With Joe Biden, There’s Still a Case for Climate Optimism

by Daniel Aldana Cohen

@aldatweets
28 October 2020
  • Estimated read time: 11 mins

Despite the grim calendar of the climate crisis and prospective president Joe Biden’s refusal to defend the Green New Deal or commit to banning fracking, in the event that the former vice president does win the election, the case for measured climate optimism in the US is still surprisingly strong. Under Biden, we might glimpse a path forward for transformative green policies and increasingly militant organising. None of this is guaranteed, or even close to it. But with a focused left and sufficient mass mobilisation from below, it is possible. 

With better quality polling than in 2016 showing Biden with a solid lead, coupled with the important fact that he is less disliked than Hillary Clinton, the six-term senator looks to have a good chance of prevailing on 3 November. Also within reach is a Democratic Senate majority of two to three seats, and the resulting ability to pass substantial stimulus spending through a trick called ‘budget reconciliation’. Such a result wouldn’t just represent a rejection of fascism; if social movements and their allies are focused and disciplined enough, it could usher in the dawn of a new era. 

Fumbling leftward. 

A Biden victory would put a doddering centrist without a clear programme in charge of a political economy in the midst of a massive cultural and political realignment. A more dynamic, younger neoliberal Biden would be a menace; a weaker, older Biden will likely exemplify Nicos Poulantzas’s theory that the capitalist state is a condensate of class forces. Simply put: Biden will go with the flow; a flow that the American left must shape. Indeed, Biden himself is torn about whether to fall back on conservative habit, or let the tailwind of history push him, fumbling, toward the Green New Deal horizon. 

The decisive factors favouring a positive green stimulus in the US are the global economic crash, improved green technologies and the rise of the American left. Economically speaking, the scale of disaster faced by the US has not been seen since the Great Depression. Unemployment is at a record high and, unless major tenant protections are passed soon, there will be a brutal wave of evictions. Almost inevitably, Biden’s total stimulus promises are vast, adding up to $3.9tn. Of that, he promises $2tn in green stimulus alone, of which 40% would go to disadvantaged communities. Notably, the economic ambition of this stimulus vastly exceeds what president Barack Obama and vice-president Biden did last time around. 

In 2009 and 2010, the Obama administration spent about $800bn total on economic stimulus, of which a little over $80bn went to specifically green measures — energy efficient retrofits, renewable energy, rail build-out, etc. Today, Biden’s $2tn pledge is 25 times that. He is also promising ten times more in green stimulus for working-class, racialised and indigenous communities than the entire country got during the last recession. The details are sparse, but some key points reflect a year of relentless campaigning by groups like the Homes Guarantee movement — a national tenants movement — and their allies, Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who have collectively pushed Biden’s platform leftward (full disclosure: I’m on the Homes Guarantee policy team). 

In an unprecedented pledge, Biden has specifically promised 1.5m new units of green affordable housing, 4m building retrofits (half commercial, half housing), and has promised to fund green retrofits of schools and electrify school buses, to decarbonise the postal service. In the best case scenario, these investments would also propel the decarbonisation of building materials and the greening of global supply chains in ways that prioritise workers, indigenous rights and justice. The benefits for workers, unions, and worker cooperatives would be huge. 

Of course, while the president can propose laws, the legislators are in the Senate and House of Representatives. But despite the left making only a small dent in both chambers, its presence is growing and potent. The “squad” of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley will be back and bigger than before, with the additions of Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush and Marie Newman, all of whom campaigned on the Green New Deal. Meanwhile, their progressive House allies are consolidating power; over 100 House members have already co-sponsored AOC’s Green New Deal Resolution.  

 

 

Even the Democrats’ Senate leadership is feeling the heat. Terrified of getting primaried by AOC, the once-centrist Senate leader Chuck Schumer has swung left, working with climate activists in the youth-led Sunrise movement on several initiatives. Schumer even voted against Trump’s thinly updated North American free trade agreement — when the so-called senator of Wall Street votes against free trade, you know that movement power is growing. So, while a green stimulus that wins majorities in the House and Senate will undoubtedly be deeply flawed, if progressives can get to senators like Schumer, it could still direct hundreds of billions of green investments to working class and racialised communities.

The ‘real’ new deal. 

To grasp the potential upside of Biden’s promised green stimulus, we have to compare it to the last one. Despite having some technical wins, the 2009-10 stimulus was a political failure, which saw the administration let 10m families lose their homes, decline to use the government to directly hire millions of people and do nothing to ensure that the stimulus provided a stream of visible, publicly funded jobs — or indeed, a major cut to unemployment in any form. (By contrast, the 1933 New Deal government of Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) directly hired 4m workers in one year alone to stanch that era’s economic bleeding.) During the 2009-10 stimulus, Biden himself supervised pushing money out the door; yet, because of its overall political failures, he barely mentioned his experience during this year’s primary. 

