Podcast: US election special #2 – the Green New Deal
In the second part of our podcast series on the US election, we explore the influence of the fossil fuel industry and the rise of the Green New Deal agenda.
ourVoices is a new podcast from openDemocracy's ourEconomy section which explores the crisis of our economic system – and promotes intelligent debate about what should replace it.
The podcast brings together some of the most exciting thinkers from around the world, and gives a voice to those who are putting new economic ideas into practice from the ground up.
In this second episode of ourVoice’s special series on the US election, Aaron White and Freddie Stuart explore the extensive influence of the fossil fuel industry on the US political and economic system, and the growing consensus emerging around a Green New Deal agenda.
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Aaron White: The US economy is currently facing its greatest crisis in a generation. Thanks to the coronavirus, the Federal Reserve has warned that unemployment could reach 30% and the economy could experience a downturn on a scale which has not been seen since the Great Depression.
In Washington, a program of large scale public investment is being considered on both sides of the aisle as a way to revive a floundering economy. Congress has already injected more than $2.3 trillion into the US economy, with billions being doled out to the highest carbon emitting industries, such as fracking and airline companies.
At this crucial moment, should we really be trying to restore business as usual? Or does the scale of the environmental crisis mean that we need to put our economy on a fundamentally new path?
In this second episode of ourVoices series on the US election, we explore the extensive influence of fossil fuel companies in American politics, and examine the growing consensus that is finally emerging around a transformative Green New Deal agenda.
Freddie Stuart: In 1990, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), published its first assessment report.
The report found that the average global temperature had risen by between 0.3 and 0.6 degrees centigrade over the course of the last century, and stated, with certainty, that “human activities are substantially increasing the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases”.
If left unchecked the report said, the consequences of further warming would be catastrophic. The world's polar regions would warm at double their current rate, natural ecosystems would be under threat, and "major health impacts" could stem from shortages of food and water, and the spread of disease. Poorer countries, it warned, were the most vulnerable.
28 years later, in October 2018, the IPCC published it’s damning sixth report.
We now produce almost twice the emissions from fossil fuels as we did in 1990. The report warned that, unless we act now to cut 45% of our carbon emissions in the next decade, and reach net zero by 2050, we will face a mass environmental and ecological breakdown by the end of the century.
So why, in 30 years, has no significant action been taken to address this existential threat?
The Institute for Energy Research: Skyrocketing energy prices are stretching family budgets and hurting the economy. But America’s prosperity depends on affordable and reliable energy. It helps us live our lives, and powers the innovations that help keep our environment safe. Yet some in Congress are trying to make American energy scarce and even more expensive, with new taxes and costly regulations. That’s the wrong approach. More American energy benefits our families, our economy and our environment. [source]
FS: In the face of mounting scientific evidence, fossil fuel-based energy companies launched a PR offensive throughout the final decades of the 20th century in an attempt to defend their right to profit from carbon.
Famous amongst these, is the case of ExxonMobil. Exxon began its own climate research as early as the 1970s – in an attempt to shape the early narrative on global warming.
From the 1980s to the mid 2000s, Exxon was at the forefront of global climate change denial, funding organizations critical of climate activism, and leading the Global Climate Coalition of businesses opposed to the regulation of fossil fuels.
The resulting paper concluded that there was a systematic, quantifiable discrepancy between what ExxonMobil’s scientists discussed about climate change in private, and what it presented to the general public.
In 2019, former Exxon scientists Dr. Ed Garvey and Dr. Martin Hoffert submitted for questioning before the House oversight committee.
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: In 1982, seven years before I was even born, Exxon accurately predicted that by this year, 2019, the Earth would hit a carbon dioxide concentration of 415 parts per million and a temperature increase of 1 degree celsius. Dr. Hoffert is that correct?
Dr. Hoffert: We were excellent scientists.
AOC: Yes you were. So they knew. And I presume they knew what some of the consequences of that 1 degree celsius change would be, some of them, not all.
DH: Absolutely, I would like to have an opportunity to discuss that if someone asks me.
