Will voting Clinton help stop climate change?

Ragina Johnson and Michael Ware argue for a vote for Jill Stein as part of laying the basis for a stronger ecological justice movement freed from the oil-funded Democrats.

Hillary ClintonHillary Clinton

SEPTEMBER SET two terrifying new records in our planet's ongoing environmental crisis.

This was the warmest September in the 136 years that records have been kept, according to NASA. And the amount of carbon dioxide reached what scientists have called a "tipping point": over 400 parts per 1 million for the first time in thousands of years.

But something just as important didn't happen in September: Neither of the two leading presidential candidates laid out any serious plan to stop climate change, even though a clear majority of the U.S. population thinks it's a problem the government needs to address.

In keeping with her overall "I'm not Donald Trump" campaign theme, Hillary Clinton's main talking point on climate issues is that she isn't a "climate change denier" like Trump--without adding much more about what needs to be done.

But despite this inadequate stance, most of the environmental movement--which successfully forced a discussion of climate change into the political mainstream by asserting that we must act now, before other tipping points are irrevocably passed--argue that voting for Clinton is the best hope this year for anyone who cares about the Earth.

At a recent campaign event with Clinton in Florida, former Vice President Al Gore--who now has an additional reputation as a truth-teller about climate change--declared, "When it comes to the most urgent issue facing this country and the world, Hillary Clinton will make solving the climate crisis a top national priority. Her opponent, based on ideas he has presented, would take us toward a climate catastrophe."

Is Gore right? Trump has said appalling things that have angered millions of people concerned about the climate--from tweeting that "The concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive" to claiming this summer that there was no drought in California because "the state had plenty of water" to vowing to rip up the Paris climate agreement.

But a myopic focus on Trump's horrors ignores Clinton's actual dismal record around climate issues. Support for the Democratic presidential candidate shifts the urgency away from how to build an alternative to both parties' pro-corporate agenda--by protesting in the streets and by supporting candidates like the Green Party's Jill Stein who actually share our priorities.

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THE LEADING U.S. ecological activist organization, 350.org, hasn't officially endorsed Clinton because of her support of the use of fracking. But its get-out-the-vote campaign to stop Trump is a de-facto mobilization for Clinton.

According to 350.org's national political coordinator Robert Gardner, speaking to Inside Climate News, the organization has "sincere questions" about Clinton's stance on oil and natural gas development. But Gardner went on to give what the reporter correctly summarized as a "non-endorsement endorsement":

We recognize that the potential damage from a Trump presidency is almost existential. Organizationally, we see us rolling up our sleeves and making sure that every single individual that is listening to 350 or is within earshot knows we're expecting them to show up in the November.

Bill McKibben the founder of 350.org, was a vocal supporter of Bernie Sanders who saw the Clinton campaign refuse to incorporate his suggestions for a carbon tax and ban on fracking into the Democratic Party platform this past July. He has also noted Clinton's "craven silence" regarding the struggle over the Dakota Access Pipeline.

But as he explained in a Nation article titled "The Climate Movement Has to Elect Hillary Clinton--and Then Give Her Hell," McKibben is campaigning for Clinton "because Trump is truly a horror."

The problem is that by not giving Clinton hell before the election, McKibben and other climate activists have allowed her to bury the whole issue of the environment.

The passionate support for Bernie Sanders' campaign came not just because of his talk about economic inequality, but his insistence that climate change is the greatest threat to our security--which forced Clinton to "me too" on many environmental issues.

But once Sanders endorsed Clinton in July, she changed gears in order to appeal to centrist Republicans and undecided voters. Karl Mathieson of Climate Home pointed out that Clinton went from raising climate issues in one out of every two events prior to July to only one in five events afterward.

This rightward shift helped Clinton win the endorsement of some prominent Republicans and military brass, and it surely was a factor in her raising more money than Trump from the Republican-leaning oil and gas industry.

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THERE'S NOTHING uniquely sinister about Hillary Clinton in this regard. Democrats have always been loyal to ruling class interests, including the fossil fuel giants. This relationship quickly overwhelms whatever penchant they might have toward wanting to save the planet, as can be seen by looking at the party's record over the past few decades.

Thus, Bill Clinton and Al Gore--whose reputation as a passionate environmentalist came only after he no longer held public office--left the White House in 2000 without having passed any legislation to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Following a UN summit, Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol to set international emissions targets. But he never even submitted the treaty to the Senate for ratification, because Senate Democrats blocked with Republicans to unanimously pass an anti-Kyoto resolution claiming that climate agreements would undermine the U.S. economy.

During his 2000 presidential campaign, Al Gore all but dropped any mention of the environment.

A 1999 Time magazine article described a meeting between Gore and environmental leaders who wanted the candidate to push for phasing out dirty old coal power plants. Gore's response? "Losing on impractical proposals that are completely out of tune with what is achievable does not necessarily advance your cause at all," he said.

A few months after taking office in 2009, Barack Obama invited leading environmentalists to the White House and requested that they avoid using the term "climate change" since it was not a "winning message." Three years later, Obama--who is reported to believe that his initiatives on the environment will centrally define his legacy--avoided mention of climate change in his re-election campaign until Hurricane Sandy forced the issue.

