McKibben to Clinton: Now it’s really time to get serious about climate change
Dear Secretary Clinton —
In your husband’s years in office, the greenhouse effect was still fairly novel science; even eight years ago, when you were first running for president, climate change was not yet really a top-tier issue. In a sense, then, this summer marks the first chance most Americans have to really find out what and how you think about global warming — the challenge that more than any other will color the economic and foreign policy landscape for the years ahead. In hopes you might seize the moment, I offer a few suggestions.
So far your rhetoric has been correct but eye-glazing, dominated by phrases like “urgent” and “moral” and “grandchildren” — the words skillful politicians use to signal interest without committing themselves to actual policies. (Because policies come with opponents.)
But that rhetorical luxury will soon disappear. There’s a mature climate movement, big enough, like the immigration movement, to demand answers. Oh, and 2015 looks like it will replace 2014 as the hottest year ever recorded; the U.S. has just come through the rainiest month since we began keeping track; our biggest state is mired in its deepest drought. Mother Nature may not have a super PAC, but she has her own ways of focusing attention.
In the end, if you’re the Democratic candidate in the general election, environmentalists may vote for you no matter what, on the general theory of: Republicans don’t believe in physics. But that’s different from building the kind of enthusiasm that makes elections easier to win, an enthusiasm that would be essential if you actually planned to change things once taking office.
So with that in mind, it’s worth thinking about why many serious environmentalists currently distrust you, what it would take at a minimum to build trust, and what might ignite deep support.
Five reasons environmentalists distrust you
The mistrust comes from several directions:
- Climate change has not been your issue. You’ve focused your greatest attention on issues you came to early in life — things like education and health care — all of which are crucial. But climate change feels like a late add-on. You know the topic because you’re whip-smart, but only as a topic; if you really felt it, then the obvious connections with the things you do care about would be apparent. One sees a glimmer of it sometimes: the campaign for better cookstoves in developing nations combines all your deepest cares with important environmental issues. But you could go much deeper. Study after study shows that climate change is hitting vulnerable communities the hardest — just look at asthma rates in the U.S. and superimpose that on a map of where the coal plants are.
- You were terrible on Keystone. Even before the State Department began its review of the project, you said you were “inclined” to approve it. That’s been your last public word on the project, but your team performed an intellectually corrupt review of the plans, your campaign bundlers landed rich lobbying contracts, and your former advisers took jobs with Transcanada.It was and is a huge mess — and I’m sure you hate the whole topic because at the start you couldn’t have known that it would become the iconic environmental issue of our era. Since pipelines until Keystone were routinely approved, it probably seemed like just a chance to please the Canadians. Had you known it would become a hornet’s nest, you would doubtless have proceeded more carefully — and in fairness it wasn’t until the process was underway that climate scientists raised their most forceful concerns. Still, ugh.
- You took the Obama administration’s affection for fracking and ran with it. Working with a deep team of oil company advisers, you set up a whole office at the State Department whose job it was to push fracking all over the world (Cambodia, China, New Guinea); you gave speech after speech in country after country. This was bad policy in the extreme: America, at best, struggles to keep fracking from poisoning its water, and even with our regulations on drilling, massive quantities of methane leak out. So now imagine how well it’s going to work in, say, Romania, where your ambassador pressured the government to turn over millions of acres for shale gas development (before returning to work for Chevron’s law firm).
- As the world’s top diplomat, you presided over the monumental failure that was the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009. Six crucial years were lost as a result. Enough said.
- All that endless money. The right-wing attacks on the endless speaking fees and foundation gifts aren’t actually just a concern to the right wing. The banks backing Keystone, just to give one small example, have been regular and enormous patrons. It’s not illegal, any of it, and it’s not quite the same as the way the Koch brothers simply purchased the GOP, but it’s not far enough away, either. Influence is … influence.
Seven ways you could win some green stripes
So given that dreary backdrop, what’s the minimum bar for being taken seriously? It’s clearly not enough any more to say that “climate science is real,” and we take it for granted that you’ll back the Obama administration’s initiatives on things like coal-fired power plants. But climate is a moving target: The science has gotten steadily darker, and we’ve seen all the places where Obama’s policy turned out to be a sham. So:
- Stop talking about an “all-of-the-above” energy policy. You were secretary of state: would you have had an “all-of-the-above” foreign policy, where North Korea and England were equally beloved? In climate terms, coal is Pyongyang and solar is London.
- Stop hiding behind “process” and say what you think about Keystone. Yes, the State Department is still considering it, but the State Department is still considering every other foreign policy issue on earth and you’ve commented on those — even going so far as to disagree with the president on live foreign policy questions. We need to know: Have you paid attention to the climate scientists who have emerged to explain what a disaster KXL will be, or to the Native Americans and farmers along the route, or to the plurality of Democrats who oppose it? Have you figured out that the Koch brothers are the biggest leaseholders in the tar sands, and that this would be a gift worth billions to them? Neither you nor President Obama think it’s the most important climate issue, but millions of climate activists do — because we understand it represents, finally, a line in the sand.
