His presidency just needs to go big. And I mean BIG. Massively big. As in Way Beyond the Green New Deal Big.
Everyone who ascends to the American presidency knows that he – and one day, she – will become part of U.S. history. But not everyone enters that office with the knowledge that their presidency is foreordained to be uber-consequential.
Joe Biden knows his presidency (which, yes, he still must win on November 3: I am writing purposely as an optimist) will be precisely that.
Because Donald John Trump has handed him that unprecedented opportunity on a deplorably tarnished silver platter.
When Trump vacates – or is dragged out of – the White House on January 20, 2021, he will leave behind a nation suffering a multitude of injuries: the physical, psychological and economic damage wrought by his unfocused and incompetent response to COVID-19; the open wound of racism, which his own words and actions dug deeper still; and the wreckage from his administration’s four-year assault on our laws, policies, practices, norms, ethics, values and core principles.
Recent headlines depict Biden’s challenge clearly.
One declared, “A world of trouble awaits Biden if he wins.”
Another announced, “If Biden Wins, He’ll Have to Put the World Back Together.”
“If Joe Biden wins the election in November,” The Atlantic authors wrote, “he will likely be sworn in – perhaps virtually – under the most challenging circumstances since Harry Truman became president in 1945. The country will probably be in the end stages of a brutal pandemic and faced with the worst economy since the Great Depression. The Treasury will be significantly depleted. Millions of people will have lost loved ones, their jobs, much of their net worth. Hopefully a vaccine or an effective treatment will be closer to reality, and our national attention can shift to what comes next.”
If Biden’s “what comes next” is to succeed, I believe it must encompass big, out-of-the-box ideas – ideas that are best built around a framework of robust and revolutionary environmental action. Because that focus will not just divert the planet from the ruinous path to climate catastrophe that the Trump administration has so recklessly set us on: it also will enable us to forge new avenues to an economy and a federal government that benefit and serve us all.
Conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin sees the opportunity clearly. As she wrote in the Washington Post on June 15, “Democrats have a once-in-a-generation opportunity, akin to the first civil rights era, to reorder our politics… For the first time, you have a significant majority of white Americans who think there is a need for systemic change. Coupled with the preference of most Americans for more government (spurred in part by the need for government action to battle the coronavirus and the ensuing economic recession), the party that is aligned with addressing racial inequity and that believes government can be a force for good has a huge advantage. Republicans’ anti-government ethos is entirely ill-suited to the time.”
Why “green” policy matters
So why should “green” policy be the driving force behind the systemic changes that our next president must deliver?
Because climate issues are inextricably linked to every other problem we must address: economic recovery, employment and a living wage, public health, and ending racism and ensuring equal opportunity prime among them.
As Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph E. Stiglitz wrote in the Los Angeles Times on May 31, “the government must do more to support the economy, including assistance to state and local governments, assurances that the jobless will continue to get help…passage of paycheck relief programs…and successfully getting aid to the most vulnerable, not those with the best connections to banks.”
“It is even possible,” Stiglitz concluded, “that we could emerge post-pandemic and post-recession with a greener, more knowledge-based and more equal economy.”
One newly elected member of the Democratic National Committee thinks we can. RL Miller, chair of the California Democratic Party’s Environmental Caucus and co-founder and political director of Climate Hawks Vote, believes people are learning that “science is nonpartisan, and needs to be respected. The attacks we’ve seen on epidemiologists…they’re the same attacks climate scientists have been dealing with for years. I hope people will come out of this with respect for science.”
There’s also been an awakening in the climate movement, Miller said, to the linkages between climate and labor policy, and climate and racial justice. “What we’re doing with essential workers [in the pandemic] is telling them ‘you’re essential, but you’re disposable,’ and giving them a temporary dollar an hour bump in pay and a cloth mask to do a job that could kill them. They’re outraged – and they should be.”
