By: Lucas Frye
Barack Obama has been lauded for his efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions during his tenure as President. Under his administration, regulatory requirements for the largest industrial emitters were strengthened and executive action was used to incentivize decarbonization of the American economy. Despite these successes, President Obama’s climate legacy is today in tatters and we are hurtling more rapidly toward global humanitarian disaster. Nearly every concrete policy implemented during his eight years in office has been systematically dismantled in the last four. A simple change in the ruling party was sufficient to allow these reversals, which occurred through the same mechanisms by which the original rules were implemented. Some backsliding should not have been unexpected; the Presidency changes party nearly every time there is no incumbent to seek reelection. Yet, we do not observe reversals in every policy after every transfer of power. What makes other actions resilient to the political whims of the day? In crafting the next generation of climate policy, we should look at the failed attempts of the Obama administration, and think critically about the features that might have allowed them to stick around. I argue that a truly resilient policy has two key characteristics: enactment through concrete legislation, and content popular enough to make repeal politically infeasible.
The major reason it took so little time to put a bullet in each of Obama’s signature proposals is simple: it was easy. They were produced almost exclusively through unilateral executive action, meaning that his successor is able to modify or destroy them with the same ease and lack of oversight. This was the route of choice, because Democrats only held a majority in both houses of Congress between 2009 and 2011, and even then, they failed to pass significant climate action legislation. We could have implemented an emissions trading scheme, with the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009, but it failed under total Democratic control. It never even came to a vote in the Senate, because the Democratic leadership didn’t want to risk the majority by threatening competitive seats. We could be a whole decade further along in cutting our emissions, but now we continue to accelerate toward catastrophe because of perceived electoral risk.
The irony is that these appeals to the center are not a safe bet and do not prevent alienation of one’s constituents. I can imagine very few voters are calling up their representative and asking for less action on the issues that are supposedly so important. In fact, this sort of dancing around the problems in order to avoid taking a real stand is one of the reasons these seats are so weak in the first place; Republican strategists and marketing experts are keen to seize upon the narrative of the weak, spineless, dishonest Democrat who seeks only to keep their power. Yet, the “moderates” craft weak, meaningless policy and then act surprised when Republicans not only successfully capitalize on these façades, but take their seats and start producing real legislation that works in the opposite direction. It’s as if incumbent Democrats hardly seem to consider or care how their work is going to be treated after they leave office—barring some conspiracy unbeknownst to me, they surely can’t believe they’ll have the majority forever. For the party of supposedly progressive values, this is blatantly reactionary behavior.
If these politicians actually spent their energy on ambitious policy with sweeping changes to the way we do business, they might just find that voters like a candidate with a little bit of vision for the future. If we really want to make it difficult for policy to be repealed, we must make laws that become quickly and broadly popular. This would increase the political risk for the opposition to take visible action against them. The major hindrance in the full repeal of the Affordable Care Act was its sharp rise in popularity once people became accustomed to the new structure of our healthcare system. To allow the public to undergo this adjustment, the changes made cannot occur on thirty-year timelines or require long-winded policy papers to explain; they must be understandable, tangible, and fast-acting enough that the law can actually be associated with its effects. Few people really care about the concept of global average surface temperature, but few can ignore changes to their work and livelihoods. Climate change legislation that is well-written and ambitious in timeframe should generate recognizable improvements that will significantly reduce the political capital to be gained from the acts’ removal. Opposing climate action would already be political suicide if the effects didn’t seem so far away from our day-to-day experience.
Take a package of legislation like the Green New Deal proposal advocated by Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT): it proposes radical transformation in a number of sectors to kickstart our emissions reductions on an unprecedented scale. The individual components focus not just on areas of traditional climate policy scope (regulating emissions from power plants, etc.), but combine these efforts with systems for improving the social safety net, reducing cost for consumers, and ensuring justice for communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis. As envisioned, fossil fuel workers would be assisted in transitioning to new high-paying careers in the fast-growing sectors of green energy, infrastructural improvement, sustainable agriculture, and others. The plan would provide for home efficiency improvements, public transportation expansion, and universal high-speed internet to reduce utilities and fuel costs for millions of households. It would provide a fund to assist communities in adapting to imminent climate impacts and recovery for the loss and damage already incurred. If you think this sounds politically risky, you’re not alone, but if politicians are committed to making resilient climate policy, they can leverage their political energy into getting these things done. If it works, the positive impacts will be felt quickly and dramatically, and then every conservative (or liberal) who voted against it will be remembered as voting against job creation, cheap energy, and the support of the climate refugees soon to be found within our own borders.
It is clear that we must shape strong and resilient climate policy if we are to have any chance of real action lasting beyond the reach of electoral wins. It is no longer sufficient to prioritize incremental change, when in the next election cycle, those improvements can be undone just as incrementally and even more rapidly. It is certainly not enough to create left-leaning majorities in our legislatures if those representatives are going to continue ignoring the imminent threat climate change poses. We know from our best scientific predictions that urgency and ambition are requirements if governments are to effectively respond to this global crisis. Despite this reality, politicians in competitive districts continue to labor under the assumption that bold action will surely lose them their seats, as if beating their opponents constitutes a platform in itself. This refusal to address the real problems is indeed a part of the reason their tenures are so fragile. Resilient legislation on climate change needs to be sweeping not only because of the dangers of inaction, but because a well-constructed policy can serve as its own spokesperson. Symbolic action or minor improvements to our systems will fail to address the root of the climate emergency, but also waste limited political capital on work that will fail to see the end of the next election cycle.