Thea Riofrancos is an associate professor of political science at Providence College. Mark Paul is an assistant professor of economics and environmental studies at New College of Florida.
The stakes could not be higher: The planet is dangerously careening off the pathway to climate safety. Western states are experiencing record-breaking heat amid an already dire drought. But when “water protectors” protested a pipeline that would transport toxic oil sands through Indigenous land in Minnesota, they were met by a U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter. Though the Biden administration has rejoined the Paris climate accords to much acclaim, the United States is nowhere near on track to meet its targets. And it’s even further from tackling its fair share of global emissions.
Just as worrying, the president is backing down from his campaign promise to spend $2 trillion on clean energy over four years. (Not that this total was adequate; by comparison, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) proposed $16.3 trillion over 10 years.) Biden adopted this platform during the general election, an improvement over his position during the primary, under pressure from the left. But the American Jobs Plan cut these promised green investments by more than half.
Given his centrist leanings, friendly relationship to the fossil fuel industry and rejection of the Green New Deal, it’s not surprising that Biden has shied away from meeting the climate crisis at the scale it requires. But that doesn’t make his foot-dragging any less enraging. Climate action is not only urgent; it’s possible. The landscape for real progress has never been more fertile, thanks to three factors.
First, over the past decade we’ve seen a dramatic shift in public opinion around climate change and energy transition, with an increasingly large share of the electorate supporting government action. Support for climate action increases when tied to green investments that improve housing, transportation and economic security — the Green New Deal approach. This green wave isn’t coming exclusively from the left: On election night 2020, Fox News highlighted a poll showing 70 percent of voters wanted more government spending on green energy.
Second, economic wonks and policymakers are finally breaking out of their neoliberal straitjackets. The president’s stimulus package was a decisive rejection of the austerity economics that damaged the economy following the Great Recession. With economists calling for trillions more in green spending, to transition to renewable energy and bring the United States to true full employment, Biden has a real opening. But despite an economy that’s still down 10 million jobs compared with pre-pandemic trends, he hasn’t taken the shot.
Finally, organized movements have helped transform the political status quo. All too often, opinion polls don’t directly translate into public policy. The political terrain is extremely unequal: Some groups can prevail through money or influence, even while they represent minority positions, while masses of voters face obstacles in making their voices heard.
On climate, groups such as the Sunrise Movement are working to change that, employing disruptive tactics targeting key decision-makers to expand the realm of political possibility. And despite decades of corporate assault on the right to organize, unions are exercising working-class political power to push reforms and deflate the false “jobs vs. environment” narrative. The United Mine Workers now supports a clean energy future; in California, 19 unions — including two representing fossil fuel workers — endorsed a blueprint for an energy transition; and the Teamsters came out in support of increasing spending on high-speed rail. At the national level, a union-led campaign for the Protecting the Right to Organize (Pro) Act — essential for a just transition and the first step to a Green New Deal — successfully pressured Sens. Angus King (I-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) to co-sponsor the bill, proving that effective organizing can move even the most recalcitrant lawmakers.
This is the kind of bottom-up leverage and agitation that’s needed to achieve equitable, bold climate policy. And it’s why Indigenous peoples, front-line communities and youth movements are engaging in actions all week near the White House, demanding Biden act swiftly on the climate emergency.
The change we need is possible. The economics support rapid, equitable, investment-led decarbonization. The voter support for government action is robust. But so far the president and his party have fallen short, offering inadequate public investment in the energy transition and failing to confront the fossil fuel industry or halt the boom in pipeline construction. We have less than a decade to slash global emissions in half to avert the worst of the climate crisis. In 2022, Democrats could lose their slim majority. If not now, when?
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