Better for Whom? Biden’s Test for the Climate Movement


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As Biden moves to push his American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan, the signs of the times are all too familiar: some shock sends the economy into a state of uncertainty, lack of foresight and hollowing out of public programs has led to an inept response, millions unemployed with no prospects of recovery. Meanwhile, billionaires have been making off with unprecedented increases in wealth. These spending packages, while unprecedented in modern times, may not be the end of the story if the Biden administration makes good on its promises to combat the climate crisis with more sweeping changes.

During the presidential campaign, Biden’s team released his Build Back Better plan as a path forward to reenergize the working class backbone of the economy while transitioning off of fossil fuels to avert climate catastrophe. His latest legislative pushes are derived from this plan. These days, it has become almost common sense on the left to push for a green recovery. Mobilizations akin to a Green New Deal were necessary before the pandemic. But now, there seems to be broadening consensus even from establishment voices that green recovery is the way to move forward.

Even though Biden’s plan does not mention the words “Green New Deal” (in fact, he is a staunch opponent of the “socialist” plan), the climate movement has begun letting out sighs of relief as his administration seems to be embracing the ideas of ambitious transition despite different rhetoric. But we should be on high alert. Signs are increasingly pointing to a future filled with green rhetoric, but perpetuation of the system that truly fuels the crisis. A careful reading of the Build Back Better plan, and the flocking of large financial entities and wealthy individuals to “climate savior” mentalities, reveals what is actually happening.

In a repeat of capitalist crises of the past, the powers-that-be have waited long enough that a desperate populous is ready to take the crumbs of “progress.” All the while, the power structures that caused decay do not shift an inch. In the case of climate crisis, the system itself is what perpetuates the crisis — addressing only one piece cannot avert devastation. We thus stand at a crucial inflection point in the path towards progress. Will the climate movement be able to recognize history repeating itself, and counter accordingly?

 

Rejuvenating American Capitalism

Perhaps one of the greatest assets the powerful in the U.S. is a shallow understanding of our nation’s history. Through no fault of our own, propagandized textbooks and media ecosystem have done us no favors in giving us the ability to place current events in historical cycles of power struggle. For these reasons, we often fail to see what is happening until it is too late.

A brief dive back to a similar era in U.S. history can provide insight into what appears to be unfolding in our present day. In the time of the original New Deal, the U.S. economy was similarly struggling from the Great Depression. Popular struggle forced President Roosevelt to enact New Deal legislation. Though the New Deal did lay out significant reforms, it did not fully combat the Depression. The real economic boost came from the World War II mobilization, which decreased unemployment from 8.1% in 1940 to 1.1% in 1945. In Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the U.S., he writes that, “war brought higher prices for farmers, higher wages, enough prosperity for enough of the population to assume against the rebellions that so threatened the thirties.” Zinn then quotes historian Lawrence Wittner, who writes that the “biggest gains were in corporate profits, which rose from $6.4 billion in 1940 to $10.8 billion in 1944. But enough went to workers and farmers to make them feel the system was doing well for them.”

This is a story that has echoed throughout the history of our country: the system adjusts to calls for structural reform so the powerful do not have to give up power. We have seen it with the creation of Jim Crow laws during Reconstruction, after the Great Depression as mentioned above, in the aftermath of uprisings in the 1960’s and 70’s with the coordinated rise of neoliberalism, and in the bailout of Wall Street after the 2008-09 financial crisis. Each of these adjustments kept in place the underlying issues, and we continue to deal with them today. The present moment stands to be no exception to the pattern.

The signs of the next revitalization of capitalism are all around us. Elites and other powerful entities are scrambling to be next in line to suddenly realize the imminent danger of the climate crisis, offering their sober analyses and solutions. Whether it’s the International Monetary Fund, the OECD, or Davos billionaires, the main arms of monopoly capitalism are green-washing the crisis in hopes of profiting. Even resident philanthropist in chief Bill Gates is trying to get in on the action.

Some may argue that there is nothing wrong with making money off of a necessary transition to a green economy, but they miss the point that the climate crisis is not just a result of emissions. Solutions proposed by those who are attempting to profit ignore this point, and fail to realize that the climate crisis is a multidimensional symptom of the very runaway, extractive capitalist system that props them up.

 

Better for Whom?

Biden’s Build Back Better (BBB) plan is no exception to this framework. While it has shifted its goals and rhetoric due to pressure from climate organizers, a deeper read reveals it to be only rhetoric. As part of an effort to demystify Biden’s plan for the greater movement and see what may be coming next, we scoured it, along with a true Green New Deal (GND) proposal from Bernie Sanders’ campaign, to compare and contrast the solutions. To illustrate how the BBB plan aims to revitalize capitalism, we compare two key sections: renewable energy, and agriculture (though, these are not the only that could be contrasted in both plans).

What was revealed is that Biden’s plan, despite a progressive veneer, aims to give just enough to struggling people so that they can get by, but keeps the entire system comfortably intact. On the other hand, GND proposals advocate to get to the root of these destructive systems, and equalize the distribution of power in society.

 

Renewable Energy

It may be tempting to imagine that the BBB plan has been moved to the standards of a GND in at least the area of renewable energy, clearly the new focus of the business sector. However, the plan still only goes so far. It promises clean electricity, and a carbon-free power sector by 2035, with net-zero emissions for the entire country by 2050. The ambition for carbon-free power is a step forward from his original plan. The methods by which he aims to reach these goals are listed as wind, solar, nuclear, hydrogen, and carbon capture. He commits a $400B investment, in his first term, for clean energy and innovation.

