Episode 121: Climate Chaos (Part I) — How the Gap Between Liberal Rhetoric and Policy Promotes…

Citations Needed | October 21, 2020 | Transcript

(Photo Credit: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)


Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.

Nima Shirazi: Welcome to Citations Needed a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.

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“Climate change is real.” “Three words — science, science, and science.” “From coastal towns to rural farms to urban centers, climate change poses an existential threat.” “Now it is time to put our coalition to work and pass bold climate solutions.” These are just some of the many statements — all of them true — that the U.S. public routinely hears from its Democratic Party leaders, expressing their unbridled commitment to acting on the ever-urgent issue of climate change.

Adam: But unfortunately, there is a tremendous gulf between Democratic leaders’ claims to believe climate change is an existential threat and their actual actions, which are the actions of people who do not believe climate change must be urgently and robustly tackled. Since climate change has ascended from thoroughly ignored to occasionally acknowledged issue in US political discourse and elections, Democratic leaders have for the most part only been willing to push for small-scale policy solutions — a carbon-capture tax credit here, a fossil-fuel subsidy cut there.

Nima: These solutions are almost always incremental and market-based, and these same Democrats refuse to embrace what’s actually needed: keep fossil fuels in the ground, and mobilize public resources so that we can make the broad social changes we need to address the climate crisis. The most powerful Democrats, people like Nancy Pelosi, have not only steered clear of more far-reaching policies, but have actively undermined them, as seen most clearly with her opposition to the Green New Deal — often under the guise of debt scolding.

Adam: By way of a crude pop culture analogy, it’s as if we’re watching the 1990s disaster flick Deep Impact about a comet hurtling toward Earth and President Morgan Freeman spends the first half of the film debating with Congress about how best to make the rockets sent to intercept the deadly comet more cost effective.

Nima: When Democratic Party claims about the dire consequences of climate change are not matched by robust and necessary policy proposals, one can only assume one of three realities is true: (1) they do not care about the disastrous inevitably of environmental collapse, (2) they don’t truly believe the science on climate change in general, or (3) they’re simply hopeless and spineless. In any case, the resultant inertia amounts to an insidious form of climate denialism in its own right.

Adam: On this week’s episode, part one of two tackling climate change, we’ll be discussing the net effect of this chasm, what we’re calling “the Climate Rhetoric-Policy Gap” and how, from a messaging standpoint, it reads false and leads many to believe that climate change may be real in some abstract sense, but mostly not a matter of urgent moral importance.

Nima: Later on the show, we’ll speak with Basav Sen, Cli­mate Jus­tice Project Direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Before that, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers.

[Begin Clip]

Basav Sen: There’s the inconsistency in rhetoric and what that means is having to convince a lot of sincere, well-meaning people who might care that rhetoric and think that ‘Oh yeah, the climate problem is being taken care of.’ Trying to convince them that no, that is not the case, we cannot just sit back and be passive and expect our political leadership to take care of the problem because without active social movements holding them accountable, they will not take care of the problem.

[End Clip]

Nima: On next week’s episode, we’re going to delve a little bit into the language used to talk about climate change policy proposals, often how it’s weaponized and militarized. We’ll also talk about how the U.S. military itself is one of the largest drivers of climate change. We will be joined next week by Laura Steichen, Outreach Coordinator for the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies.

[Begin Clip]

Laura Steichen: The problem is looking at climate change through a militarized frame promotes a search for military solutions and it also helps legitimize U.S. global militarism at a time when the United States really desperately needs to shift public resources away from funding war and weaponry instead to the massive level of public investment that really is required to prevent climate chaos at this point.

