Did the DNC Just Do a Number on the Climate?

Did the DNC Just Do a Number on the Climate?

After a blistering primary season (which is technically still going), both parties are settling down to write their party platforms – a unity document that’s supposed to express the nature of what it means to be a “Democrat” or a “Republican” in 2016. For the Democratic National Committee (DNC), that means that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders camps have each appointed members to the platform drafting committee and selected delegates from every state to participate. These selected Democrats are changed with writing a DNC platform that addresses the pressing issues of our time: including income inequality, a $15 minimum wage and humanity’s greatest challenge, climate change.

While Clinton and Sanders agree on a lot, the daylight between these two camps on how best to address and #ActOnClimate could not be brighter. And this daylight was on full display last weekend as the platform committee debated how the DNC platform should address climate change.

To review the rules: Secretary Clinton appointed seven members to the drafting committee, Senator Sanders appointed five and the remaining four were selected by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, chair of the DNC. These 16 Democrats are supposed to write the first draft of the platform, which will then be reviewed by more than 180 State Platform delegates, and eventually the entire Convention in Philadelphia. While only the first round of this process has played our so far, it’s clear that the Clinton side’s chief climate change arbitrator is former EPA Administrator Carol Browner. The Sanders side, on the other hand lines up behind our good friend and 350.org co-founder, Bill McKibben.

Environmental Action endorses no candidate for office, but has called for a ban on fracking and other extreme energy in BOTH party platforms, and is fighting to keep 80% of fossil fuels in the ground as part of a comprehensive approach to stop climate change.

Last Friday, as the drafting committee settled in to vote on a series of amendments about climate change, the back and forth between Browner and McKibben was electric. Here’s a video of the whole proceeding, followed by my a breakdown of some of the key climate issues that were discussed last weekend in St. Louis:


Bill McKibben speaks at the DNC platform committee meeting

Bill McKibben Makes the Case for Acting on Climate Change

It’s widely known that Sen. Sanders prefers a national ban on fracking, while Sec. Clinton prefers  a combination of regulation and review. When McKibben brought up an amendment for a vote that would have banned fracking, Ms. Browner countered by shifting the blame on fracking to former Vice President, Dick Cheney, who was largely responsible for the so-called “Halliburton Loophole.” That loophole not only prevents disclosure of which chemicals are used in fracking fluid, but also prevents the Environmental Protection Agency from regulating the extreme practice. Browner also added, that while she respects the decision of governors, like Andrew Cuomo (D-NY), who ban fracking in their states, the State of California proves (in her opinion) that fracking can be safely regulated.

I had an excellent exchange with Ms. Browner as well as a delightful conversation with her when I testified to the DNC platform committee in Phoenix earlier in the month. But when I heard her use California as an example of how fracking can be regulated, I was beside myself. California, which is experiencing such a prolonged and powerful drought that they’ve used fracking wastewater to irrigate crops? California, where fracking operations and waste are more likely to be placed in communities of color? California, which was home to the Porter Ranch fracked gas leak, arguably the worst fossil fuel blow out since the BP oil spill? California is literally the last example that should be used to promote a platform of “regulated fracking.” Despite spirited testimony, and references to the earlier testimony of filmmaker Josh Fox and Deborah Parker on the need to protect our most water, the amendment to include a national fracking ban on the platform was defeated 7 to 6.

Carbon Tax/Price on Carbon 

Bill McKibben introduced language that called on the DNC to include a national carbon tax in the platform. I was pleased that he referenced my good friend Camila Thorndike, Carbon Pricing Coordinator with Chesapeake Climate Action Network, who testified with me in Phoenix and is a national leader on pushing for carbon pricing. Camila pointed out that a carbon tax is a key issue for younger voters and she would know, since she ALSO leads one of the largest organizations on the West Coast focussed on mobilizing young climate activists, Oregon Climate. McKibben  made two points regarding carbon pricing: 1. It’s a uniform way to regulate carbon across the board at all levels of government; and 2. The fossil fuel industry is the only industry that is not charged for throwing away their waste.

Ms. Browner again countered that she supports all tools to combat climate change, but did not believe that a carbon tax would lead to a reduction in pollution. She said that’s because wealthier companies would simply pay the fee and continue a business-as-usual. This was a troubling retort because it demonstrated that Ms. Browner either is unaware of, or disagrees with the U.S. Energy Information Agency (EIA) which has reported that if the country had taxed global warming pollution at $25 per ton in 2015 and increased it by 5 percent each year, emissions would have fallen to 32 percent below 2005 levels by 2030.

The amendment to tax carbon was ultimately defeated 7-6.

Keep It In The Ground  

It’s no secret that to truly honor the commitments made during the COP21 Global Climate Summit and keep global temperatures from rising by less than two degrees Celsius, we have to keep some fossil fuels from being extracted. Scientists tell us more specifically that we need to keep 80% percent of proven fossil fuel deposits in the ground to avert global climate catastrophe. And citing that science, Bill was very clear about the need to understand the physics of climate change. He specifically stated, to raucous applause, “The fundamental disagreement on climate change is between physics on the one hand and human beings on the other, and physics is a very poor negotiating partner. It does not compromise and is uninterested in battleground states. What’s it’s interested in is how much carbon and how much methane we are going to pour into the atmosphere, and it’s vandalism to continue to pour more in than the science tells us that we can.”

Ms. Browner again led the rebuttal against an amendment to #KeepItInTheGround, at least on federally managed lands. She explained that what she cares about is not putting the pollution in the air, and that the DNC platform already includes a commitment to reduce global warming pollution by 80 percent. This was very confusing for me, because any climate scientist will tell you that we must view our atmosphere as a bathtub: That is, what is it matters just as much what’s ALREADY in the air, as well as what we continue to put into it. Ergo, addressing climate change is very much about being concerned with what is already in the air as we observe the concentration of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere exceed 400 parts per million. This mode of thinking seemed to be absent from the Clinton camp, which is why Dr. Cornell West flat out accused Ms. Browner of incrementalism that is akin to anachronism.

In the end, the amendment calling for no new leases on federal lands and waters for the extraction of fossil fuels was defeated 7-6.

A Number Done on Climate 

Other climate-related amendments that were defeated included an Eminent Domain amendment supported by Jane Kleeb’s Bold Network that would have stopped the taking of private property to build fossil fuel infrastructure;  And also an amendment that would encourage all federal agencies to apply the same “climate test” for their decisions that President Obama cited when he rejected the Keystone XL Pipeline.

It was a frustrating exercise to watch and gave more credence to my assertion that the Democrats are denying the science of climate change as much as the Republicans. I think Bill said it best in an article he released as I was writing this, “In other words, 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.”

We are clearly going to have to take our case for true climate action and true climate leadership to both conventions as we enter the general election season.

Want to help? Here’s how and what’s next:

  1. You can help by signing on to our petition here, and by staying tuned for more action and updates soon. The full platform committee meets on July 9 in Orlando, and we’ll be there with your signatures.
  2. Share the petition (and this blog post) with your networks online. Click here to share the petition to the DNC and RNC platform committees.
  3. Sign up to attend the March for a Clean Energy Revolution and related events happening the weekend before the DNC convention in Philadelphia. Learn more about the march and get connected to a carpool or bus here.