You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

The Environmental Case for a Clinton Presidency

A New Republic exclusive interview with Clinton campaign chair John Podesta

Isaac Brekken, Getty Images

Hillary Clinton secured the endorsement of a major environmental group this week, when the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund endorsed her as “the right person for the job.” LCV’s support carries significant weight in the environmental community, but the development has also reignited a debate within that community over whether Clinton’s approach to climate change is sufficiently aggressive—particularly in contrast to her chief rival Bernie Sanders, who among other things has promised to cut off fossil fuel development on federal lands.

Clinton has steadily made overtures to environmentalists in recent months, staking out positions on grassroots issues like the now-dead Keystone XL pipeline, oil drilling in the Arctic, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This week, she’s emphasizing her stimulus plan for coal communities hurt by the U.S.’s transition to wind, solar, and natural gas. Over the summer and fall, she announced parts of her climate plan, including a modernized infrastructure plan and clean-energy initiative to scale up solar and renewable energy to 33 percent of electricity by 2027. In coming months, her campaign may release additional specifics on her energy policies. 

But as the contrast with Sanders suggests, she’s neglected a few of the more politically sensitive issues. Unlike the Vermont senator, for instance, Clinton has suggested that fossil fuel development should continue on federal lands, instead offering to reform the rates companies pay to drill and mine on them. 

A few weeks ago, I sat down with Clinton’s campaign chair, John Podesta, to discuss these issues, as well as the larger context of this policy debate—including a global conference kicking off at the end of the month in Paris, which environmentalists hope will be an existential turning point on fighting global warming. (Full disclosure: I worked with Podesta from 2011 to 2013, when he was an executive at the Center for American Progress and I was a reporter for its news website, ThinkProgress.) 

Podesta previously served as senior adviser to President Barack Obama, and in that capacity helped lay the groundwork for many of the administration’s environmental initiatives, including a recent, watershed climate deal with China. Journalists and activists have interpreted his high-level role in Clinton’s campaign as an indication that she would make climate change a central focus.  

In this interview, which has been edited for clarity and length, Podesta addresses what Obama’s successor can do to build on his climate-change legacy, and, more immediately, the role the environment will play in the 2016 campaign.

Rebecca Leber: Secretary Clinton has already made a number of significant moves on climate policy during the campaign. What can we expect next?

John Podesta: Well, I think she’s going to press forward with the ideas that she’s started to develop over the summer, which is how do we build on the success of the Obama administration. That starts with protecting the Clean Power Plan, but then building in more renewable energy, and exceeding even what I think is included in the Power Plan. Specifically she’s put out two big goals; one is a half-billion solar panels by the end of her first term. Another is enough renewable power to power every home in America—that’s about a third of electricity production—in the U.S. by 2027. 

More specifically, she has pursued ideas on how you actually make that happen: Partly that’s a strong federal push, but partly it is also working in partnership with states that want to push beyond what the Clean Power Plan requires them to do, and with local committees that can get the decisions around permitting, etc., correct so that everybody is in the system together. It means extending the [wind production tax credit and solar investment tax credit]. And reforming and making those strong instruments for continued growth of the clean power sectors. 

The other thing that she’s discussed is trying to look at the resources on a continent-wide basis to move the entire continent in the direction of making North America a clean energy hub. The Mexican [national climate commitment for Paris] gives some hope that there’s a commitment there, and I think with [new Canadian Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau, there’s maybe more possibility to kind of find collaboration there.

RL: That ties in with question I have on the limits of executive action. What can the next president achieve on climate change, given all that Obama has done? 

JP: I think there’s still room there. There are still places to get reductions in sectors that are not covered by the Clean Power Plan, for example. There are ways to tighten up and pursue reduction in methane emissions through the proper regulation of methane not simply from the production end, but all the way from transmission to distribution. A lot of that needs cooperation from state authorities and local authorities. But the federal government can incentivize those, and I think can be a good partner, particularly on the distribution side.