AOC: Dr. Hoffert, you have previously said that Exxon’s historic denial was immoral and greatly set back efforts to address climate change, that’s correct yes?
DH: It is correct that I said that. I have good reason to say it. [source]
In their book Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway identify parallels between the intentional blurring of climate science by companies like Exxon, and earlier lobbying efforts over smoking, acid rain, and the hole in the ozone layer.
Oreskes and Conway write that in each case the basic strategy of those setting themselves against the evidence was to "keep the controversy alive" – spreading doubt and confusion to delay decisive action.
Kate Aronoff, a journalist at the New Republic, and co-author of the book A Planet To Win: Why We Need A Green New Deal, tells us more:
Kate Aronoff: And so, the basics of what they’ve done, as folks like Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway have written in Merchants of Doubt, is to not necessarily have an alternative narrative about the science, but to just throw doubt on the wall – cast any sort of noise out that deflects from science that has only gotten clearer over the last 30-40 years.
This most aggressively picks up after James Hansen’s testimony before Congress in 1989, and evolves into this thing that takes different forms over the years. So right after 1989 through the 1990s you see big oil really going hard against climate scientists, against the idea that the planet is warming and just throwing out all of these sort of crazy ideas which some people will still say. You still hear people talk about sunspots, about global cooling, about the greening of the earth, about how carbon dioxide is actually good for plants. There’s not really a coherence to it, none of this all fits into some grand theory of why the planet isn’t warming, it all is just meant to obfuscate.
AW: Hansen’s testimony before the Senate in 1988 should have been a seminal moment. The NASA scientist declared “with 99% confidence”, that a recent sharp rise in global temperatures was a result of human activity. The next morning, The New York Times ran the headline “Global Warming Has Begun, Expert Tells Senate”.
Yet this coordinated obfustication of climate science succeeded in foiling public urgency. Extending beyond advertisements and internal research, energy companies utilised a network of academic and research institutions to tighten their grip on public opinion.
The clearest example of this, is in the work of the Koch brothers, David and Charles.
The Koch Institute is one of the largest private companies in the world, with a revenue larger than that of US Steel, Facebook and Goldman Sachs combined. Central to its business model is the processing of fossil fuels.
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the Koch brothers funded a network of conservative and libertarian think tanks and university centers – creating an alternative intellectual architecture to combat mainstream climate research.
Of 141 environmentally-skeptic books published between 1972 and 2005, only 11 were not directly linked to these corporate-funded institutions.
The complicity of the mainstream media in platforming representatives of this pseudoscientific network enabled climate denialism to gain traction amongst the public.
Here’s academic Fred Singer in an interview with KUSI News:
John Coleman: The most important part of this program Dr. Singer, is going to be to talk to people who are not so sure that we’re right about this. They think maybe global warming’s for real. What can you say to those people, to explain to them, that their carbon footprints are not creating global warming, and that you have good proof that there is no significant man made global warming?
Fred Singer: Well I think you’ve put your finger on it. It is not the matter of global warming that we are talking about, it is the question of what is the cause of global warming – when there is a warming. Don’t forget that the climate keeps on changing on its own, without any human assistance, it warms and it cools, it warms and it cools. And in fact, during the 20th century from 1940-1975, the climate cooled. [source]
AW: The platforming of denialists has been particularly prevalent amongst conservative media. Fox News regularly invites opinion from “scientific experts”, and places significant emphasis on their academic credentials to lend credence to their ideological dogma.
Mark Levin: Hello America, I’m Mark Levin, this is Life, Liberty and Levin. It’s a great honor to see you Patrick Michaels. Doctor, expert on all things climate and environment as far as I’m concerned. A little bit of background. You are the director of the Center for the Study of Science at the CATO Institute. You hold an AB in SM in biology sciences and plant ecology from the University of Chicago. Pretty good school. PhD in Ecological Climatology from the University of Wisconsin at Madison 1979. You are past president of the American Association of State Climatologists. You were program chairman for the committee in applied climatology at the American Meteorological Society. Say that fast five times. You were a research professor in Environmental Sciences at the University of Virginia for 30 years. I’m giving extensive background that you have to the public, so they know you really know what you’re talking about. [source]
This PR war shaped a platform of public doubt onto which pliant politicians could be pushed.
