February 26th, 2019 by Steve Hanley
2020 is rapidly approaching. Believe it or not, the next presidential election is just 21 months away. It’s always easy to say some elections are more important than others. 1968 was certainly a seminal year. 2000 was marked another turning point. Few would dispute that 2016, which saw the least qualified person in American history become president, was yet another inflection point.
2020 will be the year when America decides to take climate change seriously or continues to kick the can down the road for another 4 years while the world sails closer to the precipice of environmental disaster. It can be argued that how America decides to deal with a warming planet will have repercussions in countries around the world.
American Exceptionalism may be an anachronism, but it is still relevant at a time when members of the US military are stationed in 150 countries around the world. For the sake of comparison, imagine that China or Russia or Zambia had soldiers garrisoned outside of Pittsburgh or Peoria. Does that help clarify how powerful America remains when it comes to shaping global policies?
The Democratic party split between supporters of Hillary and supporters of Bernie leading up to the election in 2016. That divide may have played a significant role in putting Trump in office. But the party seems not to have learned the lessons its stinging defeat that year should have taught. The traditional party leadership — now symbolized by Nancy Pelosi — is pressuring other Democrats to stay in line and on message. They are being urged not to espouse positions that are too radical, positions that might scare away mainstream voters.
There is merit to what the Democratic party leadership is saying. Leadership requires having political power and that means you have to get elected first. Politics in a post Citizens United America is all about money. Lots of it. Candidates with the largest pool of campaign cash available win the majority of elections. “It’s a scientific fact,” as Homer Simpson might say.
As the divide between rich and poor Americans continues to expand, most of that cash comes form wealthy donors, people who don’t want to upset the status quo. They don’t want to support fringe candidates who speak in angry tones from the margins of the political debate. They want people they can rely on to protect their privileged status in perpetuity and who can blame them? Since the beginning of time, the Golden Rule of politics has been that those who have the gold get to make the rules.
As a young professional, I was introduced during a graduate program to a game called StarPower. Here’s how Wikipedia describes it. “StarPower is an educational game for 12 to 35 players, designed by R. Garry Shirts for Simulation Training Systems in 1969. The game combines chance and skill at trading to establish a score. Players are assigned categories based upon their relative scores, with the highest scoring category being able to change the rules. The game is designed to illustrate the behavior of human beings in a system that naturally stratifies them economically or politically.”
StarPower accurately describes the political realities in America today. The overdogs make rules that favor their interests at the expense of the underdogs. I confess that I advanced to the top level of the game and was ruthless in working with my fellow “Stars” to make sure we altered the rules in our favor at every opportunity. If a dedicated socialist like me could be seduced by the lure of power, it’s unlikely those born into privilege are able to resist its lure.
The worry among senior Democratic leaders is that the firebrands on the left like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will send centrist voters screaming into the arms of Republican candidates. If the Dems don’t seize control of the Senate in 2020, all hope is lost, they reason. Who’s to say they are wrong? But as it turns out, AOC has empowered any number of young voters who have joined the Sunrise Movement and are demanding immediate effective action on climate change — not in 2030 or 2050 or 2121 but now. Such demands scare the bejezus out of Pelosi and Diane Feinstein and other Democratic party leaders.
DiFi has scolded the young people who visited her recently, telling them she has been serving in the Senate most of her adult life and knows a thing or two about how politics works. The kids, on the other hand, are telling her that all her political skills are irrelevant if the world becomes a burnt out cinder thanks to policies DiFi and her colleagues have supported during all those years.
If the world had begun taking dramatic action to reduce carbon emissions in 2000, an annual reduction of 2% would have been sufficient to avoid the worst consequences of a warming planet. But they didn’t, preferring to play the politics game instead. As a result, in order to ward off disaster today will require reducing global carbon emissions by 5% a year — or more. That’s a Herculean task and it’s only going to get more difficult the longer humans ignore the problem and continue playing politics instead. The situation is made plain in this tweet by Stefan Rahmstorf:
A reminder: for every year we wait with reducing emissions, we will have to get out of fossil energy faster *and* earlier! https://t.co/GLSuNEd8vb
— Stefan Rahmstorf (@rahmstorf) February 23, 2019
Everything In Moderation
DiFi and Pelosi are inspiring many other Democrats, some of them recently elected, to urge cautious incrementalism instead of the bold initiatives the Green New Deal proposes. Representative Antonio Delgado, the freshman from New York’s 19th District, is one of them. According to The Information, he has been pressed repeatedly by constituents over his halfhearted support for the effort. He says he is interested in solutions that can be implemented now and complains the AOC legislation does not adequately lay out a path for addressing climate change. “It’s not what we want 15, 20, 30 years from now,” he says. “What can we get done right now?” As if policy goals are too hard for politicians to undertake.
Delgado should be ashamed to admit such ignorance in public. Stanford’s Mark Jacobson and Paul Hawken, editor of Drawdown, have laid out in exquisite detail precisely what must be done to confront the existential challenge of a warming planet. Anyone who is not familiar with their work has no business serving in Congress.
