This Is a Climate Emergency. We Need More Than Half-Measures from Democrats.

How to get the Democrats’ climate policy from “better than the Republicans” to “sufficient to save the planet.”

Basav Sen

A boat motors by as the Bidwell Bar Bridge is surrounded by fire in Lake Oroville during the Bear fire in Oroville, California on September 9, 2020. Photo by JOSH EDELSON/AFP via Getty Images

From dere­chos in Iowa to duel­ing hur­ri­canes in the Gulf Coast, 2020 is promis­ing to be an elec­tion year shot through with cli­mate dis­as­ters. Even now, rag­ing wild­fires have spawned apoc­a­lyp­tic land­scapes from Wash­ing­ton State on down to the Bay Area.

In style and sub­stance, there are few issues on which the two major par­ties are as far apart as cli­mate change.

The Repub­li­cans have become the offi­cial par­ty of cli­mate denial­ism. The Trump admin­is­tra­tion has rou­tine­ly cen­sored cli­mate sci­ence and gut­ted com­mon sense, often life-sav­ing reg­u­la­tions to ben­e­fit the fos­sil fuel indus­try. Under Repub­li­can lead­er­ship, the U.S. has become the only coun­try to quit the flawed but essen­tial Paris cli­mate accord.

The Democ­rats are dis­tinct­ly bet­ter. They’ve rolled out a raft of dif­fer­ent cli­mate plat­forms and promi­nent­ly cam­paigned on the issue. Grass­roots move­ments have pushed the Biden cam­paign in par­tic­u­lar to sig­nif­i­cant­ly increase the ambi­tion of its com­mit­ments on climate.

But the real test of even a bet­ter” plat­form is whether it keeps glob­al warm­ing to with­in 1.5 degrees Cel­sius above pre-indus­tri­al lev­els. The answer is a mat­ter of life and death for bil­lions, par­tic­u­lar­ly the world’s most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.

To go from mere­ly bet­ter than the Repub­li­cans” to suf­fi­cient to save the plan­et,” the par­ty needs to shift its think­ing in sev­er­al areas. Key among these are end­ing fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion, tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for U.S. emis­sions inter­na­tion­al­ly, and humane­ly wel­com­ing refugees impact­ed by cli­mate change.

Fos­sil Fuel Blinders

The Democ­rats’ com­mit­ments are spelled out in a range of doc­u­ments, includ­ing the House Select Com­mit­tee on the Cli­mate Cri­sis report, the Biden-Sanders Uni­ty Task Force plan, the Biden cam­paign plat­form, the offi­cial Demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ty plat­form, and most recent­ly, the Sen­ate Democ­rats’ cli­mate plan.

Broad­ly speak­ing, there’s a lot to com­mend in these platforms.

To start, it’s encour­ag­ing to see cli­mate rec­og­nized as a major issue at all — and not just cli­mate change, but cli­mate jus­tice. All of these plat­forms call for undo­ing lega­cies of envi­ron­men­tal racism and injus­tice and cen­ter­ing front­line com­mu­ni­ties in solu­tions. This is a major step for­ward, won by decades of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice organizing.

But the first big stum­ble is their fail­ure to take on fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion. There’s grow­ing sci­en­tif­ic evi­dence that cut­ting fos­sil fuel con­sump­tion alone won’t be enough to avert cli­mate cat­a­stro­phe — we also need to phase out their pro­duc­tion. That’s espe­cial­ly true for the U.S., the world’s largest pro­duc­er of both petro­le­um and nat­ur­al gas, and the third largest pro­duc­er of coal.

None of the plat­forms make a hard com­mit­ment to do this. They call instead for baby steps, such as elim­i­nat­ing fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies and cut­ting methane leaks. That’s nec­es­sary but far from suf­fi­cient, and they may already be back­track­ing. Dur­ing the con­ven­tion, the DNC qui­et­ly removed a plank call­ing for an end to fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies, though the Biden cam­paign insists it remains com­mit­ted to end­ing them.

Fail­ing to address fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion seri­ous­ly dilutes the com­mit­ment all the plat­forms make to envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice. Fos­sil fuel extrac­tion, trans­porta­tion, pro­cess­ing and burn­ing have seri­ous envi­ron­men­tal, safe­ty, and health impacts, par­tic­u­lar­ly on mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties. And even if we end­ed domes­tic con­sump­tion, these fuels could still be export­ed — and burned — abroad. That would allow the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice impacts to con­tin­ue, whether in extrac­tion-affect­ed com­mu­ni­ties at home or com­mu­ni­ties next to pow­er plants and indus­tri­al facil­i­ties in oth­er countries.

Instead of address­ing this direct­ly, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans wish away emis­sions by invok­ing Car­bon Cap­ture and Stor­age (CCS), a large­ly unproven tech­nol­o­gy to cap­ture” car­bon emis­sions from ongo­ing fos­sil fuel oper­a­tions. The Biden plat­form, for exam­ple, calls to accel­er­ate the devel­op­ment and deploy­ment” of the technology.

