Joe Biden touted an ambitious set of climate policies during his campaign, many developed via consultation with the Biden–Sanders task force on climate, and he has named climate change as one of his top four priorities on the website for his transition team. The Sunrise Movement and others are arguing that Biden’s victory represents a mandate to act on climate. Economic conditions are ideal for a program of massive public investment that could begin to make the ideas of the Green New Deal concrete and show that the government can work to improve people’s lives.
But political conditions are not auspicious. Without Democratic control over the Senate, Biden will struggle to get much done legislatively. Even if both Democratic candidates win election in the upcoming Georgia run-offs, the Senate vote will be split 50-50, giving outsized power to conservative Democrats like West Virginia’s Joe Manchin. It’s still conceivable that Congress would manage to pass a stimulus package that contains some funding for climate-related projects, like a lifeline for cash-strapped transit authorities, or a bill that allocates money to green infrastructure at the margins. But hopes for serious bipartisan legislation are fanciful. “Reasonable Republican” Mitt Romney has already urged conservatives to fight to make sure “we don’t get rid of gas and coal and oil.”
In face of the longstanding impasse in Congress, state and local action has been another important target for U.S. climate policy advocates, resulting in real progress in renewable energy deployment. But pandemic-induced budget crises are about to hammer state and local governments. The Federal Reserve can and should help ease the pressure by extending low-interest loans and municipal bond purchases, but ultimately there’s no substitute for the spending power of the federal government. And Republicans are already promoting a small stimulus package that would include no aid to states and cities.
Given these conditions, a consensus is emerging around Biden’s role as the “climate president”: He can use executive action to set standards for things like carbon emissions in the power sector and methane emissions resulting from oil and gas drilling. He can empower the Securities and Exchange Commission to mandate disclosure around climate risk. He can direct the federal bureaucracy to actively mitigate the disparate effects of environmental harms. He can rejoin the Paris Agreement and attempt a new wave of climate diplomacy—although the United States is hardly in a position to “lead the world” on climate in light of recent decarbonization commitments by China, Japan, South Korea, and the European Union. (Biden’s attempt to out-hawk Donald Trump on China doesn’t bode terribly well for a Sino–American climate pact.) These actions can have real effects on both carbon emissions and the playing field for climate politics, and Biden should take them.
But for climate policy to last longer than one presidency, we need policies that help build a popular base for climate action, connected to material improvements in people’s lives. This is where the use of executive action to achieve climate goals—the kind of programs that only climate hawks notice—comes up short. It does nothing to foster support among those who are skeptical of or outright hostile to green politics.
The desire for shortcuts is understandable, given how little time we have to cut emissions, and how dysfunctional American political institutions have become. Frankly, given the likelihood that the Supreme Court will uphold conservative legal challenges to climate regulation, it’s hard to think of many things that would be better for U.S. climate policy than the Court’s total delegitimization—though that is not a path Biden is likely to go down.
It remains the case, however, that a worrisomely large number of people voted for Trump even as progressive policies remain broadly popular. Biden’s campaigning around COVID-19 in particular should worry climate advocates. Instead of hammering Trump on both his wretched management of the public health crisis and his failure to provide ongoing income support for the millions thrown out of work, Biden let those two aspects of the crisis become counterposed: COVID-19 became an issue of safety versus the economy. Early data from exit polls suggests that those concerned about the pandemic response voted for Biden, and those concerned about “the economy” voted for Trump. It would be a disaster for the same thing to happen with climate—which means that this will undoubtedly be the tack Republicans take. Get used to hearing “the cure is worse than the disease,” the slogan that erupted during anti-lockdown protests, as the refrain in the next round of climate battles.
We have already seen these dynamics at work. In 2016, Trump charged Barack Obama with waging a “war against coal” and promised to bring the sector back to its former glory. He manifestly failed to do so, but his rhetoric still proved an effective bludgeon against Hillary Clinton in Appalachia during the campaign. In fact, more coal plants were retired under Trump than in either of Obama’s terms in office. U.S. coal production had already been declining for years, as cheap natural gas edged it out of the energy mix used in power plants. Coal jobs had been disappearing for years even before that, as the industry replaced workers with machines. At its peak in the 1920s, the industry employed over 800,000 people in the United States. Today, only about 42,000 coal mining jobs remain. As coal companies have gone bankrupt, they have shed their pension obligations to former workers, leaving the federal government to pick up the bill. Last December, Congress bailed out nearly 100,000 coal miners’ pensions.
As energy researchers point out, coal is the canary for other fossil fuel industries. Oil isn’t on quite the same decline yet, but it’s headed in that direction. The American fracking industry has expanded rapidly in the past decade with the use of cheap credit, and with encouragement from Obama, who boasted of making the United States the world’s leading oil producer. But the shale oil that fracking produces is only profitable when oil prices are relatively high, and the overproduction of shale gas has glutted global markets. The combination of a pandemic-spurred decline in demand and a price war between Saudi and Russian producers sent oil prices plummeting this year, resulting in a record number of bankruptcies among American oil producers. An estimated 107,000 oil industry workers lost their jobs in the United States this year. While some of those may come back as the economy recovers (whenever that is), many will not. Some energy analysts suggest that the world may have hit “peak oil demand,” as renewable energy begins to replace fossil fuels. The Houston Chronicle reports that oil production employment in Texas “may never fully recover” as the overextended shale oil sector consolidates and learns to get by with fewer workers.