Back in 1991, at the National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C., academicians and community leaders called on the nation’s environmental organizations to “live up to their ideals. If they are about protecting the environment, they should be talking about protecting the environment for everybody, not just white, middle-class elites,” explained Robert Bullard, now a distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental justice at Texas Southern University in Houston. “The people most responsible for climate change historically – globally, as well as domestically – are not the same people who are feeling the pain first, worst and longest. If you’re just talking about greenhouse gases and parts per million, you’re not seeing the issues around vulnerability and justice.”
Nearly 30 years later, a coalition of national environmental organizations has at last sponsored a Day of Mobilization on Juneteenth, in support of Black Lives Matter. “Every environmental leader I know is showing up at BLM marches,” Miller said. “The line ‘I can’t breathe,’ the phrase being used in front-line communities facing pollution, is now a message with two meanings.”
As Geoff Dembicki explained in a June 18 Vice News post, “Efforts to end outsized police control and influence in the U.S. also acknowledge the deep links between racism and climate change. In Richmond, California, for example, Black and brown residents who live near an oil refinery and other fossil fuel infrastructure experience higher-than-average asthma rates… climate legislation introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez last year calls for the federal government to create millions of high-paying green jobs with a particular emphasis on communities of color… Some of the resources for that funding could be freed up by reducing the $100 billion the U.S. spends annually on policing.”
As a new member of the Advisory Committee of the DNC’s Environmental Council, Miller helped draft that group’s alternative platform centered on environmental issues. “It’s ruffling feathers…it’s seen as rogue,” she acknowledged. “But I would tell Joe Biden that climate matters immensely, to young voters in particular…and the way to get them to vote is to adopt a fierce climate platform.”
The timing is strategic. The Los Angeles Times reported on June 9 that BP is cutting 10,000 jobs – 14% of its workforce – “as the coronavirus pandemic accelerates the company’s move to slim down for the energy transition.” The same article also noted voluntary buyouts being offered by Royal Dutch Shell, and layoffs being planned at Chevron Corp. and Marathon Oil.
That news followed a May 26 Times story that described the U.S. shale industry as “teetering…bracing itself for a wave of bankruptcies over the next two years” as the nation’s largest independent shale oil groups reported a combined loss of $26 billion in the first quarter of 2020. “The collapse in crude demand brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic,” wrote journalist Myles McCormick, “forced more than $38 billion in write-offs among top producers.”
Climate action & economic recovery
So how, exactly, can climate action drive our economic recovery?
For starters, a group of economists whose findings will soon be published in the Oxford Review of Economic Policy tell us, “…green stimulus policies often have advantages over traditional fiscal stimulus…[they] are both good for the climate and provide strong economic returns.” Those policies include “clean physical infrastructure…building efficiency retrofits; investment in education and training to help people transition to green jobs; and natural capital investment (such as climate-friendly agriculture and restoration of carbon-rich habitats). In high-income countries, investments in clean-technology research and development would also be useful…”
And, wrote Peter Tertzakian, executive director of Calgary-based ARC Energy Research Institute, in Financial Post, “In the pursuit of job creation, forthcoming government stimulus dollars are likely to support a push for more green energy infrastructure. That’s what happened around the world after the 2008 financial crisis. More than a decade on, wind and solar power have become growing and viable competitors in the world’s energy mix… Wars, financial crises, natural disasters and sudden environmental degradation have historically acted as pivot points in how we source our energy and put it to work.”
Why now? As a “Leaders” column in the May 21 Economist explained, “Shutting down swathes of the economy has led to huge cuts in greenhouse-gas emissions. In the first week of April, daily emissions worldwide were 17% below what they were last year… That drop reveals a crucial truth about the climate crisis. It is much too large to be solved by the abandonment of planes, trains and automobiles.” The pandemic, they argued, “creates a unique chance to enact government policies that steer the economy away from carbon at a lower financial, social and political cost than might otherwise have been the case. Rock-bottom energy prices make it easier to cut subsidies for fossil fuels and to introduce a tax on carbon.”
