The Climate Fight on Our Terms
Biden can (and should) use executive action to combat climate change. But that’s not enough; we need robust policies that foster a popular base for climate action and result in tangible improvements in people’s lives
As I write this, Texas is in the midst of an unnatural winter disaster. I say unnatural because I am convinced that humankind’s manipulation of the climate and destruction of the environment played a key role in this storm’s intensity, and the reliance on fossil fuel is playing a key role in why the suffering is so much worse than it needed to be. Less than a month ago, terrible mudslides induced by unnaturally severe winter rains ravaged highways and homes in central California. Less than a year ago, unnaturally powerful wildfires consumed the American West and large portions of Australia.
Climate change is here, and it’s far too late to avoid many of the unnatural natural disasters we have brought on ourselves. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a fight against climate change that still needs to happen, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still tragedies we can avoid, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to limit the pain of the tragedies now unavoidable. Local activism is important, but a threat of this scale requires a response at least equal in scale. Federal policy is an important barricade and weapon in this fight; the extent that federal policy will be mustered in this fight is now also largely reliant on Joe Biden and the Democratic Party, for better or for worse.
While running for president, Joe Biden described an ambitious set of climate policies, a set that — thanks to the Biden-Sanders task force on climate change — was the most ambitious and potentially transformative ever put forth by a mainstream general election candidate. As president-elect, Joe Biden named addressing climate change as one of his top-four priorities. As president, some of the first actions Joe Biden took were to combat climate change and promote environmental justice.
Further to the left, the Sunrise Movement and other environmental groups are sticking to their position that Biden’s ascension to the presidency proves that a mandate to act on climate change exists. Furthermore, the economic destruction in the wake of the COVID pandemic give the left even more leverage to push for a Green New Deal program and it gives institutionalists like Biden a chance to show that the government can meaningfully improve people’s lives.
Of course, the political conditions are not exactly conductive to success on this front. Due to the Senate’s 50–50 split, Democrats like Joe Manchin (a conservative from deep-red coal country) have an atrociously outsized say in Democratic legislation. While the new Senate struggles to pass a basic COVID relief bill, it’s still possible that it might end up extending needed funding to climate-related projects like teetering transit authorities across the country, or allocating funds to green infrastructure here and there. The odds of extensive, serious legislation to combat climate change though? They’re low. The mainstream media darling and allegedly reasonable Republican Mitt Romney has already made it clear that he has no interest in that and has urged his fellow conservatives to make sure that “we don’t get rid of gas and coal and oil.”
With the constant gridlock in Congress (and the lack of motivation among conservatives on both sides of the aisle to do anything serious about this massive problem), state and local activists and policymakers have taken important steps towards combating climate change. These state and local actions have resulted in some great progress for renewable energy deployment for example. Unfortunately, the looming budget crisis as a result of the pandemic is about to clobber state and local governments everywhere that will cripple these smaller-scale climate actions.
Maybe the Federal Reserve will ease some of the pressure on states and municipalities, but ultimately there is no equal substitute for the gargantuan spending power of the federal government. Republicans though are insistent on a small, inadequate stimulus package that would not include any aid to state or city governments. Congress is killing federal action on climate change by inaction and killing state and local action through defunding.
Given these unideal conditions, a new consensus is forming around Joe Biden’s role in fighting climate change, and what he can (and should) use executive action to accomplish. He can set carbon emission standards in the energy sector. He can set new standards for methane emissions that result from drilling for oil and gas. He can direct the SEC to require the disclosure of environmental and climate risk from businesses. He can order the whole of government to seek out and eradicate the disparate effects of climate change harms among racial and economic groups. He has already rejoined the Paris Climate Accords and launched a new attempt at climate diplomacy (though, after four years of Trump the U.S. is not at all in a position to lead on this issue, especially after recent decarbonization commitments from China, Japan, South Korea, and the EU). It’s also worth noting that Biden’s extremely foolish attempts to be more hawkish towards China than Trump bodes terribly for any hopes of a Chinese-U.S. climate pact.
These actions can and will result in real decreases in carbon emissions and the battlefield of climate politics, both domestically and abroad. However, for significant climate policy to last longer than just one or two Democratic terms, policies that build a popular base for fighting climate change that are directly and visibly connected to material improvements in people’s lives absolutely must be crafted and enacted. It is especially in that first area that executive action on climate issues falls short. No one but climate hawks, fossil fuel hawks, or policy wonks notice the executive orders and so no popular support among the public is built, especially not among those who are skeptical or explicitly hostile to green policies.
