Joe Biden’s Climate Policies Are a Step Back From “Death Wish.” But We Need More Than That.

Kate Aronoff

So far the Biden administration's stated climate policies have shifted the US government from a stance of death-wish climate nihilism to one that resembles a typical center-right European government. But without a sharp move to the left on the economic aspects of climate transition, even that much progress won't materialize.

Joe Biden speaks during a campaign kickoff rally on May 18, 2019 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Drew Angerer / Getty Images)

Interview by
Luke Savage

On January 21, Joe Biden issued an executive order recommitting the United States to the Paris climate agreement and rescinding the construction permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, moves that have been heralded throughout the media as the beginning of a new era for climate policy in the United States. But what are the real prospects for the transformative policies actually needed to combat climate change in the years ahead? What will Biden’s much-touted green jobs initiative do in practice? And how has the fossil fuel industry responded to Biden’s early moves?

The New Republic’s Kate Aronoff is coauthor of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, coeditor of We Own the Future: Democratic Socialism — American Style, and author of the forthcoming Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — and How We Fight Back. Jacobin spoke to Aronoff about Biden’s stimulus, his executive orders — and the broader landscape of climate policy in the Biden era.

Luke Savage

Let’s begin with the new administration. When it comes to things like Biden’s stimulus plan and some of his executive orders, there’s certainly an emerging narrative that the administration intends to be unusually progressive. On the environment, I think that’s largely been the case as well, with stuff like Biden’s decision to revoke a cross-border permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline fueling the idea that a very sharp turn is underway vis-à-vis environmental policy.

For example, a recent headline at CNN reads: “From Keystone XL to Paris Agreement, Joe Biden signals a shift away from fossil fuels,” and the accompanying article’s lede says: “America’s energy policy is getting an extreme makeover.” What’s your assessment of all this? To what extent is the administration pursuing a genuinely progressive course on climate policy?

Kate Aronoff

It’s a big question, and I have mixed feelings because, on the one hand, Biden is doing things that are more ambitious than any US president to date. The big tagline of the administration on climate has been that it’s a whole-of-government approach. So, for example, you have people like Janet Yellen talking about climate in her confirmation hearing to be treasury secretary. Tony Blinken talked about it for [secretary of] state. Even Lloyd Austin for the Department of Defense did so. So that’s good. I have no objection to the idea of climate being something that is considered across agencies and is integrated deeply into every function of government. It’s good that’s happening, and it also speaks to just how strong the climate movement has been since the Obama administration.

You have groups like the Sunrise Movement who have been pushing on the Green New Deal, but also struggles against things like the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines, which were led by indigenous folks who are in the crosshairs of those projects. That creates a very different context than 2008. If Biden were some benevolent dictator, I suspect he’d very much want things to be not too different from 2008. But the conditions have changed to the point that the baseline of what he’s doing is much more ambitious on climate than what Obama was doing.

And I think that’s true to a certain extent for other policy fields, too. The appointments are better than they were under Obama. We don’t have at least one part of Wall Street in the administration, though of course, BlackRock is there. So I think that’s good news, and I think climate is a little bit unique in that it’s one area where you can see movements are really making a difference in terms of what the early signals about what’s happening suggest: the executive action re-canceling Keystone (it was canceled before), for example; this is going back to some sort of business-as-usual stuff. That’s all good.

I think we’re in a bit of a honeymoon period, though, and I’m hesitant to give Joe Biden credit for saying he’s going to do some things that will be very hard to do, and which I think will really cut against his overriding political instinct for bipartisanship and to the pursuit of compromise, by any means necessary. There are some good signals that he’s not totally going in that direction, some places where the administration is willing to go up against Republicans and push for a bigger stimulus. But the fact of the matter is that dealing with climate change is a project which is not only very frightening for the Republican Party but also large segments of capital and fossil fuel companies in particular.

So I think we’ve seen in rhetoric so far Biden getting to a place that’s the equivalent of maybe a center-right European country. Which from the perspective of the United States is something we might call progressive, but in the grand scheme of things is pretty underwhelming considering the scale of what needs to happen. So I’m glad that we have an administration which is basically a competent, center-right European government — but in a sense, not even, because we have a state administrative capacity which does not resemble something like Germany’s and is much less able to deliver on the sort of technocratic approach which Biden seems friendly to.

