address the heart of that concern: How could you prevent a ban on fracking and nuclear power from shifting investment back to even more carbon-intensive energy sources? Instead, he reiterated the moral and existential necessity of taking rapid, sweeping action. “Let me reiterate,” Sanders requested. “We have a global crisis. Pope Francis reminded us that we are on a suicide course.” Which, okay, fair enough. Sanders’s plan undoubtedly treats the severity of the climate threat with more urgency than Clinton’s does. But no one asked Sanders to reiterate that fact. And the senator proceeded to answer another question that wasn’t asked, assuring Louis that his plan included funding to compensate displaced workers.

LOUIS: Jobs are one thing, but with less than 6 percent of all U.S. energy coming from solar, wind, and geothermal, and 20 percent of U.S. power coming from nuclear, if you phase out all of that, how do you make up …

SANDERS: Well, you don’t phase …

LOUIS: — that difference?

SANDERS: — it all out tomorrow. And you certainly don’t phase nuclear out tomorrow.

Sanders’s plan may not phase out nuclear tomorrow, but it does call for a moratorium on re-licensing the country’s aging nuclear plants. Environmental-policy analyst Michael Shellenberger told Slate that under Sanders’s plan, “U.S. carbon emissions would increase by a minimum of 2 billion tons, about the same amount as the U.S. produces each year making electricity,” as fossil fuels filled the gap left by the gradual closure of nuclear facilities. Shellenberger’s calculations could be misguided, but there is no shortage of climate scientists who share his conclusion that maintaining nuclear energy is a necessity for averting ecological catastrophe.

Perhaps Sanders has a detailed argument for why such scientists are wrong. But the fact that he neglected to make one lent credence to the charge that he puts ideology above empiricism and purity above efficacy. Which is precisely why so many older progressives still aren’t “feeling the Bern.”