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Hillary Clinton tours the Des Moines area rapid transit central station with its general manager, Elizabeth Presutti, left, and building superintendent Keith Welch on Monday in Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)

Solar Ambitions Great, But Clinton's Climate Plan Well Short of 'Bold'

'At the end of the day,' says 350's Bill McKibben, 'growth in renewables doesn’t mean enough if we’re simultaneously kicking the decarbonization can down the road.'

Jon Queally

Following Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton's announcement that, if elected, she would to combat runaway climate change by expanding federal support of renewable energy—including a pledge to install 500 million solar panels on rooftops across the country during her first term—climate justice advocates are willing to applaud what's good about her proposals while also pointing out what they see as fundamental and dangerous shortcomings.

"So when does Hillary Clinton say, bluntly, that 'All of the Above' is a failed energy policy? That would be bold and impressive."
—David Turnbull, Oil Change International
In a fact sheet and statement released on Sunday followed up by a speech in Des Moines, Iowa on Monday, the focus of Clinton's climate plan would be to update and expand the nation's electrical grid over ten years in order to increase renewable energy capacity by 700 percent, part of which would be achieved by the massive solar build out.

"Not some homes. Not most homes. Every home in America," she said in her Iowa speech, which took place at the city's main bus terminal.

"I personally believe climate change is a challenge of such magnitude and urgency that we need a president who will set ambitious goals," Clinton said later during a session with reporters.

However, as leaders and experts involved in the climate movement weighed in, many said Clinton's rhetoric on the issue remains unambitious.

Though on the surface Clinton's solar plan may look far-reaching, the Washington Post's Philip Bump explains how the two central tenets of the proposal are "more modest" than they appear.

And Politico reports on how the climate-related issues that remain absent from Clinton's discourse on global warming and energy use say as much—if not more—than those that are included:

Does Clinton support or oppose the Keystone XL oil pipeline? Or Arctic offshore drilling? Or tougher restrictions on fracking? Or the oil industry’s push to lift the 1970s ban on exporting U.S. crude oil? Clinton avoided all those questions in the solar-heavy climate plan she outlined Sunday night and in her speech promoting it Monday in Iowa — and she declined yet again Monday to say where she stands on Keystone.

That means that liberals longing for Clinton to erase what they see as the dirtiest spot on President Barack Obama’s environmental record — his support for an “all-of-the-above” energy strategy that includes domestic oil and gas drilling — have to keep waiting.

R.L. Miller, founder of the California-based Climate Hawks Vote PAC, told Politico that the plan is largely "remarkable for what it doesn’t say." Specifically, Miller pointed out there is "no effort to keep fossil fuels in the ground, no price on carbon; no word on Keystone XL, Arctic oil or other carbon bombs; no word on fracking."

"At the end of the day, growth in renewables doesn’t mean enough if we’re simultaneously kicking the decarbonization can down the road with more pipelines and more extraction on public lands." —Bill McKibben, 350.orgEchoing that criticism, co-founder Bill McKibben explained how the leading presidential candidate for the Democratic side is "just half the way there" when it comes to a truly transformational energy and climate policy.

"This is a credible commitment to renewable energy, and a recognition that the economics of electricity are changing fast," McKibben said of the proposal. "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 like offshore and Arctic drilling, coal leasing in the Powder River basin, and the Keystone XL pipeline. Because at the end of the day, growth in renewables doesn’t mean enough if we’re simultaneously kicking the decarbonization can down the road with more pipelines and more extraction on public lands."

Put another way, 350's communications director Jamie Henn tweeted, "Clinton says she'll lay out a plan for 'safe and responsible' fossil fuel production. In an age of climate catastrophe, that's an oxymoron."

Also speaking out on Twitter, David Turnbull, executive director of Oil Change International, declared: "So when does Hillary Clinton say, bluntly, that 'All of the Above' is a failed energy policy? That would be bold and impressive."

Placing Clinton's climate stance next to her rivals for the Democratic nomination, Grist's Ben Adler writes:

Clinton has a commanding lead in national polls on the Democratic presidential field, but she is facing two challengers who have shown a lot more willingness than she has to crack down on fossil fuels. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has released a detailed climate platform that not only calls for a fully renewable electricity portfolio by 2050, but would place a number of limits on fossil fuel production and exportation. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont has not yet issued a campaign climate plan, but he is already on record as standing up to corporate fossil fuel interests, for example by opposing the Keystone XL pipeline proposal. Sanders has also been a solar advocate, and while Clinton has yet to follow his lead on Keystone, she is trying to move in on at least some of his turf. “We ranked Sanders the No. 1 climate hawk senator in the 113th Congress because he wrote a 10 Million Solar Rooftops bill, among others,” said Miller, referring to the Climate Hawks Vote Senate rankings, “so at first glance it appears that Clinton is trying to out-solar Sanders.”

Both Sanders and O’Malley have pledged that their campaigns will not take money from fossil fuel companies. Clinton, on the other hand, is raking in contributions from dirty energy executives and their lobbyists.

Though the Clinton campaign has said it will reveal additional portions of a more comprehensive climate plan in the coming weeks and months, Jonathan Cushman of Inside Climate News assessed that at this point, mostly what Clinton has achieved is proving that "her experience in the art of political gymnastics" has allowed her to perform a "safe routine" in front of a national audience that increasingly wants action taken to mitigate the worst impacts of global warming.

Currently, concluded Cushman, even while bold actions are not on the table, Clinton seems more satisfied to "stick with one-liners aimed at climate deniers in the other party" who have repeatedly dodged humanity's responsibility for climate change by denying its existence or bowing out of the controversy by declaring themselves unfit—as politicians, "not scientists"—to make such judgements. 

"I'm not a scientist, either," said Clinton on Monday in Iowa. "I’m just a grandmother with two eyes and a brain, and I know this is an issue we have to address."

For those at the center of the fight for a truly ambitious energy and economic transition, however, it seems Clinton still has much to prove about how well she understands the gravity of the crisis or what it will mean, in terms of policies, to insulate future generations against it.

As Bill Scher, the online campaign manager at the Campaign for America's Future, put it on Tuesday, "If you want a presidential candidate who supports a carbon tax and vociferously opposes the Keystone pipeline, you should vote for Sen. Bernie Sanders."


However, he added, "if you want a presidential candidate who has thought through how to best communicate to swing voters how a clean energy-fueled America will help, not hurt, economic growth, Hillary Clinton is probably your best bet."

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