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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Any Politician Unwilling to Act on Climate Is an Enemy of Humanity

Successful organizing around the Green New Deal has created one last opportunity to avoid catastrophic climate change. But only a mass popular mobilization can make it happen.

The inferno in the Western United States has once again thrust a terrible reality into our lives which we have been trying our hardest to ignore. At the beginning of this year, climate-fueled wildfires scorched nearly the entire continent of Australia. Hurricane Harvey smashed Houston in 2017, and in 2013 typhoon Haiyan devastated the Philippines, killing more than 6,000 people. Record heat waves are killing thousands at a time (as many as 70,000 died in a European heatwave in 2003), and the death toll from excess heat alone could surpass all infectious diseases combined by the century’s end. For all of our collective efforts, we have not succeeded in making Climate Change disappear by wishing it away. The problem is not on the horizon. The problem is here. The evidence is extremely clear: climate change is making wildfires much deadlier and more widespread. It is making hurricanes and flooding more common and more deadly. As temperatures continue to increase, this will only get worse and worse. The record-breaking disasters of recent years will appear mild decades from now.

A rapid transition away from fossil fuels is perfectly possible. Yet both liberals and the Right do nothing. Last year, Nancy Pelosi mocked climate activists by calling the Green New Deal the “The green dream or whatever they call it”. Democrats acknowledge as a rhetorical matter that climate change is a problem but have made no serious effort to deal with it. Donald Trump, who on Monday smirkingly told a California official who begged him to take seriously deadly impacts of Climate “It’ll start getting cooler,” and “Well, I don’t think science knows, actually,” has led the Republican Party to a position of joking half-serious denial. In reality, Republicans know that climate change is a scientific fact. (Trump’s own federal agencies quietly acknowledge as much.) But as usual, they simply reflect the attitude of the fossil fuel industry and broader big business forces—they’d rather cook the planet than sacrifice profits or pay higher taxes. Left to their own devices, our ruling elite will do nothing to save us.

But as the series of climate-accelerated disasters turns what was an abstract problem into something painfully real, a new window of opportunity is opening. The movement for Climate Justice has finally gained its footing, and the urgency of the situation demands we rise to the occasion. 

We Have a Plan: The Strengths of the Green New Deal as a Political Framework

The politics of the climate crisis have changed markedly in the past two years. Yes, the UN Intergovernmental Panel and Climate Change made the alarming announcement in 2018 that we had just 12 years to avoid permanent catastrophic damage (this countdown clock is now at just ten years). But even more impactfully, the progressive movement finally established a powerful framework for what must be done. Not yet even sworn into office, incoming freshman Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first Socialist elected to the House of Representatives in over a decade, captured national press coverage by addressing a sit-in of Sunrise Movement activists in the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi demanding action on climate. Working together with the youth-run Sunrise Movement, Ocasio Cortez’ Green New Deal quickly seized the high ground in the public debate over the climate crisis. The concept of a comprehensive Green New Deal was then taken up by Bernie Sanders, who fleshed it out into a detailed policy proposal that would do nothing short of overhauling the U.S. Economy. Sanders made the plan a centerpiece of his presidential campaign. 

It is worth taking a moment to examine the strengths of political framing included in the Green New Deal demand. The most important aspect of the Green New Deal is its successful fusion of economic justice and racial justice demands with climate imperatives. Any program capable of reducing emissions at the pace and scale necessary will require a massive mobilization of resources and restructuring of the economy. How can we talk about remaking entire sectors of the economy without discussing who will benefit? Will the jobs created be low wage employment with private contractors, or dignified high quality unionized jobs at publicly owned utilities?  Will billions and trillions in spending go straight into the pockets of the rich and megacorporations, as per usual? Or will we direct the historic investments necessary towards those who desperately need it  – for example reinvesting in Black and Native American communities who had their wealth violently extracted as a matter of government policy or ravaged West Virginians left to die from addiciton and suicide after generations of toiling in coal mines? 

