Beyond the Polluters

Beyond the Polluters

Bernie Sanders’s climate plan offers a welcome alternative to the vagueness of the Paris Agreement. But to win over a broader public, a leftist climate agenda will require a vision of a “just transition” that goes beyond our energy system.

New York state nurses join the People's Climate March, September 21, 2014 (Light Brigading / Flickr)

In the thirty-one pages of the Paris Agreement, the landmark climate accord signed on December 12 by 196 countries, two words are conspicuously absent: fossil fuels. Nor does the document, heralded in the Guardian as signaling the “end of the fossil fuel era,” make any mention of coal, oil, or natural gas. Only once, in the preamble, does it mention renewable energy. The commitments are not only unenforceable, as widely noted, but perilously abstract.

Next to the Paris Agreement, Bernie Sanders’s environmental platform, “People Before Polluters,” is a breath of fresh air. The Sanders campaign’s climate action plan was released to little fanfare during COP21 and has largely continued to elude public attention. (During the third Democratic primary debate, which aired quietly on Saturday night, ABC News moderators failed to ask a single question about climate change, and Sanders alluded to it only in passing.)

The priority of People Before Polluters, as the title suggests, is to call out the polluters that the Paris Agreement so carefully tiptoes around. “Let’s be clear,” Sanders’s platform reads, “the reason we haven’t solved climate change isn’t because we aren’t doing our part, it’s because a small subsection of the one percent are hell-bent on doing everything in their power to block action.” The plan’s first policy goal? “Reclaim our democracy from the billionaire fossil fuel lobby.” To this end, Sanders calls for the Department of Justice to investigate Exxon for covering up its own research into climate change; for an overturning of Citizens United; and for banning fossil fuel lobbyists from the White House.

“People Before Polluters” further calls for an outright ban on fracking, mountaintop removal coal mining, offshore and Arctic oil drilling, and extraction on public lands. In their place, Sanders envisions major public investment in renewable technologies, bolstered by a carbon tax and the repeal of fossil fuel subsidies. Altogether, his plan aims to cut pollution 40 percent from 1990 levels by 2030 and 80 percent by 2050.

“The science is very clearly saying that we have to leave 80 percent of known fossil fuels in the ground,” executive director May Boeve told me in Paris. “What indigenous peoples have been saying for years, now you have Nature, the International Energy Agency, and the World Bank saying the exact same thing.” Sanders’s plan, unlike the Paris deal, points explicitly in this direction. In this sense, it reflects the Vermont senator’s adoption of demands that anti-corporate climate activists have been making for years, through campaigns like those against the Keystone XL pipeline and for fossil fuel divestment. It’s also consistent with legislative efforts like the Keep It in the Ground Act, a senate bill seeking to ban all new fossil fuel leases on public lands, which Sanders introduced in November alongside Oregon senator Jeff Merkley and’s Bill McKibben.

Shifting the blame for the climate crisis squarely onto the people responsible is a welcome intervention, especially given environmentalism’s tendency to shame consumers for their plane rides and plastic water bottles. It also helps redress a misconception about environmental issues that inundated La Bourget: that tackling climate change is about anything other than power.

Andreas Malm writes in his history of the fossil fuel era, Fossil Capital, that English is the only language in which power refers to both energy currents and sociopolitical might. In the United States, today’s energy industry epitomizes this double entendre, and is spending vast sums to ensure things stay that way. In 2014, oil and gas companies funneled $142 million into lobbying efforts. ExxonMobil alone, over the past five years, has spent an annual average of $13 million on lobbying. And this doesn’t even include the millions that its executives, along with the likes of the Koch brothers, have devoted to the think tanks, bogus studies, and astroturf groups spreading climate denial. These investments continue to pay off handsomely: Oil Change International estimates that federal subsidies to the fossil fuel industry weigh in at an average of $37.5 billion each year. This is the kind of power, above all, that “People Before Polluters” seeks to challenge.

So far, so good. But supplanting the fossil fuel industry, and the economic system in which it is embedded, is about more than taking its rogue actors to task. The fight against climate change must be waged on two fronts; dismantling the carbon economy also means developing equitable alternatives. Bernie makes a compelling case for who the enemies are. What he leaves less well defined is the future without them.

People Not Polluters’ proscriptive elements are composed mainly of a jobs program and investment in clean energy—the makings, Plumer writes, of “traditional Democratic climate proposals.” But surely there must be more to stopping climate change than 10 million strapping construction workers hoisting up wind turbines and solar panels. What would a more robust democratic socialist climate policy look like?

