Environment, US Politics

The state of the climate crisis post-election

Virginia Rodino looks at the destructive environmental legacy Trump leaves behind, arguing that Biden and the Democratic Party’s structural entanglements with the fossil fuel industry means they will not be able to address the climate crisis—unless pushed by the movements from below.

In its final weeks, the Trump administration is working to push through dozens of environmental rollbacks that could weaken century-old protections for migratory birds, expand Arctic drilling and hamstring future regulation of public health threats.

Under attack at this very moment is the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, a vital tool for protecting more than 1,000 species of birds including hawks and other birds of prey where federal prosecutors can use the act to recover damages (i.e. $100 million from BP for its 2010 oil-rig spill into the Gulf of Mexico, which killed more than 100,000 seabirds). The Trump administration wants to make sure companies face no criminal liability for such preventable deaths. Federal officials advanced the bird treaty changes to the White House, one of the final steps before adoption, two days after news organizations declared Biden the winner of the presidential race.

This follows close to 100 environmental rules and regulations the Trump administration has already reduced or eliminated. The administration removed protections for millions of miles of waterways and wetlands, narrowed protections for wildlife species facing extinction, and opened more of the hundreds of millions of acres of public land to oil and gas drilling.

That includes the administration’s steps last month toward a sale of energy leases in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Other changes would allow more drilling and mining on thousands of square miles of public lands around New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon National Historical Park and deep in the Alaska wilderness.

Meanwhile, Biden has promised a $1.7 trillion plan to combat climate change, and has said the cause is one of his top priorities. Still, the scale and urgency of the climate crisis is such that none of Biden’s plans provide a solution. While it is a relief we will not have an outright climate change denier in the White House for the next four years, four years of inadequate response and growing emissions is still disastrous. 

Trump had pulled the US out of the Paris Climate accords. Biden will bring the US back in. But we should not forget that five years ago, when Barack Obama was president, the environmental movement was horrified by the conclusion to those accords, which would raise global emissions each year from 2016 to 2030. Obama also used his prestige in the earlier Copenhagen accord to bypass the consensus procedure and broker a backroom deal with the US and China that scuppered any binding agreement. Biden is ready to continue in this mode. 

During the Democratic primary, his campaign was criticized for working with an energy adviser linked to the fossil fuel industry, promoting a “middle ground” climate policy and opposing a ban on fracking. He was also criticized for attending a major fundraiser by a fossil fuel investor, even as he pledged to reject campaign money from fossil fuel industry sources. The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) President Lonnie Stephenson was recently added to Biden’s transition team. IBEW and Stephenson specifically have opposed any fossil fuel phaseouts as part of a comprehensive climate plan.

Biden is reportedly considering former Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz for a cabinet spot or for a new international climate envoy post, according to the New York Times. Climate groups have called on Biden to reject Moniz for any position because he joined the board of directors at the electric utility Southern Company after his time in the Obama administration. Moniz has also been a fracking advocate. 

Unlike many Democrats who have moved away from the Obama-era comfort with fossil fuels, Moniz is sticking to his roots. The chair of his nonprofit which he founded after leaving office under Obama, the Energy Futures Initiative, is former BP CEO Lord John Browne. 

Moniz has had several lucrative relationships with fossil fuel companies during his career, including as an adviser to BP. The Energy Initiative he founded at MIT runs on oil money and brought in sizable donations from some of the world’s largest fossil fuel producers. It has produced research that made the case for their growth. Since leaving government in 2017, Moniz holds a paid position with a fossil fueled utility whose work he supported at the Department of Energy. Through it all, he has proudly maintained his commitment to an Obama-era energy strategy that pairs renewables investment with fossil fuel growth. 

More than speculatively, Biden named one of the Democratic Party’s top recipients of fossil fuel industry money to a high-profile White House position focusing in part on climate issues. He is appointing Louisiana’s Cedric Richmond to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement, where he is “expected to serve as a liaison with the business community and climate change activists.” 

Richmond has represented Louisiana’s second district, which tracks the oil refineries and plastics factories of Louisiana’s notorious Cancer Alley between Baton Rouge and New Orleans. He received the fifth highest total of oil and gas industry contributions among House Democrats over his ten years in Congress. 

The US Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030 US oil and gas production will increase 30% above 2018 levels.