Indeed, questions of economic redistribution and social justice are part and parcel of any major public policy, and none so much as the huge task of transforming our entire energy and transportation systems. Pretending these elements are not intertwined is simply a way of masking who benefits and who suffers. And if we don’t transition in a way that ensures justice, climate action will lose popular support (or never gain it in the first place). If measures to address climate change exacerbate other kinds of injustice, they will stall. We know that the Yellow Vest movement in France arose in part because taxation to reduce carbon emissions was placing the financial burden on working people while leaving the wealth of a tiny elite to multiply. (Hence the demand for a wealth tax.) The Obama administration’s legislative push for cap-and-trade failed, as its authors sought a constituency among big business, instead of among the public. The “conflict” between the labor movement and the environmental movement occurs principally when environmentalist proposals are neoliberal in nature – for years environmental activists saw renewable energy companies, not workers, as their go-to allies.

Sanders’ version of the Green New Deal resolves these contradictions, combining pro-labor and pro-environmental policy, investing more than 16 trillion dollars, creating 20 million jobs, many in publicly owned utilities, enough to virtually end unemployment. It dedicates $300 billion to expand public transit, creating the hope that so many poor and elederly people might actually be able to get around. It targets investment in the poorest areas, urban and rural, and to poisoned and polluted “frontline” communities, often predominantly black, brown, or Native American. Just as with the New Deal of the 1930’s, the scope of the crisis justifies a policy program broad enough to address many of the most burning needs of working people. What is so powerful about the framing of the Green New Deal is that it gives working people something to hope for, something to fight for. The Green New Deal fuses action on climate to the issues that are among the most important impacting people’s lives, doing so in a way that is practical and makes intuitive sense. 

Despite the radical nature of the Green New Deal, it has gained political traction. Even some moderate long-time politicians have been won over to the plan. Ed Markey’s decision to co-author the Green New Deal initiative with AOC may have saved his Senate seat. It looked like Markey was facing certain defeat against Rep. Joe Kennedy III before being rescued in part by the growing strength of the Sunrise Movement. The list of senators who co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution included not only progressives like Bernie Sanders and Ron Wyden, but also party establishment figures like Chris Van Hollen, and tellingly all of the most prominent Senators who were presidential aspirants at the time: Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, and even Amy Klobuchar.

The Green New Deal now stands as the only viable option for climate action on the political landscape, with failed “cap-and-trade” style schemes fading from memory, and the admittedly inadequate Paris Climate Agreement lying in ruins. Even the Biden campaign is drawing heavily on the Green New Deal to formulate its public position on climate (though they can be trusted to take no decisive action of their own volition). Successfully framing the issue is a major victory in and of itself. The climb may be steep and treacherous, but at least now the path is clear. 

On Thursday, September 10th, a group of progressive lawmakers, unions, and racial justice organizations, coming out of the “Green New Deal Coalition,” announced a renewed program based on the GND, branded the THRIVE Agenda. Strikingly, this group included Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, who is rumored to be very nervous about a possible primary challenge from AOC in 2022. As with any initiative including powerful Democrats, duplicity should be anticipated. Any fight for a GND-type program will be beset with attempts to pull out its guts and whittle down its bones until all that remains is a nub. There will be a colossal lobbying effort to make sure the program looks good without actually being good. But the coalition assembled is a positive sign that the demand for large-scale action is strong enough to force a national fight over the issue. Whether a Green New Deal can be sidelined or narrowed beyond recognition will depend heavily on the nature of the mobilization behind it.

For years, environmentalists framed the climate challenge as something that “demanded sacrifice.” Turn off the lights, don’t travel, modify your consumer patterns, feel guilty about your “carbon footprint.” They implied that the days of fun are coming to an end, living standards will have to fall, as if in some kind of cosmic punishment for your overindulgence. This was foolish. As the response to the Great Depression showed us, a crisis can be an opportunity to create a better, fairer society. Transit, retrofitted housing, local food, good unionized public jobs can mean improved quality of life for everybody. And if there’s got to be sacrifice, it had better be shared sacrifice, starting first and foremost with the rich.