[End Clip]

Adam: So the fact that there’s a huge gap between Democratic policy proposals and the sort of science rhetoric they propose is we’re not the first people to note this, activists have been noting this for some time. Obviously, this is sort of an article of faith within climate change activist circles. Nate Robinson at Current Affairs wrote an article about it in February 2019, called, “The Choice We Face,” which you should definitely check out. So what we want to do is we want to document this point and make it clear that there is a huge chasm, that there is a climate rhetoric policy gap and that climate rhetoric policy gap, we will argue in this episode, not only doesn’t make any rational sense or logical sense, even if you don’t necessarily view it that way your brain does, right? So at least subconsciously, you sort of think ‘Well, that doesn’t make any sense.’ It also is itself a form of climate denialism, because denialism is not about rhetoric, denialism is about what policies are advocating, you know, I know from the onset people say, well, Democrats, there’s a Republican controlled Senate, there’s obviously a Republican president, Democrats are going to sort of propose what the possibility is and here’s what we’re going to say to that, no matter what they propose, the Republicans are going to reject it, because they don’t believe in climate change, almost to the person and when you have the most powerful Democratic leader dismiss the relatively modest Green New Deal out of hand before Republicans have even mentioned anything on it, not because it’s not feasible or can’t get done, or Republicans will reject it, but because she herself is a deficit scold who thinks it’s not cost neutral or not affordable, or whatever kind of objection she has. The issue isn’t actually the Republican Party here. The issue is the fact that Democratic leadership is about box checking rhetoric, for the most part, and for the three reasons we listed doesn’t really have any urgency around this problem. Now, if anyone’s ever known anyone who’s an End-Times Evangelical Christian all they talk about is Jesus and why you need to convert to Jesus and, you know, I had a relative like that and then sometimes my other relatives would say, ‘Well, why is it all they ever talk about? All they talk about is Jesus,’ and I’m like, look, if you thought the world was about to end, and if you didn’t save my soul, I was going to eternal damnation, you better fucking A only talk about Jesus. Like, it’s the logical —

Nima: It’s the thing that’s going on.

Adam: Yeah, like, and now, whereas that’s fiction, climate change is real and the urgency with which scientists speak about it, in these kind of apocalyptic terms, I think correctly, with very finite deadlines of saying, ‘Look, if we don’t do it by X date, this just isn’t going to happen, we’re not going to be able to reverse this,’ and acknowledging that and sort of, again, name checking and box checking that but then you turn around, and you sort of go, ‘Yeah, whatever, we can get around to this.’ There’s a huge gap there that your brain perceives and I do think sows cynicism and, again, it’s itself a form of climate denialism. So that’s kind of what we’re going to get at today. There isn’t the fear of Jesus, in how we talk about the science that they allegedly acknowledge exists.

Nima: Well, right, because I mean, look, Republicans are climate denialists, I mean, basically to a T, period, stop. So that is not being debated. Just in the past few years, obviously, regulations have been gutted, fossil fuel industries are writing laws or making sure that new laws are not passed, all of these things are happening, but just not being Republicans is not enough when the future of our planet is at stake. So that’s why we find it incumbent on not only us, but the media that we cover, to actually hold accountable those who speak in these apocalyptic, world-shattering, world-ending terms — correctly so — but without doing fucking anything about it.

First, it’s important to lay out the stakes of what we’re talking about here. Democrats say they believe in science, right? So what does the science actually say? Researchers found in January 2019, that humanity has a 64 percent chance of keeping the temperature rise below the international target of 1.5 degrees Celsius but only if the phase out of fossil fuel infrastructure begins immediately, which means every car, every plane, every power plant in existence gets replaced by a zero-carbon alternative at the end of its lifespan. Now, a study published in the journal Nature in 2015 found that in order to stave off the worst effects of climate change, the vast majority of fossil fuels must stay in the ground. This includes 92 percent of US coal, all Arctic oil and gas and a majority of Canadian tar sands. In other words, the only way to curb the climate crisis is to dramatically curb fossil fuel extraction, which would require an economy and society-wide mobilization that includes massive amounts of public spending so that we can take care of everyone — workers, frontline communities — to make sure no one is hurt by this shift. In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, said we have only 12 years to keep global warming to a maximum of 1.5 degrees Celsius and prevent the worst of what floods, droughts, storms and resulting human deaths would inevitably occur if we didn’t. According to a summary of that report, limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius would require quote, “rapid and far-reaching” end quote, transitions in land, energy, industry, buildings, transport and cities. Failure to achieve this would be catastrophic. It would mean, again, floods, super storms, poverty, droughts, and mass food insecurity that affects hundreds of millions of people around the globe, threatening the very foundation of human civilization itself.