It’s nice that we’re no longer under the Trump administration obviously, and that there’s more ambition than there has been before, but, again, I’m hesitant to call it progressive. Because I think the way the climate politics have been so partisan in the US sort of makes it seem like anything that’s ambitious on climate or is even looking to deal with the problem at all is leftist or progressive and that the bigger the response is the more progressive it is. And I don’t think that’s necessarily true. You can have a whole range of climate policies, which are big things like the procurement order, which is potentially a big deal if the US government really does sub out its entire fleet for electric vehicles that’s a big policy, but it’s not a left policy, and in areas like this I don’t think the left/right dichotomy is all that helpful.

So, the short answer is that the US has caught up in many ways to some very boring governments who are doing things about climate change around the world. And there’s still a huge gap between what’s been promised and what needs to happen — which is changing out the entire energy basis of the economy and in particular fossil fuels. Maybe less so than in the Obama administration, but the issue of constraining the supply of fossil fuels or confronting the fossil fuel industry in particular is still sort of a third rail. So we still see an approach which emphasizes stuff like, “we’re going to build a lot of renewables,” “we’re going to manufacture cars and batteries.” It’s good stuff to be happening, but at the end of the day we know that when you bring new clean sources of power onto the grid, it’s additive, and there’s nothing that makes it automatically replace fossil fuels — certainly not at the speed and scale that we need.

Even things like this order out of the gate to ban new leasing for drilling on federal lands (with some notable exceptions) — that covers roughly 25 percent of all drilling. Seventy-five percent of drilling happens on private land. It’s a little bit harder to get at that, but there certainly are ways if the Biden administration were interested in that. So, questions like that remain: What sorts of new rules are we going to see around stuff like methane, drilling, and also exports. Because we can green the US economy but also continue to export a ton of fossil fields abroad.

Luke Savage

The centerpiece of Biden’s climate policy is the green element of his so-called “Build Back Better” jobs and infrastructure plan. Facing significant activist pressure, Biden did include an environmental dimension in the program as originally written — which is something the Democrats conspicuously failed to do the last time they had unified control of the federal government. But as you’ve written, the plan may actually end up increasing fossil fuel demand. Why is that? What are the dynamics at play here?

Kate Aronoff

There are a couple of reasons. The biggest is that any recovery plan is going to try to boost GDP, which is what recovery plans do: you want to get the economy growing again and to boost consumer demand, and so that will grow GDP and that will boost fossil fuels. That link has not been severed. So when you read oil and gas industry trade publications, for instance, they’re excited about a stimulus because transportation has been basically shut down for the last year. When people are flying again and they’re driving to work and school, you’re going to see demand grow for fossil fuels. Some of that, I would argue, is kind of unavoidable. We’re not going to see a totally green recovery. Even the greenest ecosocialist recovery you could design is still a recovery — and, in the context of fossil-fueled capitalism, it will boost demand for fossil fuels because we haven’t decarbonized.

The other reason is that, so long as there are still all of the tax breaks in place, all of the bailouts that were delivered to the fossil fuel industry, things like the bond buying program the Fed set up, capitalism is just very weighted toward fossil fuels. As long as it’s the case that a stimulus or recovery measure is looking to generally improve the economy without taking that on, it will be a big gain to fossil fuels just because of our tax law. If you don’t really tackle that, I don’t think tax credits for green things or even good public investments in infrastructure — those don’t outcompete that necessarily.

It’s good that Biden is talking about climate as a jobs program. I think it’s a big improvement on 2008 that the two are being talked about together, but there’s a lot that needs to be done in a recovery to make sure that it doesn’t just fuel business as usual with some green initiatives tacked on.

Luke Savage

So, on a rhetorical level at least, Biden’s plan embraces at least a part of the basic conceptual framework on climate policy championed by the Left: i.e., it links jobs and environment together. Given the limitations you just mentioned though, what — in the broadest terms anyway — would a better plan informed by the same basic idea look like? What’s the ecosocialist version?

Kate Aronoff

One part of it would just be to pay a lot more attention to the question of fossil fuel jobs. I think the problem with having a “build back better” approach which emphasizes all of the good stuff you’re going to build in clean energy is that it isn’t really speaking to folks who do work in the fossil fuel industry. Or, for example, the teachers in a district whose tax base relies on coal and relies on oil. Without real attention to the really deep ways the fossil fuel economy structures life for many people . . . it’s just not a satisfying answer to say, “we’re going to build a wind turbine factory in Ohio” if you’re a coal miner in West Virginia or an oil worker or, for that matter, a housekeeper in Midland, Texas.