Given the morass that is Congress, given how little time we have to avoid absolute catastrophe, and given how dysfunctional our institutions, I am extremely sympathetic to Biden’s desire to act on climate change now through executive action. Honestly, the likelihood that the federal courts and Supreme Court will support conservative challenges to climate regulation, the environment’s best hope might be for Biden and the Democrats to go scorched earth on SCOTUS and totally delegitmize that anti-democratic institution. Of course, that’s a fantasy path that Biden (ever the institutionalist) will never go down.
Something else that must be considered — no matter how worrisome it is — is that a very large number of people voted for Trump in 2020 even as progressive policies won in several red states and remained broadly popular. I can’t help but think that this is in some way due to Biden’s campaigning around the COVID pandemic, and that should worry climate advocates. Biden could have beat on Trump for both his horrendous management of the public health crisis and his total failure to financially support for the millions of newly-unemployed; instead, Biden let those two issues become countervailing to each other, the pandemic became an issue of safety vs. prosperity, of health vs. the economy. In fact, exit poll data (take it with a large grain of salt) implies that voters concerned about the pandemic response voted overwhelmingly for Biden, while those who were concerned about the economy overwhelmingly voted for Trump.
It would be a monumental disaster if that some type of counterposing happened with the climate and the economy, so it is guaranteed to be the messaging path that conservatives take. Be prepared for more “the cure is worse than the disease” slogans to be the crescendoing refrain in the coming political battles over climate change. As outright denial becomes more implausible and less acceptable, this sort of lazy nihilism will take over.
The 2016 election gave us a preview of this. Trump rallied against Barack Obama for waging a “war on coal”. Trump promised to bring the fossil fuel industry back to it’s alleged former glory, to make it great again. That rhetoric was a devastating weapon against Hillary Clinton in Appalachia. Now, to anyone paying attention, it’s extremely obvious that Trump totally failed to revive coal; in reality, more coal plants were closed in Trump’s term than in either of Obama’s. U.S. coal production had already been declining for years because natural gas is cheaper, and U.S. coal jobs had been disappearing for years even before that as automation took over. The truth is that the coal industry peaked in the 1920s and has been on the decline ever since. At this peak, the industry employed over 800,000; today, only approximately 42,000 of these jobs still exist. Coal companies are increasingly going bankrupt, and as they do so they are abandoning their pension obligations to former workers and leaving the federal government to take on the bill (in December of 2019, Congress bailed out approximately 100,000 coal miner’s pensions).
Many energy researchers have already shown that coal is the proverbial “canary in the coal mine” (no pun intended) for other fossil fuel industries. Oil isn’t in as dire straits yet, but it is undeniably headed in that direction. The fracking industry has been able to rapidly expand in the American West and Great Plains due to an abundance of cheap credit thrown their way (and with the encouragement of Obama who wanted to make the U.S. the world’s leading oil producer). The catch though is that the shale oil produced by fracking is only profitable when oil prices are high and global markets are saturated with shale oil due to overproduction. The pandemic-caused economic decline and the price war between Saudi and Russian oil producers made prices plummet last year, which greatly contributed to a record number of bankruptcies among U.S. oil producers. This avalanche of bankruptcies resulted in approximately 107,000 industry workers losing their jobs in the U.S. Some of those might come back as the economy recovers (whenever that will be), but many will not. As renewable energy relentlessly replaces fossil fuels, some experts are suggesting that the world has hit “peak oil demand”. Oil production employment even in Texas “may never fully recover” due to the shale oil industry consolidating and learning to exist with fewer workers.
Even with all these hardships, the oil industry won’t disappear anytime in the near-future and the current fossil fuel production trajectory still comes with devastating climate repercussions. Because of those two facts, taking on the massive fossil fuel industry is still vital to any serious program to address climate change. As this juggernaut industry that once seemed omnipotent is struggling and slipping, now is the perfect time help it on its way out, to further undercut its power. There are thousands of industry workers unemployed now and that presents a very real chance to implement a federal green jobs program. Not only could that ease the burden of unemployment, but it would make manifest and reinforce the promise of alternative green energy and green employment.
Unfortunately, this needed confrontation is one that Biden is largely shying away from. He is approaching the fossil fuel problem defensively; he has distanced himself from the Green New Deal and went out of his way multiple times to say that he would not ban fracking. He did include “green jobs” as a major part of his climate platform, but they were essentially just thrown-in a long list of policy ideas and proposals. At this point in American public discourse, “green jobs” are just a toothless piece of Democatic rhetoric and campaign-speak anyways, and voters will rightly view them with skeptically until they are backed up in reality. I acknowledge that this is a difficult problem for Biden to address politically, but he has to address it; so far, he has largely skirted around it, and that is not sufficient. He has not brought up the way that the fossil fuel industry has been hemorrhaging jobs for decades, nor has he adequately tied fighting climate change as a way to alleviate that problem.
