U.S. presidential politics and planetary crisis in 2020

First, context. 2020 will set temperature records (again), as scientists give 2030 as the deadline to cut greenhouse emissions by ~50% to avoid ‘dangerous’ global warming. Wildfires ravaged AustraliaAmazonia, and Western North AmericaHurricane season exhausted the Roman alphabet for names. And there is a global pandemicCOVID-19’s impacts on poor, Black, and other marginalized communities demonstrate the ecological crisis is not just ‘environmental’ but ‘social.’ The Trump effect is not to create something new, but to expose, and exacerbate, existing conditions.

It is remarkable the greatest emissions reductions in three decades of international climate policy come as the global system experiences its greatest crisis in decades. Also remarkable is how the pandemic created breathing room for the Paris climate regime, at its most critical point since inception. 2019 saw negotiators punting again on commitments to reduce emissions (climate mitigation) and ensure compensation (climate finance) for climate adaptation and development. Ironically COVID-19 has helped keep negotiations on life support, with the annual conference postponed to 2021.

Recall 2009, after Obama’s election. Optimism carried to climate negotiations in Copenhagen, where many hoped for more progressive U.S. leadership in the renegotiations of the Kyoto accords, which faltered due to U.S. ambivalence and antipathy under Clinton and Bush. Instead, Obama submarined negotiations by subverting protocols, arranging backdoor deals to avoid binding commitments for wealthy polluters, thereby alienating and antagonizing developing countries, who scuttled the talks.

There is thus more than a symbolic connection between this election, delivering Joe Biden, defender of Obama’s legacy, and the formal withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris Agreement on November 4, four years after Trump’s victory and ratification of the non-binding Paris Agreementmodeled after Obama’s initial Copenhagen design. One major difference between 2020 and 2008? There can be no such unrestrained optimism this time.

We must resist illusions Biden will willingly advocate climate issues, as made clear during the primaries. His path to nomination was rightward of all serious contenders, particularly on climate and energy. Biden consistently rejected a Green New Deal (GND), offering tepid support for his own watered-down policy. And despite unscripted remarks against oil (quickly backtracked), Biden has long aligned interests with fossil capital, deeply embedded in his home state of Pennsylvania which delivered the election.

All this was clear before. Now, two more points are salient. First, Democrats are (still) failing to articulate a cohesive and effective message around the GND. Beyond fissures between neoliberal, ‘third way’ establishment Democrats and their social democratic challengers, lies a core contradiction of modern progressivism: that carbon energy has fueled the greatest expansion and accumulation of capital the world has ever seen, thereby producing the greatest crisis the planet has ever known.

Another issue lies in exit polling on the pandemic. With 230,000+ deaths and 100,000+ new infections/day, it is alarming that 31% of respondents said the U.S. response has been “somewhat” and 17% “very well.” How should we expect this 48% of the electorate to respond to a climate crisis that requires a complete overhaul of society?

Though much rides on the remaining Senate races, at best is a slim Democratic majority and a Democratic house majority slimmer than 2018. Biden’s main priority must be undoing the past four years of damage. While environmentalists advocate a swath of feasible reforms, very little can be expected from Congress. Even if (and when) bipartisan climate/energy/economy policy comes, expecting “Green” legislation in four years would undermine the original’s ambitions, hence calls for a GND “decade.” The judiciary also dashes hopes of change through the courts. While youth climate cases may inspire new discourses and actions regarding climate harms, U.S. environmentalists cannot expect textualists to recognize these claims.

Within institutional politics, ecological justice advocates should stake as much possible on matters resonating with Americans now: economic inequality, racial injustice, universal healthcare and education. Strong priorities must be given to human rights, civil liberties and responsibilities, and dismantling the carceral state, especially as struggles for ecological justice shift to the streets and sites of extraction. For sources of hope and visions for the future, we should look to grassroots organizing of frontline communities and working-class people, especially of color, who delivered an end to the Trump regime, if not his legacy.

Whatever prospects for GND, a decade is too long to merely ‘reform’ the capitalist system. Even if we cut emissions by half by 2030, the struggle for a ‘just’ climate future will be difficult. Vision lies with movements demanding social and environmental justice, via nonviolent direct actions, and just transition to a sustainable alternative (e.g. climate strikesanti-fossil campaignsfood sovereignty). One recent source of hope comes from Chile, where protests demanding socio-economic rights and an end to neoliberalism paralyzed the country, causing the government to cancel the COP25 climate negotiations (later moved to Madrid). Just last month, Chileans voted 4-1 to rewrite their constitution.

With much still to be determined, Chile may suggest how institutional change can come from below. But the scope of climate justice must go beyond what we should expect a Biden Administration, GND or no, to achieve within four years.