In 2009, Representative Bob Inglis of South Carolina put forward a carbon tax bill. Koch Industries cut the funding to his campaign, and donated heavily to his primary opponent. They also helped to organise teams of Tea Party activists who traveled to town hall meetings to protest against Inglis. Inglis lost re-election.
The influence of these private corporations on DC politics was aided by the wider framework of free-market economics that became dominant during the final decades of the 20th century.
Kate Aronoff explains:
KA: What that has effectively done is push a radical set of talking points about the economy into the mainstream narrative. And so, the idea that the federal deficit is this sort of thing that we have to worry about, that is going to burden future generations; the idea that the US government operates like families, pretending that we don’t have access to a central bank that denominated debt in its own currency – just pushing these what were once fringe ideas from fiscal conservatism, into how liberals, how the Democratic party thinks about that. And that’s a 30 years history of how the Democratic party transformed to embrace neoliberalism. You see that now in how the media talks about climate change. The question is no longer, “is this real, is there really a problem about science”? It’s “well, isn’t your plan for a Green New Deal going to break the bank, isn’t it too expensive, how are we going to do that” or “isn’t this going to burden families with the cost of climate change”?
So rather than talking about things we should be talking about. Which is how do you hold corporations accountable? How do you constrain fossil fuel companies? It’s much harder to have a conversation now about regulation, about tax reform, about all of these things which are the sort of natural tools which we would use to take this crisis on – because of this much larger ideological project which includes climate, but is not only interested in that.
AW: This increasingly tied views on global warming to a wider US culture war between partisan liberals and conservatives. Between those who believed in government regulation, and those who espoused a theory of small government and market hegemony.
The election of President Ronald Reagan in 1981 marked a clear victory for the latter, for the private sector over the public, for unfettered capital over government regulation.
Ronald Reagan: The economic ills we suffer have come upon us over several decades. They will not go away in days, weeks, or months, but they will go away. They will go away because we, as Americans, have the capacity now, as we have had in the past, to do whatever needs to be done to preserve this last and greatest bastion of freedom. In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem. [source]
Spurred on by Milton Friedman and other economists of the Chicago School, Reagan era politicians pushed a belief that the market would maximise efficiency at the intersection of supply and demand, which allowed corporations to take the reins in the climate debate.
Associate Professor of Economics at City University of New York and Fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, JW Mason, tells us more.
JW Mason: Well obviously in the US since the 1980s, we’ve had a strong presumption that market based solutions are preferable to direct public action. Which doesn’t necessarily mean a small role for government. But it means, public action and spending, should as much as possible be mediated through prices. And this I think in the case of climate change, came through clearly in the strong preference for a carbon pricing or carbon tax based approach. But you can find it throughout – that the best way for the public sector to shape outcomes in the private sector, is to change people’s incentives by changing prices in some way – taxes, subsidies, whatever. And also that public action should be mediated through private businesses. That it’s better to contract out wherever you possibly can and that any public service, if it can be delivered by private businesses, probably is going to be delivered better by private business. So I think it was really these two linked ideas, that market mechanisms are preferable and that the direct provision or delivery of services should not in general be carried out by the public sector.
AW: This hegemonic free-market consensus normalised the previously radical notion that the market’s price mechanism could solve social issues. In doing so, neoliberalism permitted a culture of inaction in the face of mounting scientific evidence.
Award-winning author, film-maker and academic, Raj Patel, explains how this established framework helped to conscript otherwise climate conscious people into the anti-government block.
Raj Patel: Part of the way that power operates is to make certain things seem normal. And the way that capitalism achieves its hegemony, the way that capitalism is able to make us move forward with ideas and to consent to ideas that are not in our class interest, and not in our personal interest, is by seizing the idea of common sense and making absurd ideas seem normal. And in that moment of rendering certain things as part of the fabric of common sense, that involves leadership from not just the financiers and the high capitalists who drive forward class interests, but it involves conscripting members of other classes into this dominant hegemonic block.
