Hillary Clinton isn't afraid to talk about global warming—and she wants her fellow Democrats to join her.
In closed-door meetings with House and Senate Democrats Tuesday, Clinton jumped at the chance to discuss the hot-button topic in political terms, numerous lawmakers said. Clinton delivered a clear message: Democrats must convince the American public that action to combat Earth's rising temperatures is urgent, and her party can make that case by tailoring their message to different kinds of voters.
"She was incredible," said Sen. Ben Cardin. "She really relates [climate change] to the current political communities and how we have to do a better job. We know the policy, but we have to do a better job on the politics."
Clinton wants Democrats to grasp the importance of Paris climate negotiations later this year and speak about global warming in a way that resonates with millennials, according to several Senate Democrats. That would be an easy way for Democrats to draw a clear contrast with a GOP presidential field dominated by climate skeptics.
She wants to keep her left flank clear as well, delivering a message guaranteed to appeal to the party's progressive wing. Clinton framed global warming as a pressing and serious threat and touted the climate credentials of John Podesta, the chairman of her 2016 campaign and a former climate adviser to President Obama.
But Clinton doesn't want Democrats to run too far to the left. According to several senators, she cautioned members of her party that Democrats can't forget that coal country is an important part of America and can't be left behind in the fight to tackle global warming.
"She pointed out to those of us who are passionate about climate change that it's a big country, and a lot of our previous economic growth was dependent on coal country, and that as we pursue a transition to a clean-energy economy, that it's not like Americans to leave folks behind. So we have to really think deeply about how we help folks who are experiencing challenges during this transition," said Sen. Brian Schatz in an interview.
That message offers up an olive branch to moderate Democrats who have felt spurned by the Obama administration's climate agenda, and it could help the party win over centrists in purple states.
"She was very much concerned," said Sen. Joe Manchin, a moderate Democrat from West Virginia. "She said people need to realize what coal has done for this country. ... People don't realize that; they just want to condemn it now, and she was very compassionate about that." Manchin added that he invited Clinton to visit West Virginia so that she can see coal country up-close.
Environmentalists have been frustrated by what they view as a lack of specifics from the Clinton campaign when it comes to climate change and energy, even though Clinton has spoken of the need to act on climate change in campaign speeches. Many progressive green groups worry that Clinton's ties to Wall Street will discourage her from taking a strong stand in the fight against global warming, and they are concerned about the fact that she has not come out firmly against the Keystone XL pipeline—an issue that congressional Democrats did not press her on when she met with them on Tuesday.
But rather than interpreting Clinton's silence on Keystone and sympathy for coal country as suspect, progressive Democrats were encouraged and energized by her remarks.
"I thought it was pretty solid," Rep. Raul Grijalva, one of the cochairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said after hearing Clinton speak. "Some of the progressive issues and members have kind of been crying in the wilderness for a while, and now these issues like climate change, income inequality, and the jobs agenda are resonating with the public. And I think that Hillary understands that. ... The fact that the progressive causes and organizations feel more in touch with and included with Hillary now is a mark that she understands that."
"I think she recognizes that the politics of the legislative branch are stuck, and you have got to have an understanding of what people are going through if you're going to get to a 60-vote threshold to have legislative success," Schatz said. "I think she is trying to cobble together a coalition that can actually do something."
Of course, even if Clinton's climate agenda wins over Democrats, it will be difficult for her to match the progressive record of her biggest challenger on the Left: Sen. Bernie Sanders. Sanders was quick to remind reporters of that, holding an impromptu press conference on Tuesday in the Capitol, where he touted his record on energy and the environment as one of many areas where he could break away from Clinton.
"I have helped lead the opposition against the Keystone pipeline. I don't believe we should be excavating or transporting some of the dirtiest fuel on this planet," Sanders said. "I think Secretary Clinton has not been clear on her views on that issue."
Dylan Scott contributed to this article
This article is from the archive of our partner National Journal.