On Climate, Biden Falls Far Short

Paying attention to climate change means bearing witness to a grand contradiction. We constantly hear — and have heard for decades — sober pronouncements from Congressional hearings, international scientific panels and the federal government that our current energy and industrial system is unsustainable. It is driving frighteningly rapid changes to the balance of systems that sustain life on Earth. These pronouncements outline, with the uncertainty demanded of scientists, the dire consequences for failing to act: millions of deaths, failures of crops and displacement on a scale not seen before in human history. The contradiction comes from the lack of response — governments make totally inadequate pledges to avoid this future, and private corporations make token efforts for marketing purposes while trying to sell off the deck chairs on the Titanic.

We have reason to hope that this dynamic may be changing. With a Democratic trifecta in the Presidency, House and Senate, Biden has the opportunity to push forward legislation on the scale of the crisis. During the campaign, he made promises to do so. We have already seen a flurry of executive orders, but they are still of largely limited scope.

Last month, we saw some first steps of what might emerge in the legislative sector in the form of Biden’s “infrastructure package.” This package, a roughly $2 trillion proposal focused on shoring up all types of infrastructure in the United States, is also serving as the administration’s climate bill. At least one liberal political commentator has decided that spending a lot of money while talking about climate change makes this basically the Green New Deal (I assume 10,000 bad-faith Republican attacks will make the same point, but they are not worth engaging). Unfortunately, despite the price tag that has made some political journalists’ eyes pop, we are still nowhere near “the scale of the crisis,” and if we want to build a livable future, we will need to fight to ensure that Biden’s proposal is only the first down payment.

First, I want to avoid the “grumpy socialist” cliché for a paragraph to point out the positive parts of Biden’s plan. It includes a clean energy standard (CES), which proposes to decarbonize the electric sector entirely by 2035. This is important, because electricity is, of course, a major source of emissions. It is also important because the biggest climate push in other sectors — like transportation and industry — is likely to rely on electrifying the cars and boilers that currently run on fossil fuels. Clean electricity is a prerequisite to these other decarbonization initiatives. By setting a standard, which utilities must reach by a given date, Biden has avoided falling into the trap of relying on market mechanisms such as carbon pricing, which frequently fail to reduce emissions and rarely account for the true cost of climate change.

It is also very much the case that the United States needs a huge infrastructure infusion. Decades of neoliberalism — in the form of reduced public budgets and privatization — has left us with much of society’s hardware crumbling, resulting in the US overall receiving a C- on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ Infrastructure Report Card. Furthermore, Biden’s expansion of “infrastructure” to cover care work by proposing expansions to paid leave and childcare is a welcome move towards a more expansive view of what labor actually keeps society running.

Now, on to the bad. The Green New Deal has always been a framework that addresses climate change through massive public investment in clean energy jobs and infrastructure rather than a specific proposal. However, we have two possible points of comparison for the Biden climate package. First, we can consider the proposal raised by Bernie’s 2020 presidential campaign. This called for $16 trillion in spending to address climate change, dwarfing $2 trillion. What’s worse, Biden’s $2 trillion is not dedicated spending to financing jobs and infrastructure specific to addressing climate change. Nor does the proposal take any steps towards expanding public ownership in the power sector or expand on ecologically sustainable agriculture. The funding is mostly dedicated to funding roads and bridges.

While valuable pieces of infrastructure, it is transportation and not electricity that is the dominant source of carbon emissions. Locking in highways as the principal mode of interstate transit for the next 50 years is not good climate policy. While electric vehicles are part of the solution, the emissions and materials like lithium that are required to replace all of Americans’ personal transit with battery-powered vehicles is truly colossal. Infrastructure that does not actively assist in the transition to a clean and sustainable future is at best wasting effort and at worst a hindrance. Instead, clean energy transportation should focus on high-speed intercity rail networks and public transportation. These technologies are available today and widely deployed internationally. Deploying public transportation in the United States more widely can reduce local pollution, reduce road deaths and offer an alternative to the suburban sprawl that contributes to high housing costs.

There’s also a hidden risk in Biden’s “clean energy standard” — “clean” rather than “renewable” in energy policy means that nuclear plants and fossil plants equipped with carbon-capture technology could qualify, in contrast to Bernie’s plan, which called for 100% renewable power by 2030. Both nuclear and carbon-capture technologies have significant costs to communities associated with obtaining fuel and disposing of the products (radioactive waste or some type of carbon product).

We can also compare Biden’s plan to the DSA Ecosocialist working group’s Green New Deal principles. These were formulated in a bottom-up, organization-wide process meant to build consensus on what must be in a Green New Deal proposal that socialists could champion. This plan was built to reflect a response on the scale of the crisis that also centered working-class families in its vision of a transition.

DSA’s Green New Deal principles demand the decarbonization of the US economy by 2030 — an aggressive timeline which recognizes the US’s historical role as the dominant carbon emitter. They also focus on building democracy into the energy system by transferring investor-owned monopoly power companies into public control, a tenet reflected in Bernie’s plan in which new renewable energy capacity would be publicly owned and the profits returned to the government. DSA’s Green New Deal principles demand that we decommodify survival, ensuring that everyone has access to food and shelter during the climate-caused crises ongoing and yet to come. Crucially, we also insist that now is the time to transition away from the world order based on control of oil sources and military domination. With the US military being one of the largest polluters on Earth, and violent forces such as police integral to the maintenance of extractive economies at home and abroad, it is not enough to clean up our act at home. We must begin an international process of climate justice that includes the dismantling of the dirty war machine.

Biden’s infrastructure plan isn’t the last word, though. If this is the critical decade on climate change — the difference between mass misery and an ecologically sustainable and just future — then we can make sure that whatever Biden throws us today is just a small down payment on future action. That $2T versus $16T gap can be made up by repeating it, year after year. To do this will take more than just pointing and saying it should be done — it will take a mass movement capable of mobilizing people to put pressure on politicians in the streets and the ballot box. We have a weapon that allows us to build that kind of power: the labor movement. That’s why MDC DSA’s Green New Deal Campaign is prioritizing the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act, which is the best shot we have at building worker power and demanding a just transition that empowers workers and communities.

Now is the perfect time to get involved in this important national priority. With DSA’s phone-banking efforts already influencing key senators such as Angus King and Joe Manchin to co-sponsor the PRO Act, we can stay on the dialer and in the streets until we win our rights to organize and then use that to demand real climate action over and over again until we get it. With an energized, organized working class, we will be able to demand real climate action like AOC and Bernie’s Green New Deal bills focused on public housing, enabling local climate action, or passing the Congressional Progressive Caucus’ THRIVE Act, which would invest $10 trillion in renewable energy, green infrastructure, and climate justice initiatives.

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