RL: Specifically on methane, a potent greenhouse gas, how could the next president strengthen Obama’s regulations for the oil and gas sector (to cut 40-45 percent of methane emissions in the next decade)?

JP: I think that there is authority to try to look at the system of production and distribution overall, which the Obama regulations begin to explore. But I think there is more room there, and that there are more reductions to gain there on the methane side. And that’s good economics. Because essentially whether it’s just venting or leaking, the loss of the resource is better utilized by actually keeping the production for useful purposes rather than having it just vented or leaked into the air.

RL: Clinton has been hinting at releasing a plan on safe and responsible production of fossil fuels on public lands. How do you square leasing these lands for fossil fuel production with her aggressive rhetoric on taking climate action?

JP: The place to start is to get fair value. Among any of the fossil fuels, federal taxpayers shouldn’t pay twice. That means charging fair value, and accounting for the cost that the taxpayers are paying when the fuels that are produced on those lands cause damage, which ends up being picked up by the public. So I think that there’s going to continue to be some production in federal lands and waters.

But I think the most important thing is to get on the path towards clean, renewable energy and off the path of fossil fuel, and get that deep decarbonization that needs to come by mid-century. That’s going to require a change of policy—but that’s a process. We’re not going to eliminate the production of fossil fuels from public lands and waters overnight. She’s come out against drilling in the Arctic. With respect to the dirtiest fuels, the most environmentally sensitive places, I think she’s shown her willingness to put limits on that.

I think if you get economics right, you begin to stop the subsidization. And on the question of production—whether that’s in the Gulf or on federal property—there are policy levers which I think push in that direction.

RL: Will we be seeing specific proposals on that from her? 

She’s already strongly suggested that the reform of the royalty programs is needed, that we need to eliminate the subsidy that is included in the tax code.

I think she’ll also with respect to liquid fuel, she’ll have some ideas about how the United States can improve efficiency, especially of the transportation sector, and reduce the balance of fossil fuels used as transportation fuel as we convert to cleaner systems. The capacity to use more renewables for transportation as well.

RL: How has Secretary Clinton distinguished herself on climate from the proposals O’Malley and Sanders have put forward?

JP: First of all, we have real near-term goals. We’re not just talking about long-term goals, but real up-front goals of protecting what the president has done. He’s had amazing success in turning the capacity of the federal government to start to deal with climate change, both as a domestic matter, but also at the international level.

We want to protect those gains, but then I think [it’s about] putting down concrete goals that can happen, are realistic, and largely rely on the capacity of the president to move forward with authority that is under existing law. I think it is critical, as President Obama has shown [with executive action], that we continue to argue for congressional action, but not simply rely on congressional action.

Today, the fossil fuel industries have a stranglehold on the House of Representatives in particular, and maybe that will change. I think ultimately this will be a politically salient issue, [which] may actually help change that dynamic, but right now they have a stranglehold. And so I think you got to be prepared to marshal all the authority you have, whether that’s convening the clean tech sector or moving forward with a clean power compact that involves the states that want to get in the game, cities that want to be strong actors.

You have to be prepared to, and know how to, execute that kind of a program from day one. And I think she’s put forward ideas in that regard and she has the experience and the capacity to accelerate the progress that President Obama’s made.

RL: In the last debate, Clinton talked about the Copenhagen climate conference in 2009 and she seemed to frame it as a partial success, because of the U.S. reaching a deal with the Chinese. Is that a rewriting of what happened, to frame Copenhagen as a climate success?

JP: I think that going into Copenhagen, we were living with the structure that was created in Kyoto [a 1997 climate treaty with legally binding greenhouse gas targets for industrialized nations]. Copenhagen changed that dynamic by getting the large industrializing economies, or industrial economies, China, India, Brazil, to agree to a framework where they were going to bind themselves to put forward national commitments that were subject to review and verification. [That] was a significant change in the architecture of the international climate discussions.

