Paul Fleckenstein reviews the state of the climate movement and climate policy at the start of the Biden era.
Following the dark years of the Trump presidency, President Biden released a climate change Executive Order in his first week in office. The lengthy order covers many areas Biden’s supporters have wanted addressed. They include rejoining the Paris Agreement; ending fossil fuel extraction on public lands; supporting electric vehicles and green infrastructure; creating union jobs and a Civilian Climate Corps; advocating low-carbon agriculture; and acknowledging environmental injustice and the existential threat of climate change.
In addition, Biden revoked permits for the Keystone XL pipeline and appointed Deb Haaland, a liberal Democratic Native American Congressional Rep. from Nevada, to head the Department of the Interior.
The responses from climate, environmental, and social justice movement groups runs the gamut. Groups closely aligned with the Democratic Party—such as the Sunrise Movement, whose co-founder Varshini Prakash sat on Biden’s climate change task force—have been predictably enthusiastic. A more critical evaluation has been offered by Food and Water Watch, which sees polished talking points but little substance. The Indigenous Environmental Network immediately raised demands to cancel the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) as well, and pointed to the market-based false solutions and imperial climate framework promoted by Biden, including fundamental problems with the Paris Agreement.
Beware Returning to Normal
Determining where climate struggle goes from here and how it relates to the Biden administration should begin with understanding what he has actually done so far.
In substance, Biden’s executive order consists almost exclusively of recycled political platform and campaign rhetoric. Its points “recommend,” “review,” and “call for,” various measures “as feasible” and “within existing laws.” Action must be taken, but we must also “pause.” This is familiar. When Democrats are elected they owe recognition to their voting base. But it’s important not to confuse this with achieving actual results or to confuse post-election executive orders with the intention or ability to turn them into actions that significantly reduce emissions.
Both Clinton and Obama released orders and statements around climate and environmental justice upon entering office. Revoking the Keystone XL permit is real (more on this below). But equally real is the fact that Biden also issued at least 31 new drilling permits to authorize operations on federal land and coastal waters in the days following his executive order, signaling to the fossil fuel industry that there will be no significant departures from business as usual. Rep. Haaland, in confirmation hearing, promised as much, indicating that fossil fuel extraction on federal lands will continue for many years on the slow road to net-zero emissions. This makes sense from the President who bragged of defeating the socialist candidate in the Democratic primary, by which he meant the rejection of any program of substantial curbs on capitalist prerogatives.
Given the planetary emergency, slow roads to possibly nowhere and commitments to flawed frameworks such as the Paris Accord are not acceptable. Biden is on course for a return to Obama’s “all of the above” strategy—which means ramping up wind, solar, electrification, efficiency, and so on, while not disrupting fossil fuel profits. Likewise, rejoining the Paris Agreement and canceling the Keystone XL are just reinstatements of the Obama status quo.
Newly elected President Obama first took the international climate stage at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. As Jonathan Neale recounts in Fight the Fire, he arrived in the last hours of the summit, cut a deal with President Xi Jinping of China, and then maneuvered to force compliance from everyone else to a three-page agreement that required no mandatory emissions reductions. For us, the key lesson is what happened next: The Obama administration and Nancy Pelosi strong armed labor leaders and climate NGOs to either mute their criticism or lose their seat at the table of power. Obama, elected by millions of young people with aspirations of his being the President who would rescue the planet, went on to brag several years into his tenure that: “We’ve added enough oil and gas pipeline to circle the Earth and then some.” Tethered to the Democrats, the climate movement gained nothing substantial. This is an experience we cannot afford to repeat.
Biden, along with his Interior Secretary Haaland, state a commitment to pursuing “net-zero” carbon goals while also continuing to develop fossil energy sources for the foreseeable future on federal lands. In other words, this is continuing fossil fuel use indefinitely—pursuing energy innovations, while depending on sleight-of-hand accounting and hypothetical carbon capture technologies to achieve progress toward the stated goal.
