Hillary Clinton delivered a dose of self-styled climate change real talk to some silly college kids on Thursday. But the content doesn’t hold up well against the facts. And it certainly won’t silence the likes of Bernie Sanders and Martin O’Malley, Clinton’s fellow presidential hopefuls and her two most potent critics on the left.
The confrontation occurred during open questions at Clinton’s first New Hampshire town hall appearance. A young woman asked the former secretary of state if, as president, she’d ban fossil fuel extraction on public lands. Clinton said no: “The answer is not until we’ve got the alternatives in place. That may not be a satisfactory answer to you but I think I have to take the responsible answer.”
Then a second young woman stood up, and said she was “disappointed” in the first answer. She wondered if Clinton’s “refusal to take leadership on climate change” was because of big campaign donations from the fossil fuel industry. “No. No, it is not,” Clinton said, adding that the feel good response — “you bet I will ban extraction on public lands” — would have also been a reckless one. “We still have to run our economy, we still have to turn on the lights.”
You can expect this to be a popular line in 2016. With a sigh and shrug, it allows politicians to distance themselves from fossil fuels without actually curbing them in the slightest. But while it used to have the added virtue of being true, we don’t really need fossil fuels to keep the lights on and run the economy.
The alternatives are in place. They’ve won the sprint against fossil fuels, according to data presented this spring at the Bloomberg New Energy Finance annual summit in New York.
The world is adding more capacity for renewable power each year than coal, natural gas, and oil combined. And there’s no going back. The age of fossil fuel is ending.
This wasn’t the case just a few years ago.
And there remain’s a lot that’s right about Clinton’s answer. We get about 30% of our energy from fossil fuel extracted from federal land and waters, according to an analysis this year by the Center for American Progress and The Wilderness Society. The Powder River Basin of southeast Montana and northeast Wyoming alone supplies coal for some 200 power plants.
That’s about 40% of the market. And it’s lashed together and superglued by leases and contracts, courts and lawyers. It obeys the natural law of profits and loss: if billions are invested, billions must be made.
But this is a slow motion scandal for environmentalists. The single biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the U. S. isn’t planes or cars. It isn’t fracking or meat farming. It’s coal harvested from that federally owned land—land that belongs to everyone.
The extraction of fossil fuels from taxpayer owned land is responsible for a quarter of national carbon emissions, the stuff that scientists say warms the atmosphere and harms the planet. That’s why many people see this as an an issue worthy of heckling the former first lady. It’s an extension of the divestment movement, a push for intellectual honesty by people who support action on climate change.
It’s also more than a protest position. Increasingly, scientific research and real world examples show that the next president could responsibly ban this extraction on federal land. In other words, counter to her answer Thursday, Clinton could deliver the applause line. And she could do it without the layoffs, recessions, and blackouts she suggested.
Here's the math behind it: renewable sources of energy account for about 10% of total U.S. energy consumption and 13% of electricity generation, according to federal data. We’d need to just about triple our use to offset the 30% of our energy currently generated off federal lands. Impossible? Hardly. Unheard of? Not at all.
More than a dozen countries get more than 30% of their electricity from renewable sources, according to the Paris-based International Energy Agency. Most of that would need to be solar, which President Obama will happily tell you is already adding jobs at 10 times the rate of the rest of the economy. Thanks to Elon Musk, the world even has a way to store solar and wind. We can now save it up for when the sun don’t shine and the wind doesn't blow.
What we need now is the infrastructure to actually tap all this renewable potential. Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, has been saying it for years: “You could power America with renewables from a technical and economic standpoint.”
What we need is the will to do it. So the question remains: does Hillary Clinton have it?