Current Affairs

The Climate Case for Joe Biden (Is Strong but More Complicated Than You Might Have Heard)

Biden’s climate plan may be lackluster, but it is less likely to actively kill people.

In its 175-year history, Scientific American has never endorsed a presidential candidate. This year, however, they endorsed Joe Biden. While Biden may tweet in defense of “listening to scientists” while still supporting fracking against the recommendations of most scientists, a central plank of Scientific American’s endorsement—as well as that of other, more directly political news sources—is climate change. The argument in favor of Biden roughly goes like this: Biden has a climate plan and Donald Trump doesn’t. Trump refuses to publicly acknowledge the reality of climate change, aggressively pushing fossil fuel development, and therefore Biden is not only the better climate candidate, but necessary to elect to avoid certain doom. While Biden’s plans remain insufficient, activists—the argument goes—are better positioned to effectively push his administration to adopt more scientifically valid policy goals. 

It’s true that the Biden campaign has a plan, and in response to activist pressure has moved the language of those plans in a better direction on the climate over time. There is a world of difference (literally, the world) between the way Trump and Biden publicly engage with this issue. 

But such arguments can ring hollow to a group of voters who will likely be important to a Biden victory: independents and longtime climate activists familiar with the fact that when it comes to Democratic promises around climate change, words rarely line up with actions. In these last days before the election, it’s important to consider the very real consequences of a second Trump term on our ability to effectively decarbonize the economy. 

Independents and climate activists are right to be skeptical of corporate Democrats like Biden. The DNC, after all, accepts millions of dollars in fossil fuel cash to act in the interests of oil and gas companies, and won’t even commit to ending fossil fuel subsidies. Biden rejects the Green New Deal, committing $1.7 trillion federal dollars to the issue versus Bernie Sanders’s more realistic and functional $16 trillion proposal. As mentioned, Biden still refuses to ban fracking. Fracking has already led to a mass increase in greenhouse gas emissions, primarily from methane, which is many times more potent at trapping heat than carbon dioxide. An ambitious Green New Deal plus keep-it-in-the-ground style policies like fracking bans are bare minimum positions needed for slowing climate change. 

Nearly a quarter of all human emissions have occurred since Biden became vice president in 2009. The Obama-Biden administration’s climate record was atrocious; the Obama presidency dramatically expanded oil and gas production with a virtually unregulated fracking boom and lifted the oil export ban, flooding the world with U.S. petroleum. This unleashed a methane bomb, undoubtedly a major contributor to the rapid warming now taking place. The Obama administration continued the practice of opening tens of millions of acres of public land to oil and gas drilling, some of which was illegal. Obama, arguably to the left of Biden, still brags about being an oil president. 

The Obama administration, however, successfully mitigated backlash from activists by promoting policies that created an effective illusion of progress, but were not actually capable of meaningfully reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The two signature climate policies of the Obama administration were the Paris Agreement and the Clean Power Plan. Even if the Paris Agreement was followed to the letter—and such U.N. resolutions rarely are—it would still have allowed economies to warm the planet by over 3 degrees Celsius, potentially triggering unstoppable feedback loops and an unrecoverable economic collapse. While the Clean Power Plan was better than nothing, it was far from what’s needed to confront the climate crisis, being little more than an incrementalist Environmental Protection Agency rule that could be easily overturned by a subsequent administration (as was predictable even before it came into being). And for those activists who didn’t accept such rhetorical sophistry, Obama’s administration proved willing to allow state violence to suppress opposition, stepping in to stop the clashes over the Dakota Access Pipeline only after much indigenous activist blood was spilled.

But even despite this abysmal record, there is a very compelling case from a climate perspective to support Joe Biden, and for climate activists and independents to work for his victory. 

