How many presidential candidates does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

October 31, 2016

Another presidential campaign season has come and (almost) gone with little attention to climate change and the future of energy production. Though both candidates have made statements on those topics, they have not received much national debate.

By diminishing energy and climate change’s importance as a campaign topic, we lose another chance to analyze the plans, discuss their merits, and make actual progress toward putting out the global fires that await the next president.  

Finding the light switch

The biggest challenge to analyzing their energy solutions is that the candidates don’t agree on the problem or the goals. Most of the attention in this election has been on the candidates’ belief in climate science. Clinton has publicized her confidence in climate science, while Trump has variably denied its findings or reframed questions about his position.

The evidence on climate change has been clear for some time, yet the same debate has been rehashed for several election cycles going back as far as 2000. That debates over fundamentally accepted science are still at the center of political attention 16 years later prohibits any substantive conversation about energy beyond monitoring today’s price at the pump.

Keeping the lights on

Both candidates actually agree on at least two goals: to provide enough energy for current need and future growth, and to be “energy independent”—that is, to rely solely on US or allies’ energy sources.

Clinton has framed the latter as a national security issue while Trump has focused on its domestic economic and employment benefits. Both are accurate assessments of the outcomes of self-reliance, but the platforms have benefitted from the fact that US-sourced natural gas has increased as a share of electrical power plants’ fuel compared to coal—reducing greenhouse gas emissions from coal plants by about half while depressing energy prices and making us ostensibly more self-reliant. Considering that we still import a sizeable amount of fuel (especially petroleum) from not-so-friendly sources, we’re actually a bit far from independence.

Where candidates diverge is on how they plan to get to this state, and how other goals (like mitigating climate change) guide their paths. Clinton supports the Obama administration’s signature Clean Power Plan (CPP), as well as US ratification of the Paris Climate Agreement. She proposes an aggressive shift toward more renewable energy production that exceeds current industry expectations, while using existing fossil-fuel based sources in the near future as a “bridge.”

Clinton has also supported “fracking” (hydraulic fracturing of deep rock to extract natural gas) in the past, too, with certain qualifiers.  

Trump plans to dramatically expand natural gas extraction and coal production as well as open up all other untapped sources of energy including those on federal lands but not necessarily at the exclusion of cost-competitive renewables. Trump plans to scrap the CPP along with other EPA regulations and pull out of the Paris agreement.

Paying the bills

The CPP (still held up in court) would foreseeably lead to price increases in energy but with consequent savings on health care costs as well as other cobenefits. The additional focus on low-income households’ energy use through the CPP’s Clean Energy Incentive Program would also provide opportunities to diminish the cost burden on this group, though programs to date have had mixed successes.

Clinton proposes regulations, incentives, and expanded assistance to low-income households. She also proposes paying special attention to energy needs and climate change effects on the most environmentally vulnerable communities. Clinton supplements these sticks with carrots for household solar installations, with similar programs in places like Arizona having massive success in transitioning energy sources while reducing household energy costs. Other cities and states are already producing energy efficiency and renewable programs by the day, too.

Trump’s “energy revolution” is proposed to wean the country off all foreign energy imports while purportedly not causing any adverse environmental impacts. The revenues from energy production, according to his statements, would then be used to rebuild “roads, schools, bridges and public infrastructure,” though that transfer of funds is not detailed. He also labels his opponent’s plan as “job killing” when combined with other environmental regulations, energy efficiency standards, reductions in fossil fuel-industry subsidies, and renewable energy incentives.

The biggest sector for job transition is certainly in the coal industry, and Clinton has proposed retraining and other assistance plans, though the success of these kinds of programs is still mixed as Urban colleagues describe. But the job-killing aspects of energy transitions for energy workers—or, for the economy as a whole from higher energy prices—are not fully supported even with more aggressive policies beyond either candidate’s current positions like a carbon tax (a position neither candidate currently supports).

For both platforms, there will be immediate costs to the country and to individual Americans’ pocketbooks. And, as science is showing us, there will be future costs to our energy policies. These costs have all been lurking in the shadows in this year’s debate spotlight. But, the light from the world’s burning just might be the one that lets us see the candidates’ platforms.

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