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Even the basics of climate change are still being debated in the 2016 election

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Republican and Democratic platforms lay out very different plans for the environment

Grand Canyon National Park
Grand Canyon National Park
Lindsey J. Smith

Between one Trump tweet after another and inquests into Hillary Clinton’s emails, there’s been little attention paid to either party’s environmental policies. Yet, with devastating flooding in Louisiana and wildfires tearing apart the West, both parties’ environmental platforms deserve more attention.

It’s no surprise that the Republican and Democratic party platforms depict starkly different visions for America’s open spaces. But specifically, we found the platforms hinge on one underlying — and in the Republican party’s case, unspoken — question: Is climate change real, and a real threat?

While Democrats answer the question in their chapter’s title, "Combat Climate Change, Build a Clean Energy Economy, and Secure Environmental Justice," the Republican platform’s section on energy and the environment, titled "America’s Natural Resources," never once uses the words "climate change" or "global warming."

Platforms show "a longstanding division" between the parties

A key to understanding how both parties view climate change is to examine their plans for managing public lands. While both parties view land as an economic resource, the Republican platform defines its value more narrowly as what can be taken from or below its surface. Their policies encourage privatizing public land where possible, expanding oil and gas leases, increasing timber productivity and mining, and opening more federal lands to hunting and fishing. The Democratic platform also speaks to some of these economic values — specifically the cache of oil and gas below federal lands — but it recognizes that open space has other economic and social values, too: for hiking and camping, preserving and restoring air and water quality, and as part of the fabric and history of the nation.

This shows "a longstanding division between our parties," explains Daniel Fiorino, director of the Center for Environmental Policy at American University. Republicans protect the economic interests of extraction industries, while Democrats protect the public.

One reason that division has become so marked in this election, Fiorino says, has to do with controlling what’s under those lands: coal, oil, and gas. Donald Trump’s energy plan centers on American energy independence, an idea supported by the Republican platform. The platform calls to increase oil and gas exploration and drilling on federal lands, including the Outer Continental Shelf and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR).

To drill, or not to drill? That is the question

"It’s not as if all public lands are closed right now," says Oren Cass of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank. Cass notes that many federal lands and waters are currently open to timber harvest, oil and gas drilling, and coal mining, and that it will take approximately 10 years to see production from any new oil and gas commitments we would make now.

Given that long timeframe, we need to ask ourselves where we want to be in a decade, Cass says. And in Republican eyes, bringing new oil and gas online is "pretty much an unmitigated good for the country," as evidenced in the recent private and state-led oil and gas boom.

However, whether increasing oil production is an unmitigated good for the country is up for debate. The International Business Times explored how the fracked oil boom in Williston, North Dakota, for example, brought short-lived economic prosperity to the small town. But when oil prices fell, Williston was left with high rents, inflated retail prices, and no jobs to speak of, across most sectors.

"We need to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground."

Democrats, on the other hand, oppose offshore and ANWR drilling, not for economic reasons, but environmental ones. The platform proposes instead phasing down fossil fuel extraction on public lands and increasing wind and solar production in Wyoming and Nevada.

"If you look at the top lines of what climate science means for the world ... we need to keep 80 percent of fossil fuels in the ground," says Jason Kowalski, a spokesperson for 350 Action, a climate activism group.

This would help meet the December 2015 threshold set in Paris at the annual meeting of all nations in the United Nations Framework on Climate Change, called the 21st Conference of Parties. Attendees, including the US, agreed to reduce carbon emissions enough to hold the average global temperature below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit, or 2 degrees Celsius, above pre-industrial levels. Although there is some debate at what point we reach runaway climate change, Kowalski noted, most climate scientists agree that warming beyond 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit would have severe global effects.

The Republican platform never uses the word "climate"

The Republican platform does not once use the word "climate," which is perhaps why Kowalski calls supporting the platform "an act of climate denial." Trump has repeatedly denied climate change, except when it threatens his interests. While his views on numerous subjects, including climate change, are more extreme than many in the Republican party, the party’s platform calls for Congress "to prohibit the [Environmental Protection Agency] from moving forward with new greenhouse gas regulations."

The Republican party believes the most effective way to mitigate climate change is to help developing nations, like China and India, manage their own carbon emissions, Cass says. "In terms of actually wanting to change estimates of what the temperature is going to be 100 years from now, whether the US develops its oil and gas resources, its coal resources, [is] pretty much entirely irrelevant," he says. China emits more greenhouse gasses than any other country. But the United States is the second-worst emitter of greenhouse gasses, and burdening developing nations with the task of reducing emissions completely ignores that fact.

Clinton’s climate change plan and the Democratic platform also call for vast expansions of green technology and renewable energy — including installing a half-billion solar panels by 2020 — but not as the sole viable solution to climate change. Blocking greenhouse-gas regulations would be, Fiorino feels, a "major setback for global action on climate change" with tremendous consequences. And while Kowalski says the Democratic platform doesn’t go as far or move as quickly as he would like, it does represent a huge step to the left for Hillary Clinton, due in part to pressure from Bernie Sanders’ supporters.

Clinton steps to the left with the Democratic platform

Platforms, however, are not policies, and what may actually come of Democrats’ and Republicans’ grand plans in 2016 will depend on everything from presidential will to Congressional cooperation. Obama’s sweeping climate bill failed in 2010, for example, and his Clean Power Plan is currently facing a lawsuit. But he’s been able to work around Congress by making an agreement with China’s President Xi Jinping to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and tucking $37 billion for clean energy research into an economic stimulus package. Similarly, if faced with a Congress unwilling to pass legislation that would enact Democratic platform policies, Clinton could work on mitigating climate change through incremental actions. She could refuse to authorize large oil pipeline projects, like Obama did with the Keystone XL Pipeline, or she could instruct all federal agencies to use electric vehicles, Kowalski notes.

What would become of the policies set forth in the Republican platform under a Trump administration? At least when it comes to energy policy, Trump’s toeing close to the party line, Cass says. But whether that will turn into implementing proposed policies is anyone’s guess.

"I think it’s impossible to take anything that Trump says about policy seriously or to predict what he would actually do if he would win," Cass says.