We Can’t Tackle the Climate Crisis Without a Strong US Left

Thea Riofrancos

After all the disruptions of the past year, the threat of ecological breakdown still hangs over us. The US left is in a stronger position than it’s known for decades: now it needs to strengthen its internationalism and mobilize for effective climate action.

Organized by the Sunrise Movement, hundreds of young climate activists march to the White House in Washington, DC to demand that President Joe Biden work to make the Green New Deal into law on June 28, 2021. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images)

Interview by
Daniel Finn

COVID-19 has dominated world politics for the last year, but the burgeoning climate crisis still casts a long shadow over the coming decades. What have we learned from the experience of the pandemic, and what are the prospects for real action to address the threat of ecological breakdown?

Bernie Sanders may have been defeated in the Democratic primaries, but the US left is still in a stronger position than it has known for many years. Protests for climate justice and against racism have mobilized huge numbers of people. Left activists need to build on those achievements, strengthen their internationalist perspective, and learn from the experience of movements in the Global South.

In a recent episode of Jacobin’s Long Reads podcast, Daniel Finn spoke with political science professor and author Thea Riofrancos about the pandemic, the climate crisis, and the future of the US left.

Daniel Finn

There was a fairly widespread idea when the pandemic began that it might contain a silver lining for the climate crisis, leading to a fall in carbon emissions. What has the experience of the last year actually shown us?

Thea Riofrancos

You’re making me think of that meme that went viral in the early days of the pandemic: “Nature is healing.” There was an idea that with humans restricting their economic activity, nature was just going to heal, and all the problems of the climate crisis and the broader crisis of ecological devastation would be solved. But we’re seeing that that’s not the case, and there was never really a reason to think that it would be the case.

It is true that in 2020, there was a record drop in emissions of 7 percent. First of all, that drop was not nearly enough to get us anywhere on a path to climate safety. In addition, emissions went right back up as soon as economic activity resumed — which it did, as we now know, much too early in many parts of the world, with governments pressured by economic motives and other factors to undo restrictions that should have been in place for longer for public health reasons. At this point, it’s almost as if that that 7 percent drop never happened.

I think that gives us a sense that a lockdown is not a climate policy, first and foremost. I don’t think any climate scientist or activist has ever said that in order to deal with the climate crisis, we need to restrict people to their homes. That would not only be unscientific — it would also be an incredibly unpopular kind of climate policy. There’s no reason why we should have expected the lockdown to address the climate crisis. That’s not what it was meant to do. It was meant to address a public health crisis.

However, I think there are lessons to be learned about why emissions dropped so rapidly last year, albeit quite temporarily. We saw a tremendous reduction in global travel and aviation, and secondarily, we also saw a reduction in surface travel and commuting. It’s worth mentioning that aviation is an extremely unequal and affluence-skewed form of transportation. Very few people in the world fly at all, and of those people, very few do so regularly, so there’s a high correlation between class and flying. That’s interesting to keep in mind when we move forward and reevaluate our transit policies in the wake of the pandemic.

Basically, we had a reduction in travel and that was what reduced the emissions. We actually had increases in other forms of emissions, which shouldn’t be surprising. Those increases didn’t offset the reduction in travel, but with people at home more, there was greater usage of electricity, heating, and gas.

Daniel Finn

The Left in the US mobilized in recent years around Bernie Sanders, who put forward a plan for ecological transformation in the country that has been the world’s major source of carbon emissions. Before talking about the ultimate defeat of Sanders and his campaign, could you talk a little about the content of his ecological program? It may have been quite radical in terms of what came before in mainstream politics, but was it radical enough in terms of the objective scale of the crisis?

Thea Riofrancos

Bernie did have an ambitious climate plan — a Green New Deal policy, explicitly framed in those terms, that would have spent $16.3 trillion of public money to address head-on the crisis of global warming and other types of environmental devastation, in a way that would have uplifted ordinary people’s economic and material circumstances. You could absolutely say it wasn’t ambitious enough, because the climate crisis is very dire. It’s challenging to get policy to match the exact scale of the crisis. But having said that, his plan certainly was ambitious — more ambitious by far than any of the plans of the other primary candidates or any previous Democratic candidate.

