Tag Archives: Bernie Sanders

Climate Change Policy and the 2016 Presidential Election

Gregg Badichek, CLS ’16

The primary debates offer the false impression that climate change is a political issue, with consequences coming decades from now. Climate change is likely be the defining human crisis of the 21st century,[1] requiring a consistent, immediate array of responses. For this reason, voters should consider how candidates would treat President Obama’s considerable—and innovative—climate legacy.

President Obama’s Climate Action Plan

A focal point of the President’s climate legacy is his Climate Action Plan (“CAP”), outlined in June 2013. The plan is a broad aggregation of tactics united under three strategic pillars.[2] First, the plan aims to reduce America’s reliance on carbon fuels and instead promote clean energy sources. This pillar incorporates the contentious Clean Power Plan, which refers to the Environmental Protection Agency rule for regulating carbon output from existing power plants. Also involved is the EPA’s rule implementing final Carbon Pollution Standards for new, modified, and reconstructed power plants. Both finalized this year, the rules are promulgated pursuant to EPA’s authority under Clean Air Act sections 111(d) and 111(b), respectively.[3] The second pillar promotes climate change preparedness through a large mix of Executive tools, such as directives to administrative agencies, the creation of task forces to meet various infrastructural goals,[4] and Administration-led educational initiatives.[5] The third pillar involves Executive efforts to spur global climate communication, the building of dedicated coalitions and forums, and the development of multi-national public-private partnerships pursuing specific climate-related missions. This would include US efforts to seek a robust framework for global emission reduction at the November 2015 UNFCCC conference Paris, France

The Plan’s nuances are many, and far beyond the scope of this article. The takeaway is that the plan—for its reliance on administrative agencies, central coordination, and international partnering—is intrinsically Executive in nature. Thus far, the involvement of the other two co-equal Federal branches has largely taken the form of mitigations of the Plan or outright assaults on its integrity. Unlike environmental legislation or court rulings, the Plan’s Executive characterization binds its survival to the election. The President has vast authority over administrative agencies and their regulations, including the appointment of agency leadership and the setting of their agendas. Just as the President’s Executive authority upholds the Plan, so too will a subsequent President’s agenda result in either the Plan’s continuance or death.

In light of the fact that this plan is uniquely tied to the executive branch, how would the likeliest Presidential candidates of each party wield the broad Executive discretion that underlies much of the CAP’s substance? Will they honor these Executive maneuvers as prudent, and continue them? Or will they denounce the plan as Executive overreach, scaling it back with their own authority?

Democratic Candidates

Leading Democratic candidates Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders have both supported climate change action and endorsed the supporting scientific consensus. While Senator Sanders’ environmental record is the stronger of the two, both have time and again reaffirmed their commitment to addressing the issue. During the October 2015 Democratic Debate, Sanders highlighted his efforts to pass legislation that would put a price on carbon. Sanders has called climate change the greatest threat to national security, and opposed the politically charged Keystone XL Pipeline for far longer than Secretary Clinton, who only recently denounced the project. Clinton, for her part, supported President Obama’s efforts at establishing a climate change legacy during her time at the State Department. Clinton fully endorses the President’s Plan, and because of her experience in the Obama Administration, she appears well positioned to continue implementing it should she take office. Were either leading Democratic candidate to take office, the contours of President Obama’s climate legacy would persist—if not expand.

The Republicans

The Republican positions on climate change stand in stark contrast to those of the Democratic frontrunners. While a considerable number of the Republican presidential candidates do not, in fact, deny the existence of climate change, the group’s current leaders—Senator Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—embrace ideas that stand contrary to scientific evidence. Cruz has referred to mainstream climate science as “partisan dogma and ideology.” Trump has haphazardly presented his views in occasional interview exchanges and Tweets, claiming not to believe in anthropogenic global warming and often conflating climate and weather. Trump frequently describes global warming and climate change as schemes laid bare when he experiences cold weather.

Senator Marco Rubio and Dr. Ben Carson—who trail Trump and Cruz at time of writing—likewise refuse to acknowledge the pressing risks of anthropogenic climate change. Carson has referred to climate and weather variations as natural phenomena, over which humans have no control and on which society should not focus. He has also discounted the idea that there is scientific consensus on anthropogenic climate change. Rubio, perhaps struggling to stake out a more moderate position on the subject, has recently argued that America’s economy cannot sustain governmental climate regulation.


For the President’s climate change legacy to endure, a Democratic candidate must win the 2016 election. However, the results of one presidential elections will not ensure climate progress. All presidential candidates should be rigorously challenged—by each other, the media, and, most importantly, the voters—on their climate change positions, and asked to describe with specificity what their administration would do with its inherited CAP: use the executive authority to roll it back, or turn it into the foundation for a sustainable climate change infrastructure? Without the answers to these questions, voters will not be able to make an informed decision on the most important issue facing humanity.

[1] The various risks of climate change were discussed with unprecedented force in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s 5th Assessment Report, which can be found here: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar5/.

[2] President’s Climate Action Plan Tracker, Sabin Center for Climate Change, http://web.law.columbia.edu/climate-change/resources/presidents-climate-action-plan-tracker.

[3] 42 U.S.C. § 7411 (1963). The EPA maintains an overview of the differences here: What EPA is doing, Environmental Protection Agency, http://www2.epa.gov/cleanpowerplan/what-epa-doing#overview (last accessed December 5, 2015).

[4] President Obama established the Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience on November 1, 2013 to “advise the Administration on how the Federal Government can respond to the needs of communities nationwide that are dealing with the impacts of climate change.” State, Local, and Tribal Leaders Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, TheWhiteHouse.Gov, https://www.whitehouse.gov/administration/eop/ceq/initiatives/resilience/taskforce.

[5] The U.S. Climate Resilience Toolkit, http://toolkit.climate.gov/ (last visited Dec. 1, 2015).