FS: As the new century dawned, climate change increasingly became part of the public discourse. Standing on a platform of mounting scientific evidence, the modern climate movement that had arisen in the late 1960’s and early 1970s once again hit the headlines.
Al Gore, Vice President to Bill Clinton over two terms, ran for office in 2000 on a promise to take on “big oil and the big polluters”.
Al Gore: And so here tonight, in the name of all working families who are the strength and sole of America, I accept your nomination for President of the United States of America. [source]
Al Gore was denied the presidency by a Supreme Court decision, which handed a tightly contested election to his Republican counterpart, George W Bush. In 2006, Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth, made international headlines and brought climate change to the forefront of public imagination.
Al Gore: If you look at the ten hottest years ever measured, they’ve all occured in the last 14 years, and the hottest of all was 2005. The scientific consensus is that we are causing global warming. [source]
The climate movement took on a new scale at the end of the decade, when between 40,000 and 100,000 protestors marched at the 2009 UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
Pushed by activist groups such as 350.org, these protests helped to elevate press coverage of the crisis which put pressure on both politicians and energy companies to reposition themselves in the climate debate.
Kate Aronoff explains:
KA: What starts to happen in the mid 90s and on through today, which looks a little bit different than the typical way we think about climate denial, is that fossil fuel companies – in particular companies like BP and Shell which are based in Europe which has had a very different conversation about climate change, which hasn’t been home to the kind of denial that we know in the US – start to posit themselves as the part of the solution. So you get companies like BP teaming up with big greens in the US, organisations like the environmental defense fund, to really shape the conversation on how we should take on this crisis. This is where you see the development of kind of a new playbook for them. So in the UN at the international level, they start pushing for things like carbon markets, which we now see in the Paris Agreement.
In the US, they sign onto things like the US Climate Action Partnership for a time, which is pushing for cap and trade. What we’ve seen, which is a little bit more nuanced than the kind of pure climate denial (throwing junk science out) is that when some kind of new climate rule or regulation looks inevitable, when it looks like something is coming their way, they’ll then rapidly change sides – and then change back if it seems like that’s not the case anymore. And you see that trickle down, given how much big oil money is in US politics, into the politics of the day.
FS: In 2008, Barack Obama’s election to the White House was hailed by environmental groups and organisations. Obama pledged to cut 80% of carbon emissions by 2050, and in his presidential acceptance speech openly addressed the challenge of saving a “planet in peril”.
The following year, the US House of Representatives approved a bill to curb greenhouses gases for the first time in its history. The so-called “Waxman-Markey” legislation would have established a market cap and trade system to limit emissions, but the bill was never brought before the Senate due to Republican opposition.
The period following the 2008 recession saw the birth of social movements calling for environmental justice as part of a wider backlash against unfettered capitalism and a corrupt political system. Occupy Wall Street in 2011 introduced wealth inequality and structural critiques of our political and economic system into the national discourse.
Central to this critique has been the explicit condemnation of the free-market consensus of the last 40 years.
In her book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, Naomi Klein lays out the specific connection between free market economics and the failure to take bold climate action:
Naomi Klein: We can’t fight climate change without dealing with inequality within our countries and between our countries. So the argument I’m making is really quite a hopeful one. I think if we do respond to climate change with the decisiveness that the scientists are telling us we do, if we respond in line with science, we have a chance to remake our economy, the global economy, for the better. This is going to be the kind of change that is demanded by mass movements from below. [source]
The communities on the forefront of this extractivist economy and the climate crisis are leading demands for the structural reforms necessary to save the planet.
This was increasingly evident in the backlash to the policies associated with the Obama administration’s “All of the Above Energy Strategy”, which produced the largest increase in oil and gas extraction in American history. This “energy independent” agenda led to an intensification of domestic fracking and building pipelines to transport these fuels across the continent. This provoked a backlash from the communities directly impacted by the construction.
