Published on
by

This Is a Climate Emergency. We Need More Than Half-Measures from Democrats.

How to get the Democrats’ climate policy from “better than the Republicans” to “sufficient to save the planet.”

"To go from mere­ly ​'bet­ter than the Repub­li­cans' to ​'suf­fi­cient to save the plan­et,' the [Democratic] par­ty needs to shift its think­ing in sev­er­al areas," writes Sen, "Key among these are end­ing fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion, tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for U.S. emis­sions inter­na­tion­al­ly, and humane­ly wel­com­ing refugees impact­ed by cli­mate change." (Photo: michael_swan/flickr/cc)

"To go from mere­ly ​'bet­ter than the Repub­li­cans' to ​'suf­fi­cient to save the plan­et,' the [Democratic] par­ty needs to shift its think­ing in sev­er­al areas," writes Sen, "Key among these are end­ing fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion, tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for U.S. emis­sions inter­na­tion­al­ly, and humane­ly wel­com­ing refugees impact­ed by cli­mate change." (Photo: michael_swan/flickr/cc)

From dere­chos in Iowa to duel­ing hur­ri­canes in the Gulf Coast, 2020 is promis­ing to be an elec­tion year shot through with cli­mate dis­as­ters. Even now, rag­ing wild­fires have spawned apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes from Wash­ing­ton State on down to the Bay Area.

In style and sub­stance, there are few issues on which the two major par­ties are as far apart as cli­mate change.

The Repub­li­cans have become the offi­cial par­ty of cli­mate denial­ism. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has rou­tine­ly cen­sored cli­mate sci­ence and gut­ted com­mon sense, often life-sav­ing reg­u­la­tions to ben­e­fit the fos­sil fuel indus­try. Under Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, the U.S. has become the only coun­try to quit the flawed but essen­tial Paris cli­mate accord.

The Democ­rats are dis­tinct­ly bet­ter. They’ve rolled out a raft of dif­fer­ent cli­mate plat­forms and promi­nent­ly cam­paigned on the issue. Grass­roots move­ments have pushed the Biden cam­paign in par­tic­u­lar to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the ambi­tion of its com­mit­ments on climate.

But the real test of even a ​“bet­ter” plat­form is whether it keeps glob­al warm­ing to with­in 1.5 degrees Cel­sius above pre-indus­tri­al lev­els. The answer is a mat­ter of life and death for bil­lions, par­tic­u­lar­ly the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

To go from mere­ly ​“bet­ter than the Repub­li­cans” to ​“suf­fi­cient to save the plan­et,” the par­ty needs to shift its think­ing in sev­er­al areas. Key among these are end­ing fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion, tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for U.S. emis­sions inter­na­tion­al­ly, and humane­ly wel­com­ing refugees impact­ed by cli­mate change.

Fos­sil Fuel Blinders

The Democ­rats’ com­mit­ments are spelled out in a range of doc­u­ments, includ­ing the House Select Com­mit­tee on the Cli­mate Cri­sis report, the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force plan, the Biden cam­paign plat­form, the offi­cial Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty plat­form, and most recent­ly, the Sen­ate Democ­rats’ cli­mate plan.

Broad­ly speak­ing, there’s a lot to com­mend in these platforms.

To start, it’s encour­ag­ing to see cli­mate rec­og­nized as a major issue at all—and not just cli­mate change, but cli­mate jus­tice. All of these plat­forms call for undo­ing lega­cies of envi­ron­men­tal racism and injus­tice and cen­ter­ing front­line com­mu­ni­ties in solu­tions. This is a major step for­ward, won by decades of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice organizing.

But the first big stum­ble is their fail­ure to take on fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion. There’s grow­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that cut­ting fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion alone won’t be enough to avert cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe—we also need to phase out their pro­duc­tion. That’s espe­cial­ly true for the U.S., the world’s largest pro­duc­er of both petro­le­um and nat­ur­al gas, and the third largest pro­duc­er of coal.

"But the first big stum­ble is their fail­ure to take on fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion. There’s grow­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that cut­ting fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion alone won’t be enough to avert cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe—we also need to phase out their pro­duc­tion"

None of the plat­forms make a hard com­mit­ment to do this. They call instead for baby steps, such as elim­i­nat­ing fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and cut­ting methane leaks. That’s nec­es­sary but far from suf­fi­cient, and they may already be back­track­ing. Dur­ing the con­ven­tion, the DNC qui­et­ly removed a plank call­ing for an end to fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies, though the Biden cam­paign insists it remains com­mit­ted to end­ing them.

Fail­ing to address fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion seri­ous­ly dilutes the com­mit­ment all the plat­forms make to envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. Fos­sil fuel extrac­tion,trans­porta­tion, pro­cess­ing and burn­ing have seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal,safe­ty, and health impacts, par­tic­u­lar­ly on mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. And even if we end­ed domes­tic con­sump­tion, these fuels could still be export­ed—and burned—abroad. That would allow the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice impacts to con­tin­ue, whether in extrac­tion-affect­ed com­mu­ni­ties at home or com­mu­ni­ties next to pow­er plants and indus­tri­al facil­i­ties in oth­er countries.

