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Science & Environment

With Climate Change Plans, Democratic Candidates Aren't Just Courting Voters

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

The vast majority of Democrats believe that climate change is caused by human behavior and that something needs to be done. That's according to the Pew Research Center. That helps explain why the Democratic candidates for president are touting their environmental plans and credentials, that, and the big-dollar lobbying of one influential billionaire, as NPR's Tamara Keith reports.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Tom Steyer has been described as the left-leaning equivalent of the billionaire industrialist Koch brothers. He's invested millions of his own money to fight the controversial Keystone XL oil pipeline and trying to elect candidates he thinks are right on climate.

TOM STEYER: Because I felt it was so urgent, and I felt that it wasn't getting the attention it deserved.

KEITH: When I interviewed him this week, he made it clear it would take more than platitudes from candidates to get his support.

STEYER: When people are running for office, you can say, well, could you explain to us what you actually want to do 'cause caring is not actually enough.

KEITH: So the hedge-fund-manager-turned-environmental-activist set out some benchmarks. He said candidates need to have a plan for the U.S. to get to 50 percent renewable or zero-carbon energy by 2030.

STEYER: That is the minimum standard for us to get on a path where we can actually be sustainable over the long term and get to, you know, an entirely clean economy by 2050.

KEITH: Two days after, Steyer announced his thresholds, Hillary Clinton's campaign released this video.

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HILLARY CLINTON: We'll set a 10-year goal of generating enough renewable energy to power every single home in America.

KEITH: Her campaign says the timing was coincidental, but her secretary also noted on Twitter, Clintons goal would exceed what Steyer had set out. Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley's campaign points out, his plan earned praise from Steyer before the billionaire even announced his goals. Here's O'Malley in Iowa in early July.

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O'MALLEY: There are jobs and opportunities and a much safer and more secure future for our kids to be gained from pursuing a national goal of 100 percent clean energy on our grid by 2050.

KEITH: O'Malley and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders both oppose the Keystone XL pipeline, which aligns them closely with Steyer. For Sanders, it's hardly a difficult choice.

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BERNIE SANDERS: It makes no sense to me to have candidates come forward and say, well, I'm concerned about climate change, but I just don't know where I am on Keystone pipeline.

KEITH: Sanders discusses climate change in virtually every speech he gives and has introduced several bills in the Senate to limit fossil fuels and boost alternative energy.

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SANDERS: The challenge that we face is far too significant for us to equivocate.

KEITH: This was a not-so-thinly veiled dig at Hillary Clinton, who, when asked about her position on Keystone, demurred. The oil pipeline project is in the midst of a lengthy review by the Obama administration.

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CLINTON: I want to wait and see what he and Secretary Kerry decide. If it's undecided when I become president, I will answer your question.

KEITH: When I asked Steyer about Clinton's position on Keystone, he had what sounded like a well-rehearsed answer.

STEYER: We obviously are opposed to it, but the fact of the matter is, we're taking at her word that she feels it's inappropriate from her to make it - to take a stance on this.

KEITH: This wasn't the first time Clinton's answers left environmental activists less than satisfied.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting) Act on climate. Act on climate.

CLINTON: That's OK. That's OK.

KEITH: Activists disrupted a town hall meeting in New Hampshire last month after she refused to commit to banning oil drilling on public lands.

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CLINTON: I know what the right answer, in terms of getting votes, would've been. The right answer would've been, you bet I will ban extraction on public lands.

KEITH: But, she said, that just isn't practical or possible. There's a risk that telling voters what's practical may not get them fired up. With the lead she has over her Democratic rivals, it's a risk Clinton seems willing to take. Tamara Keith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.