What Biden’s election means for climate justice in the United States

12 Min Read

February 3, 2021

Claire Ravenscroft completed her Ph.D. in English at Duke University in 2020, and teaches writing and literature at Southeastern Louisiana University.

UAW climate protest in Central Park, New York City, September 21, 2014. Courtesy of Thomas Good, distributed under a CC-BY 3.0 license.

When Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump met on the debate stage in the 2016 US presidential election, neither candidate was asked a single question about climate change. In 2020, when President Trump faced now President Joe Biden, the topic seemed unavoidable.

By late September, when the first debate took place, the Caribbean was midway through the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record, one whose thirty named storms exhausted the English alphabet and needed to borrow from the Greek (the second time this has ever happened, the first being 2005, a season which included devastating record-setters like Katrina, Rita, and Wilma). This year, the state of Louisiana alone was hit with five storms. Further south, Nicaragua was hit with two Category 4 hurricanes, Eta and Iota, in a span of just two weeks.

San Francisco, September 9, 2020. Courtesy of Christopher Michel, distributed under a CC-BY 2.0 license.

Twenty twenty also saw unprecedented, deadly heat waves, with chronic wet-bulb temperatures in the Southeast US, and 144 days of at least 100°F and 53 days of at least 110°F in Phoenix. Drought-fueled wildfires raged across the West Coast, where blood orange skies in San Francisco looked straight out of Blade Runner and COVID-19 masks doubled as protection against the toxic air. Many Americans were introduced to derechos, a form of inland “super-thunderstorm” as damaging as hurricanes, which appeared in such disparate locations as Iowa, Colorado, and New Jersey.

Vying for the helm of the world’s top oil-producing country and a nation reeling from this surge in climate catastrophes, Trump and Biden were asked: “Do you believe that human pollution, [or] greenhouse gas emissions, contribute to climate change?”

With this question, the 2020 election looked poised to confirm an eleventh commandment of US politics, that what distinguishes the Democratic and Republican party lines on climate change is their belief: Democrats believe in climate change and Republicans don’t. This is a mutually convenient state of affairs for two parties who do the bidding of fossil capital in equal measure but must maintain a charade of voter choice. Both wings of the ruling class use denialism as an alibi for mirroring forms of climate inaction. Democratic party leaders who “believe in science” invoke Republican non-belief to justify ignoring those very scientists’ calls for economic revolution, instead urging corporate-friendly compromises like cap-and-trade and carbon taxing. Meanwhile, Republicans dig in their denialist heels so that these toothless market solutions remain the only “realistic” climate policies available. Big Business wins, working people lose, and American voters cast their ballots every few years amid higher stakes and with lower expectations.

When it comes to the transformative social and economic measures needed to protect the working class from climate change—and in ways that are centrally focused on the racist distribution of its dangers—US voters this past November had no good options, only lesser evils and chiding realisms. These limits at the ballot box point to the need for increased labor and community organizing beyond the official channels of governance if we are to change the terms of the climate debate from denial versus belief to the fossil capitalist status quo versus class-conscious climate justice. Will a Democratic administration be more amenable to this framework? It’s possible, but only if everyday people continue to organize against the ruling class, rather than appeal to their better angels. Whatever encouraging signs we’ve seen from the Biden presidency so far owe not to his party’s belief in “the science” but to uncompromising demands and bold strategy in the fight for working-class power.

Whatever encouraging signs we’ve seen from the Biden presidency so far owe not to his party’s belief in “the science” but to uncompromising demands and bold strategy in the fight for working-class power.

Without doubt, Republicans have spent the past few years strangling the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and making an already bad situation far worse. After taking office in 2017, President Trump scaled back one hundred major environmental rules and regulations. In 2020 alone, Trump green-lit oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; relaxed even baseline restrictions on methane leaks; and stripped key components of the National Environmental Policy Act to expedite pipeline and highway construction. More, in the lead-up to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s Department of the Interior conducted a veritable fire sale on public lands for fossil fuel and other natural resource development, including copper and uranium mines on Native American lands. The business-friendly lease terms of these deals have alienated even conservative lawmakers, who worry that federally subsidizing the expansion of a struggling fossil fuel industry denies crucial tax revenue to public budgets already on the ropes due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

For these reasons, Biden has had ample reason to call Trump a “climate arsonist, ”even as Trump calls himself “the great environmentalist” and “number-one since Teddy Roosevelt.” Yet as many have observed, Biden’s belief in climate change is far from a guarantee that his administration will meet the expectations of the Democratic voter base.

For example, in response to attacks from Trump that Biden is “no friend of Pennsylvania,” both Biden and Vice-President Kamala Harris have reneged on commitments to a fracking ban. In doing so, they acquiesce to a tired jobs-versus-environmentalism logic that has gripped the US climate conversation for decades—one that overstates the fossil fuel industry’s share of the US workforce and ignores a number of just transition proposals that would not leave those workers behind in a green economy. For another, Biden has tapped veterans from the Obama climate team to fill key environmental administrative roles and created a few new roles for these familiar faces to fill. The President made waves when he announced a new seat on the National Security Council, the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, held by former Secretary of State John Kerry. New title aside, the foreign policy focus of this seat is nothing too new, given that climate change has been a key aspect of State and Defense activities for years. Biden also established the new White House Office of Climate Policy, headed by Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA head and former CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council. In short, Biden’s climate team looks in many ways like a restoration of an earlier "middle ground" approach, one that is both inadequate and unpopular.

