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Activists Push the Democrats for Real Solutions on Climate Change

The Democrats’ climate platform beats the Republicans’, but it doesn’t go far enough.

Kate Aronoff

Activists protest the Republican National Convention in Cleveland—and they're headed to Philadelphia for the Democratic National Convention next. (Grassroots Global Justice Alliance)

There might be no issue that splits so neatly along party lines as climate change. While Democrats have all but consensed on the existence of man-made global warming, Republicans have staked out their place as the party of denial. But with climate-fueled chaos on the horizon, trumping Trump’s climate plan may not be enough to stave off the end of the world as we know it — and progressive activists are looking for more ambition on their side of the aisle. 

'We need to confront the GOP, and confront Trump and his rhetoric. But we also need to confront the DNC—they have been pushing militarism, they have been pushing market-based, false solutions to climate change.'

First, the bad. At this year’s Republican National Convention, the GOP’s drive to drill baby drill toward an all of the above” energy policy yielded chilling results.

Take the GOP’s climate and energy platform, an extremist document—even for them — that calls for more pipelines, a cancellation of the Clean Power Plan, the United States’ total withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the end of the EPA’s ability to regulate carbon dioxide and just about anything else, morphing it into an independent [and toothless] bipartisan commission.”

Others fused energy policy with Trumpian law-and-order nationalism: Every onerous regulation puts American lives at risk,” Harold Hamm, a fracking mogul and Trump’s pick for energy secretary, said Wednesday. Developing America’s own oil supply is a matter of national security.”

And official RNC proceedings were dotted with panels on energy sponsored by the likes of the American Petroleum Institute, a lobbying outfit for the fossil fuel industry. At one such event, Congressman Marsha Blackburn (R‑TN) voiced a myth popular among her colleagues: The earth is no longer warming, and has not for the about past 13 years, in fact it has begun to cool.”

Squared with any climate science worth its peer review, the GOP’s plan is a recipe for literal disaster. This year will likely be the hottest on record, and recent research shows that thanks to ramped-up melting, Greenland lost a trillion tons of ice from 2011 to 2014.. Rising temperatures could cost the global economy some $2 trillion by 2030, around the time when coastal cities might become virtually uninhabitable. By stripping the government of its ability to scale back the emissions fueling these trends, the Republican platform might well kill us all — or at least force us inland.

But is the Democrats’ plan much better? When it comes to climate change, there’s precious little time for lesser evils; the physics — as scientists are quick to tell us — has put humanity on a deadline. Next week, thousands will converge on the Democratic National Convention to enforce it.

Articulating climate change as an urgent threat and a defining challenge of our time,” the Democratic platform sets out a series of ambitious goals on climate for the next half-century: a full transition to clean energy by 2050, creating millions of well-paying green jobs, fulfilling the Paris Agreement for a 1.5 degree Celsius global cap on warming, pricing both carbon and methane, and abandoning the all of the above” stance Democrats wrote into their platform in 2012.

The issue, climate organizers say, is that the plan says next to nothing about how to get there. Though the platform benefitted from input of climate hawks like Bill McKibben, Keith Ellison and Cornel West, many of the strongest environmental protections brought up in the drafting process were struck down. Food and Water Watch National Organizing Director Mark Schlosberg noted that, among other shortcomings, the document failed to ban fracking, reject the Trans-Pacific Partnership or commit to keeping fossil fuels buried.

Not only that, but Clinton’s staffers have made pains to distinguish the party’s plans from her own, which are focused largely on market-based clean energy incentives and a handful of regulations. If the Democrats’ own nominee won’t champion her party’s policy slate, pushing beyond it will be no easy task.

Despite its flaws, the Democrats’ platform remains the most ambitious the party has produced to date. But meeting its relatively lofty benchmarks would require rapid cuts to current fossil fuel use, and a virtual moratorium on new pipelines, drilling projects, coal-fired power plants and fuel export terminals — none of which are included to sufficient degree in either the document or Clinton’s own agenda. Even if every national commitment outlined in the Paris Agreement is met, the world is still on track for around 3 degrees of warming. A recent report from Nature, moreover, finds that the window for limiting warming to below 1.5 C … seems to have closed.” Meeting that now, researchers say, would require the use of some magically efficient (and currently non-existent) technology to suck carbon out of the atmosphere.