It is helpful to compare the failures of the Obama-Biden stimulus to the Latin American Pink Tide, something I know well, having lived and researched in Venezuela under Hugo Chavez, Bolivia under Evo Morales and Brazil under Dilma Rousseff. As a result of Pink Tide governments’ substantial, effective and widely trumpeted public investments, any working class person in these countries could talk for hours about all the things their presidents had done for them. In Bolivia, the government developed a program called Operation Miracle, in which Cuban doctors provided free cataract removal surgery to those in need. It was celebrated across the country. Such a scenario would be unthinkable in the US, where it’s hard to find anyone outside of the auto sector who can speak for even five minutes about what the Obama-Biden stimulus did for them — never mind its specifically green investments.

This time, however, Biden’s promised trillions — nearly half of which will go to disinvested communities — wouldn’t just slash carbon emissions, but would also go a long way to making the benefits of public green investment visible to the public, solidifying support for continued green investment in the process. 

Such investments are already popular in opinion polls; I should know, I wrote many of them. I’ve found that majorities of Republicans say they support massive green investments, like making schools into disaster resiliency centres, expanding renewable energy, and deploying electric buses. 

With that said, if people believed these policies were plausible in the short term, they’d have elected Sanders in the primary. If Black and Latino voters saw green stimulus as a crucial economic and health component of urgently-needed policies, their calls for a Green New Deal would have dominated summer protests; but that didn’t happen. People may be excited to take the first steps of the Green New Deal, but until the money lands and makes change, its promise will remain just that — hypothetical, a likeable pledge; what Nancy Pelosi called a “green dream, or whatever”. It is therefore vital that we create more visible, concrete projects to prove that the Green New Deal is the real deal. 

The phrase ‘healthy green retrofit’ will mean far more to someone whose neighbour has had one, or when such examples have been celebrated on daytime TV. Thanks to the explosion of rooftop solar, anyone can imagine what adding solar panels to a school or public housing complex would look like. But hardly anyone in the US has laid eyes on the kinds of award-winning, green architectural marvels racking up prizes in the UK and EU

 

 

Imagine how much harder people will fight for public transit investments once they get a taste of quiet, clean, electric buses that actually arrive on time, every ten minutes or sooner. The depressing truth is that the public sector hasn’t delivered for working class people in the US for a very long time. The best public swimming pools in New York City were literally built during the New Deal, almost a century ago. We can’t win just by telling; we have to show.

Proof of concept. 

The left need have no shame in recognising this need for a gradual build-up of mobilisation and policymaking. A look back at American history shows it’s the only way forward we know. This was the ratchet effect that occurred during the original New Deal decade, when popular support for FDR’s early, tentative policies of public investment led to increased strike waves, mass mobilisation and greater public investments. Over time, state capacity grew so strong that it was able to combine massive economic planning and redistributive policies to run a popular war economy so well that it won wars on two fronts, with a three-term incumbent winning a fourth election while barely campaigning. 

Significantly, the civil rights movement’s economic agenda – while ultimately being strangled by Richard Nixon’s racism and then the neoliberal turn – also built itself win by win over time. Arguably, the left’s victories during the original New Deal helped facilitate subsequent civil rights organising. While the New Deal was undoubtedly racist, it also raised expectations for fairer public policy among all working people, established public spending as a legitimate target of mass mobilisation and facilitated the rise of unions like the United Autoworkers, which eventually lent some support to the Black freedom struggle.

Of course, Biden is in no way comparable to FDR; today, he is auditioning Republicans for cabinet posts. Not to mention that none of his promises are remotely close to guaranteed. Even so, there are still grounds for optimism that public green investment, rather than austerity, will characterise the next year of US politics. 

While the economy and the climate are cratering, renewable energy technologies are cost-competitive and growing fast. The global financial institutions and the global economic thought elite, from the International Monetary Fund to the Financial Times, are desperate for green stimulus and renewable energy buildout. Only the fossil fuel industry and the Republican party are opposed — and they’re both on the ropes. In this context, far from constituting world leadership, Biden and Senate Democrats spending trillions in green stimulus would merely be trudging along behind Europe and China. 

With that said, the shift to green capital doesn’t guarantee a progressive or even democratic pathway. What it does mean, however, is that the left would be fighting over how quickly we retire fossil movements, where green investment will land, how much we will get, and who will get to control those funds. The political-economic battlefield will green; struggle will continue.