Richmond has received roughly $341,000 from donors such as — $50,000 from Entergy, an electric and natural gas utility; $40,000 from ExxonMobil; and $10,000 apiece from oil companies Chevron, Phillips 66 and Valero Energy. He raked in that money while representing a congressional district that is home to 7 of the 10 most air-polluted census tracts in the country. 

Richmond has repeatedly broken with his party on major climate and environmental votes. During the climate crisis that has battered his home state of Louisiana, Richmond has joined with Republicans to vote to increase fossil fuel exports and promote pipeline development. He voted to approve the Keystone XL Tar Sands Pipeline. He also voted against Democratic legislation to place pollution limits on fracking — and he voted for GOP legislation to limit the Obama administration’s authority to more stringently regulate the practice. 

Richmond served as a co-chair of the Biden campaign and has not committed to supporting a Green New Deal, which is fitting since Biden has firmly stated he doesn’t either. In a post-election interview with CBS Face the Nation, Richmond said: “When we govern, we will govern with our values but when we can’t pass legislation, we shouldn’t be out there talking about it.”

No wonder the fossil fuel corporation reps are relaxed, saying Biden will not be a “wholesale assault on the oil industry” and might be “better for business in the medium term.” 

The problem here is not the Biden administration’s wishes for the climate, which may be perfectly sound in the abstract. Nor is it even “weakness” and propensity for compromise with the Republicans, bad as that may be. It is their solid commitment to a neoliberal capitalist economy, and not wanting to raise expectations that could disturb profits and the status-quo.  

How do we resist these disastrous moves by the current administration and the business as usual approach by the incoming?

The Sunrise Movement, the youth-led progressive climate group that reached 3.5 million young voters in swing states is now leading an effort to hold Biden accountable. 

On Cedric Richmond’s appointment they said:

“Cedric Richmond has taken big money from the fossil fuel industry, cozied up w/oil and gas, & stayed silent while polluters poisoned his own community. How will young people & frontline communities trust our voices will be heard louder than Big Oil in a @JoeBiden administration? Today feels like a betrayal, because of one of President-Elect Biden’s very first hires for his new administration has taken more donations from the fossil fuel industry during his career than nearly any other Democrat.” They called his selection “an affront to young people who made President-Elect Biden’s victory possible.”

Last month, Sunrise Movement protesters marched to Biden’s Philadelphia headquarters office to protest that appointment, chanting “Biden, be brave.” The group also issued its own list of suggestions for key cabinet appointments. However, there is no indication Biden or his transition team will take any of these recommendations on board. 

Extinction Rebellion is also committed to mass direct action on the climate, and pressuring whoever is there, rather than focusing on elections. 

And just last week, indigenous, racial justice and climate activists staged an occupation outside the Democratic National Convention in Washington, calling on President-elect Joe Biden to take immediate climate action and to approve the Green New Deal. Protesters also called for a Cabinet free of lobbyists and others with close industry ties. A number of lawmakers spoke at the protest, including Congresswoman-elect Cori Bush from Missouri and Congressmember Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. At the protest AOC said: 

“The movement is why I was elected to Congress. The movement is why Jamaal and Cori and Mondaire are here today. You all, the movement, is why Ilhan is here. The movement is why Rashida is here. The movement is why Ed Markey was protected this year. It was the movement. Because they’ve got money, but we’ve got people. We’ve got people. And at the end of the day, dollar bills don’t vote. We vote. People vote. Young people vote. And it’s about time, long past time, that we recognize and understand that we owe our seats, we owe our political power, because of young people, because of the Movement for Black Lives, because of women, because of the working class across this country. And it’s a class issue, it’s a race issue, it’s a gender issue.”

It is a help to have people like AOC publicly bringing up issues and  recognizing the movements. But we must see a greater role for these movements than bringing out vote for others to represent us within the capitalist political parties and system

This latest action, organized by young people, shows a recognition that movements are needed even just to hold politicians accountable to their own promises and reverse the rollbacks of the last four years. The movements will need to grow in size and strength to push through a global Green New Deal and beyond. The task ahead is to ensure that the climate justice movement is multi-racial, makes links with labor unions, and includes organizing and strategy to win the millions of working people to the ideas of a green economy. While doing this, we need to stress that the goal of a just and sustainable green economy cannot be a capitalist one built on profit. A green economy is one that is global and one that meets the needs of all of the people on the planet, as well as the planet itself. To save the planet, we need to change the world. 

Virginia Rodino

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