I spent spring break last year on the steep hills of the Alleghenies, just over the West Virginia border and out of range of the nearest cell tower. When my friends and I returned to the hollow below, we learned what the rest of the country had by then known for days: first, that Joe Biden had beaten Bernie Sanders in the March 10 primaries and was certainly going to be the Democratic nominee, and second, that COVID-19 was here for real, and was going to change everything. Both events would prove critical. At the very moment that the country entered into its worst crisis since the Great Depression, a five-year project to revive the spirit of the New Deal seemed to gasp its last breaths.
Sanders had launched his first presidential campaign in April of 2015. From the beginning, he focused on precisely the economic and social failures that would come to be highlighted so brutally by the pandemic: a broken health care system, runaway inequality, and a government captured by billionaires and giant corporations. He ran again in 2020, and by late-February stood—impossibly—on the brink of securing the Democratic nomination. But he did not secure it. Instead, Biden, who had announced that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he became president, roared back in South Carolina and swept through Super Tuesday with the hands of most of his previous rivals helping him along. By the time my friends and I returned from the woods to the world of 24/7 news, Sanders was privately preparing to drop out of the race.
This is the strange background on which the past 12 months of pandemic, climate policy, and national politics have been imposed. Even as one of the least ambitious candidates, Biden put forward a climate plan far bolder than could have been imaginable just a few years ago. In a display of trademark ‘unity,’ he formed a joint climate task force that included a number of activists and progressives. The COVID recession freed us from the doctrine of fiscal restraint, and massive clean energy investment suddenly became a real possibility. Yet all of this occurred in a context of leftist defeat, and other lessons for the climate crisis that we might have taken from the pandemic—especially on the dangers of corporate power—were disregarded.
It is easy to forget how recently climate policy floundered in relative gloom and obscurity. The early hopes of the Obama administration had been painfully deflated, first by the defeat of the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill in 2009, then by Republican victory in the 2010 midterms. The next six years saw an increasingly desperate President resort to tackling climate change through a series of executive actions. These had the distinction of being both woefully inadequate and legally dubious—from the beginning they were under mortal danger from a conservative judiciary. The Paris Climate Agreement of 2015 was a landmark achievement, but its weakness was also a sign of just how far we still had to go. Grassroots climate activism was growing—especially among the young—but in the political arena the climate movement was fractured, with major disagreements between labor and environmentalists.
The months following the 2016 election saw an eruption of progressive agitation. In the ferment, the youth-led Sunrise Movement was founded, and in February 2019, newly elected Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) released the Green New Deal. That the bill now feels unremarkable speaks to its very success. Where previous policymakers had tried to tackle climate change through narrow pricing schemes, the authors of the Green New Deal saw a need for much broader changes. Well before the arrival of COVID-19, the bill recognized that “the United States is… experiencing several related crises,” and that “a new national, social, industrial, and economic mobilization” presents a “historic opportunity…to counteract systemic injustices.” The Green New Deal sought to fight climate change through large scale public investments and renewed “democratic and participatory processes,” not technocratic tinkering.
By the time the 2020 Democratic Primary began in earnest, the language of a Green New Deal was the sine qua non of respectable climate policy. Cap-and-trade and carbon pricing were largely forgotten, and the economic opportunities presented by a broader green transition were increasingly discussed in their place. Still, enormous differences remained between the various candidates and their platforms.
On one end of the spectrum was Sanders’ “16.3 trillion dollar investment” to avert climate catastrophe. This plan was broken into three parts: (1) transforming the energy system and creating 20 million jobs in the process, (2) disempowering the fossil fuel industry and holding them accountable, and (3) rebuilding the economy with justice front and center. It was no coincidence that taking on corporate power centered so prominently. For decades, the fossil fuel lobby lied about the threat of climate change and fought in Washington against attempts to address the growing crisis. Research has found that the five largest publicly-traded oil and gas companies have spent over a billion dollars on “misleading climate-related branding and lobbying” since the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement. The capture of democratic processes by economic interest groups is a recurring problem in an era of market fundamentalism (think health care, or guns). Sanders recognized that addressing broken power structures is a necessary step towards significant change in any domain—climate included.
Other candidates released climate plans of lesser degrees of ambition: Warren’s came in at three trillion over ten years, Klobuchar’s at between two and three trillion, and Pete’s at somewhere around two trillion. Biden’s sat near the bottom of the pile at 1.7 trillion. Undoubtedly, much progress had been made. Even Biden’s plan called for a net-zero economy by 2050, and committed a large share of green investments towards poor and marginalized communities most at risk. But it was also glaringly vague on efforts to hold “polluters accountable”—a worrying sign, especially given the fact that Biden’s campaign was being advised on climate policy by former fossil fuel executives.
The arrival of COVID-19 in March left the country in shock. As hospital wards overflowed, the economy shut down. All crises dispel myth, but this one was particularly telling. 22 million Americans lost their job in the early days of the pandemic. The racial and economic inequalities of the crisis were—and remain—horrifying. From the beginning, Black Americans died of COVID-19 at more than twice the rate of their white counterparts. Frontline workers, three-quarters of whom make below average wages, risked their lives as the rich quietly retreated to weekend houses. Yet March and April also saw us exercise unprecedented democratic control over the economy: we made a collective decision to stop activity and reduce transmission. So the pandemic revealed a double-truth. It made clear that our economy is broken and merciless, but it also made clear that it is more open to structural intervention than we might have thought.
