If after Monday’s news you didn’t feel a pang of doom, you’re either a zen master, a recluse living in a news vacuum, or a nihilist. The new United Nations report on climate change predicts an actual, bona fide apocalypse unless our civilization discards our fetish for incrementalism, rejects nothing-will-fundamentally-change fatalism and instead finally takes the crisis seriously.
The bad news is that we’ve been here before during the last era of Democratic supremacy, and if the Obama era we sleepwalked through now repeats itself, we’re done. It’s that simple.
The glimmer of good news is that we still have time to defuse the worst effects of the climate bomb, and at least one part of the political dynamic may finally be changing.
But if we allow corporate media and the political class to erase our memory of how we arrived here, then history will probably recur and we will all burn.
The bad news: we’ve been here before
At its core, the climate crisis is a product of bipartisan corruption and greed. Politicians bankrolled by oil and gas interests ignored scientists’ warnings, and financed a fossil fuel economy knowing full well it would destroy the ecosystem that supports all life on the planet.
Republicans were more explicit about their corruption, actively denying the scientific facts and resurrecting their own version of a Flat Earth Society that reassured voters that nothing has to change and everything will be fine. Democrats settled on a different, but similarly pernicious, form of climate denialism: They acknowledged the science and issued progressive sounding press releases about the environment, and then they continued supporting fossil fuel development.
This strategy satiated liberals’ top priority: enjoying erudite speeches from Ivy League politicians that make affluent liberals feel smart, smug and superior, regardless of whether the rhetoric is subsequently betrayed and discarded in the actual legislative process, which Democrats’ MSNBC-addled base doesn’t seem to care about in the red-versus-blue partisan wars.
The cynical formula crescendoed in the presidency of Barack Obama, who campaigned in climate poetry and then governed in fossil fuel prose.
When Obama won the 2008 election, liberals lauded him for declaring: “Now is the time to confront this challenge once and for all. Delay is no longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.”
Little noticed was the concurrent Obama-Biden pledge to “promote the responsible domestic production of oil and natural gas,” “prioritize the construction of the Alaska natural gas pipeline,” and extract “up to 85bn barrels of technically recoverable oil [that] remains stranded in existing fields”.
And so four years after that campaign, Obama delivered a speech in Cushing, Oklahoma, which perfectly summarized his actual legacy – and which future post-apocalypse historians (if any survive) will likely see as one of the pivotal moments in the cataclysm:
“Under my administration, America is producing more oil today than at any time in the last eight years,” he said in a speech promising to increase pipeline capacity to flood the world with even more fossil fuels.
“Over the last three years, I’ve directed my administration to open up millions of acres for gas and oil exploration across 23 different states. We’re opening up more than 75% of our potential oil resources offshore. We’ve quadrupled the number of operating rigs to a record high. We’ve added enough new oil and gas pipeline to encircle the Earth and then some. So we are drilling all over the place – right now.”
You can try to tout Obama’s support for stuff like the Paris accords and electric vehicles, but his own boasts illustrate a record of climate denialism, as did Obama’s 2018 declaration one month after an IPCC sounded an alarm. Amid the worsening emergency, he told a Texas audience that “suddenly America is like, the biggest oil producer. That was me, people … just say, ‘Thank you,’ please.”
The self-congratulation came only two years after Obama tweeted: “Climate change is happening now. Denial is dangerous.” And in that contrast, we see the fundamental formula at work.
Obama, like so many politicians, seems to believe that regardless of what’s happening in the physical world, he and his fellow elites can just tweet, Instagram influence, and speechify their way through it, and nobody will care.
But this isn’t merely a sleight of hand. There’s also an ideology here – or, more accurately, a sociopathy. Obama’s presidency was an eight-year quest to secure the vaunted “pragmatic” label from corporate media’s bipartisanship fetishists, no matter the human cost of that pursuit.
From the all-too-small stimulus, to the watered-down Wall Street reform bill, to the Heritage Foundation-originated healthcare legislation to the push for social security cuts to the approval of toxic chemicals to the Oklahoma speech’s embrace of drill-baby-drill, most major Obama initiatives represented an attempt to appease the right and punch a left.
The Obama administration’s top-line goal was to prove to Washington pundits and corporate donors that the Democratic party will always prioritize compromise – even when it means compromising the lifespans of millions of people.
All of this was enabled and fortified by Democrats who enjoyed giant majorities in Congress – and yet did nothing to change the dynamic. On climate in particular, that was most obvious: the Democratic House did pass a cap-and-trade bill, but Obama abandoned it in yet another effort to reach out to Republicans, and therefore it went nowhere in the Democratic Senate.
