The Last Stimulus Ignored Climate. Activists Are Determined That Won’t Happen in the Next One.

Bruised from the CARES Act, environmental organizations are planning next steps.

Rachel M. Cohen April 9, 2020

A demonstrator holds a placard reading "time is running out" during a global youth climate action strike in Barcelona, on September 27, 2019 at the end of a global climate change week. (Photo by JOSEP LAGO/AFP via Getty Images)

With Con­gress plan­ning to recon­vene lat­er this month to hash out anoth­er coro­n­avirus stim­u­lus bill, cli­mate activists have begun dis­cussing how they might assert them­selves more suc­cess­ful­ly into the next fed­er­al package.

Though climate advocates failed to win green demands in Stimulus 3, many are looking ahead to future stimulus packages, where they believe they could be more successful.

Pro­gres­sive cli­mate advo­cates tried to shape the debate lead­ing up to the $2 tril­lion Coro­n­avirus Aid, Relief, and Eco­nom­ic Secu­ri­ty (CARES) Act signed into law on March 27. A few days before the pres­i­dent signed it, dozens of cli­mate groups, includ­ing 350​.org, Sun­rise Move­ment and the Blue­Green Alliance, joined in coali­tion with hun­dreds of left-lean­ing orga­ni­za­tions in releas­ing Five Prin­ci­ples for Just Covid-19 Relief and Stim­u­lus.” The fourth of these five prin­ci­ples called for cre­at­ing good jobs while tack­ling the cli­mate cri­sis that is com­pound­ing threats to our econ­o­my and health.” Their demands — grouped under the ban­ner of a People’s Bailout” — includ­ed new fed­er­al invest­ments in rebuild­ing the nation’s infra­struc­ture, expand­ing wind and solar, and restor­ing wet­lands and forests. The orga­ni­za­tions also called for require­ments that indus­tries reduce their cli­mate emis­sions and pol­lu­tion in exchange for aid.

Soon after, a coali­tion of sci­en­tists, aca­d­e­mics and wonks released a Green Stim­u­lus to Rebuild Our Econ­o­my” — a detailed pol­i­cy menu” that lays out spe­cif­ic cli­mate and inequal­i­ty-con­scious ways to spend new fed­er­al invest­ment. The ideas draw from pro­pos­als put for­ward from nine Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, includ­ing Jay Inslee, Bernie Sanders and Eliz­a­beth War­ren. Most of the phys­i­cal work pro­posed here can­not begin imme­di­ate­ly,” their let­ter acknowl­edges. We must focus on halt­ing the spread of dead­ly ill­ness. How­ev­er, we can do all the prepara­to­ry work now to make green projects shov­el ready.’”

Daniel Aldana Cohen, a Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia soci­ol­o­gy pro­fes­sor and one of the 11 co-authors of the Green Stim­u­lus, told In These Times that many of the drafters were influ­enced by Nao­mi Klein’s 2007 book, The Shock Doc­trine, which cen­ters on how lead­ers often exploit nation­al crises to advance destruc­tive poli­cies when cit­i­zens are too dis­tract­ed to fight back.

Dur­ing a cri­sis peo­ple turn to ideas lying around, and the oil CEOs are not wait­ing for the virus to stop before push­ing their ideas,” Aldana Cohen said. We knew we had to get some­thing out more quick­ly.” Their think­ing was maybe their cli­mate pro­pos­als would influ­ence dis­cus­sions around the CARES Act, also known as Stim­u­lus 3” — but more like­ly their pro­pos­als could help influ­ence sub­se­quent stim­u­lus pack­ages that law­mak­ers have sig­naled they plan to nego­ti­ate. Know­ing that it can take much longer for orga­ni­za­tions to sign on to detailed pol­i­cy agen­das (rather than to broad prin­ci­ples), Aldana Cohen said Green Stim­u­lus authors sought to mobi­lize as wonks” and then invite cli­mate lead­ers to sign on as individuals.

Stim­u­lus 3 end­ed up being tough for cli­mate advo­cates, not only because they emerged win­ning none of their more vision­ary demands, but also because Repub­li­cans attacked them for politi­ciz­ing the cri­sis and stalling relief.

