The 2016 Democratic presidential candidates have proclaimed climate change to be one of, if not the, greatest threat facing the U.S. today, and the White House hopefuls reasserted that belief this week even as much of the nation focused exclusively on radical Islamic terrorism.
Sen. Bernard Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley both zeroed in on climate change this week, with Mr. O’Malley calling Mr. Sanders’ newly released global warming plan “not good enough” and casting it as a less ambitious version of his own proposal. Party front-runner Hillary Clinton released her own climate platform over the summer, but it some respects it appears to be the least sweeping of the three.
Progressive leaders and environmental activists say the heavy focus on climate change — at a time when virtually all Republican presidential candidates are focused almost entirely on terrorism and national security — shows how the issue has rocketed to prominence in recent years and is of utmost importance within the Democratic Party. A strong position on climate change, for example, helps candidates capture endorsements from powerful environmental groups and campaign donations from activists.
“If the presidential candidates aren’t talking about climate change, they’re not talking to their base, and they’re not talking to their donor base,” said Erich Pica, president of the environmental group Friends of the Earth, which has endorsed Mr. Sanders. “They’re not only playing for the heart of the Democratic Party when it comes to climate change, they’re also playing for dollars within the party.”
The focus on climate change certainly doesn’t mean the Democratic candidates have ignored Islamic terrorism in the wake of last week’s massacre in California.
Each candidate has spoken out on the need to combat the Islamic State, and each condemned Donald Trump after he proposed barring all Muslims from entering the U.S.
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But climate change remains at the top of Democratic presidential primary agenda, seemingly regardless of what other issues pop up at home or around the world.
Mr. Sanders, for example, has flatly declared climate change the greatest threat facing the U.S. today, while Mrs. Clinton and Mr. O’Malley have cited other international issues — such as a nuclear Iran — as potentially greater causes for concern but also list global warming near the top of their lists.
For Mr. O’Malley, who is languishing in the polls and has tried to make climate change a central issue for his struggling campaign, latching on to climate change may be a wise political strategy.
“It is disappointing that the other Democratic candidates for president haven’t released similarly ambitious plans,” he wrote in the Concord Monitor on Tuesday. “As a nation, together, we can and must do far more — with a bold vision for America’s clean energy future and the strong leadership needed to get it done.”
Neither Mr. Sanders nor Mrs. Clinton have directly responded to Mr. O’Malley’s criticism.
The Democrats’ plans contain many of the same core elements, including heavy investment in renewable energy and a move away from fossil fuels.
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There are, however, some key differences in the details.
Mr. O’Malley has called for the U.S. to move entirely to renewable energy by 2050, while Mr. Sanders’ plan, released earlier this week, calls for 80 percent of American electricity to come from renewable sources by the same year.
In her own plan, Mrs. Clinton said the nation should produce at least 33 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2027.
The candidates each support some form of a cap-and-trade system, oppose oil drilling in the Arctic, oppose the proposed Keystone XL oil pipeline, and oppose fracking on federal lands, according to an analysis of the three plans by Think Progress, a project of the liberal Center for American Progress Action Fund.
Each candidate also blames Republicans for holding back progress.
“The reality of climate change is unforgiving no matter what the deniers say,” Mrs. Clinton said when releasing her plan.
Mr. Sanders expressed similar sentiments.
“It is an embarrassment that Republican politicians, with few exceptions, refuse to even recognize the reality of climate change, let alone are prepared to do anything about it,” Mr. Sanders says in his plan, which has drawn praise from many leading environmental groups who believe he has correctly identified the oil-and-gas industry as one corporate culprit contributing to income inequality.