It is therefore a good thing that the US left is stronger today than it has been in decades — and that Biden depends on it. Biden’s electoral and governing coalition relies on blue-collar labour unions and racial justice groups, especially in Black communities. The labour movement is experiencing an increasingly militant phase; communities of colour are bristling with political activity, while even pockets of the most conservative sectors are experimenting with the Green New Deal idea. And at both the state and city level, socialists are winning elections at a shocking pace. 

Meanwhile, the most exciting environmental group in decades, the Sunrise Movement, has gone all-in on organising in solidarity with Black, indigenous and communities of colour, and emphasises environmental justice and green jobs in all its messaging. In New York, Sunrise activists, who are barely old enough to vote, are organising in support of the Green New Deal for Public Housing Act — not because they took up activism based on their housing politics, but because they are committed to following the lead of working class people of colour. Sunrise and its allies have also demonstrated a commitment to working with the Movement for Black Lives on common programmes.  This kind of organising must be the future of the 2020s left: a fusion of the climate movement, the labour movement, the movement for racial justice, and the decolonisation movement grounded in Indigenous nations’ battles for sovereignty.

 

 

Alongside this, the surging Democratic Socialists of America is also aligning its campaigns and rhetoric with these goals, through local political campaigns and supporting young, leftwing politicians of colour who champion defunding the police, building masses of social housing and passing a Green New Deal.  

Both organisations have also demonstrated their electoral chops. Along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who increasingly links those three political streams in her discourse, Sunrise activists lifted Sanders to an upset second-place finish in the presidential primary. And in a bitter statewide primary, Sunrise re-elected Senator Ed Markey in the first ever defeat of a Kennedy in a Massachusetts election. Meanwhile, this primary season, the DSA has shown surprising strength in city, state and federal elections, and could reach 100,000 members by the end of the year. 

An uncertain, but winnable, future. 

The American left is on the march. But despite supporting massive green investment in disadvantaged communities and possessing the ability to push Democrats leftward, it won’t win every fight, including on climate policy. 

It’s clear that Biden will be much gentler with the fossil fuel industry than progressives want. The left will need discipline, continuing the essential fight to stop fossil fuel use and extraction as quickly as humanly possible, through direct action and grassroots organising, while also mobilising at every level to ensure hundreds of billions worth of green investments are made in the places that need them most. 

In countless other areas, Biden is also guaranteed to disappoint. His foreign policy is about imperial restoration; his record and promises of criminal justice reform are atrocious; he has made no meaningful commitments to recognising indigenous sovereignty. The list goes on. It will take an agile left to push a Biden administration on multiple, complex fronts all at once. 

 

 

This will be even harder given the inevitable constitutional crises over court-packing and Senate reform, as a racist white minority is entrenched by undemocratic US institutions and changing demographics, which are concentrating the Republican base in small-population states. We can expect a Tea Party 2.0 to mobilise the right in the streets. These will be dangerous times. 

Needless to say, it would be far easier for the left to fight these reactionaries under president Sanders, who has a clear economic message about putting working and racialised communities first. But with a tired, ambivalent Biden at the helm, things will prove much more complicated. With each passing day, the country will edge closer to a fight over whether Kamala Harris will succeed Biden as president and claim the Democratic nomination in 2024. In such a roiling, permanent crisis, it will be hard to focus on countless concrete green stimulus investments in frontline communities — but doing so will be essential. Wins on the ground will deepen our coalitions while showing a path toward climate stability and economic justice.

I’ll admit, I’ve painted this relatively bright future with strokes of ‘would’ and ‘could’. Such an outcome depends on a confluence of many capitalists’ self-interest, unprecedented left militancy and unity, and electoral good fortune—and even that only gets the left a small way forward. Biden’s plan is neither the Green New Deal itself, nor a rocket ship in its direction. But this pathway would represent a real advance toward a Green New Deal horizon. 

Picture a day in late 2021 or mid-2022. Working class people of different backgrounds are sharing lunch after gruelling days retrofitting the schools that their children attend, stripping out toxins, and putting in healthy and efficient materials. Picture residents of public and subsidised housing getting their homes modernised, with the work being done by their friends and neighbours. Picture postal workers zipping about in electric vans, in streets more crowded with buses and bicycles. Keep these images coming, because, for $2tn, you’ll get more than a paragraph’s worth of vignettes. If, in short, money hits the ground and people feel its benefits, then organising the masses to fight for more will be a thousand times easier.

This, in turn, could make global green diplomacy less threatening, unlock real reductions in carbon pollution, make the public sector feel relevant in disinvested communities and free up vital time and mental energy for more political organising at every level of government. With Biden as president, trillions of dollars will be on the table. And while the future remains uncertain, it is also winnable. 

Daniel Aldana Cohen is Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative. He is on the policy team of People’s Action’s Homes Guarantee Campaign and he is the co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal.

Published 28 October 2020

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