Instead of address­ing this direct­ly, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans wish away emis­sions by invok­ing Car­bon Cap­ture and Stor­age (CCS), a large­ly unproven tech­nol­o­gy to ​“cap­ture” car­bon emis­sions from ongo­ing fos­sil fuel oper­a­tions. The Biden plat­form, for exam­ple, calls to ​“accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment and deploy­ment” of the technology.

This is a dan­ger­ous delu­sion. CCS isn’t proven to work at scale—after years of research and devel­op­ment, there’s only one oper­a­tional CCS facil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States. It’s also inor­di­nate­ly expen­sive, which could take resources away from scal­ing up proven solu­tions such as solar and wind ener­gy, which are already cost-com­pet­i­tive with fos­sil fuels.

Even if one could cap­ture car­bon diox­ide from smoke­stacks eco­nom­i­cal­ly and at scale, those same smoke­stacks will still emit par­tic­u­late mat­ter and oth­erdan­ger­ous pol­lu­tants. Com­mu­ni­ties exposed to these pol­lu­tants—dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly low-income peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or—would con­tin­ue being treat­ed as sac­ri­fice zones.

Of course, craft­ing a just plan to wind down fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion is hard work. It will need exten­sive input from impact­ed work­ers depen­dent on the indus­try for their liveli­hoods, and impact­ed com­mu­ni­ties depen­dent on tax rev­enues from the indus­try, to ensure a thriv­ing future for them. But there’s no excuse not to do it.

Show­ing Respon­si­bil­i­ty, Not ​“Lead­er­ship”

The oth­er major blind spot in these plat­forms is their nar­row nationalism.

Green­house gas­es emit­ted by any one coun­try effec­tive­ly warm the entire plan­et. That’s why we have a U.N. Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFC­CC) process to deal with cli­mate action as the inher­ent­ly mul­ti­lat­er­al issue that it is. That’s why it was so irre­spon­si­ble for Trump to walk away from the UNFCCC. 

But rejoin­ing the Paris accord isn’t near­ly enough.

Green­house gas reduc­tion tar­gets under the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment are non­bind­ing, with coun­tries mak­ing only vol­un­tary pledges. The pledges made by all coun­tries under the Paris accord would result in a 3.2 degree Cel­sius glob­al aver­age tem­per­a­ture increase, well over the 1.5 degrees upper lim­it sci­en­tists have shown we must stay with­in to pre­serve a liv­able planet.

At the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry cast the Paris agree­ment as evi­dence of Barack Oba­ma and Joe Biden’s glob­al lead­er­ship. But it was the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion itself that pres­sured the Paris sig­na­to­ries to make their com­mit­ments non-binding.

To their cred­it, the cur­rent crop of Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans go beyond promis­ing to rejoin the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. But their con­tin­ued insis­tence on putting the U.S. ​“back in the posi­tion of glob­al lead­er­ship where we belong,” as the par­ty plat­form promis­es, isn’t just hubris­tic nation­al­ist rhetoric—it results in sub­stan­tive shortcomings.

To start, none of the plans rec­og­nize that the U.S. has among the high­est per capi­ta emis­sions of any coun­try, and an aston­ish­ing one quar­ter of cumu­la­tive emis­sions since rough­ly the start of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Cumu­la­tive emis­sions mat­ter, because car­bon diox­ide can per­sist in the atmos­phere for cen­turies.

A more hon­est approach would be to speak not of America’s lead­er­ship but its respon­si­bil­i­ty to reduce its own emis­sions rapid­ly on a scale that match­es its out­sized con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al emissions.

"A more hon­est approach would be to speak not of America’s lead­er­ship but its respon­si­bil­i­ty to reduce its own emis­sions rapid­ly on a scale that match­es its out­sized con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al emissions."

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the U.S vol­un­tary tar­get bare­ly exceeds a quar­ter of the most con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of what a fair share of emis­sions reduc­tions by the U.S. should be. So when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form says the U.S. will ​“seek high­er ambi­tion from nations around the world,” it’s fair to ask: Why not increase our own com­mit­ment first?

Instead, the par­ty appears to blame oth­er coun­tries for the cri­sis. The Biden cam­paign plat­form claims that coun­tries like Chi­na ​“game the sys­tem by becom­ing des­ti­na­tion economies for pol­luters.” But China’s sta­tus as the world’s fac­to­ry is in sig­nif­i­cant part attrib­ut­able to the cor­po­rate-friend­ly glob­al trade régime that the U.S. has con­sis­tent­ly pushed for. Chi­na is our third largest trad­ing part­ner, and U.S. com­pa­nies are respon­si­ble for much of the pol­lu­tion in China.

Then there’s the mat­ter of the U.S. debt to coun­tries impact­ed by our emissions.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans do com­mit the U.S. to the Green Cli­mate Fund, which funds cli­mate action in less wealthy coun­tries. But absent spe­cif­ic mon­e­tary com­mit­ments, it’s an emp­ty promise.