Why was it so ambitious and multifaceted? I think that speaks to years of social mobilization around climate justice and environmental justice. More proximately, it speaks to a couple of years’ mobilizing for a Green New Deal prior to his campaign.

Milton Friedman had this phrase about ideas lying around for a moment of crisis, which is when governments implement them. Of course, he was talking about neoliberal ideas. But the Green New Deal was also an idea lying around. It was something that had previously been articulated by movements and heterodox policymakers. The resolution sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey in early 2019 had also given it some specific legislative form.

Sen. Markey and Rep. Ocasio-Cortez held a news conference to unveil their Green New Deal resolution. Alex Wong / Getty Images

There was a whole set of social mobilizations, led in particular by the Sunrise Movement, but with lots of other groups involved as well, pushing for this in quite a dramatic manner, occupying the offices of Nancy Pelosi and hounding other policymakers whenever they made public appearances, giving some Democratic candidates an “F” grade for their stance on fossil fuels. They were quite militant about the scale of the crisis and what governments needed to do. All of that happened prior to the primaries and then continued to unfold during the primaries.

Bernie was really responding to and absorbing a set of social movement and progressive policy ideas that already existed. I think that explains the scale and ambition of his climate policy. The ambition of his policy has had downstream effects, one of which was making Joe Biden’s policy when the general election commenced much, much better — not nearly good enough, but much better than it was when Biden was in the primary, or any previous time Biden had run, or when he was in the Obama administration.

Biden himself improved, compared to his low baseline, quite a bit on climate. I think that was a result of those movements and the pressure they brought, and also a result of Bernie putting forward the best plan of all the primary candidates.

Daniel Finn

What do you think the defeat of the American left that was mobilized around the Sanders campaign in the course of the 2020 primaries tells us about the prospects for the Green New Deal and other left-wing ecological programs?

Thea Riofrancos

I think it tells us that we are rarely going to fight for what we need, what we deserve, and what climate science tells us is absolutely necessary under conditions of our own choosing. We are not going to fight in circumstances where we have our best ally in the White House or where we have the most progressive caucus elected to Congress. We’re going to organize under conditions that are imperfect. One of those key imperfections right now is that we have a centrist instead of a self- identified democratic socialist in the White House, and most Democratic senators and representatives are really not with us, although a minority of them are.

But I don’t think the fact that conditions are imperfect should get us down too much because those imperfect conditions are themselves artefacts of history, and we are protagonists in history. We have actually shaped the current conditions to be better than they would have been if we had not fought to elect Bernie, if we had not organized the largest socialist movement in generations, the Democratic Socialists of America [DSA], or if we had not had the Sunrise Movement explode in terms of membership and political impact.

The fact that we don’t have everything that we want should not deter us. If our theory of power and change is that it is collective grassroots agency and leverage that forces policymakers, bosses, or landlords to do what we want, then we’re never going to be waiting around and expecting for the perfect person to be in power so that we can sit back.

Pressure from below is always going to be necessary. That would have been true with Bernie, too. It’s even more true with someone like Biden. But the climate crisis is not stopping while we figure out the perfect political conditions in the US. It demands that we act now.

The conditions are actually better than I expected, because I didn’t know that pressure from movements and Bernie’s role in the primary were going to shape the politics of the current administration and Congress as much as they have. We have a couple more socialists in Congress right now, which was not something I expected. We have Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman, in addition to the previous members of the “squad.”

Daniel Finn

It’s easy to forget, perhaps, after the events of the last year, but 2019 saw huge international mobilizations by predominantly young people around the climate crisis, coinciding with high-profile stories about the impact of climate change on places like Australia and California. What do you think the lasting impact of that wave of mobilization has been?

Thea Riofrancos

I want to add another mobilization to the list, something else that I would not have expected, especially earlier in the pandemic, which was the largest social-movement uprising that the US has ever seen in terms of sheer numbers and geographic spread — namely the uprising against police violence in the wake of George Floyd’s murder last summer. That’s roughly a year after the mobilizations you’re talking about, which were directly climate-related. I think both of these waves show us something.

