The Climate Movement's Difficult Fight Ahead If Trump Wins

Another term for Trump means an uphill battle for climate activism. But it’s a fight we can’t afford to lose.

Mattias Lehman

Members of the San Francisco Bay Area hub of Sunrise Movement pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) September 10 to stop approving new fossil fuel permits. California’s wildfire season has become more extreme because of climate factors, like higher temperatures and drought. Photo by Evan McEldowney

Imag­ine it’s Novem­ber 10, a week after Elec­tion Day. Don­ald Trump has been declared pres­i­dent, whether he won the Elec­toral Col­lege or just stole the elec­tion. A man who once referred to cli­mate change as a Chi­nese hoax has just been rein­stalled to the high­est office in the country. 

We have grap­pled with the esca­lat­ing threat of cli­mate change for decades, a cri­sis our lead­ers have known about but large­ly ignored. Under Trump — an incom­pe­tent, cor­rupt cli­mate change denier who has active­ly rolled back cli­mate pro­tec­tions — we will con­tin­ue to steer straight into this crisis. 

Trump’s response to the Covid-19 pan­dem­ic reveals his (lack­ing) cri­sis lead­er­ship skills. In March, as the pan­dem­ic took root and major cities were decid­ing whether and how to shut down, Trump’s gov­ern­ment aban­doned work­ing peo­ple to bail out his bil­lion­aire pals. After 200,000 deaths and count­ing, it is abun­dant­ly clear: Trump can­not han­dle a crisis. 

If Trump is reelect­ed, what is our gen­er­a­tion to do? We have already lost two of the 12 years we had to address the cli­mate cri­sis. We can­not afford to lose four more. 

Under a Demo­c­ra­t­ic admin­is­tra­tion, we would be fight­ing to force the incom­ing pres­i­dent and Con­gress to pass trans­for­ma­tive cli­mate leg­is­la­tion: a Green New Deal. Under a Trump admin­is­tra­tion, our work must con­tin­ue (we have no choice!) but our strat­e­gy must shift. We can­not count on Trump to fight for our future — he will be too busy enrich­ing his bil­lion­aire friends and fos­sil fuel exec­u­tives, con­sol­i­dat­ing polit­i­cal pow­er and angling for an unlaw­ful third term. That doesn’t mean we do nothing. 

First, we have to keep orga­niz­ing. We have to be in the streets, every day, demand­ing a Green New Deal from elect­ed offi­cials up and down the bal­lot. These can­not be atom­ized protests, last­ing just a day or even a week. Nor can they be feel-good ral­lies. We need to make soci­ety ungovernable.

Trump is not moti­vat­ed by our pain, our desires, or our wish to make the world bet­ter. He is moti­vat­ed by his per­son­al inter­ests. So we must make it more cost­ly for him and the bil­lion­aires around him to avoid cli­mate change than to do some­thing about it. To use the words of Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.), If you break the sacred con­tract, the peo­ple make a revolution.”

Sec­ond, we must keep act­ing local­ly. A Green New Deal was nev­er just” a fed­er­al plan. Local com­mu­ni­ties feel the pain of cli­mate change every day; they must be empow­ered to do what’s best for them­selves. We know what it’s like to have a local oil refin­ery poi­son our water, a local fac­to­ry pol­lute our air. We need to take direct actions against the cor­po­rate inter­ests that despoil our homes. We need to elect local rep­re­sen­ta­tives who will stand up for our communities.

With­out sup­port from the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, things will be hard­er. But our suc­cess­es will inspire more com­mu­ni­ties and make our vision crys­tal clear to increas­ing num­bers of people.

Third, we can­not aban­don elec­toral pol­i­tics. If Trump gets a sec­ond term, there’s no guar­an­tee we will have a fair pres­i­den­tial elec­tion in 2024. He is already abus­ing his pow­er and would have four more years to destroy our polit­i­cal infra­struc­ture. We must forge rela­tion­ships across the Left to give our­selves the best pos­si­ble shot at win­ning again, start­ing in 2021.

We, as the Left, can­not enter the 2024 pri­maries divid­ed, in races from the pres­i­den­tial down to munic­i­pal elec­tions. We must join hands — and forces — with our allies in every state, every city, every dis­trict, and put pow­er before ego. The ques­tion to ask is, Who can break the back of the cor­po­rate donors in this race?” Then vote accordingly.

More than cli­mate jus­tice is at stake. The Amer­i­can exper­i­ment has always been fun­da­men­tal­ly flawed — our founders pre­tend­ed to believe in equal­i­ty while reserv­ing vot­ing rights for male prop­er­ty hold­ers, enslav­ing Black peo­ple, and mas­sacring indige­nous tribes — but Trump is drag­ging us back­ward toward that era, step by step. The work of our ances­tors is being dis­man­tled before our eyes, while cli­mate change threat­ens to exac­er­bate every sin­gle cri­sis we face.

If we fail to stop Trump from tak­ing a sec­ond term, we have to pre­pare for the fight of our lives.

This arti­cle is a response to How to Win a Green New Deal Under Biden” by Nikay­la Jefferson.

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Mat­tias Lehman is Sun­rise Move­men­t’s Dig­i­tal Director.

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