Oil won’t disappear overnight, of course, and the current production trajectory would still have devastating climate impacts. Taking on the oil and gas industry therefore remains essential to any serious climate politics. And as a destructive industry that once seemed invincible struggles, it’s an ideal time to further undercut its power. With thousands of oil industry workers unemployed, there is a real opportunity to implement federal green jobs programs that would make the promise of alternative employment tangible and credible.
Instead, Biden approached the fossil fuel problem defensively, backing away from the Green New Deal and insisting that he has no intention of banning fracking. While green jobs were technically a major component of his climate platform, they registered only as one item on a laundry list of policy ideas. “Green jobs” are by now a familiar piece of Democratic rhetoric, one that many voters will likely perceive skeptically until it is backed up with action. It is a genuinely difficult political problem. But Biden simply skirted it: he neither talked about ongoing job losses in the oil and gas industry nor directly addressed what he might do about them, implying instead that he would help the sector return to normal.
Other centrist Democrats have taken a similar tack, denouncing the Green New Deal and defending fossil fuels. Conor Lamb, Representative for Western Pennsylvania’s Seventeenth District, recently criticized Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for saying that “fracking is bad” (it is) and suggested that a fracking ban is “unpopular” and “completely unrealistic.” But what’s truly unrealistic is expecting the fossil fuel industry to be a stable provider of good jobs, even in the near term. Lamb and others are either lying or delusional when they claim otherwise. In Pennsylvania, jobs in natural gas were already declining before the pandemic. And while jobs in petroleum production had held steady before the oil price collapse, there were already more energy jobs in Pennsylvania in “energy efficiency” than traditional fuel extraction. The industry’s own investors know its future looks grim: Wil van Loh, chief executive of a private equity firm heavily invested in shale production, recently said he would tell his friends’ children not to go into oil. Why are so many Democrats pretending otherwise?
The fact that oil’s current troubles have little to do with federal climate policy won’t stop Republicans from charging Democrats with waging a “war on oil,” just as they didn’t prevent Trump from ginning up a “war on coal.” There is early evidence to suggest it will be an effective strategy: while Biden did improve on Clinton’s vote share in parts of western Pennsylvania, in south Texas he lost ground among some Latinx voters in areas that had previously been Democratic strongholds, likely due at least in part to a perceived threat to oil jobs. If Democrats don’t address the decline of the fossil fuel industry, the oil slump will be not an opportunity but a danger.
Instead of treating the oil industry like a hallowed job creator, Democrats should be going after the bosses who are leaving workers out to dry and pinpointing Republicans as the barriers to real alternatives. Coal miners and mining communities have turned on their former employers when it became clear that the industry would not look out for them. And as with coal, it’s workers who will pay for the record number of oil producer bankruptcies. In late October, Exxon announced that it would lay off 14,000 workers, including 1,900 in the United States—approximately 15 percent of its global workforce—as part of an effort to maintain shareholder dividends.
The decline of coal and oil illustrate conditions that hold everywhere in American society: the dangers of relying on private industry for healthcare and retirement benefits, and the rule of corporate power and the priority of shareholders over workers. These industries, in addition to their environmental toll, exemplify the need for democratic control over the economy and public support for workers amid capitalism’s booms and busts.
What is most hopeful in this moment is that the climate movement has come a long way over the past decade. Activists have unquestionably changed the conversation on climate and set a new bar for progressive climate policy while also placing justice at the center; they have helped elect representatives committed to a Green New Deal, from city councils up to the Senate. But they should worry about the gap between rhetorical gains and the power to back them up. And while climate and Indigenous movements have successfully blocked some new fossil fuel infrastructure, transforming existing carbon-intensive infrastructure has been a much greater challenge. In short, the climate left has much more power than it had, but also much less power than it needs.
Fortunately, the years to come are likely to see no shortage of political turbulence. The eruption of Black Lives Matter protests over the summer was likely fueled in part by the intensity with which the economic and public health crisis hit Black communities. As eviction moratoriums expire and unemployment checks dwindle, climate activists should be ready to hit the streets, connecting the housing and unemployment crises to demands for green housing and green jobs. At the same time, they must continue building power by developing closer ties to other organized groups on the left—not only electorally focused organizations but labor unions and tenants’ rights organizations—and continue countering the power of the fossil fuel industry through direct action. We are still feeling the aftershocks of 2008; those caused by 2020 will reverberate long into the future. Whatever the Biden administration does, we need to use this radicalizing moment to continue to build political movements that can fight on our own terms.
Alyssa Battistoni is an Environmental Fellow at the Harvard University Center for the Environment, co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, and a member of Dissent’s editorial board.