Amy Goodman: We turn now to look at North Dakota, where indigenous activists are continuing to protest the proposed $3.8 billion Dakota Access pipeline, which they say would threaten to contaminate the Missouri River.
Indigenous Activists: Respect our water! Respect our lands! Honor our treaties! Honor our rights!
AG: More than a thousand indigenous activists from dozens of different tribes across the country have traveled to the Sacred Stone Spirit Camp. The protests have so far shut down construction along parts of the pipeline. [source]
FS: These protests highlighted structural discrimination against the Native American community, which garnered significant social media attention as police forces unleashed draconian security pressure on the encampment.
In tandem with other pipeline flashpoints such as the Keystone XL pipeline in Montana – Standing Rock brought together coalitions that define key segments of today’s progressive climate movement.
Here’s Julian Brave NoiseCat, activist, journalist, and vice-president of policy and strategy for the think tank Data for Progress, explaining how these protests radicalized many young people at the forefront of the environmental movement:
Julian Brave NoiseCat: Basically all of my colleagues now in the American left, more generally speaking, and the climate movement specifically, were politicized by social movements often in college. Got involved in the divestment movement for example. So there is a significant path which takes someone from a campus, to lefty politics in the US today. So I think movements are important in that regard in that they bridge civil society into the political arena.
FS: Younger populations have also been crucial leaders of these protests over the past decade.
Starting in 2011, divestment movements sprung up on liberal arts campuses such as Swarthmore and Hampshire, with students calling on university administrators to divest their institution’s endowments from fossil fuel industries. These divestment campaigns quickly spread across the country.
Meanwhile, even younger populations have taken a lead in demanding systemic change. During the past year, we have witnessed one of the largest mass movements in recent memory: the school strikes for climate.
In 2018, Greta Thunberg skipped school on Friday’s to demonstrate against political inaction on the climate crisis. In a matter of months thousands of children across the world followed suit – peaking on September 20th before the UN Climate Action Summit.
Inside the UN, Thunberg directly confronted world leaders and the economic logic of capital accumulation:
Greta Thunberg: People are suffering. People are dying. Entire ecosystems are collapsing. We are in the beginning of a mass extinction, and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you! [source]
AW: These movements have had a clear and tangible impact on the American political discourse. None more so than the youth climate activist organisation, Sunrise.
Through direct action campaigns, Sunrise focuses on combating a corrupt political system in which elected representatives are beholden to vested corporate interests.
In February 2019, activists confronted Senator Dianne Feinstein of California.
Sunrise activist: We have come to a point where our earth is dying, literally. And it is going to be a pricey and ambitious plan that is needed to deal with the magnitude of that issue. So we’re here asking you to vote yes on the Resolution for the Green New Deal because that is the only that is worth…
Dianne Feinstein: That resolution will not pass the Senate. [source]
With the Democratic establishment admonishing calls for a Green New Deal – progressive movements centered their attention on electing new representatives that would refuse corporate money and thus break with the influence of special interests.
Powered by grassroots organisations, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shocked the political world by primarying one of the most powerful Democrats in DC, Representative Joe Crowley.
Just weeks after winning her election, Ocasio-Cortez participated in the Sunrise occupation of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office which catapulted comprehensive climate policy further into the mainstream discourse.
On February 7th 2019, with an influx of mainstream media attention – Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey from Massachusetts released the Green New Deal resolution.
AOC: Today is the day that we truly embark on a comprehensive agenda of economic, social and racial justice in the United States of America. That’s what this agenda is all about. Because climate change and our environmental challenges are one of the biggest existential threats to our way of life, not just as a nation but as a world. In order for us to combat this threat we must be as ambitious and innovative in our solution as possible.
Ed Markey: I say today that it is time for us to be bold once again. We have the technology to do it. We have the moral obligation. We have the economic imperative. We just need the political will to get this done. The sun is setting on the dirty energy of the past. Today marks the dawn of a new era of climate action. [source]
AW: The Green New Deal resolution is a roadmap for what a comprehensive industrial climate policy would entail – with social justice and equity at its core. As such, the resolution explicitly breaks from the free market consensus of small government – calling for massive investments in the public sector.