How The Democrats Have Failed On Climate

The Republican Party has adopted an openly omnicidal policy that is so comical it could have been mouthed by a Bond villain. Former Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele chanted “Drill, Baby, Drill” at the party’s 2008 convention, a phrase then infamously embraced and repeated by the party’s Vice Presidential nominee. In the Trump era, the de facto Republican climate platform is “emit however much carbon you like and let the cards fall where they may.” But more often than not, despite their rhetoric, Democrats have been just as unwilling to take the action necessary to avoid deadly catastrophe.

In a grand speech characteristic of his campaign, Barack Obama declared upon clinching the Democratic nomination that future generations would tell their children “this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.” But in the crucial Copenhagen Summit (COP-15) the following year, in December of 2009, the Obama administration sabotaged the talks, surprising the participants by issuing a meaningless voluntary side declaration outside of the UN process, ending any hope for a binding treaty at a crucial juncture in the history of the climate negotiations. The Snowden revelations later showed that the NSA was actually spying on European allies in order to know how best to torpedo efforts led by Denmark to save the negotiations. This was the moment, in the midst of a global crisis and at the height of their power, that the Obama administration could have made good on their promises. But that was not their intention. From a Guardian article at the time:

“Lumumba Di-Aping, chief negotiator for the G77 group of 130 developing countries, said the deal had ‘the lowest level of ambition you can imagine. It’s nothing short of climate change scepticism in action. It locks countries into a cycle of poverty for ever. Obama has eliminated any difference between him and Bush.’”

After returning from the Copenhagen Summit, the Obama administration proceeded to do nothing to achieve voluntary goals the media has obediently branded “The Copenhagen Accord.” Instead, the Obama administration pursued what it called an “All of the Above” Energy Policy, actually aiding in the expansion of the extraction and burning of fossil fuels, with full knowledge that doing so would result in the deaths of millions. The Obama administration wasted funds subsidizing research into natural gas cars, even though it was already patently obvious that zero-emission electric vehicles were perfectly feasible. Even in Obama’s second term, he appointed fracking advocate Ernest Monitz to be Secretary of Energy, a man who bolstered industry propaganda talking points about so-called “clean coal,” advocating for continued burning of coal in this, the 11th hour for the future of our species. Incredibly, Obama appointed the chief scientist from BP, a climate change denier, to be Undersecretary for Science in the Energy Department. 

David Bookbinder, the Sierra Club’s former Chief Climate Counsel, concluded in assessing Obama’s legacy: “President Obama’s climate policy in his first term was largely indistinguishable from George W. Bush’s” Only once into his second term did Barack Obama begin to take any action that could be even generously characterized as serious on climate. But the administration had waited so long that its emissions reducing programs had barely begun to be implemented by the time Donald Trump took office. Perhaps Obama’s signature emissions reduction program, his Clean Power Plan which imposed the first carbon dioxide emission limits on power plants, was implemented so late that the legal challenges against it were still pending when he left office, allowing for its easy eventual reversal. If a Biden administration is allowed to follow a similar path, we are almost certainly doomed.

A Prescient Ad by Greenpeace in 2009 

“It will be one of several or maybe many suggestions that we receive,” Nancy Pelosi told POLITICO in February 2019, “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?” Pelosi’s dismissive comments about the Green New Deal have since become infamous among progressives. California Senator Diane Feinstein, whose investment capitalist husband’s net worth has been valued at more than a billion dollars, also predictably opposed designing a climate plan which would benefit poor and working people “My view of climate change legislation is that it should stick with climate change, and not involve education and guaranteed jobs and paid-for health care.” The wealthy liberals at the top of the Democratic Party are constitutionally opposed to the kind of redistribution of economic good that would be necessary for a successful transformation away from fossil fuels.

Speaker Pelosi was jarred into action by the Green New Deal resolution, bringing her own alternative to the house floor. But the Democrats’ “Climate Action Now” bill was not a serious alternative—it simply called on Donald Trump to stay in the Paris Climate Agreement, with its modest goals, and actually asked Trump to propose the plan on how to get there! Democrats will claim that they are “just as committed” to action on climate, with Nancy Pelosi sometimes calling climate her “flagship issue.” This is hollow posturing. Democrats will only take sufficient action to avert disaster if a massive popular mobilization forces them to do so.