Adam: In sum, if you quote-unquote “believe the science,” you have to believe — at a minimum — that fossil fuels have to stay in the ground and stay in the ground now. A massive industry halted in its tracks and society transforms to account for this. In other words, your solutions must necessarily be large scale and radical by definition, you have to believe that if you quote-unquote “believe the science,” that is literally what the science has been saying for years. A recent analysis by friend of the show Jason Hickel, published in Lancet, found that as of 2015, the United States bore responsibility for 40 percent of quote, “excess global carbon dioxide emissions” unquote, in the entire world. Yet the policies being put forward by Democratic leaders, the people who supposedly believe in climate change, who are the representatives, who are the agent of Mother Nature, if you will, simply do not address this crisis. Overwhelmingly, the Democratic Party embraces policies that permit the fossil fuel industry to keep extracting and they shy away from the massive public works and massive deficit spending needed to transition fairly and justly away from an economy based on fossil fuel extraction. They say they believe the science, but they continue to support policies that science tells us will lead to catastrophe for hundreds of millions of people and they continually embrace marketplace solutions, like carbon trading, that allow industries to keep turning a profit and continue destroying the planet.

Nima: So what do we mean when we talk about what the Democratic Party thinks? At a recent presidential debate — which we won’t get into more now — Joe Biden declared that he was the Democratic Party. So what is Joe Biden’s climate plan? Now, Joe Biden has correctly lambasted Donald Trump for his climate denialism, declaring in September 2020, with regard to the rampant wildfires in the American West that “Donald Trump’s climate denial may not have caused these fires and record floods and record hurricanes, but if he gets a second term, these hellish events will continue to become more common, more devastating and more deadly.” In contrast to Donald Trump, Biden touts himself as someone who, “respects science, who understands that the damage from climate change is already here.” This is all great rhetoric and while Biden’s climate initiatives are definitely better than Trump’s policies of course, which are actively harmful and rollback even the scant climate protections that have existed, Biden’s plans fall well short of the radical steps still needed to curb climate change. While Biden insists that he supports an end to fossil fuel subsidies, which would be a good step, his plan requires fracking and natural gas as quote-unquote “bridge fuels” and counts them as quote-unquote “clean energy.” As climate reporter Kate Aronoff notes in a recent piece for The New Republic, “Egregiously, there’s still no timeline for getting the country off fossil fuels, leaving U.S. producers largely free to dig up and export as many of those as they please, wherever they please.”

Adam: While Biden’s plan has been lauded by some climate activists as proof of the growing global movement for climate justice, that it’s influencing the highest echelons of power like the Biden campaign, reporters Miranda Litwak and Max Moran pointed out in The Intercept:

“Several of Biden’s informal advisers and confidants on energy policy are veterans of the Obama administration’s ‘all of the above’ strategy, which embraced fossil fuel development and technologies like fracking while publicly trumpeting clean energy commitments. These individuals oversaw the BP oil spill and the violent repression of the Dakota Access pipeline protests (a set of tactics which President Donald Trump is now emulating to put down peaceful demonstrators) and then went to work for oil and gas companies or law firms, investment companies, and think tanks funded by the fossil fuel industry.”

Nima: Litwak and Moran conclude by saying that, “If appointed to key energy and environmental jobs, [these former officials] could pose an existential threat to even the most ambitious climate plans.” Now, we should also remember that Barack Obama, after leaving the Oval Office, boasted about what he did for the fossil fuel industry. As you can recall, at an event at Rice University’s Baker Institute in 2018, he said this:

[Begin Clip]

Barack Obama: I was extraordinarily proud of the Paris Accords, because, look, I know, you know, I know we’re an oil country, and we need American energy and and by the way, American energy production, you wouldn’t always know it, but it went up every year I was president and, you know, that whole, suddenly America’s the biggest oil producer, and the biggest — that was me, people, I just wanted you to know. So, sometimes you go to Wall Street and folks will be grumbling about anti-business and I said, have you checked where your stocks were when I came in office and where they are now? What are you talking about? What are you complaining about? Just say, ‘Thank you,’ please.

