Donald Trump’s election loss was good news for climate activists. On his first day in office, he took down the White House’s climate policy web page and replaced it with his “America First Energy Plan.” On his fifth day, he signed executive orders approving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, rolling back the modest gains of the climate and indigenous anti-pipeline movements. In a speech proclaiming what he called “American energy dominance,” he excitedly announced that the country had “more than 250 years’ worth of clean, beautiful coal.”1 He appointed fossil fuel industry hacks to his cabinet. He sold or leased public lands at an extraordinary scale. He unleashed an unprecedented wave of deregulation rescinding more than a hundred environmental rules for industry.
While no one on the Left will fondly remember the Trump era, we have to understand what his defeat means. Donald Trump’s offensive environmental agenda — both offensive to the polite belief in science and offensive in the sense of actively pushing environmental destruction — created utter despair among environmental activists. Yet it also created a kind of delusion. The presence of “post-truth” Trump in office intensified the sense that environmental struggle is, at its core, a struggle over knowledge and science. For example, a movement of professional liberal activists organized a “March for Science,” explicitly disavowing politics. The organizers asserted the march “is not a political protest,” let alone a struggle over material control of resources.2 There became a sense that if we could simply eject the “denier in chief” and install a Democrat who “believes science,” we could start to take the necessary action to solve the climate and ecological crisis. The election of Joe Biden as president is stoking these hopes.
But we’ve seen this movie before. When it comes to the climate crisis, offensive Republican environmental destruction is only slightly worse than enlightened Democratic Party environmental destruction. After eight years of a pro–fossil fuel George W. Bush administration, President Barack Obama announced in a victory speech: “This was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal.”3 Yet, if anything, the age of American energy dominance was not a Trump creation but a product of the Obama era. Beyond rhetoric, fossil fuel extraction expanded much more under Obama than under Trump.4 The climate change believer even bragged about this in a 2018 public event: “Suddenly America is the largest oil producer . . . that was me, people . . . say thank you.”5
We are entering a kind of hamster-wheel cycle of environmental politics where new horizons of hope appear simply by removing a Republican from office. Today, as in 2008, a new set of deadlines are being discussed (2035 and 2050) that are far enough away to stall dramatic action and close enough to appear scientifically credible. Yet this cycle always delays what is obviously needed: confrontation with the powerful industries responsible.
When comparing the political possibilities of 2020 and 2008, there are some major differences. First, as predicted, the climate crisis has intensified to the point where no serious person denies something is very wrong. The wildfire-induced Black Summer of 2019–2020 in Australia was followed by yet another summer in North America marked by smoke-darkened skies and supercharged hurricanes. As I write this, even oil and gas companies are relenting under investor pressure to announce their plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.6 These ongoing effects are merely the product of roughly 1.2 degrees of warming above preindustrial levels; experts think we will likely reach 1.5 degrees by 2030 and 2 degrees between 2034 and 2052.7 Frankly, the climate system does not care if the president believes climate science. We are approaching our last chance to ignite a massive transformation of our entire industrial and energy system.
Second, there is finally a policy program with the potential to generate the kind of mass popular support needed to achieve it: the Green New Deal (GND). The program aimed to solve inequality and climate change with a straightforward working-class program based on public investment, a job guarantee, and economic rights to health care, housing, and a living wage. While the Right has consistently used class-based appeals to mobilize opposition to environmental policies, the Left has finally come up with a class-based environmental politics.
As I will detail below, however, all the excitement around the GND was predicated on the idea of the Left occupying state power; a prospect that crashed on the electoral realities of 2020. We now face a neoliberal Biden presidency and the slimmest of Democratic margins in both houses of Congress. There are still far too many right-wing Democrats who can stall a GND agenda (not to mention Biden himself). What we need now is a sober analysis of the balance of class forces to understand what is and is not possible. We also need to recognize the ongoing danger of Biden and the Democratic Party — still staunchly a party of capital — assimilating the more radical GND coalition into the dead-end conciliatory politics of compromise and half measures. With the excitement of the Bernie Sanders presidential runs behind us, our only option now is to commit to strengthening working-class organization in the workplace and beyond, where durable political commitments and power can be built.
What follows is a narrative history of the climate stalemate over the last twelve years. We still need to understand the almost inexplicable level of inaction on what many describe as the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced. The last four years have built momentum toward real transformation, but the last year shows some concerning trends of movement conciliation before the fight really begins.