Climate change poses an existential threat to humanity, not only from global warming and extreme weather but from its role in the sixth mass extinction of species in the planet’s history.
We need Joe Biden to be the Climate President, especially after the four lost years with climate denier Trump. This begins with Biden taking comprehensive Executive Action on climate change on day one. But if we are to avoid social collapse, more fundamental shifts are needed on a schedule much faster than politicians normally operate on.
Climate Executive Orders
A number of large coalitions (e.g., ClimatePresident.org) have outlined a comprehensive list of Executive Actions the President can take without the need for Congressional approval. It includes setting a goal of moving to 100% clean electricity by 2035 (that sector accounts for only a quarter of carbon emissions). It embraces a commitment to environmental justice for frontline communities and a Just Transition to ensure that all individuals benefit from the changes.
Most importantly, it calls to keep fossil fuels in the ground, including a halt to new fossil fuel infrastructure. Such a halt is something that even the progressive wing of the Democrats has shied away from. Other countries have shown that a dramatic increase in renewables does not necessarily result in major cuts in greenhouse gas emission.
Early signs post-election are not great. Congressional Democrats just joined with Republicans to award more than $6 billion to the highly speculative carbon capture technology (aka as corporate welfare greenwashing) (Another $11 billion went to nuclear). A major motivation is to enable fossil fuels to be continued to be used. And Biden’s climate team is a recycling of the tepid Obama administration and its all-of-the- above energy approach. Progressive cutting-edge climate advocates and scientists were not appointed. House Democrats overwhelmingly voted against Cong. Ocasio-Cortez for a position on the committee dealing with climate.
Biden’s support for rejoining the Paris climate accords is a welcome common-sense step but the Paris accord is grossly inadequate in solving the climate crisis. Much of its weakness is due to the Obama administration leading the industrial polluting nations to oppose measures sought by the rest of the world to combat climate change. It opposed lowering the climate target from 2 degrees C to 1.5 degree and to requiring mandatory emission commitments.
The head of the United Nations has pleaded with countries to declare a climate emergency – and act accordingly. Too many governments have limited such declarations to media spin rather than launching an urgent, society-wide mobilization of all resources and brainpower to solve the climate crisis.
The Window For Bold Climate Action Is Rapidly Closing
Climate activists often chide scientists for sugarcoating the realities of climate change. The IPCC (International Panel on Climate Change) has consistently underestimated the speed and severity of global warming. Increasingly the call for net-zero emissions by 2050 – a central demand of Democrats – is viewed as a death sentence. The IPCC’s warning that we have 11 years left for unprecedented worldwide action on climate is overly optimistic; we must do everything we can immediately, not propose 10, 20, 30-year deadlines.
The warming that has already taken place in the Artic has exceeded what scientists thought wouldn’t happen until the end of the century. Scientists worry however that too much of the truth would sound so bleak that society would give up hope. Yet the present approach is falling far short of what is needed to provide some chance of avoiding the worse of climate collapse. No wonder young people no longer tolerate the timid, go-slow approach of our political and economic leaders.
COVID Relief Through Green New Deal
A decade ago I helped the Green Party initiate the first call in the US for a Green New Deal (greens in Europe had launched the effort several years previously). The original GND, an economic stimulus recovery response to the global financial collapse, combined a rapid ten-year transition to 100% renewables, zero-emissions with the implementation of an Economic Bill of Rights (guaranteed living wage jobs, universal health care, housing, education) as FDR had called for in his last two State of the Unions. It also supported major cuts in the Pentagon budget as a principal way to fund the effort, along with a robust carbon tax. AOC and the Sunrise Movement two years ago elevated the GND to a new level of public awareness.
Unfortunately, each new GND version put forth by various Democrats has weakened it, often calling for a “plan” while getting rid of (the faster and more affordable) public ownership and the ban of new fossil fuel infrastructure and fracking. Democrats have also pushed the deadline for “net-zero” emissions to 2050 and often just use the term GND to highlight that investing in renewables is a job creation strategy.
