Rise of the Climate Justice Candidate?
On both sides of the Atlantic, a leftward shift in mainstream politics is changing the conversation on climate change.
In the US, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has shocked the political establishment, attracting tens of thousands of people to his events around the country. To be sure, Bernie did not gain strength because his message was centered on protecting the climate. He is focusing on the country’s “grotesque levels of inequality” and the political power of the “billionaire class,” and fighting for higher taxes on the wealthy in order to pay for universal healthcare and free college tuition.
Across the pond, a similar movement just might be underway. Jeremy Corbyn, another democratic socialist, won the leadership of the Labour Party by a landslide in September, rattling the centrist party establishment. He was elected on an unabashedly anti-austerity platform, calling for a stronger safety net and cracking down on concentrated wealth.
Bernie’s standard stump speech says little about global warming, and some environmental outlets have wondered why Bernie has not made it more of a priority. Similarly, Corbyn has not made the climate crisis a central pillar of his party platform, even though he acknowledges it is “a threat to our very existence.” (Before his election, he even expressed support for reopening a coal mine in Wales, although he has since clarified that he wants to see “green development in all aspects of energy generation” and does not support a policy of reopening coal mines.)
Nevertheless, it is no accident that both of their platforms strike at the heart of the political and economic power of the fossil fuel industry. And increasingly, both are articulating the need to integrate the movements for economic and environmental justice.
Towards a “climate justice climate change plan”
Bernie wants to overturn Citizens United to keep money out of politics. He is proposing a tax on financial transactions and would seek to roll back free trade agreements. And he has already introduced legislation that would break up the largest banks, called “Too Big to Fail, Too Big to Exist Act.”
Meanwhile, he has also proposed legislation to provide grants and loans to low-income people to install solar panels on their homes—a bill that would help to lower electric bills, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and help foster democratic control over energy.
In August, Bernie introduced an amendment in the Senate calling for “a national environmental and climate justice climate change plan,” in order to resolve “the disproportionate impacts of air pollution to low-income and minority communities.” Upon endorsing him this summer, Friends of the Earth Action cited his “bold ideas and real solutions to addressing climate change, inequality and promoting a transformative economy that prioritizes public health and the environment over corporate profits.”
More recently, Bernie unveiled new legislation to ban the extraction of coal, oil, and natural gas on public lands in the United States. The “Keep it in the Ground Act” is a direct challenge to the Obama administration’s failure to restrict fossil fuel production at its source. It would end new leases for drilling both on and offshore, including in the Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic, Pacific, and Arctic Oceans. Introduced with much fanfare in front of the US Capitol, Bernie also enlisted a handful of Democratic co-sponsors, an indication that his ideas are finding a home among the progressive left in Congress.
Finally, Bernie’s campaign says that it will release a more comprehensive climate change plan ahead of the international negotiations set to take place in Paris in December. One pillar of the plan will include compensation for displaced fossil fuel workers, a crucial idea in making the clean energy transition an equitable one.
“Protecting Our Planet”
In the UK, Corbyn wants higher minimum wages, more money for the National Health Service, a massive building program to bring down the cost of housing, and nuclear disarmament.
He has also called for the nationalization of UK’s utilities and energy providers, which he calls a “cartel,” in order to ramp up clean energy and bring down costs for ratepayers. In his Protecting Our Planet manifesto, he advocates for local energy democracy and community-generated power, with a heavy reliance on solar. A “Green Investment Bank” would be established to weatherize homes, build out renewables, and create green jobs. Corbyn wants to “tackle the cost of living and the climate crisis together,” and he says that “tackling climate change will only be effective if social justice is at the heart of the solutions we propose.”
Both candidates are very far from seeing their visions enacted. Even if Bernie was elected, he would likely face a recalcitrant Congress. And the UK is years away from another election.
Still, both are already having a concrete impact. Corbyn’s ascension has sparked thousands of new people to join the Labour party. Despite generous funding from Wall Street Banks, Hillary Clinton has suddenly begun talking about economic inequality. Furthermore, Bernie has boxed in Clinton on several climate issues. After five years of waffling on the Keystone XL pipeline, including 2010 comments in which she said the U.S. State Department under her leadership was “inclined” to approve the project, she finally came out against it.
In August, Clinton also came out against Arctic drilling, putting her at odds with the Obama administration, which had approved Shell’s ill-fated foray into the Chukchi Sea. That stands in contrast to her position just a few years ago. In 2011, on a visit to Greenland for a summit of the Arctic Council, Clinton laid out the US government’s stance Arctic drilling. “The melting of sea ice, for example, will result in more shipping, fishing and tourism, and the possibility to develop newly accessible oil and gas reserves,” Clinton said. “We seek to pursue these opportunities in a smart, sustainable way that preserves the Arctic environment and ecosystem.”
In addition, Bernie (along with fellow Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley) called for an investigation into ExxonMobil’s decades-long campaign to cover up climate science, an issue that became front page news when New York Attorney General launched an inquiry on November 5. Clinton made a break with ExxonMobil—a company that has fundraised for both her campaign and the Clinton Global Initiative—and joined her fellow Democrats in supporting an investigation.
No doubt her about-faces on Keystone XL, Arctic drilling, and her ties with the oil industry were made with an eye on Bernie’s clear stances on all of them.
Marrying economic and environmental justice
Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn present intriguing new opportunities for the left. Crucially, both politicians not only want to implement policies that would attack inequality while radically transforming their respective country’s energy systems. They are also both using language that could help build bridges between the different movements fighting for those goals.
To be clear, neither is introducing new ideas. Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have been politicians for a long-time; Bernie has served in Congress since 1990, and Corbyn has been an MP since the early 1980s. They are not new faces. Nor do they have exceptional political skills that would somehow explain their rapid rise in 2015.
Instead, the political agenda that they have advocated for several decades has become a lot more popular recently as wage stagnation, economic inequality, and the climate crisis all grow worse. The failure of our economic system—along with the stagnation of traditionally left parties in both the UK and the US—is fueling the rise of fundamentally different candidates. People are not looking for a return of Blair’s New Labour Party or an extension of the Clinton-Obama administration. Radical change is in the air.
There is no doubt that we still have a long way to go before disparate movements on the left truly merge into a broad-based coalition. Corbyn’s victory has led to a lot of infighting in the Labour Party, with many fearing his approach will lead to electoral disaster. Bernie only offered his climate justice amendment after he was heckled by the Black Lives Matter movement.
And yet, in both countries, a resurgent populist left is loudly making the case for holistic system change. There is some hope that politicians are starting to pay attention.