Democratic Party leaders have repeatedly brushed off urgent calls for radical climate action by declaring that they — the Serious Adults in the Room — should be trusted to fix the situation. Yet their utter failure to rise to the COVID-19 crisis and catch the millions of people in free-fall right now should dispel any notion that current political leadership will save us from the climate crisis — poised to be far worse than the global pandemic if the status quo continues unabated.
In February 2019, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) was confronted by young organizers from the Sunrise Movement about her opposition to the Green New Deal, she told them to step back and let her take care of it. “That resolution will not pass the Senate, and you can take that back to whoever sent you here and tell them,” she declared, adding, “I’ve been in the Senate for over a quarter of a century and I know what can pass and I know what can’t pass.”
That same month, Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, derided the Green New Deal as, “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it right?” Her remarks suggested that she, the pragmatist, should hold the levers of power — not radicals who have proven themselves naive and foolish by demanding too much.
And then, when Trump’s NAFTA 2.0 — known as the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) — passed with no climate provisions, despite the outcry of climate activists, Pelosi insisted that the concession was necessary, in light of Trump’s control of the White House, and we should entrust the Democrats with fixing this issue at some later date. “There’s only so far an administration that doesn’t believe in the climate crisis or science will go, but the changes Democrats secured in USMCA put us on a firm footing for action when we have a president who brings us back into the Paris accord,” Pelosi spokesperson Henry Connell said in a statement.
Obviously Republicans are far worse than Democrats on climate crisis and COVID-19 response. But Republicans will be insatiable, power-serving racists no matter what the Left does. It’s important to calibrate criticism of Democratic leadership with this understanding, but Republicans’ existence as a reactionary force does not excuse the clear failure of Democratic leaders to match the urgency of our COVID and Climate crises.
Similar assurances that The Serious Adults In the Room are on top of things have been espoused by a Democratic lawmaker who sits on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. The committee was established by Pelosi in December 2018 and explicitly excluded key demands from proponents of the Green New Deal, including subpoena power and a commitment to reject contributions from fossil fuel companies. Among them is Rep. Sean Casten (D-Ill.), who said in April 2019 that the key to fixing the climate crisis is to put “legit experts” in the room. “It didn’t happen with the Green New Deal,” he said.
This pragmatism-scolding is often underwritten by the deficit hawk ideology that has defined the politics of Pelosi and other leading Democrats. “Now, in terms of the Green New Deal [as conceived], that goes beyond what our charge is,” Pelosi said to Rolling Stone in an interview published in February 2019. “Our charge is about saving the planet. They have in there things like single-payer and … what is it? Guaranteed income?” Yet these are the very social programs that would have shielded us from the devastating economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis, and have been mercilessly derided by centrist Democrats because they “cost too much.”
Instead, we are told by the political and pundit class alike that we should look to private markets to save us. In a January 2019 column for the New York Times, Times columnist and Obama-influencer Thomas Friedman declared, “I believe there is only one thing as big as Mother Nature, and that is Father Greed — a.k.a., the market.” Friedman, who is an heir to a multi-billion-dollar family business, continued, “I am a green capitalist. I think we will only get the scale we need by shaping the market. If I were drafting a Green New Deal platform today, it would put in place steadily rising mileage, manufacturing and emissions standards; stronger building codes; and carbon market prices.” This prescription was a response to — and a knock against — the actual Green New Deal proposal initially put forward by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), which emphasized broad social programs that are not based on profit motive, such as a jobs guarantee and public banks.
Now that we are going through an epidemiological crisis — a dress rehearsal for the far-worse climate crisis to come — where are these magical plans Democrats supposedly have in their back pockets? What are the Serious Adults in the Room doing to make sure the more than 16 million people who have filed for unemployment in the past three weeks alone do not starve to death, or die in the streets, where countless people are already being made more vulnerable to the virus and the daily harms of being houseless? What are the Serious People we’re supposed to entrust with the fate of humanity doing about the fact that 7.3 million more people are expected to be uninsured by June, on top of the 27.5 million who were already uninsured? The Democratic leadership has made it clear that it opposes Medicare for All, so what is its grand plan now that an unprecedented public health crisis is here — not in some far-away future, but now.
In the $2 trillion stimulus 3 bill, known as the CARES Act, Democrats conceded to a $500 billion corporate bailout while getting a paltry one-time $1,200 check for everyone in the United States making less than $75,000, with an additional $500 per child. But there’s a catch: As journalist David Dayen explains, if you don’t have a direct deposit on file with the IRS, “the check will be mailed and it will take up to four months.” The bill also includes a $600-per-week increase in unemployment insurance. But according to Dayen, “this benefit will be run through state unemployment insurance systems, a creaky patchwork of varying quality that is mostly unprepared for the crush of claims.” In an article titled “Countless Americans cannot complete unemployment applications,” CNN describes the plight of one woman who waited eight hours and 45 minutes on hold with the North Carolina Division of Employment Security, yet has still been unable to complete her application. A San Antonio man called the state Workforce Commission 5,257 times but got nothing but busy signals, disconnections and voicemails.
