The Slatest

Hillary Clinton’s Climate Plan Is Rhetorically Grand and Scientifically Unambitious

According to climate science, Hillary Clinton doesn’t have much to be cheerful about.

Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

On Sunday, Hillary Clinton, the frontrunner for the Democratic nomination for president, released her first policy proposals on climate change—and at first glance, the Clinton plan seems ambitious. It secures the Obama administration’s gains on renewable energy and, as my Slate colleague Josh Voorhees writes, provides a “solid start” to take them significantly forward. It is great to hear Clinton call global warming an “urgent challenge that threatens us all.”

But is the new Clinton climate plan ambitious enough according to the science? Not really.

Like many of his colleagues, climate scientist Kevin Anderson has argued that since there’s only a finite amount of carbon that can be emitted before the world is committed to “dangerous” climate change, and we’ve waited so long for serious climate policies, a “war-like” mobilization is now required. International equity—letting poor countries emit more carbon than rich countries from here on out—demands that the United States, Europe, and other historically high emitting countries should position themselves for at least 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2030. With Obama at the helm, the U.S. is on pace for reductions of just 43 percent by then. Clinton’s new plan is consistent with a reduction of about 54 percent by 2030.

It’s true that Clinton’s plan is a significant improvement from Obama’s, but when compared to her two principal challengers, Clinton’s climate goals don’t look so grand. Emily Atkin from Climate Progress has a worthwhile analysis of climate policy statements so far from Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Martin O’Malley, concluding that O’Malley’s statements rise to the top. I’ve gone a step further and tried to assign likely nationwide greenhouse gas emissions totals for the major plans on the table right now:

  • Barack Obama’s Climate Action Plan, which includes his Clean Power Plan targets.
  • Clinton’s Clean Energy Challenge, announced Sunday.
  • Bernie Sanders’ probable plan. Sanders hasn’t announced a comprehensive climate proposal yet, but he’s aligned himself in the past with ideas put forward by climate scientist James Hansen, whose 350 parts per million goal by 2100 includes massive reforestation and other “soft geoengineering” proposals.
  • Martin O’Malley’s goal to fully power the United States by renewable energy by 2050.

If you agree that climate change is the singular foreign policy issue of the 21st century—an “existential threat” as Clinton called it recently, the O’Malley plan is almost a perfect example of what going all in looks like. While such a plan is technically possible, emissions reductions that drastic would almost certainly require a willing Congress at the president’s disposal—most notably to put a price on carbon that motivates the private sector—and even then, it’s still an open question of whether full decarbonization by 2050 is possible given the heroic social and political change it would require at the same time. (David Roberts recently had an excellent examination of this at Vox.)

To be fair, as a Clinton fact sheet promises, Sunday’s announcement is only the first prong of her forthcoming comprehensive six-prong climate plan, so there will be much more to analyze in the coming weeks. But digging into the numbers, Clinton’s plan barely moves the needle forward.

On day one, Clinton says, she’d put the U.S. on a path for a seven-fold increase in solar power, which would help usher in enough renewable energy to completely power all homes by 2027. What she doesn’t say is that her plan is voluntary, and would probably require more policy changes than she’s introduced to make it happen.

Essentially, Clinton is proposing to continue a nationwide exponential uptake in solar. That assumes continuing declining costs for solar power and clean energy tax breaks that don’t expire. As Greentech Media points out, even with Clinton’s lofty goals, the total amount of installed solar power in the U.S. would grow at a slightly slower rate in Clinton’s first term than it’s on pace to during Obama’s second term. O’Malley and Sanders are much more ambitious than Clinton on climate, even allowing for these uncertainties.

Although solar often gets top billing in political announcements like Clinton’s, it still represents less than 1 percent of our electricity generation, so it will take tremendous growth for many years for it to provide a meaningful offset to fossil fuels. Despite its sexiness, solar is among the most expensive ways to decrease our country’s carbon footprint. A far better near-term choice is wind power, but both wind and solar begin to have another problem at scales at or above that which Clinton is discussing: Since solar panels and wind turbines can’t currently work at full capacity 24 hours a day, they require huge advances in energy storage and grid capacity, as well. California is already running into this problem as it prepares to implement a plan to derive 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Earlier this year, China was forced to idle about 9 percent of its solar capacity because of storage and grid issues.

Clinton says she wants to turn America into the “world’s clean energy superpower.” But you can’t get there by continuing to support fossil fuel drilling on public lands. Clinton’s video laying out her plan includes imagery of the Apollo moon landing and the World War II flag-raising at Iwo Jima. But Clinton’s plan is not a war-like clean energy mobilization. It’s about what could be expected from an establishment candidate that believes human-caused climate change is a growing threat to global stability, but nowhere near what science and international equity dictates is necessary.

Earlier this month, Clinton was heckled by climate campaigners at a New Hampshire town hall-style meeting for a clear (and in my opinion, condescending) response in which she refused to oppose oil drilling on public lands. As Grist’s Ben Adler says, Clinton “still hasn’t broken out of the ‘all of the above’ energy policy mold.” In a separate post, Adler notes that among the contributors to the Clinton campaign so far are ExxonMobil executive Theresa Mary Fariello, Chevron lobbyists Scott Parven and Brian Pomper, and Gordon Giffin, a former lobbyist for TransCanada, the company pushing to build the Keystone XL pipeline. And after her event Monday where she launched her climate change policies, which oddly took place in a room where only media were allowed in (perhaps to avoid a second embarrassing heckling episode?), Clinton boarded a private jet to New Hampshire.