The secretary and the president—and after she left office, Secretary Kerry—have taken advantage of that structure. Obviously I have a vested interest in saying this, but I think that the joint announcement between President Obama and President Xi in Beijing last November galvanized the talks, increased people’s ambitions, and got the Chinese, for the first time, to put very aggressive goals on the table. My sense, from being back to China this year after I left government, and from the efforts that President Obama’s continued to make with President Xi, is that they will even overshoot those goals. 

India has come forward with a less ambitious package, but the solar mission in India is quite significant. The excuse for why we shouldn’t do anything in the U.S.—that China’s not doing anything—is off the table, because China’s actually doing a lot. All of that is built on an architecture that was produced by the Copenhagen accord. I think that’s what she was referring to. It completely shifted the discussion and the dialogue away from the Kyoto framework and towards a framework that permitted the major emitters to all try to move forward together.

RL: What was the specific turning point with the Chinese? And what lessons did you learn that the next administration can use in brokering these climate deals?

JP: It was months and months in the making. Secretary Kerry initially proposed to the Chinese that this was a place where bilateral diplomacy could lead to global public good. That we were both pressing each other in the context of making national commitments that those national commitments would be ambitious and worthy of a joint announcement between the two presidents. It became a very positive element of the bilateral relationship which, as you know, has rocky elements to it. But I think the agreement on moving towards a low-carbon, clean energy future has been one of the more positive elements of the overall relationship. That’s thanks to President Obama’s constant attention with his counterparts.

If you have the two world’s largest economies, essentially aiming in the direction of clean energy and deep decarbonization, it creates a momentum to move towards that future. You get the virtuous cycle of innovation, of investment, of cost-reduction, that I think you couldn’t get without these two massive economies aligning to push in that direction.

While I’m hopeful about the outcome of Paris, I think the U.S.-China bilateral relationship on this is very significant as an economic driver towards these new industries, the job-creation effects, the ability to deploy cleaner, more healthy technologies into the future. And obviously the Chinese are motivated by the horrible pollution problems they have on the clean air side. But they’re also motivated by the effects that climate change is having on China.

In addition to what it means internationally, keeping [U.S-China] alignment towards pushing cleaner vehicles, cleaner electricity production, and more efficiency will create a virtuous cycle economically. Which I think can actually get us on the path to decreasing.

I can already read the stories of post-Paris: That even with success, people will add everything up and say that doesn’t get us to 2 degrees C. You got to get down the path, you got to move down the road, you got to create that road, you got to create that market push in order to get there. And I think that that can be the positive outcome of Paris. That will be built around not solely the U.S. and China, but U.S. and China are critical to that. 

RL: Finally, how can the Clinton campaign counter a Republican in the general election? What kind of a role will her climate advocacy play?

JP: I think that unlike past campaigns, including the Obama campaigns, this will be a front-and-center issue. The Republicans are so out-of-touch and out-of-date, whether it’s Donald Trump thinking this is all a Chinese conspiracy to take over the world, or it’s Cruz being a climate denier, or Bush being “I’m not a scientist.” They are boxed in by their ideological base and by their funding from the fossil fuel industry—into a position that the American people, more and more, know is wrong, as they feel the current effects of climate change. So I think they’re very mispositioned.

I think they are not credible. The ability to frame tackling this problem in a way that produces more jobs, new industries, more innovation, is something that will be a front-and-center issue in the coming campaign. So I view this not as anything—and I think Hillary views this not as anything—but an issue that she wants to take and put right before the American public. 

You asked me earlier about the Democrats. We have differences and different approaches, but they are at the margins. The differences with Republicans are substantial. I think that politics is largely about friction. And I view this as a place of high friction with the Republican candidates today. Maybe somebody will surprise us, but all of them range from, you know, climate conspiracy to climate denial, to I’m not a scientist.

So I’m very much looking forward to a vigorous debate with our Republican friends this fall.