We live in a thoroughly atomized society, where people suffer from severe political alienation. Many forms of collective power, especially unions, are at an all-time low in the US and elsewhere. However, despite those impediments to political mobilization and engagement, young people — and not just young people — are ready to come out on the streets when there is a clear injustice, something that directly affects them, like the climate crisis or police violence. When there’s also a generalized sentiment of economic and political discontent, with a lack of faith in institutions, we actually can get people to mobilize in great numbers.

The challenge though is how can we give those mobilizations a more enduring organizational vehicle that can continue to put pressure on policymakers or the ruling class in general. Sometimes those mobilizations are more planned, sometimes they’re more spontaneous, but they tend to be ephemeral and demarcated in time. I think that’s the challenge that the American left is facing right now.

There are all sorts of examples we could give of ways that people are getting organized. There’s been a big rise, for example, in tenants’ unions organizing. There’s been the rise in DSA and Sunrise that I already mentioned. Right now, in DSA, we are fighting alongside others in the labor and climate movements to pass a sweeping piece of labor legislation that would actually remove obstacles to people unionizing. If we could get more unions in existence, that would also be great for working-class political agency.

To sum up, what this teaches us is that uprisings of spontaneous outrage, with people filling the streets, using militant and direct tactics, are necessary — they help politicize masses of people very quickly — but the other piece of what we need is organization. We need enduring groups that can train people in leadership skills and mobilize them at other moments. We’re witnessing that dialectic between mobilization and organization and hoping to fill out, I think, the organization side a bit more.

Daniel Finn

If we talk about the environmental mobilizations of recent years in Europe and North America, whether that means the climate strikes or the party-political interventions from the Left, do you think there’s been enough attention paid to the international aspect of the climate crisis and especially what it means for countries in the Global South?

Thea Riofrancos

I think the answer is no, there has not been enough attention paid — I’d just say that point blank. There’s an interesting and slightly odd history to this that I haven’t fully gotten a handle on. Several years ago, there was actually much more attention paid to this aspect in the climate justice movement in the US, when that movement was in its infancy.

That movement self-identified more explicitly as part of a global climate justice movement, and it attended to questions of climate inequality, climate apartheid, or climate debt. It spoke about the climate reparations owed to the Global South and used language that was internationalist in its character. It understood that both the climate crisis and capitalism are planetary in scale, and we need to address both simultaneously.

The movement also understood that the frontlines of the climate crisis are everywhere in the world, of course, but particularly in the Global South. The people that are most vulnerable to the climate crisis are the ones least responsible for it, and who possess the least resources to survive it.

That basic analysis was much more common in the climate justice movement in the US several years ago than it seems to be now. I can’t quite account for why that is. I think it’s part of a longue durée history of the decline of internationalism in the United States, which is in part due to government repression of movements that were internationalist in character. But I think there are also other causes that are yet to be fully understood.

That being said, I try to emphasize this aspect in my own work, in events and writing and other forms of public output, because I don’t think it’s emphasized enough. One of the ways I like to put it is that there is no way to deal with the global climate crisis without dealing with, for example, the debt crisis. Countries and governments in the Global South are strapped economically into unsustainable and illegitimate levels of debt that give them very little fiscal room to maneuver or invest in climate resiliency and renewable energy — not to mention public health, as we’re seeing right now with the pandemic.

Those debt levels also often force those governments to make difficult choices and promote more short-term economic thinking. For example, they promote economic sectors such as resource extraction over ones that would be better for the environment as well as being more stable economically and socially. We have to make those connections between debt, climate, and global justice. We can’t just focus inwardly on the domestic scale.

Daniel Finn

It’s fairly common for climate activists in Europe and North America to stress the moral obligation that we owe to people in the Global South who will be at the sharp end of the climate crisis. But what do you think those activists should be learning themselves from climate movements in those countries?

Thea Riofrancos

I do think that oftentimes, when US-based activists think internationally, they think in that first direction. If they think internationally at all, they often think: “What does the Global North owe the Global South?” And they should think that way!

But there’s another side to that, which is what can the Global North learn from the Global South, in terms of everything from the political tactics of grassroots and popular movements to innovative policies on the part of left-wing governments at multiple scales of governance. That ranges from Kerala, a subnational state in India, to left-wing governments in Latin America that have experimented with lots of innovative social and economic policies. I think that bi-directionality is really important.