One might reply that Democrats are up against a Trump White House and a Republican-majority Senate, and are limited in what they can win. And indeed, it is true that the Republican Party constitutes a profoundly dangerous force, unleashing untold harm during this catastrophe, with GOP voices increasingly advocating a premature end to sheltering in place, a move that would kill countless people. But Democratic leaders’ proposals were grossly insufficient and unambitious from the get-go. In mid-March, Pelosi championed a paid sick leave bill that covers only 20% of private-sector workers in the formal economy, exempting big corporations like Amazon and excluding all of the tens of millions of informal economy and contract workers. She even took to Twitter to vigorously defend the bill, and her deputy chief of staff Drew Hammill went on to denounce universal programs: “As Congress considers the next steps, the Speaker believes we should look at refundable tax credits, expanded UI [unemployment insurance] & direct payments — but MUST be targeted.”
But that’s not all. According to a Politico article published March 17, Pelosi initially rejected calls for cash payments. “When a former economic adviser to President Barack Obama raised the idea privately to Democrats last week, Pelosi shot down the suggestion saying she didn’t want to write checks to millionaires,” the article states. The means-testing she ultimately got guarantees that countless desperate people will likely face delays in receiving their cash payments. It also means that Pelosi was, at least rhetorically, outflanked from the Right by deeply conservative Republicans like Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), who called for cash payments while she did not. (Bernie Sanders, Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez — the “pie in the sky” supporters of the Green New Deal — are among those who have called for robust cash payments).
The result is a Democratic Party leadership that is pursuing small-scale, piecemeal and means-tested responses to a crisis of epic proportions. Millions of people are now being hit with the brutal realization that, despite what they’ve been told, there is no one standing between them and utter destitution and poverty. There is no superstructure, there is no floor. The Democrats who were supposed to swoop in and save us with their smart plans, it turns out, are useless. Last Thursday, roughly 10,000 families showed up at a San Antonio food bank to receive help: An aerial view of the seemingly endless rows of cars lined up looked like a Los Angeles traffic jam in rush hour. Those people, like people in similar positions across the country, have no guard rails to keep them from going over the cliff.
It’s not enough to simply blame the Republicans with each failure. After 16 years as the leader of Congressional Democrats, when does the blame for losing control of Congress in the first place fall on Pelosi? The lack of robust populist messaging when the bottom fell out of the economy in mid-March shows the tone-deaf political instincts at work, instincts that routinely prioritize deficits and process over — at the least the appearance of — fighting for working people. Some concessions to labor were made, yes, but these are a fraction of what is needed. Any emergency response from Democratic leadership that spent two weeks refusing to consider cash payouts to ordinary people because of inane deficit ideology is wholly inadequate for the times.
If our trajectory continues as-is, the climate crisis will be far worse than what we are experiencing now. The IPCC determined in 2018 that we have a 12-year window to limit global warming to 1.5° Celsius above pre-industrial levels. Anything beyond that and we’ll experience catastrophic storms, droughts, floods, heat, food insecurity and poverty. Even if warming is kept to 1.5°, we will still face greater extremes that require collective response and broad social programs. Just as with the COVID-19 crisis, the science is the science. It is undeniable that we will face unprecedented disaster if we don’t take immediate action. And unlike the global pandemic, there is no end date to climate catastrophe. The time is now to prevent the worst-case scenario from becoming our new normal.
Recent autopsies of what went wrong in the government’s preparation for COVID-19 show widespread indifference leading up to our fall off the cliff, most of it from the Trump administration, which gutted the team in charge of a response. But in all the reports one sees a default bipartisan complacency, a sort of mass psychology where everyone assumed someone else was on the top of the problem — that there was a backstop that would step in, should the worst-case scenario come to pass.
But there wasn’t. Indeed if there’s one major take-home lesson from the current catastrophe it’s that there isn’t some cabal of empowered experts somewhere working on crisis prevention or response, ready to swoop in and save the day. There are no mysterious technological or market forces that will come along and solve the problem. These deus ex machinas, implicit in our current “pragmatic,” wait-and-see approach to the climate crisis, will not be coming. We are it: the Sunrise movement, the climate strikers, the front-line climate justice organizers, the indigenous people fighting pipeline construction, the workers calling for a just transition, Global South social movements, the electeds calling for a large-scale mobilization to meet the crisis with broad, universal programs that redistribute wealth — that’s who is standing between us and the precipice.
The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent — entirely avoidable — human devastation that followed shows our elites are wholly ill-equipped, cowardly or venal to meet the times. Neither the pandemic nor the climate crisis cares about deficits, “political reality” or the protection of capital markets. The former has devastated us because our political elites dragged their feet; the latter will undoubtedly extinguish us if we do the same. The Serious Adults in the Room won’t save us — only we can.
Ambi Colón Nuñez contributed research to this article. Views expressed are the authors’. As a 501©3 nonprofit, In These Times does not support or oppose candidates for political office.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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