Building on the climate justice movements, the Resolution prioritizes investing in exploited communities such as the Indigeneous, communities of color and the youth. Through rebalancing the relationship between public and private, and expanding the role of the state, the Green New Deal not only calls for a new economic paradigm, but offers a tangible vision for a better life through rebuilding universal goods like healthcare and housing.
Proponents argue that the Green New Deal is both economically and politically prudent. Here’s JW Mason on why big public spending to improve quality of life is fundamental to a Green New Deal agenda:
JM: I think if you want to actually carry this out, you have to find a way that actually leaves people better off not just in the future, but today. The good news is, I think that’s very likely to be the case, if we take a public led investment approach to climate change, which i think is what we need to do in any case in order to solve the problem. The measures we need to take to solve the problem involve big public spending on new technologies, new industries, reorganization of material life and production, all that stuff involves spending more money into the economy. And that means more demand, more employment, and we know that the distribution of income is very sensitive to the level of demand in the economy. A booming economy, a higher pressure economy, is one where wages are rising fastest on the bottom. So I think if we do this right, if we spend on the scale we need to, in the way that we need to, we will in fact raise people's living standards. But we need to explain that, we need to make that message convincing to people.
AW: Just as social movements have been instrumental in introducing the Green New Deal into the mainstream discourse, the legacy of mass mobilizations involved in the original New Deal, provide a roadmap for its political implementation:
RP: I think it’s worth remembering that the New Deal itself emerges from a decade of workers struggle, and you see 4% of the US population on strike in 1919, for example. Which is an incredible number of people who are engaged in labor stoppages and who recognize that one of the most powerful weapons that they have to be able to bend society's to their will is the ability to make their bosses listen to them because they're not working for their bosses. So when we think about the New Deal now, it's important to remember that the New Deal itself built on histories of struggle and of popular organizing and of working class theorizing that are very much necessary today if we are to have a Green New Deal that is worthy of the name.
AW: The movements that have arisen over the last decade from the anti-pipeline encampments, to youth climate strikers have radically shifted the political discourse on climate change in the United States.
FS: This shifting narrative has had a tangible impact on the 2020 election cycle.
In the summer of 2019, the Democratic primary got underway with the first set of presidential debates. In positioning themselves against the uniquely destructive climate denialist in the White House, the entire field branded their own agenda as some version of the Green New Deal.
As Julian Brave NoiseCat explains, this consensus demonstrates how popular movements have leveraged a wider progressive shift within the Democratic party.
JN: I would say that the entire field has become a lot more ambitious and has actually moved to incorporate justice and equity into their plans. In general I would say that the Democratic party is moving to the left as a result of the loss in 2016, and also increasing polarization in dynamics behind that, and a very strong left wing activism within the party. You can see that in the success of Senator Sanders and Warren but you can also see it in the way that the median politician has been moving on the issues and at the same time Democrats in the House of Representatives have essentially endorsed a 100% clean-energy net zero emissions by 2050 framework which basically means that everybody who is taking climate change seriously at this point is calling for pretty radical change, whether they identify themselves as a lefty, or a moderate, or a centrist. The issue itself requires massive transformation.
FS: The first candidate to come out with an extensive policy brief for climate action was the Governor of Washington, Jay Inslee. Inslee’s Evergreen Economy plan took direct inspiration from the Green New Deal resolution.
Invoking Roosevelt’s initial New Deal, Inslee told journalists that he was trying to put “meat on the bone” of the congressional document, offering an extensive policy agenda that would begin reform in areas all across the economy.
Jay Inslee: We have to act now. Look, climate change is not a singular issue, it is all the issues that we the Democrats care about. It is health; it is national security; it is our economy; and we know this, middle ground solution like the Vice-President has proposed, or middling average sized things are not going to save us. Too little, too late. It too dangerous, and we have to have a bold plan, and mine has been called the “gold standard”. [source]
FS: Inslee’s plan proposed a legally enforceable cap to cut the use of coal from the US economy within 10 years. He also proposed an overhaul of public transport, and an investment strategy that would see $9 trillion spent on clean energy over a decade.