A cen­tral fight end­ed up being over whether Con­gress should require air­lines to cut their emis­sions to 50% below 2005 lev­els by 2050 in exchange for bil­lions in res­cue aid. The air­line indus­try has com­mit­ted to this tar­get vol­un­tar­i­ly, but cli­mate advo­cates want it stip­u­lat­ed in law.

Such legal­ly-man­dat­ed con­di­tions have prece­dent. Dur­ing the 2008 auto indus­try bailout, Gen­er­al Motors and Chrysler had to accept new fuel-effi­cien­cy stan­dards in exchange for fed­er­al aid. But law­mak­ers in late March said they want­ed to focus on get­ting imme­di­ate relief out to work­ers, hos­pi­tals, and busi­ness­es — and pub­licly charged cli­mate advo­cates with derail­ing that effort.

[Democ­rats] are hold­ing up vot­ing for this emer­gency bill to help the Amer­i­can peo­ple in terms of the econ­o­my and in terms of our health care over solar pan­els and wind tur­bines, a green new deal about air­line emis­sions,” said Repub­li­can Sen­a­tor John Bar­ras­so in a speech on the floor.

Democ­rats won’t let us fund hos­pi­tals or save small busi­ness­es unless they get to dust off the Green New Deal,” accused Repub­li­can Sen­ate Major­i­ty Leader Mitch McConnell.

Democ­rats coun­tered by point­ing to Sen­ate Repub­li­cans who, in the midst of nego­ti­a­tions, insert­ed a $3 bil­lion pro­vi­sion for the Strate­gic Petro­le­um Reserve, which are fed­er­al­ly-owned oil stocks stored under­ground along the coast­line of the Gulf of Mex­i­co. After this, cli­mate advo­cates ramped up pres­sure for aid to clean ener­gy indus­tries, Melin­da Pierce, the leg­isla­tive direc­tor for the Sier­ra Club, told In These Times.

In the end, the $3 bil­lion for the oil indus­try was scrapped, as were tax breaks for wind and solar, and demands for air­line emis­sion reduc­tions. Cli­mate advo­cates were left bruised from the fight.

The air­line con­ver­sa­tion end­ed up being a debate about [car­bon] off­sets which is not the ter­rain that Green New Deal advo­cates want to be fight­ing on,” said Aldana Cohen, who urged for more focus around job cre­ation and job pro­tec­tions. We should be focus­ing on invest­ments that lift up work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties,” he said.

Pierce said she and oth­er cli­mate advo­cates under­stood their demands for clean ener­gy aid were out­side the scope of what lead­er­ship thought con­sist­ed emer­gency relief” and that envi­ros had orig­i­nal­ly been very much aligned” with the idea that Stim­u­lus 3 should focus pri­mar­i­ly on swift aid to work­ers, fam­i­lies, health­care and front­line businesses.

Yet when the oil indus­try tried to inject $3 bil­lion to fill the Strate­gic Petro­le­um Reserve, we were acti­vat­ed beyond those goal about work­ers to make sure [law­mak­ers] weren’t pro­vid­ing cor­po­rate bailouts,” she said, not­ing envi­ros also fought for account­abil­i­ty for bil­lions grant­ed to the Fed­er­al Reserve for cor­po­rate assis­tance. We were fight­ing those bat­tles because oil and gas were bel­ly­ing up to the bar to their cronies in Con­gress,” Pierce said.

While some Con­gres­sion­al Democ­rats tout­ed the account­abil­i­ty mea­sures they man­aged to win, Lukas Ross, a senior pol­i­cy ana­lyst with Friends of the Earth, said the end result was a disaster.

The guardrails for work­ers and com­mu­ni­ties are weak, and the guardrails for cli­mate are nonex­is­tent,” he said. As a result of the stim­u­lus bill we are all enter­ing an even stranger and more fright­en­ing world.” Ross specif­i­cal­ly not­ed how the new fed­er­al aid could poten­tial­ly give cash-strapped drillers a fresh injec­tion of sub­si­dized credit.