This is one of the things that I’ve learned in my own work, which has focused a lot on Latin America and specifically on the tense, often fraught politics of resource extraction in the context of left-wing governments. For the first decade and a half of this millennium, there was a commodity boom globally, which was pushing and incentivizing more extraction due to the high prices of oil, soy, beef, and minerals. At the same time, a bunch of new left-wing governments, from Chávez to Morales, Lula, Correa, Kirchner, and others, had gotten elected around the region.

This was a very interesting political and economic context in which there were left-wing governments in power with the economic resources to actually live up to their political campaign promises — above all, more social spending. On the one hand, that did improve people’s material circumstances, and showed what can be done when the Left is in power and has fiscal resources. There are interesting lessons in what other types of fiscal resources might be better than resource extraction — taxation of the wealthy and things like that. There are also interesting lessons in terms of social movements.

The case that I studied in particular was Ecuador, although this happened elsewhere in the region as well. Movements became very militant about extraction. They did not sit back and say: “Okay, we have the Left in power. There’s some redistribution of resources happening. We’re cool.”

Instead, they zoomed in on what they saw as the main source of ecological crisis, territorial dispossession, and the violations of indigenous rights, which was this extractive model of development that had really been in place since the conquest of the Americas, for over five hundred years. These movements took it upon themselves to fulfill this task of history, which was to really dismantle colonialism and capitalism, with its links to the ecological crisis.

Even movements of people that are the most marginalized — indigenous communities in rural peripheries, in the Amazon or the Andean regions, that face double forms of class and ethnic marginalization — were still able to stall extractive projects in some cases, despite those obstacles to political power. There were oil or large-scale mining projects that the government and foreign corporations were avidly promoting and sometimes defending with state repression.

A march to Quito, Ecuador in 2014 to protest against the El Mirador copper mining project.

The movements were still able to slow down the extractive model of development and stop some contentious projects altogether. In the Global North, I think we can learn from that — from that militancy, from those tactics that were used, just as much as we can learn from similar episodes of contention here in the United States, like Standing Rock, for example.

We should think on a global scale, but also on the scale of the Americas. We should think in hemispheric terms about what it would take to bring about a transition to a green and socially just economy, because that can’t be done in Ecuador alone. The Ecuadorian left-wing government learned that lesson in various ways.

In a small country, on the periphery of the global economy, you can’t just make a transition to a post-extractive model of development on your own, even though movements were pushing for that. You need action at other scales, regional and global, to make that economically viable.

Daniel Finn

You coauthored a piece for Jacobin in the spring of last year with a concise headline: “We Can Waste Another Crisis, or We Can Transform the Economy.” Can you identify any moves in the right direction that have happened since then, despite the apparent marginalization of the Left?

Thea Riofrancos

We wrote that piece months before the racial justice uprising in response to the murder of George Floyd. Months later, there actually was this unforeseeable political opening — a huge moment of radicalization and mass politics. First of all, what we’ve seen is that despite the strictures of the pandemic, people are ready to take part in mass action, and that should make us feel positive about our ongoing work to organize.

But let me answer your question a little more directly. What we’ve seen in this $1.9 trillion of stimulus is that various popular demands, oftentimes articulated through movements, have made an impact. I know this is divisive on the Left, because a lot of leftists have focused rightly on what didn’t get included in the stimulus. There wasn’t a $15 an hour federally mandated minimum wage, or a host of other provisions that movements and progressive policymakers were pushing for.

However, I don’t think we should let those real defeats distract us or dilute the fact that this was a very large stimulus that had provisions, whether it was specific forms of federal aid for black farmers or tribes and indigenous nations, or the extension of unemployment insurance, funding for schools and vaccination, a direct stimulus check to people, and so on. I think we should recognize in the provisions of the bill various demands that have been articulated forcefully through protests and pressure campaigns. We should recognize our success in that bill and feel emboldened to fight for more, rather than look at what isn’t there and feel defeated.

That posture of nihilism is really self-undermining in terms of our political power. We should claim victories at the same time that we point out deficits, in a way that makes us feel energized to fight for the next round of stimulus, which will focus on infrastructure and have a climate component.