As I’ve argued elsewhere, political radicalism is a necessary component to any effective decarbonization movement. Inside-the-beltway political work and peaceful demonstrations are vital, but having a more robust radical flank in decarbonization movements is absolutely necessary, too, and will be well into the future. Activists willing to stand in the way of development and infrastructure are essential to building sustainable societies. Indigenous land and water protectors are one important vanguard in this work, but they are being killed all over the globe at stunning, devastating rates. A record number of environmental activists, many of whom were indigenous people, were murdered last year by extractive companies and their mercenaries. Most of those murders went unpunished, and there are likely many more that have gone undocumented. And this isn’t just a random spike: the murder rate for environmental activists has been rapidly increasing, doubling in fifteen years. The death toll of the activists protecting places like the Amazon and other ecological zones vital to earth’s continued habitability is higher than the combined death toll for U.K. and Australian soldiers deployed in war zones. This global war on environmental activists, mostly perpetrated by right-wing governments, may be a glimpse of the nation’s near future under continued Republican control of government.

Obama negligently allowed violence toward water-protectors over the Dakota Access Pipeline while his FBI actively harassed environmentalists, even violating its own internal guidelines to open terrorism cases against non-violent activists. However, his administration never crossed the line of openly murdering political enemies. President Trump has. Portland protester Michael Reinoehl, who was recently accused of shooting a Trump supporter in self-defense, was killed in cold blood by federal officers without warning or provocation while unarmed. It was an outright execution. In response, Trump himself defended the need for such “retribution.” He admitted openly that he sent in U.S. Marshals and “we didn’t want to arrest [Reinoehl].” It’s hard to interpret this as anything other than a political murder. As Ken Klippenstein recently reported, anonymous sources describe Trump’s Homeland Security agents illegally tapping phones of political “targets” without warrants. The source made clear that these kinds of illegal activities are coming directly from the president: “When the president makes the kind of statements he does on the news, you know that you have tacit approval…” The U.S. government has surveilled and murdered activists before, of course, but Trump has set a precedent for wielding open, undisguised political violence against activists willing to disrupt infrastructure and economic activity—in other words, the very people and actions necessary for slowing climate change. It should be clear by now that the longer he is in office, the more violent and oppressive such practices will become. 

And it’s not just federal agents carrying out political hits. Wisconsin shooter Kyle Rittenhouse is only the latest in a number of killers undoubtedly emboldened by the President to murder his enemies. Central to Trump’s base-building is uniting coalitions of violent, heavily armed groups and individuals. One such group, the Three Percenters, are intimately linked with fossil fuel development, with a substantial number reportedly working in the Bakken Oil Shale in North Dakota. A far-right militia founded in 2008, the Three Percenters have a broad geographic reach beyond North Dakota, being called by experts the “most dangerous” extremist group in Canada, and have already racked up a long list of disruptions in the United States. Most recently they burned an effigy of Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear, prompting the governor to publicly accuse them of inciting terror. It’s no far leap to imagine that a second Trump term would continue to embolden such far-right militias and federal agents, together increasing the intimidation, surveillance, and even murder of anti-fossil fuel activists. As David Sirota has pointed out, Trump has already specifically targeted climate activists with less dramatic, but vitally important behind-the-scenes sabotage, like blocking anti-fossil fuel litigation and empowering Republican lawmakers to criminalize legal protest.   

The first presidential debate offered a perfect distillation of this dynamic. On one hand, a single question came up regarding climate change, and Biden seemed to simultaneously defend and reject the Green New Deal, claiming that the GND would pay for itself, but that he has his own plan to address the climate crisis.  Biden, it seems, is addicted to disappointing prevarication on the most critical issue of the day. Meanwhile, when asked to condemn white supremacy and right-wing militias, Trump took his turn to prevaricate. Biden pressed him to denounce the Proud Boys, a fascist militia the FBI considers an extremist group whose founder frequently calls for violence against protesters and who have been filmed committing violence against protesters. Instead of denouncing them, Trump ordered the Proud Boys to “stand back and stand by,” which the group quickly celebrated as a show of support, even creating a logo featuring Trump’s words. While Biden is weak on climate, Trump winks at militias who will undoubtedly feel empowered to physically attack those who will be critical in forcing climate action. In the final debate, Biden reiterated his support of fracking, and Trump lamented the birds who die from wind turbines while also saying natural gas is very clean.