This is a dan­ger­ous delu­sion. CCS isn’t proven to work at scale — after years of research and devel­op­ment, there’s only one oper­a­tional CCS facil­i­ty in the Unit­ed States. It’s also inor­di­nate­ly expen­sive, which could take resources away from scal­ing up proven solu­tions such as solar and wind ener­gy, which are already cost-com­pet­i­tive with fos­sil fuels.

Even if one could cap­ture car­bon diox­ide from smoke­stacks eco­nom­i­cal­ly and at scale, those same smoke­stacks will still emit par­tic­u­late mat­ter and oth­er dan­ger­ous pol­lu­tants. Com­mu­ni­ties exposed to these pol­lu­tants — dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly low-income peo­ple and com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — would con­tin­ue being treat­ed as sac­ri­fice zones.

Of course, craft­ing a just plan to wind down fos­sil fuel pro­duc­tion is hard work. It will need exten­sive input from impact­ed work­ers depen­dent on the indus­try for their liveli­hoods, and impact­ed com­mu­ni­ties depen­dent on tax rev­enues from the indus­try, to ensure a thriv­ing future for them. But there’s no excuse not to do it.

Show­ing Respon­si­bil­i­ty, Not Lead­er­ship”

The oth­er major blind spot in these plat­forms is their nar­row nationalism.

Green­house gas­es emit­ted by any one coun­try effec­tive­ly warm the entire plan­et. That’s why we have a U.N. Frame­work Con­ven­tion on Cli­mate Change (UNFC­CC) process to deal with cli­mate action as the inher­ent­ly mul­ti­lat­er­al issue that it is. That’s why it was so irre­spon­si­ble for Trump to walk away from the UNFCCC. 

But rejoin­ing the Paris accord isn’t near­ly enough.

Green­house gas reduc­tion tar­gets under the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment are non­bind­ing, with coun­tries mak­ing only vol­un­tary pledges. The pledges made by all coun­tries under the Paris accord would result in a 3.2 degree Cel­sius glob­al aver­age tem­per­a­ture increase, well over the 1.5 degrees upper lim­it sci­en­tists have shown we must stay with­in to pre­serve a liv­able planet.

At the 2020 Demo­c­ra­t­ic con­ven­tion, for­mer Sec­re­tary of State John Ker­ry cast the Paris agree­ment as evi­dence of Barack Oba­ma and Joe Biden’s glob­al lead­er­ship. But it was the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion itself that pres­sured the Paris sig­na­to­ries to make their com­mit­ments non-binding.

To their cred­it, the cur­rent crop of Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans go beyond promis­ing to rejoin the Paris Cli­mate Agree­ment. But their con­tin­ued insis­tence on putting the U.S. back in the posi­tion of glob­al lead­er­ship where we belong,” as the par­ty plat­form promis­es, isn’t just hubris­tic nation­al­ist rhetoric — it results in sub­stan­tive shortcomings.

To start, none of the plans rec­og­nize that the U.S. has among the high­est per capi­ta emis­sions of any coun­try, and an aston­ish­ing one quar­ter of cumu­la­tive emis­sions since rough­ly the start of the Indus­tri­al Rev­o­lu­tion. Cumu­la­tive emis­sions mat­ter, because car­bon diox­ide can per­sist in the atmos­phere for cen­turies.

A more hon­est approach would be to speak not of America’s lead­er­ship but its respon­si­bil­i­ty to reduce its own emis­sions rapid­ly on a scale that match­es its out­sized con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al emissions.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, the U.S vol­un­tary tar­get bare­ly exceeds a quar­ter of the most con­ser­v­a­tive esti­mate of what a fair share of emis­sions reduc­tions by the U.S. should be. So when the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty plat­form says the U.S. will seek high­er ambi­tion from nations around the world,” it’s fair to ask: Why not increase our own com­mit­ment first?

Instead, the par­ty appears to blame oth­er coun­tries for the cri­sis. The Biden cam­paign plat­form claims that coun­tries like Chi­na game the sys­tem by becom­ing des­ti­na­tion economies for pol­luters.” But China’s sta­tus as the world’s fac­to­ry is in sig­nif­i­cant part attrib­ut­able to the cor­po­rate-friend­ly glob­al trade régime that the U.S. has con­sis­tent­ly pushed for. Chi­na is our third largest trad­ing part­ner, and U.S. com­pa­nies are respon­si­ble for much of the pol­lu­tion in China.

Then there’s the mat­ter of the U.S. debt to coun­tries impact­ed by our emissions.

The Demo­c­ra­t­ic plans do com­mit the U.S. to the Green Cli­mate Fund, which funds cli­mate action in less wealthy coun­tries. But absent spe­cif­ic mon­e­tary com­mit­ments, it’s an emp­ty promise.