As a recent Financial Times article explained, this type of all-of-the-above approach contains enormous potential for non-fossil fuel development, including large investment opportunities for electrification fed by renewable generation. But, as the chart below from the International Energy Agency shows, there will be no reduction in fossil fuel production and carbon emissions following this scenario.
We need to claim our victories but also be sober about what they represent as concessions coming from U.S. rulers. The Keystone XL pipeline, mired in years of protests, lawsuits, and permitting problems, now has less strategic importance for the U.S. than 15 years ago. Train transport has been ramped up alongside the fracking boom in U.S. production. Protest has put a target on Keystone and cancelling it is good, but Biden’s continued support for other new extraction is not.
We should also have grave concerns over the impact of Biden’s foreign policy. The U.S. and China combined account for over 40% of current global emissions. Winning the economic and technological competition with China is a priority for Biden and U.S. capital. Imperial competition, potentially leading to military conflict, is not a basis for the two greatest polluters to reign in emissions. Biden will also not favor reducing U.S. military budgets, given that global U.S. military superiority is key to the overall imperial strategy regarding China and other economic competitors. The massive Pentagon budget steals resources needed for other social and climate priorities. The U.S. with 15% of global emissions is no longer the central climate player it once was. For us, that means rejecting U.S. nationalism and building a climate movement rooted in international solidarity with struggles against imperialism and oppression.
Whether expecting substantial gains from Biden, or regarding him as a lesser-evil choice, Sunrise, 350.org, the Climate Justice Alliance, many in DSA, and others saw at least some victory with Biden and the slim Democratic congressional majority.
The bigger question here though is whether a predominant focus on electoral politics makes sense. What will the lobbying and public education, or even the more militant forms of direct confrontation with politicians, be able to accomplish? How do we deal with the pressure already building to back Green New Deal-supporting Democrats in the midterm elections?
One well-funded platform for the Green New Deal is the Thrive Agenda. Backed by many NGOs and several unions, it has regional manifestations such as the Renew New England Alliance. With an emphasis on electing strong Democratic party climate champions, the program is based on broad principles of a just transition including racial justice, full employment, and renewable energy technologies. There are lots of polished talking points, economic models, and quality visuals.
But in terms of strategy, the approach is conventional reformism that seeks a Green New Deal society without any direct confrontation with capitalist investments in the existing fossil fuel economy. Calls for structural changes such as the nationalization of oil companies, public power, and Medicare for All are conspicuously absent—which is of course just how the Democratic leadership likes it. It probably goes without saying that mass movement disruption, working-class militancy, and strikes are not on the menu of suggested tactics.
The short timeline of climate emergency and the structural embeddedness of fossil fuels in capitalism pose many challenges for a gradual, reformist strategy. Existing capitalist investment in aviation, plastics, pipelines, tourism, and construction demands a deep commitment to fossil fuels for decades. Both parties will resist any significant wealth redistribution or long-term social security measures (healthcare, housing, income) because these will inevitably interfere with someone’s expected profits.
Capitalist governments have failed to take any meaningful steps for several decades to stem global heating. This includes even European states where there has been near universal acknowledgement of a planetary crisis and popular support for action for many years. In Greta Thunberg’s words: “You don’t listen to science because you are only interested in solutions that will enable you to carry on like before.”
With a shortening window remaining in which to avoid catastrophe, fossil fuel use and extraction must be capped and reductions need to begin now. There is a serious dilemma here, with no easy answers. But confronting capital, shutting down fossil fuel production must be on the agenda, along with building the social and class power necessary to do that.
No necessary correlation exists between the popularity of a climate policy and the chances of it getting enacted by a capitalist government. Hoping for substantial gains through prioritizing electoral operations and lobbying diverts from what we need to emphasize instead.
The key element in social change—whether in last year’s Movement for Black Lives protests against police violence, upending Jim Crow, winning union rights, or ending wars—has been the ability of social and class movements to disrupt through mass protest and strikes. Strikes, protests, and blockades serve to interrupt profits, delegitimize oppressive institutions, and build working class power.