At the onset of the Thatcher-Reagan era, the late Stuart Hall wrote that, “People are willing to contemplate pulling up what they know by the roots only if they can have some rational hope, some concrete image of the alternative.” After three-hundred-plus years of having our lives powered by “cheap nature,” as sociologist Jason Moore has called it, an economy based on fossil fuels is all we in the global North know. That fossil fuels are a part of is not its only flaw, and posing any rational alternative to it will mean defining transformations in the economy that extend beyond the energy sector.

Why, then, limit unionized, low-carbon job creation to “those transitioning to a career in the clean energy industry,” as outlined in Sanders’s plan? Plenty of parts of the economy are already low-carbon, including large swaths of the service sector, education, and other under-recognized jobs like archive-keeping and public-interest journalism. While caring for children, the sick, and the elderly is often left out of narratives about the much-hyped Clean Energy Future, these kinds of work stand to become even more vital as the climate crisis accelerates—and offer a potential source of high-paying work that doesn’t poison the atmosphere.

By 2030, the same year by which Sanders plans to have reduced emissions by 40 percent, some 20 percent of Americans will be over the age of 65. By 2050—when he hopes to have cut carbon by a full 80 percent—27 million Americans will require long-term care, nearly twice as many as did in 2000. NDWA Executive Director Ai-Jen Poo has called the care crisis “an all-hands-on-deck situation where we’re going to need more families to step up, more individuals to prepare better, and more of a workforce. The caregiving workforce has to be stronger and larger than ever before.” Indeed it’s already ballooning: seven of the ten professions projected to grow fastest over the next decade are in the “health care and social assistance” sectors. But often, as groups like the National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) have pointed out, that work falls on women who are either unpaid or severely underpaid, many of them recent immigrants and women of color. In addition to protecting the workers transitioning off of oil rigs, the climate movement and its allies in government should commit more resources to these critical, and rapidly growing, parts of the economy.

The next economy—the kind we need if we are to have any hope of equitably meeting the 1.5-degree increase that the Paris Agreement calls for—can be free of fossil fuels, but also kinder, more compassionate, and thoroughly democratic, politically and economically. Rather than simply investing in research into renewables and upgrading the national energy grid—a project now being driven by the private sector—why not expand public ownership over America’s electricity? Filling gaps left by the private market during the Great Depression, when some 90 percent of rural homes lacked electricity, the government set up consumer-owned electric cooperatives in some of the places worst hit by Black Friday and most underserved by private energy providers. With investor-owned electric companies free to refuse service to those least able to pay their bills, the Rural Electrification Administration established 417 rural electric cooperatives (RECs) by 1939, aimed at providing power and spurring economic development. Today, there are about 900, spread across 47 states and serving 12 percent of the country’s electric consumers.

Though most of the existing cooperatives rely on fossil fuels and aren’t particularly socialist, RECs remain promising candidates for federal investment, with programs to reengage member-owners and transition to renewable power systems that are community-owned and -operated. Moreover, given the stakes, creating an ecosocialist litmus test for either Sanders or his climate plan for its own sake might not be the best use of anyone’s time. (Of the 47 percent of Americans who say they would vote for a socialist president, most probably don’t care to distinguish between Keynes and Marx.) Looking toward 2016, and the uphill battles faced by both the climate movement and the Sanders campaign, the more useful question might be how populist the proposals are: will they mobilize people who have never empathized with stranded polar bears, those more concerned—for the moment—with putting food on the table than tamping down the parts per million of carbon in the atmosphere? Can they galvanize the “political revolution” Sanders has been trying to incite, and stave off human extinction in the process?

In its engagement thus far with the movements for black lives and for comprehensive immigration reform, the Sanders campaign has shown an encouraging willingness to follow activists’ lead. It should do the same on climate issues, consulting more than just the usual suspects as it seeks to build momentum for a “just transition.” Again and again, communities on front lines of the climate crisis have maintained that “We have the solutions,” most recently in Paris as part of the grassroots “It Takes Roots” delegation. With a boost from the Vermont senator, those solutions could reach a larger audience than ever before, and potentially even redefine what a comprehensive “climate platform” really means.

“Socialist ideas,” Hall wrote, “win only because they displace other not so good, not so powerful ideas. They only command a space because they grip people’s imagination, or they connect with people’s experience . . . they provide a language of difference and resistance; or they capture and embody people’s hopes.” The Paris Agreement is not so good or powerful. That it took two agonizing decades to arrive at is a strong hint that reaching a world warmed less than 1.5 degrees will demand a “political revolution,” whether Bernie’s or otherwise. A climate plan up to the task—one that grips people’s imagination—will need to look beyond the polluters and paint a brighter picture of the low-carbon future we all deserve.

Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and communications coordinator for the New Economy Coalition.