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The Trump and Clinton campaigns finally had a substantive climate debate

Trevor Houser (left) and Kevin Cramer (right)

We heard virtually nothing about climate change in the presidential debates this year. The moderators avoided the topic like an ancient Egyptian curse, and Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton rarely delved into energy policy.

So for those interested in the issue, might I suggest an alternative? On Tuesday, the University of Richmond School of Law hosted a wide-ranging debate between the two campaigns’ energy advisers. On Team Clinton: Trevor Houser, an analyst at the Rhodium Group. On Team Trump: Rep. Kevin Cramer (R-ND).

The hour-long debate featured its share of depressing nonsense, like when Cramer waffled on whether humans are causing global warming. (Spoiler: They are.) But the discussion was genuinely substantive, and the advisers delved into issues like the Paris climate deal, nuclear power, and (oh yes) transmission policy. You can watch it all here:

It’d be tough to summarize in a single post, but I’ll walk through a few highlights and lowlights (in listicle form, naturally):

1) Not surprisingly for a Trump surrogate, Cramer thinks that worries about global warming are “grossly exaggerated,” and tossed out some word salad about how the climate has always changed. Why worry, he added, when we know there were once glaciers in North Dakota! (Suffice to say, this line of argument is terrible.) That said, he did concede that reducing CO2 emissions could be a good thing, since doing so usually helps reduce other air pollutants too. That’s something, at least.

2) The Trump campaign really loathes the Paris climate accord — that deal struck last December in which every single country made a pledge to constrain its individual emissions and then regularly review their progress over time. Cramer, channeling his man, called it “one more bad trade deal” and reiterated that Trump would try to scuttle the accord if elected president.

3) Cramer’s main argument against the Paris climate accord seemed to be that it required the United States to do all the heavy lifting. As Houser pointed out, this is flatly untrue. Europe is cutting emissions. China is reining in coal capacity and has pledged to install 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon electric capacity by 2030 — more capacity than the entire US electric grid. “Unless they’re planning to throw one hell of an overnight party 14 years from now, the notion that this deal allows them to do nothing is fanciful,” Houser quipped.

4) Interestingly, Cramer didn’t just say that a President Trump would walk away from the Paris accord unilaterally. Instead, he’d try to submit it to the Senate for ratification — where it would almost certainly fail to garner two-thirds approval — and use that as a pretext for refusing to comply. (The Obama administration hasn’t asked the Senate to ratify the deal, and as a result, America’s pledged emissions targets are not legally binding on future US administrations.)

5) Houser was asked about Clinton’s shifting stance on fracking — she promoted it abroad as secretary of state, but she now says she wants to regulate it more strictly. He sidestepped this one, and just reiterated the campaign’s present view: Natural gas is an important “bridge fuel” to a zero-carbon future, since it’s cleaner than coal but dirtier than solar or wind. But fracking and gas infrastructure need to be tightly regulated for issues like methane leaks and water contamination.

6) Cramer raised a decent point about this “bridge” concept. Clinton envisions natural gas being a very short bridge before we move entirely to zero-carbon electricity in just a few decades. But if that’s the case, who’s going to invest in natural gas infrastructure if it’ll be phased out soon? This is the converse of an argument some climate hawks make: If you invest heavily in natural gas today, it’ll be tough to get rid of all that infrastructure in short order and clear the path for clean energy. Short bridges are tough.

7) Both candidates are in favor of nuclear power. Houser emphasized the importance of keeping existing nuclear plants open and investing in advanced reactor research. “Climate change is too important,” he said, “to take any technology solution off the table.” It was one of the rare times Cramer enthusiastically agreed, saying, “nuclear to me is a very exciting opportunity.”

8) Both candidates explicitly declined to comment on the Dakota Access Pipeline fight going on in North Dakota. Plenty of climate activists have called on Clinton to speak out on the issue. Houser didn’t offer any explanation for the campaign’s silence.

9) When the discussion turned to EPA regulation of air pollution, Cramer took a bizarrely ahistorical view. He seemed to suggest that previous regulations that successfully reduced pollutants were good because they involved gentle collaboration with industry. But new regulations like Obama’s Clean Power Plan for CO2, will be harsh and economically ruinous. As Houser pointed out, this is wrong: Industry groups have a long history of fighting against new pollution regulations and predicting doom each time a new one gets proposed. Then the regulations go into effect, companies find innovative ways to clean up, and everyone moves on. Why should the Clean Power Plan be any different? Cramer’s attempt to distinguish the cases wasn’t very persuasive.

10) At one point, the two advisers discussed what to do about out-of-work miners now that the US coal industry is collapsing. Houser pointed out that mining employment in places like West Virginia has been declining for decades thanks to mechanization, the industry’s shift to Wyoming, and now the boom in natural gas. It’s not all Obama’s EPA regulations. But, he added, “We owe it to people who kept our lights on for all those years,” and he touted Clinton’s plan to invest $30 billion to help mining communities diversify their economies through job retraining, clean energy production, and broadband expansion.

11) But will Clinton’s plan to help ailing coal communities actually work? Cramer argued that diversification and job-retraining initiatives don’t always pan out. (There’s evidence to back this up.) “My dad was a rural electric lineman,” Cramer said. “He wouldn’t have found much comfort in, ‘Hey we’ll put you out of work but we’ll give you the internet.’” On the other hand, Trump has no plan at all for these workers — since he’s simply not going to bring all those lost coal jobs back.

12) Oh, right, there was a transmission bonus round. When asked how Clinton planned to increase renewables’ share of electricity from 16 percent today to 33 percent in 2025, Houser emphasized the need for high-voltage lines to connect the places with the greatest solar and wind potential to the cities that actually use electricity. Cramer, surprisingly, loved this idea — and then launched into a disquisition about how to balance local concerns about interstate transmission lines with the need to get this infrastructure built. (Agreed: This is genuinely difficult.)

At the end, Cramer caught himself. “Mr. Trump probably doesn’t get into this level of detail, but you can be sure he wants to grow infrastructure development.” Probably for the best they kept transmission policy out of the presidential debates.

Winner: Well, Houser was far better versed in policy and actually thinks global warming is real, so … this one was a little lopsided. But credit to both advisers for participating and to the University of Richmond for hosting an all-too-rare climate discussion in this election.

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