The extent to which we acted on this new awareness—and extended it into the realm of climate policy—depended on politics. As the coronavirus raged, the long 2020 Democratic primary came to a close. Biden had triumphed, if just barely. In an appeal to the left, and to avoid making the mistakes of an intransigent Clinton campaign in 2016, he announced the creation of a number of “Unity Task Forces.” Among these was an eight-person Task Force on Climate Change, with three seats chosen by the defeated Sanders campaign. After two months of deliberation, progressives were not left entirely empty-handed. Biden’s new climate plan, released in July, had an increased price tag of $2 trillion and set a deadline of 2035 (up from 2050) to reach 100 percent clean energy. Green infrastructure and other investment became central to Biden’s Build Back Better plan. This expanded ambition was a gesture to progressives, but also a reflection of new thinking caused by the pandemic in the background.
The pandemic effectively eliminated belief in tight fiscal constraints. As economic historian Adam Tooze explains, one of the “absolutely key elements of that consensus of the 1990s [was the] idea that there are hard-and-fast limits to debt sustainability and that governments that spent too much and ran large deficits would face the wrath of the all-powerful bond market.” The aftermath of the 2008 recession had already dealt a heavy blow to this idea; the $2.2 trillion, bipartisan CARES Act passed a month into the pandemic seemed to knock it out for good. The March stimulus bill cost 10 percent of US GDP, and showed that we could “borrow on an epic scale without suffering financial-market disruption.”
It was this new and widespread acceptance of greater deficit spending that allowed a moderate like Biden to promise massive green investment without seriously threatening the status quo. Since taking office, Biden has focused on passing a $1.9 trillion stimulus package (which does little on climate). But he has already begun planning his next legislative push: an equally large infrastructure bill that promises to spend billions on clean energy, electric vehicle charging stations, sustainable building retrofits, and other green initiatives. The details are still uncertain, but it appears likely Biden will end up spending far more than would have been imaginable for a president of his ideological bent in a pre-pandemic world.
Yet weaning off of fossil fuels and building a more sustainable economy will take more than just throwing cash at the problem. It will require reckoning with the structures of power that have upheld the old economy and thrown us dangerously out of balance with nature. A pandemic in which America’s billionaires have gained over a trillion dollars in new wealth as the poor have suffered from dramatically higher fatality rates should have made this all the more clear. But a defeated left and resurgent center made such an explicit reckoning unlikely at best.
The writing was on the wall as early as July. In the nearly 20-page, new and improved climate plan the Biden campaign released after the conclusion of the joint task force, the words “fossil fuel” did not appear once. This was in the midst of a pandemic made significantly more deadly by fossil fuel-related air pollution. Part of the omission can be attributed to the fact that Biden was entering a general election. But it also provided an indication of the places he was (un)willing to go in his effort to reduce emissions.
The early weeks of the Biden administration brought a flurry of executive orders, many of them on climate. Some of these were simply reinstatements of old Obama policies: rejoining the Paris Agreement and re-upping fuel economy standards, for example. Others were real victories that should be celebrated: the cancelation of the Keystone XL pipeline; the conservation of 30 percent of American land and water; the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps. But some were also misleading. Much has been made of the decision to pause new oil and gas development on federal lands. Yet the order did not permanently ban new leases, and worse, did nothing to address the 53 percent of leased public lands and 77 percent of leased public waters that are sitting unused, waiting to be tapped. The administration is continuing to issue new permits for drilling in these areas, a policy that will allow companies in some regions to continue their current output for over a decade.
Simply put, we do not have a decade to spare. Restrictive supply-side policies have a critical role to play in any serious effort to tackle climate change, but they require a willingness to make enemies. After Biden’s early executive orders on climate, some in industry worried that broader restrictions were coming. Biden reassured them that they had little to worry about: “let me be clear…we’re not going to ban fracking.” Fracking’s position in political debates as something of a buzzword has probably obscured just how decisive it is in emissions forecasts. Over 90 percent of new oil and gas drilling through 2050 in the US is projected to depend on fracking. By taking a ban off the table, Biden surrendered one of his most powerful tools for reducing fossil fuel production.
Instead, the new administration has placed its hopes in what is essentially a policy of winks and nudges. TIME declared Biden’s executive orders the “strongest market signal [on climate] yet,” and predicted that they would change “how global companies do business.” Too bad that global companies do not tend to respond to our ‘signals’ with quite the transparency—or transformation—that we might hope. Recent months have seen a wave of new “net zero” commitments by the world’s largest fossil fuel corporations. These commitments have helped placate an anxious public. But they rely on dubious offset prospects and do little to cut production. As Tzeporah Berman and Nathan Taft explain in The Guardian, “oil companies are claiming that not only can they keep their current levels of production, but expand their operations that extract and refine fossil fuels.” Gestures are not enough—what is needed is a politics willing to take on corporate power directly.
Climate author David Wallace-Wells summarized the past year well: “Environmental anxieties haven’t toppled neoliberalism. Instead, to an unprecedented degree, they infiltrated it.” The pandemic has shown a brutal light on the failures of neoliberalism. That the past year’s climate policy evolved without fully accounting for these failures was the result of a contingent set of political events. The challenge now is to find ways of supporting climate policy within the current ideological framework without neglecting the longer task of building its replacement.