The Democrats' climate change conundrum

A large majority of Democrats are concerned about climate change. But they're split over how radical the remedies should be.

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
President Obama speaks to members of the media while on a hike to the Exit Glacier in Seward, Alaska, in September 2015. Mr. Obama used his office to prod America toward new actions to combat climate change.

Climate change is a top liberal priority, but that very urgency is making the issue divisive as much as unifying for Democrats.

A wide rift has opened over a basic question: Just how ambitious should the Democratic Party be in trying to reduce carbon emissions and stabilize Earth’s climate?  

Dueling views emerged recently as Hillary Clinton delegates faced off against Bernie Sanders delegates in crafting the party’s draft 2016 platform. Provisions pushed by the Sanders camp calling for a carbon tax and a ban on “fracking” failed to pass. The full platform committee meets in Orlando Friday and Saturday, and Senator Sanders is hoping for amendments

The debate pits younger Democrats against older ones, and fans of political pragmatism against those who say the climate challenge is too urgent for incremental policy steps.

But behind the clash is also a trend of rising concern. Climate change has never been more prominent as a political issue – about two-thirds of Americans say they care a “great deal” or a “fair amount” about climate change, the highest percentage since 2008. And, in contrast with Republicans, more than 80 percent of Democrats – Clinton voters included – are concerned about climate change.

The question for Democrats is not whether to ramp up the effort on climate policy, but how and how rapidly.

“It’s a tough issue for both sides to talk about, but particularly for the left side to talk about,” says David Hopkins, a political scientist at Boston College. “When you get down to the specific policies, especially policies like a carbon tax [that] impose costs on voters, then it becomes an uncomfortable topic.”

How bold is bold?

Democrats learned this last week when various members of the committee drafting the party platform criticized one another over the climate policies articulated – and not articulated – in the draft.

Drafting the official party platform has traditionally been how political parties heal and form a united front for the general election. Mrs. Clinton acknowledged that fact by giving Sanders an outsized influence in drafting the platform. While the drafting committee is usually controlled by the leading candidate and the party establishment, Sanders was allowed to name five members. (The Clinton campaign named six others, and Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the Democratic National Committee, named four).

One of Sanders’s delegates is Bill McKibben, a climate activist and founder of the environmental advocacy group 350.org, who last Monday wrote in Politico that the Clinton campaign was “obstructing change to the Democratic platform,” particularly on climate policies. In particular, he highlighted how two of his proposals – to call for a carbon tax and a ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the platform – were voted down 7 to 6.

“The Clinton campaign is at this point rhetorically committed to taking on our worst problems, but not willing to say how. Which is the slightly cynical way politicians have addressed issues for too long,” he wrote.

Two days later, one of Clinton’s delegates on the drafting committee, Carol Browner, shot back with her own Politico column.

“It’s perfectly fair to debate the best way to achieve our shared goal of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius this century,” she wrote. “But debating the merits of different policy solutions is quite different from setting up a litmus test for what it takes to be ‘serious’ about climate change.”

Even without the fracking and carbon tax amendments, she added, the draft is “the boldest climate vision ever to appear in our party’s platform,” calling for an accelerated transition to clean energy, and cutting greenhouse gas emissions by more than 80 percent by 2050 while drawing half the country’s electricity from clean energy sources.

The young hawks

But this approach may not pass muster with climate hawks who increasingly see climate change not as a political or policy issue, but as an urgent existential one.

“There’s been progress made, and I’m happy to see that, but that doesn’t mean I’m satisfied,” says Adam Hasz, executive coordinator for SustainUS, a youth-led environmental advocacy group.

“I don’t think on climate we can afford a middle ground,” adds Avery Raines, the group’s environmental advocacy fellow. “Americans cannot afford to compromise in any way.”

This may not jibe with the traditions of political pragmatism and compromise that most politicians – including Clinton, who has billed herself as a “pragmatic progressive” – are used to. But climate change is not an ordinary political issue, says Mr. Hasz.

“This isn’t a fight over politics, this is a fight over physics, and the climate policy ambitions right now don’t acknowledge that,” he adds. “Climate is not like other issues where you can solve it [over] 50 years. We have one shot, [and] we’re perilously close to missing that shot.”

The 'yes, but' Democrats

There may not be enough Democrats who share those beliefs to sway the rest of the party, however.

Eighty-four percent of Democrats are concerned about climate change, but younger voters may be more accepting of the financial costs of aggressive climate action than most others, according to Barry Rabe, director of the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy at the University of Michigan.

“It’s a group that, compared to the average person, is substantially more concerned about climate change and has less invested currently in paying energy bills on a weekly or daily basis,” he adds. “They’re more likely to see an advantage, they’re less likely to face a direct cost.”

Compare this to lower-income and working class Democrats and you start to see why these intraparty differences may be so insurmountable.

Those groups “may feel that they are less prepared to pay the cost that might be part of the ways of mitigating climate change,” says Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “A lot of these individuals will know it’s a problem – and they want something done – but they’re reticent to support policies that might entail substantial cost and possible peril to their employment.”

Whether climate change will play a prominent role in the general election is unclear. For years, the issue has been perennially subordinate to more immediate concerns, like the economy and national security. What is certain is that there will continue to be a vocal minority dissatisfied with American climate action.

“This was going to be a long-term thing no matter what,” says R.L. Miller, co-founder of Climate Hawks Vote. “There will always be people pushing for more.”

[Editor's note: This story has been corrected to clarify that, as of the date of publication, the Democratic platform had not yet been settled.

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