The U.S. pledge under the Oba­ma admin­is­tra­tion, for exam­ple, was only $3 bil­lion (Trump lat­er reneged on $2 bil­lion of this). This com­pares to an esti­mat­ed need for world­wide cap­i­tal invest­ment of 810 bil­lion Euros ($956 bil­lion) by 2030 annu­al­ly for bring­ing emis­sions down (“mit­i­ga­tion”), and anoth­er $500 bil­lion by 2050 annu­al­ly for adjust­ing to cli­mate change impacts (“adap­ta­tion”). Giv­en the out­sized U.S. role in caus­ing the cli­mate cri­sis, it’s only fair that the U.S. con­tri­bu­tion to glob­al mit­i­ga­tion and adap­ta­tion costs should be orders of mag­ni­tude larger.

Fortress Amer­i­ca”

Final­ly, there’s the issue of migra­tion. More than 140 mil­lion peo­ple are expect­ed to be dis­placed by cli­mate change in the com­ing decades. Any seri­ous cli­mate plan demands a humane approach to this wrench­ing cri­sis, which is already begin­ning to unfold.

To its cred­it, the offi­cial par­ty plat­form com­mits to address­ing the root caus­es of migra­tion,” includ­ing the impacts of cli­mate change.” But the Biden cam­paign, House Select Com­mit­tee, and Sen­ate Democ­rats’ plans, with their empha­sis on nation­al secu­ri­ty” and prepar­ing” at the bor­der, hint vague­ly at what’s some­times called Fortress America.”

Biden promis­es to ele­vate cli­mate change as a nation­al secu­ri­ty pri­or­i­ty” in response to defense and intel­li­gence lead­ers’ warn­ings about the threats cli­mate change pos­es to glob­al sta­bil­i­ty.” He plans to make secu­ri­ty impli­ca­tions of result­ing large-scale migra­tions” dri­ven by cli­mate change a sub­ject of intel­li­gence gathering.

Sim­i­lar­ly, the House Select Com­mit­tee wants fed­er­al agen­cies to pre­pare for cli­mate-dri­ven inter­nal and cross-bor­der migra­tion” in response to cli­mate risks to nation­al secu­ri­ty, while the Sen­ate plan warns that cli­mate-dri­ven migra­tion will strain state capac­i­ty, fur­ther frac­ture soci­eties, and could cre­ate breed­ing grounds for radicalization.”

Almost as an after­thought, the Sen­ate plan does rec­og­nize that indi­vid­u­als whose lives are immi­nent­ly threat­ened by cli­mate change may have a legal basis for refugee pro­tec­tion,” though it stops short of affirm­ing one itself. The Biden and House plans say noth­ing about cli­mate-dri­ven migra­tion as a human rights issue.

With­out a firm com­mit­ment to the human rights of cli­mate refugees, these vague approach­es could eas­i­ly presage a mil­i­ta­rized response to a cri­sis for which the U.S. is dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly respon­si­ble. The mes­sage to the rest of the world is: We don’t care if our emis­sions parched your crops and dis­placed you — we’ll pre­serve our gat­ed community.”

A more humane response would neces­si­tate the U.S. open­ing its bor­ders to peo­ple flee­ing cli­mate dev­as­ta­tion, a core part of tak­ing respon­si­bil­i­ty for the effects of its his­tor­i­cal emissions.

The Strength of Our Movements

The Democ­rats have got­ten a good deal stronger on cli­mate jus­tice in recent years. Still, their offi­cial posi­tions often remain stuck in the Oba­ma years, leav­ing the door open for an all of the above” ener­gy agen­da at home, under­min­ing more mean­ing­ful action in glob­al cli­mate talks, and bar­ring the door to impact­ed refugees.

What they haven’t reck­oned with is the strength of our move­ments for cli­mate jus­tice. It’s the strength of our move­ments that has forced the Democ­rats to acknowl­edge the pri­ma­cy of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice — and to dif­fer­en­ti­ate the par­ty more clear­ly from the denial­ist Republicans.

And it’s the strength of our move­ments that has deci­sive­ly shift­ed the cen­ter of grav­i­ty of cli­mate pol­i­cy from a neolib­er­al car­bon pric­ing” approach to a focus on reg­u­la­tion, gov­ern­ment spend­ing, and social justice.

If a Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion takes office in 2021, they can expect mas­sive resis­tance to fos­sil fuels at home, and unre­lent­ing pres­sure to aban­don hubris­tic notions of Amer­i­can lead­er­ship” and engage in good-faith in glob­al cli­mate action.

This arti­cle was pro­duced in col­lab­o­ra­tion with For­eign Pol­i­cy In Focus.

Basav Sen is the cli­mate jus­tice project direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies (IPS) and writes on the inter­sec­tions of cli­mate change and social and eco­nom­ic jus­tice. Pri­or to join­ing IPS, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.
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