After dropping out of the race, Inslee met with fellow presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren, a co-sponsor of the initial Green New Deal resolution, who took on a range of his climate policies. Like Inslee, Warren’s plan called for transformative investment-led policy that would put $10 trillion into the economy and create 10 million new jobs. She vowed that by 2030, all new buildings, electricity grids, and passenger cars, trucks and buses would be carbon-free.
Echoing the calls of grassroots campaigners, Warren explicitly called out the influence of big money interests in preventing meaningful climate action in DC.
Elizabeth Warren: It’s corruption. This is not ignorance. This is not that people just don’t get it. The people in Washington, oh they get it. But they are on the tape. They are influenced by the money. The money of the Koch brothers. Where do the Koch brothers get their money? It’s carbon based. And think about it this way. If you go back and look 15 years ago, Democrats and Republicans were actually starting to come together on climate issues, right. The Koch brothers and other financial interests moved in. [source]
Perhaps the clearest evidence that climate movements are influencing the election however, was in the campaign of Bernie Sanders. As the only democratic socialist in the race, Sanders explicitly called for a “revolution” to a system which abuses the planet for profit.
On the debate stage, he vowed to “take on the fossil fuel industry”, and pushed for criminal charges to be brought against Exxon.
Bernie Sanders: Do we take on the fossil fuel industry? Look, in terms of the fossil fuel industry, these guys have been lying. They’ve been lying for years like the tobacco industry lied 50 years ago, “oh we don’t know if fossil fuels, if oil and carbon emissions are causing climate change”. They knew. ExxonMobil knew, they lied. In fact, I think they should be held criminally accountable. [source]
FS: Sanders’ Green New Deal promised to provide a “just transition” for communities and workers as he pivoted the US to a fossil free economy. In doing so, he pledged $16.3 trillion in public investment to fundamentally alter the structure of the American economy and follow in the footsteps of FDR’s New Deal.
This ambitious plan received endorsements from key parts of the climate movement, most notably Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement – who backed Sanders for the presidency.
Varshini Prakash: In the past week fires have erupted all across Australia claiming millions of species lives and killing dozens of people. We are seeing that the climate crisis isn’t 30 or 40 or 50 years in the future, it is right now. We need a president in office, who understands the immediate threat of that crisis and Bernie Sanders is that guy. [source]
FS: Sanders’ platform was predicated on an understanding of structural inequality, both at home and abroad.
Seeking to go further than merely re-entering the Paris Accord, Sanders’ $200 billion Green Climate Fund set out to help countries of the Global South with their own climate adaptation efforts. He also made an explicit connection between negotiating trade agreements and ensuring climate protections. Sanders voted against the United States Mexico Canada Trade agreement (USMCA) on the basis that it brought benefits to wealthy corporations, but failed to set any substantial regulations to curtail carbon emissions.
As Kate Aronoff explains, the widespread popularity of this campaign, particularly amongst young people, has had a clear impact on the now presumptive nominee, Joe Biden.
KA: To some extent, most of the Democratic contenders have been responsive. Whatever their plans look like, however committed they are to the issue, I think most of the Democratic primary candidates to this point, even those who have dropped out, even those who have spent their careers as centrists, embraced if not the Green New Deal, than something much much bolder than we would have seen in 2016. Even Joe Biden is to the left on climate and more ambitious on climate than Bernie Sanders’ platform was in 2016. Which isn’t at all to credit Joe Biden, but which is to credit how dramatically social movements have shifted that conversation in the last several years.
AW: Biden’s campaign cites a Green New Deal as a top legislative priority, embracing the connection between environmental policy and the functioning of our economic system.
To legitimize his credentials, Biden often stresses his work in bringing world leaders together at the 2015 Paris Climate Accord, whilst working as vice-president to Barack Obama.