Another freshman representative, Ben McAdams from Utah’s 4th District, told constituents at a town hall on February 19 that while he supported the Green New Deal’s aspirations in principle, he worried that the legislation wouldn’t make it through the House. “It seems expensive,” said McAdams. “I’m not sure it’s feasible.” How’s that for bold leadership?
Surely the money involved in transitioning the world away from fossil fuels is staggering. But a little context may be helpful. David Wallace-Wells, writing in his new book The Uninhabitable Earth: Life After Warming, claims that if average global temperatures rise by 4º C, “damages from warming could reach $600 trillion — about double all the wealth that exists in the world today.” Expensive, Congressman McAdams? You have no idea.
It’s A Fucking Emergency!
The worst case scenario, which is rarely discussed in polite political circles in the US, is best described by famed naturalist David Attenborough, who says it amounts to nothing less than “the collapse of our civilizations and the extinction of much of the natural world.” Writing in Vox, David Roberts describes it in less polite terms. “It’s a fucking emergency,” he says. He quotes Wallace-Wells as saying, “Being alarmed is not a sign of being hysterical. When it comes to climate change, being alarmed is what the facts demand.”
“The status quo — continuing along the same trajectory, doing the same things — leads to disaster on a scale that is genuinely difficult to comprehend, involving the fate of our species and thousands of others over centuries to come,” Roberts says. “Remember, just because our models tend to stop at 2100 doesn’t mean warming will stop then. It will just get worse.”
Some members of Congress say bipartisan action is the only thing that can bring a Green New Deal to fruition, but Roberts is skeptical. “Bipartisanship on any appreciable scale, at least based on reason and persuasion, is currently impossible in US federal politics. Republicans have made it so. If real progress is impossible without bipartisanship, then real progress is impossible. The US political system is doomed and we will suffer the ravages of unabated climate change.” A stark and pessimistic view, to be sure, but does that make it any less valid?
Out Of The Mouths Of Babes
A common reaction to the Green New Deal and the young people who have formed the Sunrise Movement to support it is that young people have no business telling their elders how to govern. “Butt out!” is their message. We have seen precisely this reaction to the school strikes inspired by the words of Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg. “She’s too strident, too young, she’s a tool of her parents, she’s a stooge of George Soros, she should shut up and get back in school where she belongs.” Impudent upstart! She deserves to be taken down a peg or two.
The same goes for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and her juvenile followers. Interestingly enough, when America decides to send troops into foreign countries to support US global objectives, it will be precisely those young people who will do the bulk of the fighting and dying. It has always been so. David Roberts sees the youth movement differently.
“Alongside the decarbonization targets for electricity, transportation, industry, and buildings [in the Green New Deal] are a series of provisions ensuring that everyone can get a job, that everyone can access health care regardless of their job situation, and that the benefits of public investment will be channeled toward the most vulnerable communities.
“It says to Americans: we are going to do something really big, fast, disruptive, and ambitious, but during the transition, you will not be left behind or forgotten. You will be able to find a job and a role to play; you will be not be threatened with homelessness or lack of healthcare. We are going to do this big thing together, all of us, and through it we will lift each other up.
“That message will not please America’s oligarchs. [Remember Star Power?] It sounds entirely ‘unrealistic’ given the narrow bounds of the possible in Washington, DC. But it can inspire ordinary people and get them invested in solving climate change. And if there’s another way to get a broad swathe of Americans fired up about climate change, I haven’t heard it, certainly not from the legion of GND armchair critics.
“To be sure, many economists still oppose industrial policy, and perhaps some Democrats and pundits simply prefer those economists. Perhaps they really are ideologically devoted to market mechanisms and market mechanisms alone. But to the extent Democrats and pundits are simply looking at the GND through the lens of recent US policy and political dynamics, they need to step back and think bigger. The whole point of this is to try something new, something different — because, again, the current trajectory leads to disaster.
“So that’s the context here — a world tipping over into catastrophe, a political system under siege by reactionary plutocrats, a rare wave of well-organized grassroots enthusiasm, and a guiding document that does nothing but articulate goals that any climate-informed progressive ought to share. Given all that, for those who acknowledge the importance of decarbonizing the economy and recognize how cosmically difficult it is going to be, maybe nitpicking and scolding isn’t the way to go. Maybe the moment calls for a constructive and additive spirit. (Emphasis added.)
“The GND remains a statement of aspirations. All the concrete work of policy making lies ahead. There will be room for carbon prices and R&D spending and performance standards and housing density and all the rest of the vast menu of options for reducing emissions. None of those policy debates have been preempted or silenced. And yes, there are any number of ways it could go off the rails, politically or substantively. Everyone is free, nay, encouraged to use their critical judgment.
“But the circumstances we find ourselves in are extraordinary and desperate. Above all, they call upon all of us to put aside our egos and our personal brands and strive for solidarity, to build the biggest and most powerful social force possible behind the only kind of rapid transition that can hope to inspire other countries and forestall the worst of climate change.
“If there is to be swift, large scale change in the US, a country with a political system practically built to prevent such things, it probably won’t look exactly like any of us want. In fact, the odds are against it happening at all. So this doesn’t seem like a time to be cavalier about the opportunities that do come along.
“The kids are out there, organized, demanding a solution. Let’s try to give them one.”
Amen to that.
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