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Greenbuild 2013: Hillary Clinton Delivers Keynote Address

By Jonathan Geeting
November 22, 2013
Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at Greenbuild in Philadelphia.
Sheila Kim / Architectural Record
Hillary Clinton delivers the keynote address at Greenbuild in Philadelphia.

Anyone hoping that Hillary Rodham Clinton would make significant 2016 campaign news in her Greenbuild keynote speech was probably left disappointed, but zooming out, there were real Presidential politics on display amid the flattery and platitudes that conference-goers likely expected from the speech.

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Clinton's decision to accept the U.S. Green Building Council's invitation to deliver the Greenbuild keynote is an excellent illustration of what's known as the "invisible primary" in political cicles. Even though the 2016 primaries haven't begun in earnest, there is still a race of sorts going on, and the objective is for candidates to persuade party-aligned interest groups that they alone possess the optimal balance of electability and issue purity that can deliver what those groups want in the policy arena.

The USGBC isn't aligned with Hillary Clinton's Democratic Party in any formal sense, and the organization's president Rick Fedrizzi actually went out of his way to blame party politics in general for Washington dysfunction in his opening speech.

But come on: just look at how the name "Solyndra" has become a dark warning in conservative circles against any type of federal investment in green R&D, and you'll see that, for the time being, the Democratic Party is the only willing vessel for green builders' policy wishlist.

Seen in that light, the big-picture purpose of Clinton's speech was to rally the party faithful and remind attendees of her deep affinity with their agenda.

She praised the retrofit of the Empire State Building, the impact of the USGBC's Center for Green Schools on school budgets, student health, and learning, and she lauded teh council's work in helping rebuild Haiti in partnership with the Clinton Climate Initiative.

Clinton also reminded the audience that she has been a long-time friend of the USGBC, from the "greening of the White House" project she and President Bill Clinton undertook (saving a reported $150,000 a year in energy, water, and other costs) in 1996, to her collaboration with the USGBC as Secretary of State on requiring LEED certification for all overseas embassies and consulates.

"I decided we would call that 'Greening Diplomacy,'" she said, "as part of an initiative we started at the State Department both to conserve resources, and to send a message to the world about America's priorities and values."

The closest Clinton came to making a sidelong campaign promise was her show of support for speeding up the USGBC's goal of putting a green building in every community within a generation.

"By 2015, the non-residential market for green construction is estimated to grow between $120 and 145 billion," she said. "The Council is committed to bringing green buildings to every community," she added. "I'd like that even speeded up—maybe half a generation."

That's thin gruel for those expecting a policy feast, but a notable implicit promise permeating the speech was Clinton's unwavering endorsement of a positive-sum connection between green policies and economic growth.

"The [Empire State building] retrofit reduced its annual energy consumption by 38%, worth roughly $4.4 million a year," she said, in one representative anecdote. "Afterwards the owner of the building said, greater energy efficiency means higher profits, greater competitiveness, and a better result and a better bottom line for everyone involved."

"We know this works. And over the past 20 years you have seen slow, steady progress," she continued. "But as I said, I think we're at a new level. The work has proven itself, we know what to do."

This was all utter orthodoxy for Greenbuild attendees, but the idea of green policies as complementary to growth is still incredibly controversial in American politics, rejected out of hand by the Republican Party, and by most remaining Appalachian members of the Democratic Party.

Clinton promoted some environmentally specious policies to appeal to white working class voters in the 2008 primary contest, so the larger policy significance of her appearance at Greenbuild may be the message it sends about her shifting allegiances within the Democratic Party, and the policy direction she might pursue in 2016.

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