[End Clip]

Adam: Again, if you believe in the science, the fact that you can be so glib about this shows that you either don’t believe in the science, you don’t think there’s anything we can do about it, or you view your job as directing activists energy into nothingness and to avoid because you basically want to maintain the status quo. I mean, this is extremely blase about the single most important issue we face as a planet and it’s demoralizing to environmental activists. Now, again, relative to the Republican Party, Obama did some things that were good for the environment, the EPA had all kinds of regulations that Trump later got rid of. But the problem is, is that just better than the Republicans isn’t going to work. Again, if an asteroid is hurtling towards our planet in 12 years, and one party wants to deny the existence of an asteroid, and the other party is still debating whether or not we’re going to fund the rocket ships to go intercept it, you know, that still is not working. It is mind boggling how someone like Obama can constantly, and I think quite smugly, talk about science, and then say that fossil fuel extraction increased under his watch and then laugh about it.

Nima: Right.

Adam: Those two things cannot exist in the same world, they just can’t. Another place where you see this totally inconsistent rhetoric is around the issue of Joe Biden, and increasingly, the Democratic Party consensus, their hostility towards China. If you talk to any activists in this field, again, which we will later and we have, and we’ve done research in this, if you talk to any of them, they say you cannot really have a global commitment to reducing carbon emissions to the extent you need to to stop this without working with China and a Marshall posture towards China makes that impossible by definition. A few weeks ago, Matt Yglesias was on Glenn Beck’s show, and he was talking about how America needs to build, he wrote this absurd kind of troll-y sort of Slate-pitchy book about how America needs a billion citizens, but he made a very racist sort of demographic threat argument with regard to China, but even tabling that, he did this sort of ‘falling empire, we’re going to lose to China, China’s gonna overtake us as number one’ and the fact that he’s worried about China overtaking America’s number one position in 50 years, 100 years, is completely mad. If we don’t address climate crisis it won’t fucking matter who’s number one. It is two people on a sinking ship fighting over a four by four foot plot of wood, you would look at that saying why are you guys fighting? You should be worrying about building a boat or figuring out how you’re going to stop the leak. And this is the kind of mismatched rhetoric and Matt Yglesias is someone who talks all the time about the science of climate change, right? So again, there is a gap in how we talk about it, and how we dress things that are directly and indirectly related to it. And again, Nima, call me cynical, but I think the reality is that a lot of people on some subconscious level or conscious level, really don’t think there’s much we can do about it.

Nima: Yeah, I think that there’s this real fatalism that kicks in and fatalism is obviously going to severely truncate possibilities.

Adam: Fatalism is indistinguishable from denialism.

Nima: Right.

Adam: It is, it’s the same thing.

Senator Chuck Schumer

Nima: Now, the Democratic Party platform itself does the same kind of very, very rhetorical flourishy thing of really acknowledging the urgency of climate change while also saber rattling against China. So, you know, during the Democratic National Convention this past August, August 2020, Democrats repeatedly referenced climate change, which is a good thing. Chuck Schumer, for instance, promised that if Democrats win Congress, they would deliver “strong, decisive action to combat climate change.” Yet the Democratic National Committee removed a party platform provision specifically calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks. The provision that was struck from the platform was this, quote, “Democrats support eliminating tax breaks and subsidies for fossil fuels, and will fight to defend and extend tax incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy.” That is despite the fact that that same platform referenced in its preamble, “the urgent global crisis posed by climate change.” A further concern, the same Democratic platform pledges that, “Democrats will take aggressive action against China or any other country that tries to undercut American manufacturing by manipulating their currencies.” So it simply makes it look like Democrats are not serious about the need to cooperate globally to curb the crisis because what they are more concerned about is American primacy when it comes to the economy.

