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.

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Mattias Lehman is Sunrise Movement’s Digital Director.

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