Obama and congressional Democrats then helped the Republican party lift the crude oil export ban, and Democrats’ support for natural gas was so aggressive, one oil and gas law firm said it was a “case of policy continuity from Obama to Trump”.
The good news: a line in the sand (maybe)
Joe Biden, congressional Democrats and Democratic primary voters were not innocent bystanders in all this. Biden was the vice-president and had his name on the original initiatives to flood the world market with US fossil fuels during the climate crisis. Primary voters rewarded him with the presidential nomination as he was lauded by the fossil fuel industry for campaigning against a fracking ban – just as those same voters continue rejecting progressive climate candidates in favor of corporate-friendly incrementalists.
Colorado’s 2020 Senate primary was the iconic example of that trend: a reliably blue state’s Democratic electorate obediently followed orders from party leaders in Washington and gave its US Senate nomination to one of America’s most ardently pro-fossil-fuel politicians – all while the local media and political class scoffed at his progressive primary opponent for airing an ad rightly predicting that climate change would prevent Coloradans from safely going outside.
That past was a prelude to the last few months, which have seen Biden begin to pull an Obama.
On the stump, he’s offered climate poetry, telling America that climate is the “No 1 issue facing humanity” and done photo-ops driving an electric truck. And like Obama, he’s breaking all sorts of campaign promises and governing in fossil fuel prose, increasing drilling to George W Bush levels, backing Trump-era fossil fuel projects, touting auto-emission rules weaker than Obama’s, deploying his energy secretary to promise a bright future for the fossil fuel industry.
Now, Biden is championing a bipartisan infrastructure bill that omits major climate initiatives – and that legislation is moving through a Congress whose most powerful Senate Democrat profits off the coal business, and whose most powerful House Democrat laughed at the “green dream or whatever“. It doesn’t help that the party is run by a gerontocracy that can laugh off the emergency, knowing they won’t be around to suffer through the worst consequences of its climate compromises and capitulations.
Clearly, if nothing fundamentally changes in our politics and for the donor class that is disproportionately driving the climate crisis, then everything in our natural world is going to change for the worse, with ecocidal consequences on a scale that our species has never experienced, and might not survive.
Thankfully, that reality seems to finally be seeping into the consciousness of at least a handful of lawmakers – and even more thankfully, the narrowly divided congressional chambers mean only a small group of legislators are needed to actually alter the legislative dynamics.
In recent weeks, progressive lawmakers from Representative Mondaire Jones, a Democrat from New York, to Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat from Massachusetts, have promoted a simple mantra: “No Climate, No Deal.” The idea is that they will vote down any bipartisan infrastructure bill until it is coupled with legislation that could be the last chance to mobilize the country for the epic battle against climate change, before Republicans win back Congress.
This ultimatum is required in order to prevent Biden, Republicans and corporate Democrats from doing what they clearly want to do: simply pass an infrastructure bill that props up the fossil fuel industry with subsidies and road infrastructure, and then leave for vacation without any new climate initiatives as the world incinerates.
Until now, progressive lawmakers have made a lot of noise and a lot of sententious declarations about the need for bold action and fearlessness – and then they’ve refused to follow up that sound with the fury of withheld votes. Most notably, they did not withhold their votes on the Covid relief bill in order to force the inclusion of a $15 minimum wage – and now that much-promised initiative has been surgically erased from the discourse, like the memory of an old flame in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
So, yeah, it’s fair to remain circumspect that these Democratic lawmakers would actually follow through on their new ultimatum, for fear of being labeled seditious traitors to the party – which is now considered the highest form of treason in American politics. Such skepticism is especially warranted since these legislators have not made clear what they consider “climate” and exactly what they are demanding for a deal.
Then again, what ultimately constitutes “climate” in any agreement may be somewhat vague, but it’s kind of like the obscenity standard – you know it when you see it. Plus, Democratic lawmakers even threatening to act as a climate voting bloc is already providing far more pressure on Biden than Obama ever faced from his own party when he was bragging about his unrelenting support for the fossil fuel industry. And that pressure has at least produced an initial reconciliation proposal that is somewhat serious. So that’s something.
As the IPCC report suggests, whether or not these Democrats follow through and force a climate confrontation in Congress – and whether or not their own constituents demand they hold out – could be the difference between a livable planet and a hellscape.
It’s the difference between Democrats in 10 years bragging, “That was me, people!” about rescuing the world from disaster, or hunkering down at their Martha’s Vineyard compounds after they’ve laid waste to the planet.
David Sirota is a Guardian US columnist and an award-winning investigative journalist. He is an editor at large at Jacobin and the founder of the Daily Poster. He served as Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign speechwriter
This piece was originally published in the Daily Poster