The COVID crisis show how interconnected the world has become – and that it is possible to rapidly change day-to-day existence. Many have said that the GND and solving the climate crisis must be the core of the country’s – and world – COVID economic relief package. Congressional Democrats led by Senate Democratic leader Charles Schumer have sponsored THRIVE as a GND-lite infrastructure stimulus package for 2021, though funding details and climate policies are largely missing.
Ecosocialism, Drawdown, The Common Good
The world has slowly begun the long-overdue pivot to develop renewable energy such as solar and wind. But we will not avoid climate collapse if we believe we can merely unplug our industrial societies from fossil fuels and plug into renewables. We need far more fundamental changes. Ecosocialism would enable us to democratically plan the economy to meet everyone’s basic needs within ecological limits.
We need to replace our capitalist system, which allows the drive for profit to determine how we allocate resources. Pope Francis in his Climate Encyclical pointed out that the capitalist system has failed humanity, including its role in driving climate change. He recognized that the same mentality that allows humans to exploit the environment is what allows rich countries to dominate the poor, for men to oppress women. Solving climate change means embracing a world based on sustainability and equality. We need an ecosocialist approach that embraces the common good with democratic control and public ownership of our energy system. Having hedge funds get rich off of renewable energy won’t solve the climate crisis.
We need to look far beyond solar and wind, conservation, battery storage, and electric cars (all of which pose their own environmental problems). The American lifestyle, with its wasteful consumption of energy and resources, is not sustainable. We will not survive an economic system that requires constant growth and increased energy to function. The Drawdown Project thinks outside of the box for changes society can make to reduce our carbon footprint (e.g., worldwide increase the education of girls).
More research is needed into developing more environmentally sustainable industrial processes. One reason that politicians argue for net-zero emissions with carbon offsets – which the fossil fuel industry loves – is that they say that renewable energy is not capable of driving certain industrial processes. Cement accounts for 8% of the world’s greenhouse emissions and requires extremely high temperatures. Yet the Roman Empire invented cement without burning fossil fuels more than 2300 years ago. Going back to the pasture techniques used by ancient civilizations such as the Romans is one way that Drawdown suggests to reduce emissions from our food system.
Far more attention needs to be paid to transportation, the largest source of emissions, and buildings, the fourth largest. We have to reject the use of natural gas as a bridge fuel; rather it is a gangplank to climate disaster. A simple step is to replace heating /cooling buildings by using geothermal or air heat pumps. New buildings must eliminate emissions and incorporate renewable energy. We need expanded mass transit, not hundreds of millions of electric cars.
Biden’s call for climate action helped him win the election. His climate policies in the general election were significantly stronger than during the primary, though still short of what is needed. The world needs him to continue his evolution to a climate champion.
Biden Needs to Spend Big—And Fast. Here Are 4 Immediate Priorities.
Forget about the debt. Boosting the economy and sending people money isn’t just good policy, it’s smart politics.
MAX B. SAWICKY DECEMBER 18, 2020
Expectations are high for the incoming Joe Biden administration, not because the political circumstances are advantageous, nor because of Biden himself, but because our troubles are so great.
Tens of millions of Americans are unemployed. The death toll from Covid-19 in the United States now tops 300,000. An avalanche of evictions and foreclosures is on its way. And this is on top of our ongoing political crisis: A stubborn minority of voters refuse to recognize the results of the election, while many of President Trump’s supporters remain unwilling to observe elementary safety measures to reduce the further spread of the virus. In Washington, D.C. last week, a rampaging mob of fascist goons assaulted random passers-by and vandalized black churches — ostensibly as a way to show fealty to Trump. To put it mildly, America is in bad shape.
