On July 9th the Democratic Party announced a historic change in its 2016 platform: “We believe the United States must lead in forging a robust global solution to the climate crisis. We are committed to a national mobilization, and to leading a global effort to mobilize nations to address this threat on a scale not seen since World War II.” The new language called for complete decarbonization by 2050, fulfillment of the Paris Agreement’s aspiration to limit warming to 1.5°C, carbon pricing, and a massive green-jobs initiative. Platform Committee members Bill McKibben, Keith Ellison, and Cornel West helped to engineer these breakthrough, as did years-long activism from The Climate Mobilization and other organizations and individuals. Russell Greene introduced the amendment with the strongest language.
Advocates thus had reason to hope for a focus on climate at the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, two weeks later. Alas, that did not happen. Moviemaker James Cameron dramatized the issue with a five-minute video featuring victims of extreme-weather calamities and a cameo from Pope Francis, who compared climate degradation to “the limits of suicide.” But neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders emphasized the subject in their primetime speeches. Sanders spoke for thirty-five minutes, during which he devoted only a minute and a half to climate change. He did not mention the platform’s call—or his own prior calls— for wartime-scale mobilization.
Why did the Democrats pull their punches on climate? One answer: the need to defeat Donald Trump has acquired its own sense of wartime-like urgency. Party strategists perhaps feel that a sharper focus on climate would turn off potential crossover Republican voters. This certainly reflects the hallmark pragmatism of the Clinton campaign. In my opinion, it’s a mistake.
The notion that Democrat candor on climate might alienate potential Republican voters doesn’t look plausible when examined closely. Back in 2008 the GOP platform called for “a global climate change strategy” with “technology-driven, market-based solutions that will decrease emissions.” Polling since then indicates that Republicans increasingly accept the scientific consensus that climate change is a serious threat. But Trump and the GOP’s 2016 platform are bucking that trend. For example, Trump calls climate change a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese to undermine American business competitiveness. His platform charges Democrats with creating “the illusion of an environmental crisis.”
That’s crazy talk! It’s becoming increasingly clear that Trump is out of touch with his own rank and file on various issues, perhaps especially so on climate. Hillary Clinton shouldn’t worry that bold views on the crisis might turn off Republican converts. Trump’s looniness is already driving conservatives to her side.
Clinton should worry about something else, the possibility that her low-key climate profile is driving young voters to Jill Stein’s Green Party. I will venture a prediction. As Donald Trump continues to make ludicrous gaffes, reinforcing the perception that he is temperamentally and intellectually unfit to be president, many progressive voters will conclude that he cannot win. Might they therefore feel obliged—as a matter of climate conscience, given Clinton’s lukewarm rhetoric on warming—to vote for Stein? I think so. The Clinton campaign should ponder the potential that this scenario holds for a bad result in November.
In short, there is no downside to Clinton fully fledging into a climate hawk. She doesn’t need to be cautious. She knows that history will favor those speaking up loudly on the crisis. Go for it Hillary! Do the right thing to get the enthusiastic support of young climate-concerned Americans.