Instead, he ran ads boasting that domestic oil production was at an eight-year high, and he traveled to Cushing, Oklahoma--a connector site for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline--to call for more pipeline construction:

Now, under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years. (Applause.) That's important to know. Over the last three years, I've directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states.

We're opening up more than 75 percent of our potential oil resources offshore. We've quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We've added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some.

So we are drilling all over the place--right now. That's not the challenge. That's not the problem. In fact, the problem in a place like Cushing is that we're actually producing so much oil and gas in places like North Dakota and Colorado that we don't have enough pipeline capacity to transport all of it to where it needs to go--both to refineries, and then, eventually, all across the country and around the world...

So, yes, we're going to keep on drilling.

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OBAMA SUPPORTERS point to his environmental accomplishments--namely the signing of Paris Agreement at the 2015 COP 21 climate change conference, his administration's eventual rejection of the Keystone XL pipeline, higher emissions standards for cars, and the Clean Energy Act.

But it's important to look at the details of these measures--and ask to what extent they were won by grassroots movements, with Obama opportunistically taking credit.

As Jill Stein explained about the COP 21 agreement in a May Socialist Worker interview:

It was perhaps a symbolic victory to have all these countries signing on, but the time for symbolism is long gone. We have a world that is going up in flames right now, and we need real emergency action.

COP 21 is voluntary and, even if completely fulfilled, would still lead to a temperature rise of well over 2 degrees Celsius [the point at which irreversible climate change will take place, say scientists], perhaps somewhere in the neighborhood of 3.5 to 4 degrees.

Moreover, the Paris deal came after six long and climate-destroying years of failure, ever since the 2009 COP 15 in Copenhagen, where the newly elected Obama led the U.S. delegation in scuttling a potential international climate agreement that many felt would certainly go through.

The chief negotiator for the G77 bloc of 130 developing countries in Copenhagen denounced the toothless deal at that summit as "climate change skepticism in action"--and added that "Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush."

How about the Clean Energy Act? This law didn't begin an assault on dirty, aging coal plants. The abundance of natural gas extracted through fracking did that by undermining coal's profitability, making it an easy target for symbolic action. The Clean Energy Act is better than nothing, but it was neither ambitious nor politically risky.

As for the pipeline question, Obama waited seven years to reject the KXL--and only did so at that point under tremendous pressure from grassroots activism--during which time thousands of miles of alternative pipelines were built to transport Canadian tar sands oil to U.S. refineries.

Is this the best we can hope for? Is this in any way adequate given the colossal change needed to slow carbon emissions?

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THE CURRENT U.S. political system can't produce the radical change necessary for a truly sustainable--or, dare we say, socialist--world.

There is scant historical evidence that the Democrats will put the environment above economic and corporate interests, or challenge the U.S. fossil fuel sector while economic rivals like China or Russia continue to burn oil, gas and coal--especially during a period of global economic stagnation.

Green capitalism is a dead end, but it is all the Democrats have to offer. Like the Republicans, they have been formed in the belly of the beast to assure political stability and optimal business conditions at the expense of working people the world over.

Expecting Democrats to deliver on the urgent need for stopping climate change is like expecting a dog to meow. This is a party designed to prevent change, not foster it.

The question that ecology activists need to ask is how we can disrupt the political status quo and establish working class parties that revive the strike as a weapon in the fight against climate change.

The ideological crisis of the two-party system--and the wounded nature of the Republican party in particular--represent a unique opportunity for social movements and organizations representing working-class people to shed the pernicious influence of the Democratic Party. They can establish political independence based on core principles of self-emancipation and class consciousness, and a burning desire for equality and justice.

Such a break would shift the political climate in the U.S. to the left in far more important ways than even the Sanders campaign.

Clinton is likely to win this election--and continue the climate foot-dragging that Obama has perfected. She calls fracking "a gift" in one of her leaked speeches for Goldman Sachs--further evidence that she would continue Obama's "all of the above" energy policy that has turned the U.S. into the world's largest producer of hydrocarbons.

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VOTING FOR Clinton is no way to slow down environmental destruction.

On the other hand, while the Jill Stein campaign won't win in November, a strong turnout in favor of her social justice positions and uncompromising stance in favor stopping climate change can help lay the groundwork for building a movement that understands the role of both parties in perpetuating the devastation of the planet.

Voting Green is also an endorsement of grassroots protest as the way to fight--in particular solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) that has become a rallying cry for the climate justice movement despite the presidential election.

While Clinton ignored the struggle against DAPL until after police carried out mass arrests--and then issued a meaningless statement about all sides being heard--Stein traveled to Standing Rock and stood shoulder to shoulder with thousands of Native Americans and climate justice activists.

There are many activists who share McKibben's position of supporting Clinton, but who vow to organize against Clinton's "timid incrementalism" from the moment she's elected. We look forward to protesting alongside them, because struggle is the only way to win real change.

In the meanwhile, however, the fights of tomorrow will be strengthened by a strong turnout for Jill Stein--and by continuing to build solidarity with Standing Rock as part of the goal of igniting a genuine climate rebellion.