Climate change and the 2020 presidential campaign

Climate change and the 2020 presidential campaign

Economy versus environment, redux

Christian Hunold, Professor, Department of Politics, Drexel University, Philadephia, USA

Nearly two decades ago, we observed in Green States and Social Movements that ecological modernization is resisted in the USA, where policy discourse features an old-fashioned stand-off between economy and environment. We speculated, moreover, that linking environmental concerns to national security (e.g., energy independence) might perhaps offer a way forward for modest ecological modernization in America. Well, the United States has since achieved energy independence – through the aggressive development of domestic oil and gas resources, no ecological modernization required! Observers of the 2020 US presidential campaign might be forgiven for thinking that the old stand-off between economy and environment appears as entrenched as ever. To the consternation of environmental activists, the proponents of an extractive and service industry-based economy unburdened by environmental regulations have gradually gained the upper hand in the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government. Protective environmental policy appears to be in full retreat. The Trump administration has reinvigorated the longstanding Republican assault on the regulatory «green state» established in the 1970s. The «lords of yesterday» have strengthened their grip on public lands management favoring economic development. More broadly, climate change skepticism, first pushed by fossil fuel industry lobbyists (and Fox News), has metastasized to become one of the more reliable predictors of partisan identification in American politics, keeping company with deeply polarized beliefs about the scope of reproductive freedom and the existence of systemic racism.

That said, many Americans, particularly urban Americans and younger people, are concerned about climate change. As elsewhere, climate protests led by youth organizations like Sunrise Movement and school strikes inspired by Fridays for Future swept across the United States in the late 2010s. Before COVID-19 usurped the rest of the year’s news cycle, Greta Thunberg eclipsed media superstars like Kim Kardashian. U.S. colleges and universities control some $600 billion in investments, and student-led campaigns to persuade colleges and universities to divest those funds from fossils fuels are gaining momentum. At my own university, student campaigners for a Fossil Free Drexel are meeting with the university’s investment managers in late October to discuss the future of Drexel’s endowment, a development that would have been unimaginable just a few years ago.

Resurgent environmental activism, along with more violent hurricanes and longer wildfire seasons, have persuaded progressives in the Democratic Party to campaign for a Green New Deal that seeks to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions within a decade by fundamentally reimagining the traditional stand-off between economy and environment that has defined debates in US environmental politics and policy for half a century. The party’s moderate presidential candidate, Joe Biden, has endorsed a less ambitious plan of his own that is calculated to attract the «support of young, left-leaning activists who view climate change as an existential threat while aiming not to alienate moderate voters and labor unions in swing states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio who rely on oil and gas drilling.» The Biden campaign acknowledges the seriousness of the challenge of climate change, and contends that the environment and the economy «are completely and totally connected». However, Biden has made it clear he does not support the Green New Deal’s vision of achieving carbon neutrality in 10 years: «When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‹jobs›.» To Biden’s credit, this includes jobs in renewable energy industries.

Biden’s tip-toeing up to a modest ecologically modernist agenda nevertheless provides a stark contrast to the Republican Party’s empathic support for an anti-environmentalist economic development agenda. President Trump’s crude mockery of environmentalist concerns arguably obscures the inconvenient truth that extractive industries have experienced a decade-long boom – until the arrival of COVID-19 collapsed demand for oil and natural gas, at any rate. Besides agriculture and tourism, extraction is the only game in town across vast swaths of the American West, its boom-and-bust cycles not widely perceived to be a countervailing argument to natural resources development. Rather, environmental activists’ talk of green jobs is dismissed as pure fantasy, if not an outright attack on American values. In rural America, persistent drought and rampant wildfires continue to figure as regrettable incidents beyond human influence, framings that are reinforced in the conservative political and media sphere. For better or worse, the Democratic Party’s continued evolution into a nearly exclusively urban political party, along with the US political system’s overrepresentation of rural areas amplifies, the political influence of fossil fuel and extractive industries and that of the Republican Party, at the national level.

One week ahead of the 2020 election, Donald Trump’s odds of obtaining an Electoral College majority are well below 20%. These odds are worse than in 2016, but they are not insurmountable. Moreover, with the US Supreme Court about to enter a presumably decades-long period of a 6-3 deregulatory majority, few if any Green New Deal proposals – even if they were to find sufficient support in the Democratic Party – would survive constitutional scrutiny, provided a future Democratic president and congress were somehow to succeed in enacting them into law. The prospects for decarbonizing the US economy via federal environmental regulations appear as dim as at any time since the 1970s, regardless of which party ends up in control of the White House and of Congress for the next four (or eight) years.

To the extent the 2020 presidential campaign is about policy issues at all – rather than a referendum on the incumbent’s irascible character and norm-defying personal conduct – the government’s (mis)handling of the COVID-19 epidemic, economic recovery, racial injustice, and possibly healthcare predominate to the exclusion of most other concerns. Industries will surely continue to invest in green energy and other non-fossil fuel technologies to the extent they believe that doing so serves their bottom line. Walmart and solar panels are not, in principle, incompatible. Public sector efforts at the state level, however, will be hobbled fiscally by the fallout of the COVID-19 recession for years to come. Progressive state and big city governments will continue to find ways to encourage private-sector investment in renewable energy technologies. However, and notwithstanding the peculiarities of COVID-19, the generally low profile of environmental issues in the 2020 presidential campaign would seem to confirm our 20-year-old diagnosis that there is little space in American national politics for environmental policy imaginaries beyond the traditional economy-environment stand-off. The Green New Deal attempts to change that, but it has thus far failed to resonate outside activist circles of the Democratic Party’s left wing.