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The Last Stand for Sanders’s Environmental Activists?

For the greens looking to change the Democratic Party platform, it's the end of the world as we know it.


“Shame on you. Shame!” The shout rang out from the audience as the platform committee for the Democratic National Convention voted in late June. The room in St. Louis, Missouri, was so quiet that the interruption was impossible to ignore. The chairman, Representative Elijah Cummings, asked the audience to settle down, and the committee completed its vote: 7-6. This year’s Democratic platform would not include a moratorium on fracking.

In the weeks after Hillary Clinton secured the party’s presumptive nomination, environmentalists who supported Bernie Sanders slowly began to come around to her candidacy. Even though their revolution would not come to pass, green activists saw the drafting of the platform as a silver lining. But with three hearings complete and only one left before the convention begins on July 25, environmentalists are beginning to realize that Sanders’s breakthrough campaign didn’t earn as much “leverage” as they had hoped. Sanders already lost the nomination. Now his green supporters are losing their last hope for concrete commitments in 2016: the platform.

“You have a sense that this is not a meaningful process—that it is simply a dog-and-pony show set up to create the impression of a meaningful debate,” said R.L. Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s environmental caucus and president of the Climate Hawks Vote PAC, which endorsed Sanders. “The Sanders people are really angry.”

The last committee meeting will be held this week in Orlando, Florida, on July 8-9. Environmentalists are hoping the committee will reconsider some previously voted-down amendments, like a moratorium on fracking and opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal. In preparation, greens are drafting petitions and priming for a battle they know well. The Sanders campaign continues to send near-daily emails imploring supporters to keep up the opposition to fracking and the TPP. But with the balance of power restored to the Democratic Party, the outcome seems certain: The platform will not be the place where the environmental status quo is overthrown.

The Democratic Party had planned to appease Sanders’s millennial supporters by offering the senator five seats on the 15-person platform drafting committee. Clinton received six. As it now stands, the platform draft shows several Sandersian touches—like calling for a $15 minimum wage and an end to the death penalty—as well as compromises between the two sides. But the environmental team is unmistakably losing.

Bill McKibben, a cofounder of the environmental group and the most high-profile environmental champion Sanders selected for the committee, proposed a roster of nine climate amendments to the platform draft, including a carbon tax, keeping fossil fuels in the ground, and a “climate test,” modeled after the Keystone XL pipeline decision, that would have federal decision makers weigh the climate impacts of policies. Six, including those greens most ardently hoped for, were rejected, most by a tight 7-6 vote. To environmentalists who had pushed for months to get a seat at the establishment table, it was clear Democrats were intent on doing business as usual. “What’s needed is more of a sense that [Democrats are] willing to spend political capital on climate change,” McKibben told me in an email. “Obama wasn’t ready to do that in his first term, and it took an enormous movement to help him get there. That movement needs someone it can work with, not someone it will have to work on.”

Two days after the drafting meeting in St. Louis ended, McKibben’s frustration found outlet in an article for Politico Magazine. He claimed Clinton supporters were systematically “obstructing change.” Even though they recognized the severity of climate change, they were doing nothing proactive to halt it. “The Clinton campaign is at this point rhetorically committed to taking on our worst problems, but not willing to say how,” he wrote. “Which is the slightly cynical way politicians have addressed issues for too long—and just the kind of slickness that the straightforward Sanders campaign rejected.”

The article drew a heated response from one of Clinton’s committee members, Carol M. Browner, who was previously an EPA administrator in Bill Clinton’s administration and an energy adviser to Obama. In an article she wrote for the same magazine two days later, she called this year’s platform historic—a claim Sanders’s green supporters do not refute—and said the process was not obstructionist, but democratic. “Debating the merits of different policy solutions is quite different from setting up a litmus test for what it takes to be ‘serious’ about climate change,” she said. “And that is what the Sanders campaign and its representatives have done, claiming that the Democratic platform falls short because it does not include their preferred amendments.”

Objectively, this year’s platform is revolutionary in its consideration of climate change. Notably, the platform rejects past acceptance of an “all-of-the-above energy policy” in which all sources, including fossil fuels, are considered part of a healthy mix. Democrats also agreed on an amendment to include an investigation of fossil fuel companies that mislead the public about climate science (an allusion to the Exxon Knew scandal), and to increase the country’s percentage of clean energy to 100 percent by 2050. But Sanders’s supporters see the tensions at the drafting table as a reflection of the central conflict in this year’s Democratic primary: incremental change versus urgent and drastic action.

Furthermore, they see the reluctance to take action as little better than being a climate change denier. Environmentalists are now describing Democrats as out of touch with the dire reality of climate change. “The problem is about the difference between better and good enough,” says Collin Rees, a campaigner with environmental group Oil Change International, who attended the platform hearing in Washington, D.C. “That’s what the fights are over—whether we’re going to get the kind of action that we need.” After Politico published Browner’s article, Miller of Climate Hawks Vote tweeted that the piece was “amazingly deceptive.” “Carol Browner sets a goal atop a ladder and kicks out all the legs. That’s incrementalism, or worse,” she said.

However, the divisions are as much about politics as they are about ideology. Environmentalists—who consider climate change a life-or-death issue in the near term—see the platform as an attainable way to hold Clinton’s feet to the fire. But the Clinton camp is shifting towards the general election, and doesn’t want to be tied to positions that may hurt its candidate in battleground states. In typically pragmatic fashion, Clintonistas see little benefit in committing to positions if it costs Democrats the White House—and hence the ability to do anything about climate change at all.

Still, it is rare that grassroots greens have gotten so close to the seat of power and been rebuked so directly. “Platforms don’t matter, right?” McKibben wrote in his Politico piece. “But this is a new kind of election: The Sanders campaign has been about issues, issues, issues.” It may be enough to make optimistic environmentalists disillusioned with the whole process—unless they can turn it around in Orlando. “We’ve learned our lesson over the last eight years with President Obama,” said Rees. “No politician is perfect.”