The U.S. pledge under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, for exam­ple, was only $3bil­lion (Trump lat­er reneged on $2 bil­lion of this). This com­pares to an esti­mat­ed need for world­wide cap­i­tal invest­ment of 810 bil­lion Euros ($956bil­lion) by 2030 annu­al­ly for bring­ing emis­sions down (“mit­i­ga­tion”), and anoth­er $500 bil­lion by 2050 annu­al­ly for adjust­ing to cli­mate change impacts (“adap­ta­tion”). Giv­en the out­sized U.S. role in caus­ing the cli­mate cri­sis, it’s only fair that the U.S. con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion costs should be orders of mag­ni­tude larger.

“Fortress Amer­i­ca”

Final­ly, there’s the issue of migra­tion. More than 140 mil­lion peo­ple are expect­ed to be dis­placed by cli­mate change in the com­ing decades. Any seri­ous cli­mate plan demands a humane approach to this wrench­ing cri­sis, which is already begin­ning to unfold.

To its cred­it, the offi­cial par­ty plat­form com­mits to address­ing ​“the root caus­es of migra­tion,” includ­ing ​“the impacts of cli­mate change.” But the Biden cam­paign, House Select Com­mit­tee, and Sen­ate Democ­rats’ plans, with their empha­sis on ​“nation­al secu­ri­ty” and ​“prepar­ing” at the bor­der, hint vague­ly at what’s some­times called ​“Fortress America.”

Biden promis­es to ​“ele­vate cli­mate change as a nation­al secu­ri­ty pri­or­i­ty” in response to ​“defense and intel­li­gence lead­ers’ warn­ings about the threats cli­mate change pos­es to glob­al sta­bil­i­ty.” He plans to make ​“secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions of result­ing large-scale migra­tions” dri­ven by cli­mate change a sub­ject of intel­li­gence gathering.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the House Select Com­mit­tee wants fed­er­al agen­cies to ​“pre­pare for cli­mate-dri­ven inter­nal and cross-bor­der migra­tion” in response to cli­mate risks to nation­al secu­ri­ty, while the Sen­ate plan warns that cli­mate-dri­ven migra­tion will ​“strain state capac­i­ty, fur­ther frac­ture soci­eties, and could cre­ate breed­ing grounds for radicalization.”

"With­out a firm com­mit­ment to the human rights of cli­mate refugees, these vague approach­es could eas­i­ly presage a mil­i­ta­rized response to a cri­sis for which the U.S. is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly respon­si­ble."

Almost as an after­thought, the Sen­ate plan does rec­og­nize that ​“indi­vid­u­als whose lives are immi­nent­ly threat­ened by cli­mate change may have a legal basis for refugee pro­tec­tion,” though it stops short of affirm­ing one itself. The Biden and House plans say noth­ing about cli­mate-dri­ven migra­tion as a human rights issue.

With­out a firm com­mit­ment to the human rights of cli­mate refugees, these vague approach­es could eas­i­ly presage a mil­i­ta­rized response to a cri­sis for which the U.S. is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly respon­si­ble. The mes­sage to the rest of the world is: ​“We don’t care if our emis­sions parched your crops and dis­placed you—we’ll pre­serve our gat­ed community.”

A more humane response would neces­si­tate the U.S. open­ing its bor­ders to peo­ple flee­ing cli­mate dev­as­ta­tion, a core part of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the effects of its his­tor­i­cal emissions.

The Strength of Our Movements

The Democ­rats have got­ten a good deal stronger on cli­mate jus­tice in recent years. Still, their offi­cial posi­tions often remain stuck in the Oba­ma years, leav­ing the door open for an ​“all of the above” ener­gy agen­da at home, under­min­ing more mean­ing­ful action in glob­al cli­mate talks, and bar­ring the door to impact­ed refugees.

What they haven’t reck­oned with is the strength of our move­ments for cli­mate jus­tice. It’s the strength of our move­ments that has forced the Democ­rats to acknowl­edge the pri­ma­cy of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice—and to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the par­ty more clear­ly from the denial­ist Republicans.

And it’s the strength of our move­ments that has deci­sive­ly shift­ed the cen­ter of grav­i­ty of cli­mate pol­i­cy from a neolib­er­al ​“car­bon pric­ing” approach to a focus on reg­u­la­tion, gov­ern­ment spend­ing, and social justice.

If a Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion takes office in 2021, they can expect mas­sive resis­tance to fos­sil fuels at home, and unre­lent­ing pres­sure to aban­don hubris­tic notions of ​“Amer­i­can lead­er­ship” and engage in good-faith in glob­al cli­mate action.

This arti­cle was pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Basav Sen

Basav Sen

Basav Sen is the cli­mate jus­tice project direc­tor at the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) and writes on the inter­sec­tions of cli­mate change and social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Pri­or to join­ing IPS, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

Please select a donation method:



Share This Article