(Bloomberg) — Griffin Sinclair-Wingate was pressed against
the edge of the stage after a debate in New Hampshire when he
got his crack at Hillary Clinton.
“Would you ban the extraction of oil, gas and coal on
public lands?” the University of New Hampshire junior asked
Clinton in a Feb. 4 exchange captured in blurry video shot on
the iPhone tucked in his shirt pocket.
“Yeah,” Clinton shot back. “That’s a done deal.”
The four-word statement was the furthest Clinton had gone
to embrace the growing “keep it in the ground” anti-fossil fuel
movement — a victory for Sinclair-Wingate and other climate
activists who have stalked her on the campaign trail. The video
was swiftly uploaded to YouTube, highlighted on Twitter and
circulated to the news media.
Catching a candidate off guard and on video is a tried and
true tactic of political opponents. But now it is being deployed
not by Clinton’s political foes but relative friends:
conservationists who see the competing bid by more-liberal
Senator Bernie Sanders as an opportunity to lock in her views on
Leading the cause is 350 Action, the political arm of
350.org, which estimates its network of volunteers and paid
staff, including Sinclair-Wingate, have lobbed more than 70
direct questions to candidates at rallies, town halls and other
They’ve posted videos of Clinton saying there should be
investigations into allegations Exxon Mobil Corp. suppressed
decades-old climate change research and declaring her opposition
to Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct pipeline,
which would carry natural gas from Pennsylvania to
Massachusetts. Next up: will she reject donations from fossil
fuel interests? Will she endorse bans on fracking?
“This is our moment, when we are much stronger than the
fossil-fuel industry,” said Jason Kowalski, a spokesman for 350
Action, which has coordinated much of the gotcha-style
environmental campaign. “Once these decisions go beyond closed
doors, the lawyers and the lobbyists of the oil industry will
Sanders’ presence in the presidential race — not to
mention his growing popularity and his 22-point victory over
Clinton in the New Hampshire Democratic primary — has pushed
Clinton to spend more time discussing the subjects he
emphasizes, from income inequality to climate change.
The Bern’s Impact
“He’s shifting the locus of the discourse within the
Democratic party,” said Robert Brulle, a Drexel University
sociology professor who studies environmental movements. “He’s
made Hillary have to pay more attention to that than she
probably would have if she were unopposed or just preparing for
a fall campaign for the whole U.S.”
The tactic appears to be paying off. During recent stump
speeches and town halls, Clinton has emphasized her
environmental bona fides. Within 24 hours after telling
Sinclair-Wingate a ban on future fossil fuel extraction on
public lands was a “done deal,” Clinton doubled down, saying she
agrees with where President Barack Obama is moving on the issue
and wants to “impose a moratorium” on oil, coal and gas leases
on public lands.
Naturally, it was all caught on camera.
Clinton “believes we should be on a long-term path to a
future where there is no extraction of fossil fuels on public
lands,” campaign spokesman Jesse Ferguson said by e-mail. The
campaign did not respond to questions about the influence of
environmental activists or Sanders’ bid.
“There’s no question that Secretary Clinton has become
better on environmental issues because Senator Sanders is in the
race,” said Benjamin Schreiber, a spokesman for Friends of the
Earth Action, which has endorsed Sanders. “His participation in
the race only makes it a better and more full dialogue about
what we actually need to do on climate change.”
To be sure, Clinton would have talked about the environment
even if she were running unopposed. It was in the speech she
gave last June to launch her candidacy. Clinton’s campaign chair
is John Podesta, the architect of much of Obama’s environmental
strategy. And combating climate change is a pressing issue for
the Democratic base.
Sanders’ early opposition to TransCanada Corp.’s proposed
Keystone XL pipeline and promotion of a climate agenda, combined
with Clinton’s willingness to accept contributions from donors
with oil industry ties, nurtured doubts about her among
environmental activists, Brulle said.
Climate questions on the campaign trail may not assuage
those fears. But a politician who regularly addresses climate
while campaigning is much more likely to be able to claim a
mandate to address the issue once in office, said David
Goldston, director of government affairs for NRDC Action Fund,
the political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a
‘If They Win’
“From our point of view, the more the candidates are
talking about all aspects of this issue, the better,” Goldston
said by phone. “That actually does tend to shape policy once
they are in office, if they win.”
Amanda Starbuck, director of the Rainforest Action
Network’s Climate and Energy Program, says it’s important to get
the candidates on record now. “These are indications of the
direction we’ll see under their leadership,” she said by phone.
The strategy has political risks.
Pushing a candidate too far to the left on environmental
issues could cost him or her votes in a general election,
particularly in Colorado, Pennsylvania, Ohio and other potential
battleground states with oil and gas development or a big thirst
for fossil fuels.
Democrats running for Senate and House seats also could be
squeezed by positions the presidential nominee articulated
during primary season, Barry Rabe, a University of Michigan
public policy professor who specializes in environmental issues.
Climate activists have been trailing Clinton since day one
— actually, even before she got in the race, when they stood
outside her office holding posters saying “I’m ready for
Hillary” with “to say no KXL” tacked on.
Co-founded by author and environmental activist Bill
McKibben, 350.org draws funding from an array of corporations
and philanthropic organizations, including TomKat Charitable
Trust, the foundation of billionaire hedge fund manager Tom
Steyer. Other notable donors include the Rockefeller Brothers
Fund, the Streisand Foundation, Patagonia and the Clif Bar
To teach the activists the art and science of bird dogging
candidates, 350 Action conducts boot camps instructing them how
to go after targets, hone their questions and make sure cameras
are trained on politicians at the right time.
Sinclair-Wingate, 21, went through a day-long training with
350 and has learned tactics on the trail.
After catching up with Clinton at several events — and
worrying she would recognize him — Sinclair-Wingate decided to
start sticking his hand out for a shake alongside everyone else
because it’s too awkward for Clinton to skip him if she’s
working the line.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to be doing this,”
Sinclair-Wingate said. “I’m not the one being affected most by
climate change and the people who are don’t have the same access
and ability to change it that I do.”
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