But front-line activists and protesters aren’t the only ones at risk of Trumpian political violence. Climate-driven human migrations have grown in recent years and will continue to grow. By midcentury, there could be a billion or more climate refugees and migrants. While the Obama administration’s family separations and record deportations are morally indefensible, Trump has crossed a chilling line, actively transforming border detention centers into death camps, with reports of widespread abuse, neglect, and even forced sterilization procedures reminiscent of the nation’s disturbing past eugenics episodes. 

This sets a precedent for how leaders will respond to the (likely inevitable) mass climate migrations. With high-level administration officials like Stephen Miller very deliberately shaping immigration policy from a white nationalist perspective, a second Trump term would continue to fortify a moral atmosphere that promotes eugenics and annihilation of refugees. This nihilistic value system has already and will continue to extend internationally. As climate crises intensify, such victims will multiply, as will the harsh means by which governments treat them. Climate change is often referred to as a “threat multiplier” in national security circles. But it is also a values multiplier. Ethical systems that promote eugenicist, nationalistic, annihilationist, and anti-environment values will be intensified with increasing climate stresses. But the reverse of this may also be true: as climate crises surge, values promoting humanism, cooperation, mutual aid, and ecocentrism can also intensify and find broader purchase. But that will only be possible if there isn’t an omnicidal authoritarian eager to kill, deport, or lock in death camps the people expressing such values. 

Finally, climate change, above all, is a destabilizer, sowing chaos wherever it strikes. Whether through floods, hurricanes, wildfires, and famines, or the migration and civil upheaval resulting from such calamities, all climate impacts disrupt infrastructure, governments, and daily life. The chaos of climate change is good for Trump. Aspiring authoritarians, who build power through the promise of Strong Man security, thrive on such emergencies. Greater climate insecurity increases his power. While Biden’s climate commitments may not yet be sufficient to slow warming, such emergencies are not likely to be politically desirable for him in the way they are for Trump. That is to say, they are not central to the way in which he seeks to wield power. Even the most Machiavellian, realpolitik incentives for Biden’s grasp on power are aligned toward climate stability. Trump’s? The opposite. Despite their public denialism, Trump’s administration is well aware that climate change will intensify and cause greater instability, yet whenever climate emergencies have struck on their watch, the administration has been eerily sanguine. In response to the increasingly destructive western wildfires or the more than 150 named storms that have impacted the country since 2016, the administration has done little. Perhaps the most egregious example of the administration’s callousness was when Trump threw paper towels to victims of Hurricane Maria, which killed over 3,000 Americans (an act which itself recalled George W. Bush’s catastrophic mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, which claimed nearly 2,000 American lives). Such barbarism will undoubtedly intensify as climate emergencies worsen. 

Since Reagan, the Republican Party has consistently pushed political boundaries in one direction. Whether those boundaries involve political murder and torture, eugenic and annihilationist treatment of vulnerable people, or a combination of deliberate negligence and authoritarian overreach in the wake of national emergencies, the line is always moved in an ever more extreme, destructive, right-wing direction. The Democratic Party of the last forty years has failed to push that line in the opposite direction; the dynamic has consistently been one of Republicans pushing the line and Democrats moving to meet it. But there is no good evidence to support the idea that a Democratic administration will push the line quite so far, so fast, and to such brutal extremes as a Republican-controlled government will in these critical next few years. In the way that greenhouse gasses accumulate in the atmosphere and create warming into the future, such political precedents accumulate in the halls of power and influence political behavior into the future. The longer Republicans are allowed to set such precedents, the further into the future their impact will reach. And regardless of who’s in power, the future will be shaped fundamentally by climate and ecological crises. 
So while Biden is far from ideal on climate issues, and those of us who have been working hard to stall climate change for many years will have to continue this work into the future, under a Biden presidency we’re more likely to stay alive to be able to do so. It’s hard to believe that an entirely Republican-controlled government would not actively kill more people—particularly activists and refugees—than even the vilest Democrat-controlled government. If filling out a bubble next to Joe Biden’s name can save the life of just one courageous activist, it is well worth it. After all, if you want a picture of the future that follows a second Trump term, imagine an American flag croc stamping on a human face—forever.

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