Some attention has been given to Biden’s unity task force on climate, co-chaired by Ocasio-Cortez and including Varshini Prakash of the Sunrise Movement, both chosen by Senator Sanders. This task force backed elements of the Green New Deal such as creating millions of union jobs to build a “carbon zero” energy system by 2035. But just as notable as what this non-binding statement included was what it did not. The Biden campaign has consistently refused to support bans on fracking, major pipeline development, or on new oil and gas exploration projects. Clear cut bans are the cornerstone of effective environmental regulation—a straightforward ban on the most dangerous activity is easier to understand and enforce, and harder to wiggle out from. When Joe Biden seemed to back a ban on new gas fracking projects (“no new fracking,” he yelled), his campaign quickly issued a statement clarifying that was not actually his position. Resistance to setting any firm limits on fossil fuel extraction tells us plenty about the true intentions of the Biden camp.

Even in areas where “commitments” have been made, progressives should harbor no illusions that a potential Biden team has any intention of implementing those policies once in power. Biden’s staff selections serve as a better indicator of what is to come. And as the Intercept has reported, Biden has surrounded himself with former Obama administration “climate” advisors currently on the payroll of fossil fuel companies or private equity firms more than happy to reward them for their industry friendly service when Biden was last working in the White House. It will require nothing short of a tectonic political upheaval to force a President Biden to follow through on the “commitments” it is currently making.

In full view of the severe deficiencies of Biden, Pelosi, and the Democrats on Climate, it should remain obvious to all that Donald Trump cannot be reelected. Our slim remaining chance to save hundreds of millions from being driven from their homes by the climate crisis would be all but extinguished by a Trump re-election, which would be viewed as confirming Trump’s position that fossil fuel usage should be accelerated and that renewable energy is anti-American. With Trump re-elected, nothing short of immediate revolution would avert catastrophic nation-destroying effects. Even if some glorious revolution was realized in 20 or 30 years, it would be too late. We still burn. We are burning already. This reality should be chilling enough to send even a black bloc anarchist scurrying to cast a ballot for Uncle Joe in the swing states.

How Can We Mobilize Around The Green New Deal?

How should we speak about elected officials who refuse to support the necessary action to avoid climate catastrophe? We should condemn them in the strongest of terms. Only a sociopath is polite about the impending deaths of millions and the destruction of whole cities, entire nations. The savvy tacticians of the Civil Rights Movement understood the need to “dramatize” an issue in order to create moral and political pressure to force those in power to act. These strategies were sometimes surprisingly successful, forcing rapid shifts among elected officials’ positions on civil rights policy and legislation.

We must not be afraid to dramatize the issue. We cannot afford to be polite about what it means for Nancy Pelosi to mock the solution to a problem which may well drown much of the city of San Francisco which she “represents” in congress.

We must be ruthless and unforgiving towards those politicians and other powerful figures who continue to prevaricate. We should interrupt their speeches, conduct sit-ins at their offices, mock and ridicule them. We must boo them at polite functions, disrupt their galas and wine cave fundraisers. The world should turn hostile to them, their reputation should suffer, the pressure continuing to mount so long as a politician does not endorse the Green New Deal. Importantly, we must take the emotional risk to believe that even the most soulless corporate imperialist Democrat can be moved. This will be difficult for some leftists who are so entrenched in their studied cynicism. But cynicism looks a lot like resignation, even capitulation, and we can afford none of that right now.

As smoke blots out the sun here on the West Coast, let’s resolve: the fight against climate catastrophe and for a Green New Deal can not be left to the environmental organizations. The Sunrise Movement is doing indispensable work, but the climate is everyone’s “lane.” So let’s ask ourselves the questions “What is our union doing to raise hell for the Green New Deal? Our church? Our student body?” Many DSA chapters are struggling to figure out what is next, suffocating under the wet blanket of quarantine and still reeling from Bernie’s sudden defeat. What could be more urgent than mounting an aggressive campaign for the Green New Deal? Ultimately a successful push will require coordination at the national level. But on an individual level, just a handful of people could launch a bird dogging campaign against your centrist congressman that could start to make that person feel the heat.