Adam: We saw the climate rhetoric policy gap rear its ugly head in the NAFTA 2.0 debates. This goes to show that what’s most revealing is what Democrats are not doing. The party that claims to believe in climate change is not recognizing the major climate implications of foreign policy and trade deals. Democrats largely rallied around Trump’s United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, generally known as NAFTA 2.0, amid concerns from environmental organizers that the plan did not even mention climate change despite its huge climate implications, quote, “This final deal pos­es very real threats to our cli­mate and com­mu­ni­ties and ignores near­ly all of the fun­da­men­tal envi­ron­men­tal fix­es con­sis­tent­ly out­lined by the envi­ron­men­tal com­mu­ni­ty,” reads a letter from environmental groups. It notes that, quote, ​“the deal does not even men­tion cli­mate change, fails to ade­quate­ly address tox­ic pol­lu­tion, includes weak envi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and an even weak­er enforce­ment mech­a­nism, sup­ports fos­sil fuels, and allows oil and gas cor­po­ra­tions to chal­lenge cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal pro­tec­tions.”

The NAFTA 2.0 was infamously not supported by Bernie Sanders due to the environmental regulations. So this is not a fringe position, it is a very normal position. Yet, Nancy Pelosi, the most powerful Democrat in the country, praised the deal as an improvement on NAFTA saying, “We are very pleased with the environment [provisions].” Pelosi continued, “We want more, but we don’t have to do it all in that bill. … But we have talked about the environment in a very strong way.” So we talked about it in a strong way.

Nima: But we don’t have to do it all, right? We don’t have to do it all, we talked about it well, but we don’t have to do it all.

Adam: Again, the asteroid is coming towards Earth and Pelosi says we’ll deal with it later. Well, okay — I don’t know — but that seems like a pretty big deal we should deal with now because the environmental implications of trade deals and this is, by the way, when the quote-unquote “left” or “progressives,” they have leverage, right? Because corporate America and multinational corporations need these trade deals. So you have leverage. Trump is supporting it, Republicans are supporting it, you have some leverage to say ‘fuck you no,’ you can get environmental concessions if you fight for them, but they didn’t even fight for them. They don’t care, because again, they don’t really believe it.

Nima: In June 2020, the Democratic led House Select Committee on the climate crisis released a 538-page climate plan, which called for a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, meaning they’d reach an overall balance between emissions produced and emissions taken out of the atmosphere by that time. This garnered much fanfare throughout the corporate media. So for instance, all on the same day, June 30, 2020, you had Politico saying “Democrats unveil sweeping plan to tackle climate change,” the Financial Times saying “Democrats’ climate plan promises net zero US emissions by 2050,” The Washington Post, same day, saying, “House Democrats unveil ambitious climate package, steering toward a net-zero economy by 2050,” The Guardian chimed in with, “Democrats to unveil bold new climate plan to phase out emissions by 2050” and PBS NewsHour said, “Democrats’ climate plan could end greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.” But as many critics have observed, and did at the time, net-zero emissions goals, at least as the US government envisions them, still allow oil and gas producers to continue their production while merely offsetting what they are extracting and producing by planting trees and relying on new innovative technologies that promise to remove carbon dioxide from the environment, like carbon capture, but are not really all that proven to work. So as Mitch Jones of Food and Water Watch has written, “The risk is that the companies responsible for creating the crisis can find inventive and duplicitous techniques to essentially ‘write off’ emissions in one sector by claiming they are canceled out — or offset — by other activities.”

Adam: In addition, the timelines proposed aren’t something to celebrate, but in fact, they are something to lament. They’re simply way too slow given the current rate of environmental degradation and its calamitous effects. Even a generous estimate from the United Nations released in 2018, stated that emissions would have to be cut by 45 percent by 2030. Other sources have reduced climate change reversal deadlines to as little as a few months from now. If the Democratic Party can’t even agree to curb subsidies and tax breaks, how can it take the behemoth industry that science tells us needs to be confronted in order to stave off a large-scale human crisis? We saw this again with responses to climate fires. It’s very rare that Democrats get an opportunity where there’s a real kind of shock doctrine where they can galvanize people, the population around action, and one of those opportunities came with the climate fires in the western United States. As fires ripped through the West and subjected residents to dangerous smoke filled air, the most powerful Democrats in the country were noticeably quiet. See this excerpt from a Guardian article published in mid-September with the headline, “As fires burn the west, top Democrats stay quiet on the climate crisis.” The article would read:

