As I revise Universities on Fire I have been mulling over one way of looking at the climate crisis in recent history and the near future. It’s a grim view, specifically of the United States, and yet I can’t shake it. Please help talk me out of it.
Fair warning: I’m writing this in a hurry, caught between competing deadlines, so it’ll be a short post without a ton of links or development.
Let’s start with the American partisan divide over the climate crisis. Roughly speaking the Republican party either doesn’t think it matters, or thinks it’ll happen but humans didn’t do it and the government should stay out of the issue, or considers it a conspiracy/scam. In contrast the Democratic party has been increasingly interested in viewing climate change as a dire threat and wanting to do something about it.
So when Americans elected Trump and gave both houses of Congress to the Republicans in 2016, we were set for a climate crisis retreat on the political side. (This is one reason I saw my friend Bill McKibben campaigning fiercely for Hillary Clinton that year.
) While civil society may have become more interested in the climate crisis, government was either stymied or retrograde. So that’s four years lost.
Then in 2020 the US elected Joe Biden. He pledged to treat the climate crisis as a leading threat. He proposed a series of programs and participated in the 2021 COP meeting. Yet all of that political energy ran into a political minefield. Many of those programs died in Congress, thanks to solid Republican opposition, plus being undermined by putative Democrats Manchin and Sinema. Meanwhile, Biden authorized more oil drilling.
Next, Putin attacked Ukraine and it looks like Biden’s political calculus changed. The American president responded to that new war by (among other things) calling for increased fossil fuel production (LNG to Germany, expanded infrastructure, etc.) in order to help countries avoid buying Russian oil and gas. As for alternatives, global opinion seems to hold that renewables (primarily solar and wind, also hydro) are not capable of being scaled up to meet potential energy shortfalls. In short, for geopolitical reasons, the White House led the way in increasing fossil fuel production.
The political calculation has other components. As 2022 staggers on, some polls indicate that climate change is not a leading issue for most Americans now. Perhaps in response to such assessments, Biden and some other Democrats have stopped talking about climate change as much as they used to. The topic barely appeared in the 2022 State of the Union.
This brings my grim story to the rest of 2022. Looking ahead, I see little chance of relief.
The consensus seems to be that the GOP will attain a Senate majority in November’s Congressional elections, and also make gains in the House, perhaps enough for a majority. This would block any major climate initiatives from Biden in 2023-2024, assuming he attempts any, given the GOP’s militant and well organized opposition to anything along these lines.
Which brings us to 2024 and eight years of next to no American governmental progress on the climate emergency. That’s almost a decade, lost. Is the US really responding this badly to what is arguably the biggest 21st century crisis?
Looking further ahead, what are the odds of the Democratic party returning to a climate focus, winning the presidency in 2024, and also getting back majorities in both houses?
Please help me see a way out of this. Tell me Biden will use his extensive federal experience to whip up some powerful executive orders which will actually get done, running past Republican judges. Make a case that the states making up the majority of American economic power are going to take more action on the issue. Perhaps you see a climate disaster occurring which will sap Republican opposition to climate mitigation and adaption policies. Or something.
Otherwise I’m staring at stuck with the title of a cruel yet fair documentary from a decade ago, which describes our era as The Age of Stupid. That described the world; for now, in this post, I’m just focused on the United States.
Are we really ending up being such lousy ancestors?