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Better-Than-Before Climate Plans Still Aren't Good Enough

The fact that climate plans from the House Democrats and the "unity task forces" set up by Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden are better than anything we’ve seen in over a decade does not make them good enough.

Sunrise Movement campaigners call on Democratic House members to back a Green New Deal. (Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

When the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis released its long-awaited climate plan at the end of June, policy wonks and activists cheered it as a welcome step forward, and a sure sign that the activist movements that pressured party leadership to step up to the challenge could take credit for this progress.

The same thing happened when a Joe Biden-Bernie Sanders “unity task force” released its own climate plan, which shows that the Biden campaign is willing to go further on these issues than it did during the primary contest.

While that may be encouraging, the fact that these plans are better than anything we’ve seen from Democratic party leadership in over a decade does not make them good enough.

The House Democrats’ plan demands a closer look. The idea to create a “select committee” to craft this proposal was a direct result of the Green New Deal movement, most notably a sit-in at Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s office right after the 2018 midterms. That event signaled that climate activists were not merely content with winning elections: they wanted a bold plan. Party leadership was not in sync with the demands of the newly emboldened movement; in fact, by design the select committee’s recommendations may not lead to any particular legislative action.

Nonetheless, the headline recommendations sound bold: A pledge to make all cars “zero-emission” by 2035, ‘net zero’ electricity generation by 2040, and similar goals for the rest of the economy a decade later. While that timeline is certainly an improvement over past Democratic proposals, the current crisis requires faster action.

Beyond the timelines, there are other alarming shortcomings in the House plan. Most importantly, it lacks any real focus on stopping fossil fuel development. The most impactful climate policies must emphasize turning off the fossil fuels spigot as fast as possible; simply announcing renewable energy goals mean little if new dirty projects move forward. Aggressive supply-side policies include a ban on fracking, stopping all fossil fuel imports and exports, and stopping the buildout of all new dirty energy infrastructure -- all of which are central to the Ban Fracking Act recently introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Aside from what it fails to do, the plan also endorses some troubling policies, most notably the expansion of biogas and factory farm manure digesters. These facilities prop up unsustainable and dangerous agricultural practices that are directly contributing to the climate crisis, and are being billed as climate-friendly thanks to a bogus industry PR campaign that seeks to treat cow and chicken excrement as sources of ‘renewable’ energy. A comprehensive climate plan would place a moratorium on polluting factory farms; this plan recommends the opposite.

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While they are not central to the House plan, it is still alarming to see carbon taxes included as part of any climate solution. These regressive policies have proven to be colossal failures when it comes to meaningfully reducing emissions. The fact that fossil fuel corporations are heartily embracing phony pricing schemes tells you all you need to know about the effectiveness of carbon taxes. The climate and environmental justice movement has made serious progress in discrediting these oil and gas industry backed schemes, and it is notable that the committee does not pretend that they will be a major component of any future climate action.

While ‘taxing’ carbon is almost an afterthought, the plan fully embraces carbon capture, a set of largely unproven technologies that are highly attractive to fossil fuel companies seeking to maintain their current business models. The emphasis on carbon capture is linked to the core emissions reductions goals outlined in the report, which are usually defined as “net zero.” The risk is that the companies responsible for creating the crisis can find inventive and duplicitous techniques to essentially ‘write off’ emissions in one sector by claiming they are canceled out - or offset - by other activities. The risk is that much-needed agricultural practices that sequester carbon would be promoted not so much as an end in themselves, but as a way for a dirty energy company to claim ‘credit’ for continuing polluting elsewhere.

This bait-and-switch is already well underway. Consider, for example, the long list of fossil fuel corporations issuing “net zero” pledges, which are either audaciously misleading or outright hilarious. While their existence is meant to signal serious concern for the climate, they only serve to illustrate the malleability of the concept. If an oil company seeks to continue drilling for oil, then all it really needs to do is announce its support for non-existent “carbon capture” technologies that it promises to deploy, someday. This does not represent a climate plan so much as an accounting trick -- and the fate of a livable planet rests in the balance.

Ironically, less than a week after the House report was released, the real world delivered glimpses of the type of supply side action essential to meeting the climate challenges we face. Utility giants Duke and Dominion announced that, after years of community opposition and an array of legal challenges, it was abandoning its multi-billion dollar Atlantic Coast fracked gas pipeline. The whining from the industry and the Trump administration was clear about who was to blame: Climate activists are blocking the investments that deepen our fossil fuel dependence. The following day, the DC Circuit Court ruled that the Dakota Access pipeline -- a fight that galvanized and radicalized the international climate movement, in solidarity with Indigenous water protectors on the front lines at Standing Rock -- was to be shut down due to deficiencies with its federal permits. The project is not dead, but it demonstrates that shutting down infrastructure is the only viable path to creating a safe climate future.

These are movement victories, as was the victory in the three-year battle to stop the Williams pipeline in New York Harbor several weeks prior. Instead of creating a market-based system to trade pollution credits or a series of incentives to ‘nudge’ fossil fuel companies to finally see the light, these victories represent a climate movement that is invested in working in solidarity with frontline communities and putting unwavering and unrelenting pressure on political decision-makers to shut down the polluting industries that seek to forever alter life on our planet.

The Democratic party is slowly rising to meet the demands of this movement, and this historic movement. But it still has a long way to go.

Mitch Jones

Mitch Jones

Mitch Jones is the Policy Director at Food & Water Action.

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