It may make sense to continue or accelerate some of the more successful strategies already being employed by climate activists. The strategies of divestment and disavowal allow us to act within the places and structures where we find ourselves – every school, municipality, or pension fund can divest in fossil fuels, every elected official or non-profit can pledge to refuse fossil fuel funding. These localized campaigns win hearts and minds, build political pressure, complimenting and dovetailing with national political demands while offering individuals a more tangible and immediate reason to engage. As momentum grows, we should look to more ambitious action. Can we organize large scale civil disobedience actions? Are work stoppages possible? What are ways to harness the most power, seize the most leverage, engage the most people in actions and organizing? We do not have time to “vote them out” (a dubious strategy to bring about system change in the best of times), so we should be thinking in terms of direct action and mass campaigning, rather than over-emphasizing electoral strategies.

The issue of the Green New Deal holds the potential to speak to a vast spectrum of the population—anyone who can understand the implications of the science, those suffering from shitty jobs with low pay or no job prospects at all, people living in areas of concentrated poverty fenced in by racism, the mounting numbers of families suffering directly from the increasingly serious storms, fires, floods, and heatwaves intensified by the greenhouse effect. For those of us on the left, though, it can do something more: it can serve as a window onto the way we could mobilize our resources if a tiny elite did not own and control our economy and our society. This is what we mean when we say socialism: a system of government responsive to the demands of its people, a fair distribution of a nation’s wealth according to the needs of regular people. 

Under a Biden-style government, even a highly optimistic vision of what we may achieve in such a fight would necessarily fall far short of the vision we’ve laid out for the Green New Deal. Bringing about anything close to the levels of carbon reduction necessary would mark high in the history of achievements of popular movements. And while important relief can be wrung from a Biden administration, the redistribution of wealth and income envisioned by the Green New Deal is virtually inconceivable while they remain in power. It should be clear to us now that a sustainable society is impossible so long as major industry and the financial sector remain in private hands. Capitalism has proven the enemy of the planet as well as its people.

But in addition to being necessary for survival, a mass campaign for immediate action could leave the left in a much stronger position than where we begin. Properly organized, such a campaign will swell the ranks of any organization on its forefront. Winning victories draws people in who want to make a difference, and nourishes and validates past activists to keep fighting. Material gains can help raise expectations, a crucial ingredient for future organizing. Even the disappointment of what is not won can radicalize as the wholly inadequate nature of the liberal political order is revealed again.

The Fierce Urgency of Now

The issue of climate change has a special power to render us feeling powerless. To make us feel utter futility. Despair and inaction are the inevitable human response.

But 2021 offers us a fresh opportunity to insist on immediate action. The first year of a new Presidency offers its best chance for bold policy. The nation and the world will lay in economic ruin in the aftermath of COVID19—even relatively conservative economists will agree on the necessity for large scale economic stimulus. The Green New Deal offers just the kind of jumpstart needed. Climate is the issue, like it or not, which dwarfs and overshadows all others, and the next presidential term coincides with the last feasible window for action to save vast swaths of the earth from being rendered uninhabitable. 

This could have and should have been dealt with 40 years ago. ExxonMobil’s own research confirmed fossil fuel driven warming back in 1977 (they lied about it for years). The first World Climate Conference was held in 1979, with many expecting a global treaty to limit carbon emissions to be forthcoming. The entire world was on notice after The New York Times’ front page blared “Global Warming has Begun” following Dr. James Hansen’s testimony to the Senate in 1988. The Kyoto Protocol was negotiated in 1997, but the United States never signed it. And yet, globally we continued to emit more carbon into the atmosphere each year, knowing that doing so would likely condemn hundreds of millions to their deaths. To make excuses about cost or indulge further delays now is an absurd farce.

The Biden administration can take dramatic action, indeed they must. They will do nothing on their own, however. On the contrary, expect administration officials to employ all sorts of duplicity and trickery in their best efforts to sabotage climate action. But if we bring enough pressure to bear through organizing and direct action, are willing to dramatize the shame of their inaction, and find the courage to believe it is possible, we can force their hand. It’s up to us.

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