Sanders, Clinton, Rubio, and Kasich answer climate debate questions

Last week, the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates participated in debates in Florida. A bipartisan group of 21 Florida mayors wrote to the debate moderators to argue it would be “unconscionable for these issues of grave concern for the people of Florida [climate change and sea level rise] to not be addressed.” The moderators of both debates listened, and asked the candidates questions about climate change – including by far the most substantive climate question posed to the Republican candidates thus far.

Sanders and Clinton spar over climate and fracking policies

The climate discussion in the Democratic debate can be viewed in the video below.


Sanders and Clinton debate climate in Florida on 09 March 2016.

In her response (transcript available here), Hillary Clinton said that she would proceed with implementing President Obama’s Clean Power Plan, and his executive actions on climate change. She supported the use of natural gas as a “bridge fuel,” arguing:

We need to implement all of the president’s executive actions and quickly move to make a bridge from coal to natural gas to clean energy

Clinton also argued that Sanders would delay implementation of the Clean Power Plan – a statement to which Sanders reacted incredulously, and which PolitiFact rated false. However, Sanders does want to tweak the Clean Power Plan to make it tougher (for example, to incentivize renewables instead of natural gas, extend renewable tax credits to 2030, and to regulate methane emissions); it’s true that these changes could significantly delay implementation of the plan, but they would also strengthen it.

In his response to the climate question, Sanders noted that in 2013 he introduced what he described as “the most comprehensive climate change legislation in the history of the United States.” Sanders also called for a carbon tax and regulations to end fracking in the United States.

Fracking natural gas – bridge fuel, or bridge to a hotter planet?

There’s a debate amongst climate scientists about whether natural gas is a viable ‘bridge fuel’ between fossil fuels and renewables. At best, natural gas releases half the carbon pollution as burning coal. However, the amount of methane leakage during natural gas extraction is a big question mark that could erase most of its climate benefits. 

The other issue is that power plants have long lifespans, so choosing to install natural gas instead of a lower-carbon power source locks in its emissions for decades. Research by Zeke Hausfather and others has shown that for these reasons, using natural gas as a ‘bridge fuel’ could make it easier to keep global warming at less than 3°C above pre-industrial temperatures, but harder to stay below the internationally-accepted 2°C target.

Essentially, natural gas replacing coal power is an improvement. But if a coal power plant can be replaced by renewables or other low-carbon sources, that’s a much better solution. If fracking makes natural gas so cheap that it crowds out deployment of renewables, it could do more harm than good. It’s a difficult question worthy of debate, although the balance of evidence suggests that we should rely on natural gas as little as possible (fracking also causes other environmental problems).

It’s a debate that in large part can be solved by putting a price on carbon emissions, like the carbon tax that Sanders proposed. That would make energy prices reflect their true costs, including the costs of the damages they cause via climate change. A carbon price would make coal expensive, and could potentially make renewables cheaper than natural gas.

Marco Rubio’s climate word salad

Marco Rubio gave the worst answer to a climate question in either debate.

Marco Rubio answers climate questions in the 10 March 2016 Republican presidential debate.

It was similar to the boilerplate response he gave in a previous Republican presidential debate. For example, he claimed that President Obama’s Clean Power Plan and every climate policy proposed by Democrats would cripple the economy, kill jobs, and make energy bill soar. However, studies have shown that carbon pollution pricing would have a minimal, potentially even modestly beneficial impact on the economy if the revenue is returned to taxpayers. Sanders’ proposal takes this approach, refunding 60% of the revenue generated from the carbon tax directly back to Americans.

On the other hand, failing to take action to slow climate change would have immense costs, which is why Florida’s mayors are so concerned. According to a study by scientists at Climate Central,

2120 square miles of land lie less than 3 feet above the high tide line in Florida. Some $145 billion in property value, and 300,000 homes, sit on that land. These figures jump to $544 billion and 1.4 million homes on 4660 square miles of land under 6 feet. Every inch of sea level rise within these ranges will be more damaging than the previous inch.

Rubio also argued that America can’t slow global warming by itself, placing the blame on China and India. However, virtually every country in the world agreed to cut carbon pollution as a result of the Paris climate negotiations, including the United States, China, and India. In fact, while Rubio made comments about President Obama waging a war on coal, in reality China has been waging a fierce war on coal, and winning.

Implementing dog-whistle politics to appeal to those in climate denial, Rubio used the popular ‘climate always changes’ logical fallacy, followed by the argument that,

If there is higher sea levels, or whatever it may be happening, we do need to deal with that through mitigation, and I have long supported mitigation efforts. But as far as a law that we can pass in Washington to change the weather, there is no such thing.

Of course, the only way we can mitigate the rising, accelerating sea levels that are causing flooding in Florida is by cutting the carbon pollution that’s causing it. That’s going to require the kinds of policies that Rubio opposes.

Kasich counters Rubio’s economic alarmism

Fortunately, John Kasich followed Rubio with the most sensible climate-related comments made by a top 2016 Republican presidential candidate.

John Kasich answers a climate question in the 10 March 2016 Republican presidential debate.

Kasich noted that humans contribute to climate change, and that we can cut carbon pollution in an economically beneficial way. He had his own climate denial dog whistle, saying we don’t know how much humans contribute to climate change (in reality, we know humans are the dominant cause of global warming over the past 50–100 years). However, Kasich is one of the few leading Republicans, and the party’s only remaining presidential candidate who supports taking some sort of action to solve the problem. He concluded his answer with an important argument directly contradicting Rubio’s economic alarmism:

The fact is that you can have a strong environmental policy at the same time that you have strong economic growth; they are not inconsistent with one another.

A critical election for the climate and our future

Donald Trump and Ted Cruz weren’t asked about climate change in this debate, but Trump has repeatedly called it a hoax, and Cruz is in denial. Rubio repeated his standard argument that we shouldn’t do anything to cut carbon pollution because it would be too expensive, and in practice, denying the solutions isn’t much better than denying the problem. Kasich refuted that argument by noting that good policies can result in a clean environment and strong economy.

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Posted by dana1981 on Monday, 14 March, 2016

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