Above photo: Climate protest, 2019. Reuters.
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 2030 (though 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 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 Sunshine 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 role of 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.