Where Does Your Candidate Stand on the Environment? Part 3: Climate and Environment at the National Conventions

BY: LOUIS SPANIAS, Sustainability Program Manager

When I last evaluated the environmental stances of our presidential candidates, it was all but certain that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump would be the respective nominees of the Democratic and Republican parties. This past month, both were formally selected by their parties at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions (RNC and DNC), without any surprises. At each convention, the Republican and Democratic parties adopted guiding principles and long-term policy goals over the next four years, known as their Party Platforms.

With less than three months between now and the election, I evaluate how climate change and environmental issues were discussed at each convention, how those topics were addressed in each of the party platforms, and the implications of each side’s stances.

Republican Party Platform and National Convention

“Climate change is far from this nation’s most pressing national security issue. This is the triumph of extremism over common sense, and Congress must stop it.” – Republican Platform 2016, pg. 20

The Republican Platform, released days before the RNC, declared the party’s denial of climate change and its unwillingness to forward any related policy action. According to the platform, the attention to climate change lacks merit, and the science behind it lacks credibility: “…the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is a political mechanism, not an unbiased scientific institution. Its unreliability is reflected in its intolerance toward scientists and others who dissent from its orthodoxy” (pg. 22). Even though 97% of the world’s climate scientists agree that the climate is changing and that much of that is due to anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases, the Republican platform dismisses the IPCC’s findings. As a result, the Republicans “reject the agendas of both the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Agreement,” (pg. 22).

Despite the party’s wholesale dismissal of climate change and the backing science, their voters are starting to disagree. According to an April poll released by Yale and George Mason universities, forty-seven percent of conservatives acknowledge that the climate is changing. The poll still signified a leap of 19 points since the midterm elections in 2014, though the survey did not ask respondents if humans are responsible for climate change.

The platform also addresses a number of environmental areas, including land management, energy production, and environmental regulation. However, many of the platform’s action items run in direct contrast to environmental science, as well as the views of Republican voters.

As it pertains to land management, the party favors conservationist policies, including the allowance of ranching on public lands for farmers and providing them abundant water supply for their practices. Additionally, the party highlights the wealth of natural resources within forest lands protected by the U.S. Forest Services, and cites timber as “a renewable resource providing jobs for thousands of workers that should be used to the best economic potential for the nation,” and expresses that proper management of the resources “will result in fewer wildfires and… produce jobs in the timber industry for countless families,” (pg. 18-19). Yet, while timber is technically a renewable resource, many trees take decades to grow to a harvestable age; some trees reach maturity at 100 years or more. Also, forest harvest can actually increase subsequent forest fire severity.

On the topic of energy, the Republicans criticize those who demand we eliminate oil and gas exploration, arguing that it hinders job growth and negatively impacts low-income Americans. The party comes to the defense of coal, proclaiming that it will eliminate President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and that they intend to complete the Keystone XL pipeline to assure North American energy security. They openly oppose any carbon tax, and support the development of all forms of energy without subsidy, specifically citing coal, oil, and natural gas. These directly conflict with any effort to combat climate change. As of 2013, oil and gas production are the second largest contributor to U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

Conservative voters are starting to feel differently, however. In the aforementioned poll by Yale and George Mason universities, 75% of Republicans support more funding for renewable energy sources, and 70% support giving tax rebates to individuals who purchase energy-efficient vehicles and technologies. More than 60% of Republicans accept the regulation of carbon dioxide, and 47% supported a carbon tax on oil and gas companies.

Despite the vehement opposition to environmental regulations and climate action in the party platform, the Convention itself holistically ignored climate and environmental issues. Most prominent speeches highlighted other policy issues, particularly pertaining to national security, the economy, and immigration.

In his acceptance speech, Donald Trump did not mention climate change or any salient environmental issue. His stances on the environment were merely implicit in other statements, specifically in his accusation that his opponent would “put the great miners and steelworkers of our country out of work.” This is not necessarily untrue – shifts in the market and industry are negatively impacting the coal industry. Declines in the price of oil, as well as natural gas from hydraulic fracturing, are largely to blame. Also, improved mechanization and the increased competitiveness of more sustainable energy sources are also hurting coal. With that said, these cannot be attributed to any particular individual.