Daniel Finn

As you’ve just pointed out, the Biden administration has now pushed through a stimulus package worth almost $2 trillion, to the surprise of many people. How would you evaluate the climate and environmental components of that package and how would you assess Biden’s climate orientation in general?

Thea Riofrancos

There was barely anything climate-related in that bill, even with a very expansive understanding of what counts as climate-related. One thing I might say is that we should absolutely see care work — so-called “pink-collar” jobs in the health care industry, elder care, childcare, etc. — as green jobs, because they are low-carbon, and they focus on care rather than the production of material goods. They’re inherently better for the planet and for people’s well-being. That might be one exception to what I was saying, because there was quite a bit of money in the stimulus that was directly about public health and supporting the type of care work that we need to heal from the pandemic and be healthier moving forward.

Aside from that, there was really nothing climate-related in the bill. That was a conscious choice on the part of Biden and on the part of legislators not to pick multiple battles at once. I’m not going to comment on whether that was a smart choice or not, but it was definitely a tactical choice that they made.

What that means is that it’s the next big spending bill, which will focus on infrastructure, where the real fights over climate will happen. Questions about infrastructure, our built environment, the way that we structure our transportation system, our energy grid, and so on are very much related to the climate crisis.

It can be infrastructure that promotes driving to work, using fossil fuels as our form of energy, and having long commutes between where we live and where we work. Or else it can be infrastructure that supports renewable energy generation and distribution, or that helps retrofit buildings to make them greener, more energy efficient, and more resilient against extreme weather. It can put us on track to reproduce fossil capitalism or put us on a path to green recovery.

This is a moment of tremendous public investment, which is unusual in an otherwise very neoliberal society that does very little public investment. There’s a huge opportunity here to push through an infrastructure bill that is green and socially just — one that creates lots of unionized jobs in the building trades and elsewhere and puts us on a path to a different kind of economic paradigm.

That’s going to be a hard fight. We’ll need a lot of pressure from lots of different social groups in order to make that a reality, because right now, it seems like there’s a sense among the political establishment that this bill could be more bipartisan than the economic stimulus, which passed with zero Republican votes in its favor. This is supposedly because Republicans like infrastructure, but they like the wrong kind of infrastructure. We have to make this a partisan fight, and a moment for mass social pressure as well.

Daniel Finn

In a piece for the New York Times last August, you said you’d never been more optimistic about the Left’s power to shape the terms of debate at any point over the past two decades. Is that still your view today?

Thea Riofrancos

It is still my view, and I hope it doesn’t sound hokey or sentimental. That view is primarily shaped not only by a response to contemporary politics and conditions, but by my own life trajectory. I’m a little bit older now than when I wrote that — I’m thirty-seven — and I’ve been involved for over two decades in the Left in various ways. I’ve changed my own political outlook at various junctures.

I think there’s often a kind of presentism in our analysis. We look at the snapshot of the current moment and evaluate the balance of forces and say the Left is not as powerful as the Right. But I think we should analyze politics historically rather than just conjuncturally. There’s no doubt in my mind that in the late 1990s, when I first got involved in left politics, the Left was much more marginal. I would say it was basically a subculture.

This was in the wake of tremendous state repression of left-wing and radical movements, starting in the 1960s, and carrying on through the 1980s. There was a lot of demobilization, and there was the neoliberal hegemony, with Reagan, Clinton, etc. It was weird to be a leftist, or to be an anti-capitalist! Now it’s almost trendy — which has its own challenges.

The generation below me are more likely to be left-wing, which is great, but I also think that probably means there’s a lot of political education needed about history and the global conjuncture. Organizations are needed to absorb and channel those young, budding leftists.

But it’s certainly better for your ideas to be more popular than for them to be less popular. It’s better for words like socialism to be used in the halls of Congress, because there are actual socialists in those halls, not just as an invented figure. We have a current with tens of thousands of members: Democratic Socialists of America. We’re in a totally different ball game.

With that increase to our collective power, new challenges of strategic thinking arise. How do we orient to the state? How do we orient to the Democratic Party? What is our power to win in a context where unions have been decimated?

We have to think about these questions much more seriously in a way than we did when we were much weaker politically. But I’d rather have those challenges than the challenges of complete political marginalization and invisibility.