Ecosocialists need to bring climate issues into our classrooms and unions, and to figure out how we can bridge the boundaries between our workplaces and the wider communities feeling climate impacts. We need democratic working-class organizations inside and outside of workplaces that have the capacity to disrupt the “normal” capitalist ecological indifference.
For models, we can turn to the historical record of the 1930’s, when a mass labor upsurge preceded the progressive elements of the New Deal later delivered by the Roosevelt Administration. Socialists and Communists played key roles in helping to organize and lead struggles and strikes. Later in this period, the wide integration of the labor bureaucracy into the Democratic Party undermined workers’ power, the struggle against racism, and the chances for the expansion of universal public social programs.
As socialist Robert Brenner explains, what distinguishes reformism on a day-to-day basis is its political method and its theory, not its program. Radical programs of jobs and unions for all, sustainability, just transition, decolonization, and racial justice can be accommodated within climate NGOs and the Democratic Party. But the program matters less than how we understand the power necessary to coerce the state and capital into making concessions in the near term, and the revolutionary theory that informs organizing working-class struggle to abolish capitalism in the longer-term.
“100% all out strikes” is how the authors of one socialist book on the struggle for a Green New Deal characterize the strategy for winning. The 2019 global climate strikes were a high point of the climate movement. Thunberg’s defiant stance called out social democratic, liberal, and climate-denying governments alike. Students and workers left classrooms and workplaces, many unions endorsed the strikes, and groups like the Labor Network for Sustainability devoted months to strike organizing. In Montreal, climate activists in a teachers union won an actual strike vote and joined a mass protest. Minneapolis custodial workers struck, winning worker safety, environmentally responsible practices, and demanding on-going climate action from corporate employers. They were joined in coalition by Minneapolis students in an instructive alliance.
Elsewhere, high school students won changes in curriculum. On September 2019, in Burlington, VT, I was part of organizing a student and worker walkout culminating in marches and a 5,000-person mid-day rally, with a range of speakers linking up agriculture working conditions, union power, U.S. militarism, and immigration to climate struggle.
There are also competing currents that we need to engage with. In many instances employers sanctioned walkouts for some of their workers. Some climate groups such as 350.org see progressive business as partners and strikes more a form of typical protest than class-based disruptive action. They push for Democratic politicians to be at the podiums to promote electoral action. It was common to understand the climate striking as just another form of protest calling on politicians to act. This is all part of the contested terrain of climate politics.
Strike action is self-activity with the potential to develop a deeper character of skills and politics than electoral organizing which tends to narrow political and strategic horizons. Climate strikes are acts of collective defiance of those who have authority over them in the classroom or in the workplace. This collective defiance is necessary if we are to be able to challenge the power of fossil capital effectively. In an emergency situation where we are faced with wholly undemocratic economic and governmental structures, shutting down production and profits through self-organization and striking is essential and the bedrock of ecosocialism. We need to think about how to operate in solidarity alongside other disruptive struggles such as Standing Rock; the Wet’suwet’en First Nation led struggle against the Coastal GasLink pipeline that resulted in blockades shutting down rail service across Canada in early 2020; and urban and suburban struggles against fossil fuel infrastructure.
In the U.S., the pandemic and the 2020 election unfortunately froze the 2019 climate strike movement as in-person organizing faced difficulties and much of the climate movement shifted into mobilizing for Democratic Party candidates. On the organized labor front, while some education, service sector, and healthcare unions have taken up responding to the climate emergency, several major unions concentrated in the construction sector—who have more structural power to shut down fossil fuel production—and the national AFL-CIO have not followed. Clearly there are challenges. But the future of the climate fight will be best advanced by rooting it in mass action and strikes over the long term.
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Paul Fleckenstein is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Burlington, Vermont and the Tempest Collective. He is a labor and environmental justice activist.