The Sanders/Inslee GND pursues a much more aggressive goal. They call for 100% renewable energy for electricity and transportation by 2030, and complete decarbonization by 2050. Their methods are listed as wind, solar, geothermal, and explicitly not nuclear or carbon capture — which are called “false solutions.” They commit to spend $1.52T on renewable energy and $852B on energy storage capacity. Moreover, they call for the creation of another federal Power Marketing Administration (PMA), and expansion of existing PMAs to build renewable energy. In this plan, energy would be publicly owned, managed by federal PMAs, the Bureau of Reclamation, and the Tennessee Valley Authority — with energy distribution preferences given to public or cooperatively-owned utilities.

Differences between these two visions are both obvious and nuanced. Immediately, it is clear that the GND plan aims to spend more money, and build renewables at a faster pace. The GND plan’s call for 100% renewable energy for electricity (27% of U.S. 2018 GHG emissions) and transportation (28% of U.S. 2018 GHG emissions) by 2030 also puts it at over 50% renewable energy by 2030 over just the 27% from transportation by 2035 in the BBB plan. However, hidden in the language itself is the difference between “net-zero” emissions by 2050 (BBB) and “complete decarbonization” by 2050 (GND). “Net-zero” allows for emissions to continue, but relies on carbon sinks to offset them (the plan’s methods included “carbon capture”). “Complete decarbonization” would go further and disallow any emissions. Finally, the GND call for energy to be publicly owned with distribution preferences for public and cooperatively-owned utilities is significant. It frames a major difference between the plans as allowing private power to continue domination, yet now through renewables (BBB), versus giving power back to communities through public accountability (GND). Even the “net-zero” language allows fossil fuels companies to continue making profit, and more time to transition, while “decarbonization” would entirely stop the flow of money to fossil fuel corporations.

 

Agriculture

Again, as a stark rebuttal to the notion that emissions and renewables are the only necessary focus of climate crisis mitigation, differences between the plans regarding agriculture stand to make a tremendous difference. Biden’s BBB plan rightfully calls for 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells, and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock, and uranium mines. It calls to decarbonize the food and agricultural sector. It aims to leverage research in soil management, plant biologies, and agricultural techniques to store carbon dioxide from the air in the ground. Notably, it also calls for funding for the first biofuel plants and jobs in the country.

The Sanders/Inslee GND calls for funding for regenerative agricultural practices — including transitioning animal feeding operations, and prioritizing socially disadvantaged and beginning farmers. It also advocates for farmers to be paid to sequester carbon, and for funding to allow farmers to transition off of fossil fuel dependence on their farms. Again, this plan goes further. It explicitly strives to break up big agribusiness, and instate supply management programs to prevent shortages and surpluses (so that farmers can make a living wage without overproducing). The GND plan prioritizes investment in Tribal land access and extension programs, USDA training for socially disadvantaged farmers, and a pathway to citizenship for migrant farm workers. It envisions investment into cooperatively or community-owned grocery stores, incentives for schools who source food from local sources, money for local food processing, and funding to solve hunger and food waste.

The differences are clear, if not startling. At their face, the plans again differ in the level of community-investment versus technocratic research to “innovate” solutions to the agricultural problem. The GND plan is clear about the need to break up agribusiness monopolies and transform the way we think about food and agriculture to center the community — something that food justice organizations consistently call for. The BBB plan’s call to fund the first biofuel plants and jobs is a dead giveaway of the prioritization of existing agribusiness. What would these biofuels be made of? The overly monocropped corn and soy that span the country, and are the backbone of existing agricultural giants.

 

The Climate Movement’s Next Test

While the Biden plan aims to “Build Back Better,” the bulk of the benefits are going to the private powers that already exist and dominate our economy today. To answer the question, “Better for whom?” we can unambiguously say that the administration wants to satisfy corporations over people. The Sanders/Inslee GND would build back better for ordinary people. But that would mean deconstructing the systems that already exist, and truly building back from the ground up, rather than from the top-down.

Environmental groups may get lost in the rhetoric of the Biden plan, and to do so would ensure a repetition of the historical cycle of rebuilding after capitalist crises. The BBB plan is undoubtedly a plan to rejuvenate American capitalism. The climate movement has arguably won the fight to center the climate crisis as an immediate existential threat, but the narrative sits snugly with stopping emissions. This narrow view allows the powers-that-be to simultaneously appear helpful and profit from transition.

The crisis is about much more than emissions, and focusing on them misses the deeper reasons we are in crisis. Unequal power structures, just one of many intersectional causes, are contributing just as much as emissions. They have allowed the profit-seeking interests of a tiny minority to control the vast majority, who want sweeping change to avert catastrophe. These intersections must be understood as not just “nice to haves,” but crucial to solving the problem. Without addressing them, we are in for a revitalization of capitalism, and perpetuation of the crisis.

 

Nick Rabb is a volunteer organizer with the Sunrise Movement’s Boston hub, and a PhD student at Tufts University.

Alex Trimm is a Southern California native and volunteer organizer with the Sunrise Movement’s Boston hub.

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