Hillary Clinton's Climate Policy Ambitious, but Falls Short of Bold

Clinton's platform on climate and energy made headlines this weekend, but it did not break much new ground.

Hillary Clinton speaks at the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame dinner in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, on July 17, 2015. Credit: REUTERS/Jim Young

With solar power and wind electricity booming, Hillary Clinton promises to double down on them if she is elected president.

With polls indicating swing state voters believe human activities are causing climate change by a 2-1 margin, her new platform on climate change mocks Republican right-wingers as being out of touch with reality.

Clinton's speeches on climate change on Sunday and Monday, with their heavy emphasis on renewable energy, are substantively significant, but they are not "bold," the word her campaign used to describe them. Especially in Iowa, a wind powerhouse with biofuels running in its electoral veins, they were the safest of political bets.

To be transformational, Clinton's policy would have to: aim to end the uncontrolled emission of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, crack down on methane (another greenhouse gas) whether it comes from fracking natural gas or from agriculture, leave most existing reserves of fossil fuels in the ground, and put a price on carbon, either through a tax or a cap-and-trade system like the one President Obama could never get through Congress. It would walk away from big investments in long-lived fossil fuel projects like the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline.

"Hillary Clinton is half the way there," said Bill McKibben, co-founder of the advocacy group 350.org. "This is a credible commitment to renewable energy, and a recognition that the economics of electricity are changing fast. Now, we need Clinton to show she understands the other half of the climate change equation—and prove she has the courage to stand up against fossil fuel projects."

Tiernan Sittenfeld of the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund was more enthusiastic, calling Clinton's policy "the kind of leadership we need to ensure that our nation leads the world in building a clean energy economy. This underscores Secretary Clinton's longtime commitment to confronting the climate crisis."

The predictable reactions from these green judges shows that Clinton, experienced in the art of political gymnastics, performed a safe routine and stuck her landing.

Eventually, during the Democratic primary debates, she may have to argue the merits of a carbon tax with Senator Bernie Sanders, who favors one, or parry with former Governor Martin O'Malley, who says his target is 100 percent renewable energy.

But for now, her policy is relatively anodyne: "We can make a transition over time from a fossil fuel economy, predominantly, to a clean renewable energy economy, predominantly."

Her goals for solar energy seem to be her most ambitious, but are not unrealistic.

Clinton aims to install new capacity of 140 gigawatts of solar by 2020, which would be about seven times the total capacity now in place. The industry says it installed about 6 gigawatts in the past year, and might hit 8 gigawatts in 2015. If growth continues at the current rate—for example, if residential photovoltaic capacity rises at the 78 percent year-on-year rate of the first quarter of 2015—that goal is not out of reach.

And it might just happen with the right combination of federal tax policy, state cash incentives, net metering, community-shared solar, declining costs for solar panels, new battery technologies, utility-owned solar, strict regulations on coal-fired electricity, and a bounceback in coal or natural gas prices. But most of those would be out of a president's control.  Congress would have to extend the solar tax credits, states control their own policies, panels are an international commodity, commercial technology is the domain of entrepreneurs, and whither energy prices? Who knows.

The biggest question for solar is whether Congress will extend the generous tax credit for homeowners installing rooftop panels. It's set to expire right before the next president is sworn in. A tax incentive for wind seems likely to be extended this year, partly because the wind industry correctly points out that eliminating it would be a job-killer. The same argument will be heard from the solar lobby next year: chopping the tax credit will behead a 21st century industry in the flower of its youth.

That means preemptively making the tax credit an issue on the stump looks like good politics for anyone not in the pocket of the coal industry.

As for coal, Clinton's policies are aimed mainly at helping the industry and its workers adjust as the industry's twilight drags on.

One more thing Clinton did vow: as president, she would fight attempts in Congress to roll back President Obama's Clean Power Plan, an Environmental Protection Agency rule that is to be issued in final form this summer. Obama would veto any legislation overturning it. But neither he nor she will have any leverage over the Supreme Court, where the legality of the rule is likely to be settled.

Clinton's campaign said she would reveal more details about her climate policies in the months ahead.

Some are likely to be quite specific. Any candidate who calls for upgrades to the turbines in existing hydropower dams, as Clinton did this weekend, is wading deep into the particulars. (She's right: The federal Bureau of Reclamation sells a lot of electricity from government-owned dams, which are falling into disrepair and could earn bigger dividends for taxpayers with modest investment in new hardware.)

In the meantime, she'd rather stick with one-liners aimed at climate deniers in the other party. "I'm not a scientist, either," she said. "I'm just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain."

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