This is the path taken by most centrist and conservative Democrats; denouncing the Green New Deal while defending fossil fuels. Representative Conor Lamb of PA-7 has repeatedly criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortex for (rightly) saying that “fracking is bad”. He has said that a fracking ban is “unpopular” and completely “unrealistic”. What’s actually unrealistic though is expecting the fossil fuel industry to provide plentiful stable jobs, in the long- or near-term future. The Democrats and Republicans who claim otherwise are either liars or they’re deluded. In Lamb’s own state, Pennsylvania, natural gas jobs were declining long before the pandemic. Pennsylvania oil production jobs had been relatively steady before the collapse of oil prices in 2020, but even then there were more (and increasingly more) jobs in that state in the “energy efficiency” sector than traditional fossil fuel extraction. In a further sign of the industry’s decline, its own investors know the future is bleak. Wil VanLoch, the CEO of a private equity firm heavily invested in shale production has said that he has told his friends’ children not to go into the oil industry. The writing is on the wall — why are so many Democrats (including Joe Biden) pretending otherwise?
Of course, the indisputable fact that big oil’s problems are nearly entirely separate from climate policy won’t get in the way of Republicans claiming otherwise and accusing the Democrats of waging war on coal. Unfortunately, there’s evidence that it will be an effective strategy for them. For one thing, we can again look at how effectively Trump bludgeoned Clinton with that accusation. There’s also the fact that in 2020, while Biden did improve on Clinton’s vote share in much of Pennsylvania, he lost a lot of ground in South Texas among Latino voters in Democratic strongholds. This loss was due in part definitely to the perceived threat to fossil fuel jobs. If Democrats don’t make it known that the fossil fuel industry is declining with or without climate policy, the oil slump will transform from a climate opportunity to a political doom.
Rather than treating the fossil fuel industry like some sort of treasured facet of Americana or a precious, holy job creator, Democrats should be going after the oil bosses who are leaving workers high and dry and abandoning their pensioners. Rather than allowing themselves to wrongly be portrayed as job killers, Democrats should be attacking Republicans as the real barriers to alternative new jobs. In the past, coal miners and their communities have turned on their employers when it became undeniably clear that the industry did not care about them. As it was with the coal industry, workers will be the ones to ultimately pay for the record number of bankruptcies among oil producers. In October of last year, Exxon planned to lay off 14,000 more workers (approximately 15% of their entire workforce) in order to maintain investor profits.
The slow and painful death of oil and coal both make clear the conditions that are rampant in the U.S.: the danger of relying on capitalist industries for healthcare and retirement, the autocratic control of corporations over the livelihoods of workers, and the massive power difference between investors and workers. These industries — in addition to making clear the need for bold and fast climate action — are fine examples of why we need a socialized and democratic economy that would empower workers.
To end on a bright note, the movement to fight climate change has come a long way in the past decade. Activists have shifted the Overton window of climate discussion in a much needed direction; the conversation has a new bar for progressive and just policy. These activists have elected representatives like Ocasio-Cortez who are serious advocates of the Green New Deal, from city councils all the way to the U.S. Senate. That said, climate advocates need to be realistic about the difference between rhetorical gains and ontological gains. Also worth noting is that while climate and Indigenous movements have been successful in blocking some new fossil fuel infrastructure, transforming or eliminating already-existing carbon-intensive infrastructure has proven to be far more difficult. To sum it up, the climate-concerned left has far more power than ever, but still far less than it needs.
For better or for worse, the years ahead are sure to be full of political turbulence, and with that turbulence is opportunity. The BLM protests and riots last year were almost definitely fueled by the disparate and intense toll that the economic and health crises took on Black communities. In the coming year, as eviction moratoriums end, stimulus checks fail to arrive, and unemployment benefits dry up, climate activists should ready themselves to take to the streets. They must draw the obvious connections between the housing crisis and unemployment to demands for millions of new green jobs. Simultaneously, climate advocates must continue building bridges to other organizations on the left — electoral-focused groups, labor unions, and tenants’ rights groups to name a few. They must leverage these alliances to countervail the fossil fuel industry through direct action, economic boycott, and public policy.
The U.S. is still suffering the aftereffects of the 2008 financial crisis and the long-term effects of 2020 will ripple far into the future. Regardless of what the Biden Administration does or doesn’t do, climate advocates must use this moment as the radicalizing opportunity it is to continue to create political movements that can fight for the climate and the future on their own terms.