Pressing Clinton on climate change
▶ Climate activists get her to commit on video to a drilling ban ▶ “This is our moment, when we are much stronger” than oil lobbyists
Hillary Clinton has made protecting the environment a part of her platform since she announced her candidacy last June, when she talked about making the U.S. a leader in renewable energy. Her campaign chair, John Podesta, was the central architect of President Obama’s strategy on climate change. Yet Clinton’s willingness to accept campaign contributions from donors with oil-industry ties, combined with her long delay announcing a public position on the Keystone XL pipeline, has nurtured doubts about her candidacy among environmentalists.
Climate activists have been trailing Clinton since before she formally entered the race, posting videos to YouTube and Twitter of her saying she’ll commit to specific policies. The tactic appears to be paying off: On Feb. 4, Griffin Sinclair-Wingate, a University of New Hampshire junior, pushed up to the stage after a
Democratic debate between Clinton and Bernie Sanders to question the former secretary of state. “Would you ban the extraction of oil, gas, and coal on public lands?” the 21-year-old asked. “Yeah,” Clinton responded. “That’s a done deal.”
The four-word statement, captured on video, was a victory for Sinclair-Wingate, a volunteer for 350 Action, a nonprofit advocacy group backed by California hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer and others who promote renewable energy. Since July, the group has posted video of Clinton declaring her opposition to Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania to Massachusetts. In another, she says there should be investigations into allegations that
ExxonMobil suppressed decades-old climate change research. Exxon has denied the allegations.
Within 24 hours of her exchange with Sinclair-Wingate, Clinton doubled down, telling another 350 Action activist on camera that she wants to “impose a moratorium” on oil, coal, and gas leases on public lands. “This is our moment, when we are much stronger than the fossil fuel industry,” says Jason Kowalski, a spokesman for 350 Action, which has coordinated much of the video campaign. Once these discussions go behind closed doors, Kowalski says, “the lawyers and the lobbyists of the oil industry will outpower us.”
Clinton spokesman Jesse Ferguson says Clinton “believes we should be on a long-term path to a future where there is no extraction of fossil fuels on public lands.” Kowalski and others say Clinton’s willingness to commit to specific positions has coincided with her rival’s rise in the polls. Sanders won the New Hampshire primary on Feb. 9 and came within five points of Clinton in the Feb. 20 Nevada caucus. “He’s made Hillary have to pay more attention to [climate change] than she probably would have if she were unopposed or just preparing for a fall campaign for the whole U.S.,” says Robert Brulle, a Drexel University sociology professor who studies environmental movements.
A politician who regularly addresses environmental policy while campaigning is much more likely to claim a mandate to address climate change once in office, says David Goldston, director of government affairs for the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund, the political arm of the nonprofit conservation group. “From our point of view, the more the candidates are talking about all aspects of this issue, the better,” he says. “That actually does tend to shape policy once they’re in office, if they win.”
350 Action says it plans to continue pressing Clinton to reject donations from fossil fuel interests and endorse bans on fracking. The group is the political arm of 350.org, a nonprofit founded by author and environmental activist Bill McKibben. It draws funding from an array of corporations and philanthropic organizations, including Steyer’s personal foundation, which spent about $60 million in 2014 backing candidates who took strong stands on climate change. Other donors include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Streisand Foundation, Patagonia, and the Clif Bar Family Foundation.
To teach activists the art and science of bird-dogging a candidate, 350 Action conducts boot camps instructing them how to go after a target, hone their questions, and make sure cameras are trained on a politician at the right time. Sinclair-Wingate went through a daylong training with 350 and has fine-tuned his tactics on the trail. After catching Clinton at several events, he decided to start sticking his hand out for a shake alongside everyone else on the rope line, to make it harder for her to avoid him. “I feel a sense of responsibility to be doing this,” Sinclair-Wingate says. “I’m not the one being affected most by climate change, and the people who are don’t have the same access and ability to change it that I do.”
The bottom line Climate activists backed by hedge fund investor Tom Steyer have recorded Clinton saying she’d ban drilling for oil on public lands.