Grading the Presidential Candidates on the Environment

Only two candidates get passing grades by offering environmental positions that are reasonably consistent with generational justice and economic opportunity – the core components of the American Dream.

Donald Trump purports to be the presidential candidate who will bring back the American Dream. Millions of voters believe him. But is he really the champion of the American Dream? Is any presidential candidate?

Millennials and Generation X have a vested interest in the answer to this question. More than any voting demographic, they should support candidates who care about repairing the American Dream. After all, their futures and their children’s futures are at stake.

The American Dream has two inextricably intertwined components – generational justice and economic opportunity – the first of which is increasingly ignored.

Without generational justice, there can be no Dream. Each generation would improve its economic condition at the expense of future Americans through debt-fueled spending, transfers of wealth from young-to-old, and over-consumption of natural resources and unfettered pollution. Environmentalism, moreover, is just as central to generational justice as fiscal responsibility. As President Theodore Roosevelt eloquently stated, “[o]f all the questions which can come before this nation . . . , there is none which compares in importance with the great central task of leaving this land even a better land for our descendants than it is for us.”

But economic opportunity, the other piece of the Dream, demands that environmental stewardship take into account the need for current and future 2040_matters_9economic growth. We must balance these objectives. “Generational justice is not served by growing our economy while watching sea levels rise or by bankrupting our children while saving polar bears.” The American Dream, therefore, is premised on a commitment to generational justice that, among other things, takes the form of responsible and balanced environmentalism.

In this regard, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kasich are the best candidates in their fields. They recognize that responsible and balanced environmentalism allows for a range of reasonable responses to various environmental challenges in light of the best available science and the need to balance competing interests.  Candidates who care about the American Dream must stake out defensible positions along this spectrum, and Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kasich do a better job than their rivals, although no candidate thoroughly addresses the pace and scope of changes to energy sources, the costs and benefits associated with various environmental proposals, or the appropriate balance between environmental protection and economic growth.

On the Democratic side, Mr. Sanders is literally in favor of every pro-environment policy that has ever been devised – carbon taxes, tax credits, renewable energy and mass transit subsidies, increased research and development spending, and stronger regulations that force a rapid transition away from fossil fuels. In addition to blaming the “billionaire class” for our environmental woes (do only billionaires charge their smart phones, drive cars, heat their homes, eat steak, drink milk, and wear wool?), he favors persecuting scientists who dare challenge conventional wisdom on climate change, overturning Citizens United, and banning fossil fuel exports. Not only is this laundry list simultaneously over-broad and under-inclusive (focusing on fossil fuels but ignoring livestock), but Mr. Sanders’ policies would be ludicrously expensive and economically damaging through higher taxes and massive disruption in the energy sector. They are also internally inconsistent. Carbon taxes, for example, are alternatives to the types of command and control regulatory and economic policies that Mr. Sanders advocates.  This “everything but the kitchen sink” platform is the antithesis of responsible and balanced environmentalism.  GradeD-.

Mrs. Clinton’s policy prescriptions are far more restrained and orderly by comparison. She favors a transition to cleaner fuels coupled with rapid improvements in energy efficiency. She would achieve these goals primarily through clean energy subsidies (especially for solar power) and stronger regulations (including regulations designed to reduce oil consumption). Mrs. Clinton does not discuss the costs and benefits of her approach versus other mechanism (e.g., a carbon tax or cap and trade), and like Mr. Sanders, she entirely ignores the methane produced by livestock. (Ranchers and dairy farmers must donate and vote in high numbers.) She also ignores the fact that the government has a terrible track record in subsidizing solar energy. Does anyone remember Solyndra? Nevertheless, her proposals strike a much better balance between environmental and economic interests than those of Mr. Sanders.  GradeC+.

On the Republican side, the candidates are largely unconcerned about the environment. Donald Trump, for example, ignores the environment altogether on his official website. When he discusses it in public, he proudly states that he’s a climate change denier and tweets that the Chinese invented climate change to cripple U.S. manufacturing. GradeF.

Mr. Cruz and Mr. Trump are essentially “peas and carrots” on climate change. Unsurprisingly, Mr. Cruz completely ignores the environment on his website (except to state that the EPA needs to be reined-in).  Despite being a member of Generation X, Mr. Cruz ignores “cap and trade,” which shockingly suggests that he didn’t listen to R.E.M. in college when they told us to “buy the sky and sell the sky.” Instead, he prefers to discuss energy independence in a way that is only slightly more restrained than yelling “drill, baby, drill.”  GradeD-.

Of all the Republican candidates, Mr. Kasich offers the best environmental rhetoric – he acknowledges that environmental concerns must be weighed against economic growth. Even though his recognition of this obvious truth makes him an apostate in the current Republican field, like the other candidates, he clearly believes the balance has shifted too far in favor of overly-burdensome environmental regulations and away from “reliable energy for growth.” He argues that that the government must do a better job of balancing the competing interests of economic growth, renewable energy, and environmental regulation. In this regard, Mr. Kasich characterizes himself as a “common sense” environmentalist. As the expression goes, “in the land of the blind, a one-eye man is king.” Although his vision is far from 20-20, Mr. Kasich can at least see the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth to promote generational justice, whereas his opponents are blinded by their insistence on seemingly unconstrained energy independence.  GradeC+.

Mrs. Clinton and Mr. Kasich should be the clear choices for younger Democratic and Republican voters who care about generational justice and the environment (as all younger voters should).  But the opposite is occurring.  When did younger voters start believing that grades don’t matter?

Editor’s notes:

This is a shorter and updated version of a Post that ran earlier in the primary season.

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