- In a larger sense, make it clear that you get that this is a problem of supply as well as one of demand. It’s important to encourage people to turn off their lights and to mandate better cars, and President Obama has focused on that for his term in office. But it’s at best half the question. If the federal government goes ahead and approves new leases for coal mining on public land in the Powder River Basin, that will release three times as much carbon as Obama’s coal regulations save. If the federal government keeps giving Shell the OK to drill in the Arctic, it implies a decades-long continued reliance on oil. You’ve voted for offshore oil drilling in the past, but do you really want to see millions of tons more carbon dumped into the atmosphere from the Chukchi Sea or the Atlantic seaboard? None of these require congressional backing: they are presidential decisions, and we need to know what you’d do.
- Fall out of love with fracking. You backed it to the hilt, obviously — but you could argue you weren’t alone, that the former executive director of the Sierra Club used to tour the country touting its virtues. Now that the science is in, the Sierra Club, and the rest of the environmental community, are staunch opponents. That’s because everybody now understands that it represents not a bridge to the future but a bridge to nowhere — it’s a way to tie ourselves into our fossil fuel infrastructure for decades to come, instead of moving with vigor toward renewables.
- As Paris approaches, make sure you’re doing something to back up your Copenhagen pledge of $100 billion in annual global financing for moving developing countries straight to renewables. If all those Clinton Foundation ties mean anything, now’s the time to put them seriously to work.
- Do your part in pushing back against tired attacks that solving climate change is going to cost jobs or hurt our economy or hurt workers in coal plants. You know the truth: that what’s really hurting workers, whether they’re at Peabody or Whole Foods, are the effects of rapid climate change — and that Exxon’s CEO’s stranglehold on policymakers is actively making it worse. Instead of that, you could talk up how leaning into solar and wind energy will create jobs across the country, pull profits out of the Swiss bank accounts of fossil fuel barons, and alleviate income inequality across the board. This isn’t a siloed problem — which is exactly why we’ve strengthened our movement’s alliance with labor unions and workers in recent years.
- And finally — given everyone’s perception of your deep ties to Wall Street — it’s time to signal your support for divestment from fossil fuels. The Rockefellers have done it. Ban Ki-moon has done it. The head of the World Bank has done it. Prince Charles has done it. So we’ll be watching for the tweet saying you back the divestment campaign at Wellesley.
How you could shift the climate tide
And now let’s say that you didn’t simply want to win the support of environmentalists in a general election. Let’s say you wanted to change the world. What would you do? We’re stuck in a business-as-usual framework, where the leaders of the G7 said last week that they’d phase out fossil fuel use by the end of the century; that’s far more time than the physics actually allows. How could you be truly transformative?
More than anything, I think, you’d take notice of the opportunity you’ve been given. Every other president of the global warming age has been forced by stark science to face choices among difficult, expensive alternatives. If you’re elected, that won’t be your problem. The price of a solar panel has fallen 75 percent in the years since Barack Obama was elected. That means you would come to power as the first American president really poised to change the way the country and the world looks.
To be specific: You could use your political capital to overturn America’s energy paradigm — not slowly, around the margins, but quickly and at the core. The two great presidential technology initiatives of the 20th century came from Democratic heroes: FDR turned our industrial might into a Nazi-killing machine, and JFK galvanized your generation with a decade-long flight to the moon. As it happens, a team of the world’s best scientists and economists said earlier this month that an Apollo-scale effort could put the world on renewable energy by 2025. If we did that, HRC would join those other initials.
Yes, it’s a heavy political lift, and the GOP won’t make it easy — but liberals and conservatives alike love solar panels, and organized labor could and should be in the forefront of this energy transition. Where there are jobs, so there are political openings. Barack Obama used his one wish to address the last great problem of the 20th century (health care); you could use yours to solve the first great challenge of the 21st.
And you — living in a globalized world your predecessors could barely have imagined — could play a key role in taking that revolution around the world. Want a foreign policy that attracts instead of repels? What about working single-mindedly to make sure that before you leave office, every hut and hovel, every shack and shanty on Earth has a solar panel sitting on the roof, even if that roof is a sheet of tin? That’s a goal that makes putting a man on the moon seem almost insignificant, and it’s entirely possible. It wouldn’t solve world poverty, but it would make a huge dent.
I’m not hugely hopeful you’ll do these things. The Clinton brand has always been small-bore, play-it-safe, incremental. I’d guess you’ll play your campaign, and your presidency, the same way that Obama has played his: to move the ball forward, to make some progress so that your successors can make some more.
Normally that’s smart policy, but this is an unusual question. The underlying physics makes clear that either we make massive progress very soon, or our window disappears. Winning a little is the same as losing. We need you to think bigger.
Also read Bill McKibben’s open letter to President Obama.