Much of the Biden administration’s ability to respond to the health and economic crises we face depends on the outcome of the January 5 run-off elections in Georgia that will determine which party controls the Senate. But even with victories in both of those races, centrist Democrats in Congress will continue to oppose major progressive policies. And Democrats’ narrow majority in the House (and, if we’re lucky, the Senate) will make it difficult for President Biden to spend as much money as necessary.
Nevertheless, there is a lot of new spending we need, and elevating the most urgent priorities is an important political task: It applies pressure on current Democratic officials, including the president himself, and educates and motivates people who can vote for a new, more progressive Congress in 2022.
Here are four of the top priorities:
1. Send money now! When it comes to stimulus, there are always dual objectives: boosting the economy, and providing relief for those in the greatest need. Sending checks to everybody, extending unemployment benefits, and bailing out beleaguered small business have already been shown to be effective. The recession and pandemic are far from over, so these policies should continue. The skinny compromise that might be struck in Congress provides no more than a small respite. To speed up a return to economic health, the first step is to avoid sinking deeper into the current rut.
Just as important is providing relief to state and local governments, which provide services of vital importance to working people. These governments never quite recovered from the Great Recession of 2007 – 2008. They are obliged to balance their budgets, so unlike the federal government, their borrowing capacity is restricted. The triple hit to state and local finance — reduced tax revenue, added recession-related spending, and additional virus-related expenses — has depleted their reserves.
2. Public investment and the Green New Deal: do everything. A recession is always an opportune time to ramp up public investment on a permanent basis. Many possibilities will compete for funding. Two important angles should be kept in mind.
The traditional sort of investment in “infrastructure” — roads, bridges, school buildings, airports and rail systems — has been neglected for decades. A revival, however, needs to be done through the lens of climate change awareness. Among other things, this means a preference for public, mass transit rather than roads; the upgrade of public facilities (including rail systems) with a view towards reducing carbon emissions; and the modernization of the nation’s power grid.
The other consideration is to take seriously what might be called an infrastructure of care: workers and facilities devoted to housing and caring for those unable to do so for themselves, including the persistently unemployed, the indigent elderly, the differently abled, those in failing mental health, those without housing, the incarcerated, and beleaguered immigrants.
3. The Peace Dividend. Currently, the federal budget devotes $697 billion to national defense. When it comes to the federal government actually doing things other than mailing checks to individuals and medical care providers — what is classified as “discretionary spending” — defense takes nearly half. Much of this money is devoted to supporting the capacity to wage war, and we have to ask, against whom? The interventions in Iraq, Syria, Libya and Yemen have not gone well, to say the least.
It is possible to overstate how quickly a peace dividend could be pried out of the defense budget. Workers and uniformed military cannot be summarily dismissed — they will need transition assistance. Big-ticket hardware contracts that are set for a period of years cannot be instantly canceled. Even so, there is an opportunity to redirect a large quantity of funding to non-defense purposes.
4. Forget about the national debt. In a downturn, the economy loses more than it gains by failing to ramp up federal deficit spending. Of course, Republicans have shown themselves to be comical hypocrites when it comes to worries about deficits. Unfortunately, some influential Democrats may actually believe such nonsense. They would be well-advised to read a recent paper by Jason Furman, Obama’s chief economist, and Larry Summers, omnipresent Democratic Party economist, wherein they basically admit everything they used to say about budget deficits was hogwash and is particularly inappropriate under current circumstances. As far as elite economic thinking is concerned, there should be no obstacle to massive increases in non-defense deficit spending.
Biden will also have important tools that do not depend on Congress. A recent column by Dave Roberts provides a nice overview, both technical and political. Biden can issue executive orders, make recess appointments of nominees the Senate refuses to approve, fumigate Trump’s termites from the woodwork of the federal civil service, re-regulate what has been deregulated, and un-fire good people who were dismissed by Trump.
Trump flouted every conceivable legal and informal constraint on his rule, to the utter silence of the Republican Party. He has given Biden a license to do likewise. No credibility should go to any Democratic stuffed shirt who bleats about restoring norms. Working people are desperate. This is class war, folks.