The Democrats’ platform, Schlosberg explains, Contains some good language [on climate change] … and calls for a World War II-scale mobilization to address it. But the rest of the platform doesn’t live up to what is necessary to implement that. …

We need to put forward an affirmative vision of what [a low-carbon world] should look like,” he adds, not just what we can bargain for.”

Party platforms, at day’s end, are symbolic documents — more of a temperature gauge on the party’s mainstream than a commitment that it will do what it says. Even the strongest climate change platform ever,” as the Guardian called the Democrats’ plan, leaves a dangerous gap between science and policy.

That’s part of the reason why — on Sunday — Food and Water Watch, with the support of some 900 sponsoring organizations, is hosting a March for a Clean Energy Revolution through downtown Philadelphia, just hours before the convention is set to begin. Joined by the Center for Popular Democracy, National Nurses United, the Labor Network for Sustainability and others, the march will invite thousands to call for everything from a ban on fracking to keeping fossil fuels underground.

Also on the ground next week will be Nay’Chelle Harris, a member of Missourians Organizing for Reform and Empowerment (MORE) and something called the It Takes Root People’s Caravan. A redux, of sorts, of a delegation of organizers who attended the Paris climate talks back in December, the caravan has been bringing together grassroots Indigenous, Latin@, Black, Asian, Muslim and working class white organizers from around the country” to plan and support actions in Cleveland, Philadelphia and points in between.

This week they joined the immigrant rights’ group Mijente outside the RNC to wall off Trump,” and in Philly will participate in actions to shut down an immigration detention center and stop the expansion of a South Philadelphia oil refinery. Like Harris, many caravanistas” work at the intersections of racial, immigration and climate justice. They kicked off their trip with a Pledge of Resistance to stand against the racism, misogyny and hateful and xenophobic policies being put forth at the Republican National Convention.” Climate justice, they say, won’t come without victory on other fronts as well.

Having first gotten involved in MORE’s campaign against coal company Peabody Energy as a student at Washington University in St. Louis, Harris started devoting more time to the group after Michael Brown’s killing in nearby Ferguson in the summer of 2014. MORE provided jail support to protesters arrested in Ferguson that summer, and since then has worked on a project mapping out the connections between St. Louis power brokers — including Peabody Energy, headquartered there — and the city’s police department. Power Behind the Police,” as the project is known, looks to target the St. Louis 1%” while building out a people’s agenda for a just transition away from fossil fuels and police violence alike.

We need to confront the GOP, and confront Trump and his rhetoric,” Harris told me by phone from Cleveland. But we also need to confront the DNC — they have been pushing militarism, they have been pushing market-based, false solutions to climate change. They haven’t shown real dedication to ending violence against black people.” Carbon taxes and trading schemes have been a favorite not just of progressives but also free market ideologues, whose proposed version of the carbon tax would swap corporate regulations for a price on oil and coal. (Former Bush economist N. Gregory Mankiw is a fan of the idea, along with ExxonMobil.) Many in the caravan, on the other hand, see such elite-driven, market-based proposals as a cynical way to stave off the kinds of strong regulations that might actually put a dent in the fossil fuel industry’s business model, and protect communities on extraction’s frontlines.

Schlosberg and Harris each said that taking on such false solutions, and securing a better climate plan, would take more coordination among movements across issues. Harris joins many millennials, too, in her frustration with politics as usual as a path toward that, saying she doesn’t feel beholden to the Democratic Party.” But she is also part of a tide of grassroots organizers who see electoral fights as a field of struggle in pushing movements’ demands, along with mobilizations and other forms of pressure from outside of formal politics — like demonstrations happening in Philadelphia next week.

We can’t depend on the political system,” Harris told In These Times. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use every avenue for change we have at our disposal.” She referenced two local St. Louis politicians — Democrats Megan Green and Rasheen Aldridge — as examples of what it looks like for officials to run on platforms and govern on platforms that are accountable to activists. Green, an alderwoman, and Aldridge — now running for Democratic Committeeman in the city’s fifth ward — have each used their campaigns to push for demands brought forth by the movement for black lives and Fight for $15.

I don’t think anyone should consider a party to be their savior,” Harris added, whether it’s the Democrats or the Green Party. What matters now is people power.”

Kate Aronoff is a Brooklyn-based journalist covering climate and U.S. politics, and a contributing writer at The Intercept. Follow her on Twitter @katearonoff.
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