There are whole regional economies that are really deeply bound up in fossil fuels. We can’t neglect the question of fossil fuel supply or the fact that these industries have been shedding jobs for the last year. I mean, the oil and gas industry lost 107,000 jobs. Every oil major has laid off if not tens of thousands then at least many thousands of people during the downturn. The traditional Democratic response to that has been to talk about piecemeal transition programs — the classic one being that we’re going to teach miners how to code. I think if we’re really serious and we want it to both have a really great recovery and set up any sort of climate legislation for real success, we have to pursue some sort of full employment agenda. A federal jobs guarantee is a policy which has been pretty mainstream in the Democratic Party at different points in history (at least full employment: the idea of a jobs guarantee — making the federal government the employer of last resort — comes in part out of the social democratic tradition and the Civil Rights Movement).

I just don’t see a way to deal with the problem of getting off of fossil fuels if you don’t actively create some sort of public option for employment and expand health care Medicare for All — and build out safety nets, because I don’t think there’s a way to sort of target those programs: a program for a just transition to West Virginia or the Permian Basin or North Dakota or Alaska…there needs to be a universal way to make sure these folks were okay, and full employment is a big part of that. There’s just a lot of work to do, right? Plugging abandoned mines that are spewing methane out into the atmosphere and polluting local communities, for example — that can happen in the places where people already live, rather than them having to move. Reclaiming abandoned mine sites, for example, could be a huge source of employment in West Virginia and it’s currently not really happening there. All sorts of stuff needs to be done, and I think full employment is not a radical demand by any means. It’s a pretty liberal idea in some sense. In any case, there needs to be some sort of jobs guarantee in order to make people whole.

Luke Savage

Something that’s received considerably less attention than Biden’s domestic climate spending pledges is the foreign policy dimension of climate change. If people are thinking anything at all about the intersection between the two, they’re probably thinking about Biden’s executive order rejoining the Paris Climate Accord. But there’s a whole lot that’s probably more relevant when it comes to how Biden’s geo-political posture will impact global efforts to combat climate change. What’s your initial impression of Biden’s foreign policy as it relates to these efforts?

Kate Aronoff

Like you said, I think when people think about climate change in foreign policy the only thing that comes to mind for many is the Paris agreement and maybe the UN. And that’s just such a small part of what climate policy actually is. Climate policy is foreign policy and it’s not super complicated: we all live on the same planet. Carbon doesn’t care about borders. It really is an international problem that demands an internationalist solution. There’s this interesting thing happening with the Biden administration where John Kerry — who I disagree with on many, many things — he is, relative to Biden’s foreign policy team, a lot less hawkish than people like Tony Blinken and “the blob.”

So it’s good there’s someone who is not egging on a cold war with China, which is incompatible with any sort of climate action. But I think it’s worrying for that to be a minority view in the national security establishment. If we’re heading into some ginned-up conflict with China in particular, collaboration on climate becomes impossible and, in no uncertain terms, we’re fucked. A precursor even to the Paris agreement was Obama opening up relations with China on climate, so that obviously has to happen again. There’s just a foreign policy establishment and an administration that’s extremely hawkish on these questions.

I think the US-China relationship is extremely important on climate, but I would also be pretty surprised if the administration calls for widespread debt relief across the global south or for the sorts of things that I think are prerequisites for having a productive conversation about climate policy on the world stage. I think it’s really bad optics to have John Kerry riding around on a private jet and telling countries like Indonesia or Nigeria that they can’t burn coal or oil. I think in order to have any good faith engagement on climate on the world stage, there needs to be a much broader conversation about what US responsibilities are on climate, which are massive.

We have the capacity to transition very quickly in our own borders and also to make that possible in other places. I’m excited to see some kind of conversation about climate reparations and also the US taking a much more active role in institutions like the IMF and World Bank in a push for debt relief and other measures that will make it possible for the rest of the world to transition.

Luke Savage

You have a book coming out in April called Overheated: How Capitalism Broke the Planet — and How We Fight Back. It’s obviously a pretty big question, but for those who haven’t been following the book, what’s its basic thrust?

Kate Aronoff

The basic argument of the book is that when climate politics comes into popular consciousness in the United States — in 1988, when James Hanson gives his testimony on global warming to the Senate — that happens at the zenith of neoliberalism. That happens at this moment where the most reasonable solutions for dealing with this crisis have been taken off the table by neoliberalism but also centuries of anti-democratic thinking in the United States and a long-standing push for minority rule across the right, which bleeds into the Democratic Party. 

The book tries to look at just how badly we’ve been set up to deal with this problem. But, then also what are the solutions for this problem that can be put back on the table? Things like nationalizing the fossil fuel industry, bringing utilities under public ownership, a jobs guarantee, climate reparations, and a four-day workweek. So it will also be looking at the big, macro solutions we need to address climate change.