Thus, the Republican party and Donald Trump are keeping their eyes shut in the face of overwhelming evidence of a changing climate and the views of their own voters, upholding a stern dismissal of climate science and refusing to act upon that or any other environmental issue.

Democratic Party Platform and National Convention

In stark contrast to the Republicans, the Democrats strongly declared the party’s commitment to addressing climate change and a number of environmental issues in their party platform:

“Democrats believe that climate change poses a real and urgent threat to our economy, our national security, and our children’s health and futures, and that Americans deserve the jobs and security that come from becoming the clean energy superpower of the 21st century.” (pg. 2)

This standpoint was confirmed by Hillary Clinton in her speech at the DNC in Philadelphia:

“I’m not going to stand by and let anyone take us backward, deny our clean energy future, or hand our children a dangerous world destabilized by climate change,”

The Democrats’ platform frames climate change as not only one of the most urgent threats of our time, but also as an opportunity to improve the American economy and create jobs. The Democrats offer clear goals, including but not limited to the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions more than 80 percent below 2005 levels by 2050, meeting the terms of the Paris agreement, and assuring that the U.S. runs entirely on clean energy by the middle of the century (pg. 27).

In contrast to the Republican platform, the Democrats emphasize the importance of a clean energy economy that eliminates tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuel companies, offers tax incentives to energy efficiency and clean energy, and prices greenhouse gases to “reflect their negative externalities” (pg. 27). This vision entails upholding the Clean Power Plan and improving upon existing standards for vehicle emissions, building codes, and appliance standards.

While the Republicans vow to complete the Keystone XL Pipeline, the Democrats support President Obama’s rejection of the project, and go on further to state that hydraulic fracturing must be regulated and that fossil fuel extraction on public lands and through offshore drilling must be phased out (pgs. 28-29). They emphasize the importance of protecting public lands as well as endangered species, and recognize how negative environmental impacts disproportionately affect low-income communities and communities of color (pgs. 27-28).

The polls show that their party is behind them, as 91 percent of Democrats support funding for clean energy sources, as well as for energy-efficient vehicles and technologies. Nearly 90% support carbon regulations, and 86% believe carbon taxes are a good idea.

At the Democratic National Convention, climate change received major airtime. A 5 ½ minute short film by James Cameron and Maria Wilhelm was shown that highlighted the ongoing and imminent threats presented by climate change. The film featured a number of celebrities, including quotes from former President George H.W. Bush and Pope Francis as well as a number of other government and military officials, and attacked Trump’s stances on climate change.

In addition, former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders commented on climate change in his speech, expressing that climate change is the most pressing issue facing the United States and the world today:

“This election is about climate change, the greatest environmental crisis facing our planet, and the need to leave this world in a way that is healthy and habitable for kids and future generations.”

President Obama also touched on the topic, highlighting that in order to fight climate change, we need to engage college students and reach out to people across the country who may suffer as the economy transitions to more sustainable energy sources.

Hillary Clinton reaffirmed her belief in climate science and US participation in international actions to combat it in her acceptance speech, expressing pride in the shaping of the Paris Climate Agreement and her confidence that the country could tackle climate change while creating millions of jobs in clean energy.

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With this series, I hoped to identify the differences between the party’s viewpoints and planned actions on the environment and climate change. I did not anticipate such stark ideological contrast between the two parties on these issues, and nor can I explain why Republican voters acknowledge these topics while their leadership does not. At the same time, while it appears that this polarization could stall progress on tackling climate change, there are still prominent Republicans, including Senators Susan Collins (ME), Mark Kirk (IL), Kelly Ayote (NH), Lindsey Graham (SC), and John McCain (AZ) who have supported climate action in the past. There are certainly opportunities for bipartisan cooperation on environmental issues, especially at local and state levels where parties are more likely to agree on issues such as coastal protection, land conservation, and clean energy production. As we scale down, the challenge becomes how to tackle the issue, not about expressing whether or not an issue even exists in the first place.

In future segments, I will examine the environmental views of the vice presidential candidates, Tim Kaine (D) and Mike Pence (R), and will analyze the debates to see if and how these issues are addressed and evolve in the run-up to Election Day.