BY EMILY ATKIN – – – –
The Sierra Club — the self-proclaimed “largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization” in America — endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton on Thursday, becoming the third massive green group to throw its support behind the presumed Democratic presidential nominee.
The endorsement came just two days after it became clear that Clinton would win the majority of pledged delegates before the Democratic National Convention in July, essentially clinching the party’s nomination. The group’s Executive Director Michael Brune told ThinkProgress on Thursday that the timing was deliberate — the Sierra Club was intentionally waiting until Clinton’s primary competition with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was effectively over before issuing an endorsement of either candidate.
“We made a decision late last year that that was what we were going to do,” Brune said. “We wanted both candidates to make their strongest case for what they’d do for climate and the environment, and let voters vote with their hearts and minds. We wanted to respect that process, and wait until there was a presumptive nominee.”
Other environmental organizations that endorsed Clinton did not play the waiting game. In late May, before Clinton claimed the nomination, the major green group NRDC Action Fund issued its first-ever endorsement during a primary, choosing to back Clinton over Sanders. And in November, another huge group — the League of Conservation Voters — threw its support behind Clinton over Sanders, calling Clinton “the most effective leader to stand up to Big Polluters and push forward an aggressive plan to tackle climate change and get it done.”
In both of those cases, the groups received backlash from some grassroots environmentalists, as well as smaller groups that endorsed Sanders. Sanders, they asserted, had a much stronger policy platform when it came to fighting climate change and protecting the environment. Indeed, Sanders’ campaign has pushed for a national ban on fracking, a nationwide carbon tax, and a complete end to the use of fossil fuels in America. Clinton, who otherwise has a robust environmental policy record, has not called for any of those things.
Though it’s only been a few hours since the Sierra Club’s endorsement, Brune acknowledged the reactions he’s been receiving haven’t all been positive.
“The reactions mirror the feeling of people thorough the campaign,” he said. “There are a lot of people who are passionate about Secretary Clinton and Senator Sanders. Everybody is looking for the strongest possible candidate.”
Brune said the group’s decision was strategic — its endorsement serves not just as a show of support for Clinton’s proposed policies, but as a way to push Clinton to adopt more aggressive climate policies if and when she takes office. Indeed, Brune acknowledged there are some gaps between policies the Sierra Club wants and policies Clinton is advocating for. The Sierra Club, for example, supports a national ban on fracking, and Clinton does not. Brune said the group would attempt to push her to adopt that policy position.
“We are fully aware that we need to both work our hearts out between now and November, and that our movement will have to simultaneously support and challenge a president Clinton were she to make the oval office,” Brune said.
Smaller green groups sticking to Sanders
Though Clinton has claimed the Democratic Party’s nomination, some of the smaller environmental groups that have endorsed Sanders say they’re sticking with the senator until the very end.
“The nomination actually hasn’t been decided yet,” said Brad Johnson, the executive director of Climate Hawks Vote Civic Action, a grassroots-funded super PAC working to elect climate-friendly lawmakers. Johnson noted that Sanders has pledged to stay in the race until the Democratic National Convention in July, where the senator will try to get a national fracking ban on the official Democratic policy platform, among other things.
“From a practical standpoint, the reason that our members chose Sanders overwhelmingly was because of his strong climate platform and his strong emphasis on climate in his campaign,” Johnson told ThinkProgress. “We’re now entering this moment between now and the convention when the platform of the party is literally being decided. And we’re certainly encouraging for people to be voting for Sanders in the final election, which is not yet happened.”
Friends of the Earth Action — the first major environmental group to endorse anyone in the presidential race — is also holding on to its support for Sanders. While Friends of the Earth is a prominent D.C.-based green group, its membership is smaller than that of the Sierra Club’s and the NRDC.
Benjamin Schreiber, Friends of the Earth Action’s climate and energy program director, told ThinkProgress that the group was proud to continue standing behind Sanders, who he said “has motivated progressives and changed the dialogue about the presidential election.”
“For us, we thought it was very important to endorse in the primary, because we think it’s important not only to have environmental leaders but real champions,” Schreiber said. “And Bernie Sanders has been a champion of the environment for his entire career.”
If Sanders drops out of the race, or does not win the nomination during the convention in July, Schreiber said Friends of the Earth would “reassess” its endorsement. The most important thing, he said, is preventing presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump from taking the White House.
“One thing all environmentalists can agree on is that Donald Trump would be a disaster,” he said. “We cannot have four years of a climate denialist in the White House. We just don’t have the time to wait.”