Still, there is some promise. North Carolina’s Michael Regan is set to run the EPA and former union president Marty Walsh to run the Department of Labor. These figures are not perfect, but their appointments should be read as party concessions to an increasingly organized grassroots constituency demanding transformative climate justice, not just green capitalism. This demand is what led Biden to walk back his first choice for head of the EPA, California’s Mary Nichols, to instead land on Regan. Grassroots pressure also explains Biden’s pick of New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland to run the Department of the Interior. It’s why Biden committed to $2 trillion in federal spending on energy transition jobs and infrastructure, as well as issued day one executive orders to roll back Trump’s most disastrous environmental policies, including rejoining the Paris accords, and to revoke TC Energy’s Keystone XL permit. We should not credit the Democratic Party’s moral compass for these significant steps, but instead interpret them as wins — clear indication of the power wielded by a strong grassroots push against a return to business-as-usual.

The real test for this kind of pressure from below will be the administration’s approach to a Green New Deal. Will Biden’s climate agenda wed energy transition to universal union jobs, housing, and healthcare, or will the US continue down the middling path to eco-apartheid?

Biden has flip-flopped on the Green New Deal. But since its introduction by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts, it has become a gold standard for US federal policy attentive to the intersection of race, class, and environment. The Green New Deal echoes the call for economic overhaul made by many climate scientists as well as the historical materialist analysis of climate change offered by Energy Humanities scholars.

Deb Haaland speaks in support of the Green New Deal, September 18, 2019. Courtsey of Deb Haaland, distributed under CC-BY 4.0 International.

Most importantly, the Green New Deal has strong popular support. Beyond mere belief in global warming, three quarters of Americans report witnessing the impact of climate change firsthand. Fifty-five per cent support a green job guarantee and 59 per cent support “a policy in which the Federal government creates jobs and invests in low-income communities building energy efficient infrastructure, replacing lead water pipes, and updating America’s energy grid.” A majority of Americans refuse the red herring of jobs versus climate, with 58 per cent reporting that environmental protection is actually a job creator. And even if bold climate action were a fiscal liability, Americans’ preference for environment over economy is at its highest since 2000.

The Green New Deal’s popularity cannot be denied. Friendly amendments from the grassroots like the Red Nation’s Red Deal and the Gulf South for a Green New Deal promise to make its vision even more emancipatory and reparative, rejecting the US settler state and its de facto climate policy of sacrifice zones in poor, non-white areas. The newly formed Green New Deal Network further concretizes its support across the multi-racial working class, bringing together organizations like the Center for Popular Democracy, Indigenous Environmental Network, the Movement for Black Lives, Service Employees International Union, and the Sunrise Movement. By targeting Biden’s less ambitious (and less artful) “Biden Green Deal,” as well as organizing from below across fifty states, this multi-scalar coalition strategy is what it takes to shake off belief-versus-denial climate politics and fight for the future we really want.

Significantly, the overwhelming priority that Americans place on climate policy has not flagged even amid the COVID-19 pandemic. This conviction will be important as the pandemic and its economic fallout stretch on and the horizon of political realism hems in. As our leaders in Washington adopt the familiar triage governance of disaster capitalism, the working class should remain adamant in its climate goals—not just because we believe in science, but in a society and an economy for all.

The limits of climate belief as a dividing political line are already upon us. When Trump was asked on the 2020 debate stage whether he believes in climate change, he departed from his earlier denialism to reply, “I think to an extent, yes.” His shift aligns with that of many in his party. Younger Republicans place a high priority on climate mitigation policies. The House Climate Solutions Caucus boasts as many Republican members as Democrats. And, most alarmingly, the alt-right considers climate emergency justification for intensified border control and reproductive oppression, using climate change’s “single greatest external threat to Western civilization” to add fuel to a longstanding racist and xenophobic fire. In this case, belief in climate change is not only compatible with far-right policies but further rationalizes their violence, entrenching evermore brutal class war as survival-of-the-fittest “common sense.” Establishment Democrats have been able to brand the party’s compromise climate policies as “pro-science.” But if the bald eco-fascism of the far right is likewise based on “the science,” where will that leave voters who want clean air, clean water, and a society that doesn’t leave our most vulnerable to die in the name of economic growth?

The reality of climate change is no longer the privileged belief of the left and a weapon to be wielded against the barbarism of the right. Believing in “the science” can lend itself to a spectrum of political projects, whether an eco-socialist, abolitionist vision or the preservation of capital accumulation by any means. Even as the two major American political parties distinguish themselves by their belief or denial, it is clear that both use “science” as a shield from the ultimate authority in a democracy: what people want, demand, and deserve. To counter this ruling class strategy of power, an organized working class must develop its own, drawing upon the best of rigorous scientific research and the practices of an egalitarian society—building a world we collectively decide on, rather than one simply pointed to by the experts. This lesson is applicable inside the US and out, where although fewer people deny climate change, prevailing mitigation strategies retain the imperialist and extractivist character of the crisis’s origins and impacts. Left in the hands of elite governance institutions and economic authorities, climate policy will continue to fall short of climate justice.

In this way, the Green New Deal’s vision of working-class empowerment remains key to a just energy transition in the United States, regardless of which party occupies White House. Whatever is hopeful about the next four years owes to the labor and community organizing that has made its analysis of the present and its picture of the future central to the climate debate today.

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