Looking ahead to the next eight years of climate change action: possibilities and a poll

Now that Biden has defeated Trump, what are the options for climate change activism?

With those post I’d like to poll you all, dear readers, getting a sense of your thinking while crowdsourcing some futures awareness.

To explain:

President-elect Biden appears to be a climate ally, at least based on his statements and his campaign’s publications since winning the Democratic party nomination. If he actually seeks to govern along those lines, he does have some capacity for change. A Biden administration can replace Trump appointees in federal offices, and fill vacancies. Biden can also issue executive actions, starting with returning the United States to the Paris accord and including blocking oil drilling on federal lands. Those might be especially needed if Trump does more damage over the next two months.

However, things that will cost a lot of money — say, massive support for an alternative energy build-out, renovating vast numbers of buildings, or launching a Manhattan Project to built CO2 sequestering devices at scale — will likely run into a GOP Senate and get seriously cut back or stopped cold. McConnell has clearly shown a willingness to do everything he can to stop Democratic administrations’ projects. Now, this is somewhat uncertain, since several Senate races are still being fought. It’s possible that the Senate will be tied 50–50, which can be broken by vice president Harris, or even that the Democrats will eke out a 51–49 majority. If either of those occurs, and if the Democrats can maintain serious party discipline, then there is much more scope for climate change action over the next two years. If not, then Biden will be seriously hampered.

Additionally, a hostile Senate can block some foreign policy initiatives for climate change, based on their treaty role. I’m not sure if anything Biden will attempt will actually involve treaty negotiation, but it is one tool in the toolbox.

Beyond the legislative and executive branches, new climate change plans could run into opposition from the judicial, which is now stuffed with four years of Trump appointees. Legal challenges could stall any number of efforts.

At a different level, it’s unclear what the election reveals about America’s appetite for national climate change action. Exit polls, not the most reliable measure, especially in a season where polls seem to have performed badly, are all over the map. Some see Biden taking office with a popular mandate to act on climate change. If that’s true, and a Biden administration agrees, this could lead to more ambitious actions. On the other hand, Republicans had a very strong electoral showing, gaining in the House of Representatives, holding statehouses, and turning out in immense numbers for Trump. Voters have other issues in mind in addition to climate change. Biden could decide to proceed cautiously, testing the waters.

Younger voters tend to be more exercised about climate change than their seniors. To some extent they powered Biden’s win. Are they a constituency that the incoming administration will want to court or work with? Or will politicians set them aside, based on the conventional wisdom that young folks rarely vote and donate little?

There are other reasons for Biden to not go full green on climate change. Throughout 2019 and 2020 he stolidly refused the Green New Deal, even while gradually picking up parts of it. He has a series of other priorities (COVID-19, police reform, rebuilding American foreign policy, a terrible economy) that can soak up precious time and political capital. Biden also drew on many wealthy people for support, including lavish donations, and a good number of them might pump the breaks on major climate action.

Beyond the Biden team, what possibilities are out there for people who want serious climate change action over the next 4–8 years? The history of climate change activism shows a wide range of domains for activism, from international organizing to lobbying companies, trying to change culture and targeting localities.

I’m curious about your thoughts as to what’s most likely to be followed, so am offering this poll. The choices will appear first, followed by explications of each point.

How will climate activism proceed after Biden’s election? Pick as many as you see will likely occur.

A) Organize to win climate majorities in Congress and statehouses in 2022 and 2024, starting now. Call it the vision of a blue-green sweep.

B) Call for a new federal governmental entity to focus on the problem, such as a cabinet-level Department of Climate Change (credit to Allison Crimmins).

C) Go for the grass roots. This could take the form of a national campaign at the county/city level, getting those administrative units and populations to take steps from behavior change to implementing policies and laws. This could then build up to the state government level. One American model to draw on for massive change is the years-long rise of Prohibition (not for its content or outcome, but the process of sustained, multilevel policy transformation).

D) Go global. Work with other nations to build a planetary coalition which can inspire, outflank, or drag the US along.

E) Get corporations on the climate change mitigation side. Convince capital that climate disaster will damage them badly, starting now, so they need to take serious steps: resourcing their electrical power, transforming their buildings, ending oil extraction, etc.

F) Force corporations to become climate change allies. Build some kind of combined political pressure/grassroots group to compel businesses to change.

G) Get creative culturally. Create trendy ways to participate in climate change mitigation. Make green cool. This could even take the form of a climate change spirituality or religion, 21st century style, some mix of New Age, Goop, Eat/Prey/Love, and Instagram. It might also or instead involve current religions — the pope might be an ally.

H) Direct action. If one sees climate change as about to bring about immense death and destruction, a war footing is not unreasonable. We could see direction action attacks on property, such as sabotaging coal plants or oil pipelines. It could involve threatening, kidnapping, or assassinating key figures, such as oil company executives or anti-climate politicians. This could draw on decades of environmental activism, from monkeywrenching to Earth First!

I) Campaign for public geoengineering projects to mitigate climate change, such as lofting aerosol particles to increase Earth’s reflectivity. This could be attempted by one nation or a group of them.

J) Like I, but with non-governmental support. Campaign for private geoengineering efforts. Imagine a company or visionary plutocrat investing in such a massive project.

K) Other. The comment box stands ready for you.

The poll should allow for multiple answers, if you see two or more simultaneous paths forward.

Thank you for your participation!

(cross-posted to my blog)