Businesses that rely on fossil fuels, the authors continued – including auto makers, steel producers, and oil and gas firms – are already slashing long-term capacity and employment. That circumstance, they say, is “tailor-made for investment in climate-friendly infrastructure that boosts growth and creates new jobs. Low interest rates make the bill smaller than ever.”
Further, said Enrique Dans in a May 27 column in Forbes, “Pollution affects us all…it makes us more vulnerable to all kinds of respiratory diseases, including of course, those caused by viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which could also become seasonal and repetitive… Electricity generated by fossil fuels accounts for 25% of harmful emissions in the world, while manufacturing and transport, also big consumers, are responsible for 21% and 14% respectively. If one change could have a major impact on the climate emergency, it would be the pivot to renewable energy.”
Renewables, Dans went on, “accounted for 72% of new energy sources installed in 2019, backed by investments that could achieve returns of 800%.” Coal, in contrast, offers “economics…as toxic as its emissions. Reconstructing the energy supply map of a country…has never made more sense.”
And the green revolution won’t just restore the health of Planet Earth: it also will ensure the economic health of countless American families, declared Mark Paul, a political economist at New College of Florida, in an April 30 interview with The Verge. “Right now is the ideal time to be investing in renewable energy that can produce millions of family-sustaining wage jobs across the United States,” Paul said.
Co-author of a $2 trillion “green stimulus” plan to create millions of U.S.-based jobs by expanding renewable energy capacity and retooling infrastructure to move it away from fossil fuel use, Paul explained that new jobs wouldn’t come only from solar and wind installations, but also from the need to build a renewable energy grid that produces renewable energy in one location and delivers it where it’s needed.
Columbia University researcher Noah Kaufman agreed, telling The Verge, “It would be silly to design a stimulus package and not also try to have the spending lead to long term benefits… you’d rather build a bridge than have people dig ditches and then fill them in again. From that regard…clean energy really has a leg up, certainly over dirty energy.”
The only thing likely to stand in the way of a green revolution that propels our economy out of its pandemic-induced morass, said Francesco La Camera, director-general of the International Renewable Energy Agency in a May 12 Yale Environment 360 interview, “is that governments can be pushed by lobbyists to bail out sectors that belong to the past. And this is the real danger.” Leaders, he said, must “seize the opportunity to design economic recovery packages so they accelerate a shift toward wind and solar power, rather than propping up the fossil fuel economy.”
Given what we’ve seen of Donald Trump and his determination to dismantle forward-thinking energy policy over the past 3 ½ years, we know he won’t do what’s necessary if handed another four years in office.
Which is why, as we push for Joe Biden’s election, we also must push his campaign to think big on both the economic and environmental policy fronts.
Biden knows the opportunity is there. As the L.A. Times reported, immediately after clinching the Democratic nomination in early June, the candidate declared he was “building a movement that will transform our nation. So many feel knocked down by the public health and economic crisis we are weathering. So many feel counted out and left behind by a society that has for too long viewed them as less than equal, their lives as less than precious.”
Build that movement he must. As historian Rick Perlstein commented in the same Times article, “…’the interlocking catastrophes’ of COVID-19, a historic surge in unemployment and now racial upheaval…force Biden…to rise to the occasion and pass laws as sweeping as the New Deal adopted under President Franklin D. Roosevelt to overcome the Depression.”
This, Perlstein argued, “is a New Deal moment, and it really demands a president who’s willing and able to build a coalition for structural change…”
That’s the challenge, Joe.
We’re ready to help you make it happen.
Marcy Miroff Rothenberg writes on politics and women’s issues. Her book – Ms. Nice Guy Lost – Here’s How Women Can Win – offers a comprehensive recap of the attacks waged on American women by Trump and the GOP between 2016 and 2018, and provides a to-do list for fighting back. It’s available from store.bookbaby.com.
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