Look­ing ahead

Though cli­mate advo­cates failed to win green demands in Stim­u­lus 3, many are look­ing ahead to future stim­u­lus pack­ages, where they believe they could be more suc­cess­ful. Pres­i­dent Trump and House Speak­er Pelosi ini­tial­ly indi­cat­ed the next bill could focus on infra­struc­ture invest­ment, though more recent­ly Pelosi has walked that back.

On March 31, four days after sign­ing the CARES Act, Pres­i­dent Trump tweet­ed that, With inter­est rates for the Unit­ed States being at ZERO, this is the time to do our decades long await­ed Infra­struc­ture Bill. It should be VERY BIG & BOLD, Two Tril­lion Dol­lars, and be focused sole­ly on jobs and rebuild­ing the once great infra­struc­ture of our Coun­try! Phase 4.”

The fol­low­ing day, Pelosi pro­posed reviv­ing House Democ­rats’ $760 bil­lion infra­struc­ture bill released in Jan­u­ary, which would include new invest­ments in things like rail, tran­sit, and broad­band. How­ev­er just two days lat­er she sig­naled she had changed her mind, and maybe infra­struc­ture should not be Democ­rats’ next pri­or­i­ty. I’m very much in favor of doing some of the things that we need to do to meet the needs of clean water, more broad­band, and the rest of that,” she said on April 3. That may have to be for a bill beyond this.”

Ross of Friends of the Earth thinks cli­mate advo­cates should be care­ful in how they move for­ward, and focus their efforts on secur­ing aid for peo­ple and pre­vent­ing bailouts for pol­luters. The ques­tion isn’t how to invest in cli­mate, the ques­tion is how to invest in work­ers and a more resilient soci­ety,” he said. That cer­tain­ly has impli­ca­tions for cli­mate, but at this moment of unprece­dent­ed imme­di­ate suf­fer­ing, it like­ly shouldn’t be first on anyone’s mind.”

Pierce of the Sier­ra Club said if pol­lut­ing indus­tries need more fed­er­al aid in sub­se­quent stim­u­lus pack­ages, they will con­tin­ue to push for con­di­tions. We ful­ly expect the air­line indus­try is going to need an addi­tion­al tranche of sup­port and if we’re fun­nel­ing tax dol­lars, we tru­ly believe we should be fun­nel­ing tax dol­lars in a way that is build­ing indus­try of the future,” she said.

How intent­ly cli­mate advo­cates should push a Green New Deal” remains in dis­pute, as the phrase itself has become deeply polar­iz­ing in Con­gress, even though the spe­cif­ic ideas under­gird­ing it are broad­ly popular.

Aldana Cohen said he and his col­lab­o­ra­tors delib­er­ate­ly opt­ed for Green Stim­u­lus” over Green New Deal.” He point­ed to Data for Progress polling show­ing Repub­li­can sup­port for Green New Deal-like ideas when they’re not labeled as such.

I think our view is you don’t want to have the vocab­u­lary pre­judge an argu­ment that you believe you oth­er­wise win,” he said. You want to go in and focus on the substance.”

Not all Green New Deal sup­port­ers are ready to scale back on the slo­gan, with some say­ing now is pre­cise­ly the time to ele­vate it, and resist the GOP’s bad-faith mischaracterizations.

This is a piv­otal moment to grap­ple with the fact that our econ­o­my was not work­ing well and was not resilient in the face of cri­sis,” said Lau­ren Maunus, the leg­isla­tive man­ag­er for Sun­rise Move­ment. Repub­li­cans are using the Green New Deal as a wedge issue and vil­lainiz­ing it, and it’s our utmost pri­or­i­ty to clar­i­fy that the Green New Deal has always been about a plan to fight eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty and cre­ate mil­lions of good fam­i­ly-sus­tain­ing jobs to put our coun­try on a path to a safer, and health­i­er future.”

Rachel M. Cohen is a jour­nal­ist based in Wash­ing­ton D.C. Fol­low her on Twit­ter @rmc031
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