We read an opinion piece in The New York Times the other day entitled “The Democratic Party Is Trying to Downplay Climate Change. Don’t Let It.” What we have seen, in these early days of the Democratic race for the 2020 presidential nomination, consists in part of candidates vying to see who will pledge to spend the most to fight climate change, with a buy-in at $1 trillion. The opinion piece is by Justin Gillis, a former Times editor and environmental reporter, who thinks that is not enough and what is needed is more talk.
Thursday was the deadline for 20 candidates to qualify for the first Democratic presidential debates, which will be held June 26 and 27. Because Democratic bigwigs refused to hold a debate just about climate change, the party “really believes it is going to get away with running another round of presidential primaries in which the climate crisis is ... hidden in the attic,” Gillis writes.
Yet 20 candidates each touting his or her climate change proposals will be essentially cosmetic. Surely we are past the point of putting a Band-Aid on the threats posed by rising temperatures, melting sea ice and the loss of biodiversity? But also: Who can believe the climate crisis is being hidden in an attic? We have already talked about it so much without really doing anything that the discussion itself could be a source of significant emissions. And with such a crowded field, what we are likely to get are candidates clamoring to be noticed. “When the cameras are on you, you have to find a way to stand out,” Paul Waldman wrote in The Washington Post. “And reasoned, careful argumentation is probably not going to be it.”
“Democratic fecklessness on the subject of climate change is nothing new,” Gillis contends. “President Barack Obama, in his first two years, put a lot of sweat into getting a health care bill, and got one; he put less energy into getting a climate bill, and failed for lack of a handful of votes in the Senate. He turned back to climate in his second term, but at that point he was dealing with a Republican Congress and could only adopt weak administrative measures.”
Obama did not do much to address climate change between 2008 and 2016, Gillis believes, because he was busy, it was not a priority and Republicans would not let him. This is probably a fair assessment, but it is also worth considering that until very recently, fighting climate change was almost no one’s priority, especially when we were considering how to address growing wealth inequality without destroying capitalism and markets, and also how to make health care accessible and affordable without crushing the massive health care sector of the economy.
“Climate is not an ‘issue’ – it’s the backdrop for all other issues,” critic of capitalism Naomi Klein tweeted recently.
Climate change is a meta-issue because the poor could become poorer and sick while the rich get richer well into the 2040s without creating an existential crisis – but if life on Earth ends by 2030 in a series of droughts and tsunamis, it will not matter whether we have achieved Medicare for all. Yet if we subordinate reforming health care to addressing climate change, there is a good chance we will do neither.
This setting of catastrophe priorities is a tricky business, but there is some relief.
We are talking about how we will talk about climate change, which is not at all the same as talking about solutions such as nuclear power, taxing carbon or energy storage. To address climate change politically, the Democrats just need to find a candidate who will take it more seriously than Obama did and President Trump does. That should not be hard. You pretty much could choose a name from a hat. Winning the general election and mobilizing Congress, the nation and the world to do something, quickly, is another matter.