Though Biden was not actually in attendance in Paris for the talks that yielded the agreement, he places reentering the Accord at the top of his political agenda. In doing so, Biden has committed himself to ensuring the US reaches the target of net-zero carbon emissions by no later than 2050.
His campaign has also stated that the Biden administration will “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities”.
Whilst Biden has absorbed much of this rhetoric from climate activists, in policy terms, his programme is still wedded to incrementalist solutions.
Jake Tapper: Is your plan ambitious enough to tackle this crisis.
Joe Biden: Yes it is ambitious enough to tackle the crisis. Go to joebiden.com – I lay out the first 13 things I would do immediately upon being elected. Number 1, we’re going to once again reinstate all the cuts the president made in everything from the cafe standards, how far automobiles can go, investing in light rail, so that we take cars off the road, making sure we’re in a position where we put 500,000 charging stations in all new highways that we build, making sure that we spend $500 billion a year in Federal Government paying for transportation of vehicles we run all of those being able to run on lower carbon fuel, and or, be able to run on no carbon fuel at all. [source]
AW: In contrast to the movements and politicians that have called out the influence of domestic special interests in mitigating climate policy, whenever pushed to confront the fossil fuel industries, Biden has tended to pivot into a broader call for international climate action.
BS: But this requires dramatic bold action, we’ve got to take on the fossil fuel industry, your plan does not do that.
JB: My plan takes on the fossil fuel industry and it unites the world. You just got finished saying, what’s he going to do? He’s going to bring these countries together, make it clear to them. I’m saying we’re going to bring them together, make them live up to their commitments. If they don’t live up to their commitments, they pay a financial price for it. [source]
AW: This pivot to his foreign policy credentials, whether it’s reentering the Paris Accord, or promising $20 billion to Brazil to not burn the Amazon, distracts from a systemic analysis of the failures of the American political system.
Biden himself has been criticised for compromising his campaign’s integrity over relationships with special interest groups. Despite his “no fossil fuel pledge”, a report by The Intercept in September 2019 exposed a Biden Wall St fundraiser hosted by the founder of a fossil fuel company. Biden has also faced scrutiny for appointing Heather Zichal, a former board member of the natural gas company Cheniere Energy as a climate adviser.
The Biden campaign’s corporate fossil fuel entanglements, along with an unwillingness to take on a substantive investment plan in line with the Green New Deal resolution, led the Sunrise Movement to grade his climate agenda an F.
Whilst Biden is the presumptive nominee, the growing popularity of progressive policies, particularly on climate, is pushing his campaign ahead of the coming general election.
On Earth Day, Governor Jay Inslee endorsed Biden, acknowledging that his aides were now consulting with the Biden campaign, whilst Elizabeth Warren has also thrown her weight behind the presumptive Democratic nominee. Biden has also announced that he is forming a joint “task force” with representatives of the Sanders campaign on major policy themes. Though it remains to be seen how far this will alter his climate platform – if at all.
FS: In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, with 26 million unemployment claims filed in the US over the past five weeks, and Congress poised to implement a second stimulus package – the free-market consensus that has dominated mainstream economics for the last 40 years is beginning to combust.
But as this crisis tears at the fabric of our economic logic, politicians are beginning to turn to an investment-led Green New Deal as the only viable solution to rebuild America’s broken economy – a transformative agenda across all swathes of society, from guaranteeing healthcare, free education and affordable housing.
In DC, the first piece of legislation has already been introduced: a Green New Deal for Public Housing, which would commit $180 billion over 10 years to improve living conditions for nearly 2 million people.
On the third episode of ourVoices special series on the US election, we speak to leading figures at the forefront of the movement demanding housing as a human right in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election.
Laura Basu: Thank you for listening to this ourVoices podcast from openDemocracy. If you enjoyed this podcast, and would encourage others to listen, head to iTunes, subscribe and leave us a review.
openDemocracy is an independent global media platform, that is only possible because of your kind donations. To find out more, or to make a donation, head to opendemocracy.net.
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