The Biggest Issue Facing The Next President Didn’t Come Up At The Democratic Debate Once


When it comes to climate change and energy issues, both Democratic and Republican primary debates ignore them, even now, as a matter of routine.

This was bizarrely true again Thursday night after the PBS/Facebook-sponsored debate in Madison, Wisconsin between Democratic presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders. This week, the Supreme Court surprisingly dealt what could be a significant blow to a speedy national response to climate change when it held up the Obama administration’s centerpiece in its plan to cut carbon pollution and transition to a renewable energy, the Clean Power Plan.

The repercussions of the Supreme Court’s decision will likely stretch beyond Obama’s term and pose one of the first challenges for the new president. Yet neither Gwen Ifill nor Judy Woodruff, the night’s moderators, asked the candidates about the Clean Power Plan, nor anything broader about the energy or environment.

The Clean Power Plan would regulate carbon pollution from existing power plants under the Clean Air Act. This followed a Supreme Court decision in 2007, Massachusetts vs. EPA, which found that the Act required the EPA to regulate carbon dioxide if it threatened public health and welfare. After the agency determined CO2 did in 2009, the Obama administration began the process of regulating it, resulting in the finalized Clean Power Plan last year.


Though 25 states, cities, and counties initially filed a motion on behalf of the rule, and most Americans support the plan, industry lawyers and state attorneys general critical of the plan immediately sued to throw out the rule — and importantly to stay its implementation in the interim.

It worked. The Supreme Court issued a stay, halting implementation of the rule and sending the action back to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear the actual case as soon as June of this year. This leaves the Supreme Court the opportunity to agree with the lower court or consent to hear the case, potentially drawing out the process well past President Obama’s last day in office.

After the decision to stay the rule was released, Sanders called it “deeply disappointing,” while Clinton emphasized the importance of the general election and the next president’s likely ability to nominate at least one Supreme Court Justice.

Though they didn’t mention the Supreme Court’s decision during Thursday’s debate, candidates did briefly mention environmental concerns more generally.


In Secretary Clinton’s opening statement, she mentioned “poison in the water of the children of Flint” and the “poor miners who are being left out and left behind in coal country.” When Gwen Ifill asked her later if white people had a reason to be resentful, Clinton talked about communities facing high addiction and death rates.

“This is a remarkable and horrifying fact,” she continued. “And that’s why I’ve come forward with, for example, a plan to revitalize coal country. The coal field communities that have been so hard-hit by the changing economy, the reduction in the use of coal. Coal miners and their families who helped turn on the lights and power our factories for generations are now wondering, has our country forgotten us? Do people not care about all of our sacrifice?”

In the middle of an answer about why powerful industries donate to candidates, Sen. Sanders spotlighted the energy sector. “Why does the fossil industry pay huge amounts of money in contributions? Any connection to the fact that not one Republican candidate for president thinks and agrees with the scientific community that climate change is real and that we have got to transform our energy system?”

Some states will use the Supreme Court stay as an excuse to do nothing, and some states will continue to proceed with transitioning off the dirtiest coal power plants and toward renewable energy. Many aren’t certain what happens next.

But the broader trends affecting climate policy, such as the decline of the coal industry and the expansion of renewable energy as prices drop, make it feasible to think that the U.S. can continue to cut its carbon emissions even while the Clean Power Plan sorts out its legal hurdles.

The next president will have the ability to use the levers of executive power to either hasten these trends or stand in their way.