“When asked if Democrats would pursue major climate change legislation immediately if they win control of Congress and the White House, Pelosi gave a jumbled answer. ‘Well, we will have … we will have, obviously, hopefully, the Covid pandemic will have subsided — if there’s any thought that the Republicans in Congress will pay attention to science,’ she said. ‘Right now they’re in a place where they don’t believe in science and they don’t like governance. So they don’t want any reason to have to govern, to call for standards to defeat the virus … but the virus, of course — in other words, to open up our schools and our economy — has to be first and foremost. But yes, it will be an early part of the agenda.’ Pelosi added that climate change has long been her ‘flagship issue,’ spoke of a 2005 energy law she helped pass, and noted House Democrats have drafted a climate report.”

So again, this is the most powerful Democrat in the entire country and as fires are devastating the western United States —

Nima: The country is literally on fire, people.

Adam: — gives a totally incoherent answer, does not galvanize legislation, does not support the Green New Deal, which is a sort of general, polls well, simple to understand, Green New Deal evokes FDR, evokes green, green’s good, I like green, and instead gives this total incoherent answer, does what she always does, which is blame fucking Republicans, right? So Nancy Pelosi, you haven’t passed meaningful climate legislation in years, what’s your response? ‘Oh, Republicans don’t believe in science.’ No shit so why don’t you support something that is robust and popular that already exists? And of course, as we’ll discuss in a later episode, she actively works to undermine the Green New Deal. So again, what does it mean to believe climate change is real when you have evidence of this pending disaster, something people could physically grab onto because one of the problems with messaging climate change Nima is that it’s abstract, or it seems far off but we’re seeing its effects now and we have for several years and there’s opportunities to use these emotive moments, these traumatizing moments to say we have to do something or what’s happening right now in California and Washington and Oregon is going to look like fucking ClubMed. We have to act now and instead, she has to be actively pressed on it by a Guardian journalist and other journalists and then gives the most incoherent, rambling answer, which does what she always does, which is blame Republicans for not acting, but again, it’s not Republicans. You’re not even you’re preemptively yourself dismissing legislation that matches the rhetoric you supposedly and the science you supposedly support.

Nima: Right. And so you have other politicians doing a similar thing. California Governor Gavin Newsom, for example, has been overseeing a drought-stricken state burn to a crisp annually by catastrophic wildfires, publicly presenting himself consistently as someone who is proactive on environmental justice and insisting time and again that climate change is real. Governor Newsom spoke actually at the recent 2020 Democratic National Convention and said this:

[Begin Clip]

Gavin Newsom: I confess this is not where I expected to be speaking here tonight. I’m about a mile or so away from one of over 370 wildfires that we’re battling here in the state of California. We are just coming off of a record week, a heatwave that led to 130 degree temperatures, the highest temperature ever recorded in California, arguably the world’s history here in our state. The hots are getting hotter. The dries are getting drier. Climate change is real. If you are in denial about climate change, come to California.

[End Clip]

Nima: Now, Newsom says that in a recorded message at the convention, but as many climate justice activists, with thankfully a little help from major media, have routinely observed, Newsom himself has an atrocious record when it comes to issues about energy, namely fracking. Just so our listeners know, I think most of you know, but just for the uninitiated, fracking is a process of injecting liquid at a very high pressure into the ground to fracture underground rock formations in order to extract oil or gas lurking underneath. It is incredibly destructive and incredibly extractive of course and since April 2020, Gavin Newsom has approved 24 new fracking permits to Aera Energy, a California oil operator owned by ExxonMobil and Shell. In June of 2020, Newsom approved of an additional 12 fracking permits to Aera. Various sources report that he’s greenlit 48 new fracking permits just since April. Now, this occurred just months after Newsom promised to quote, “manage the decline of oil production and consumption in the state” and “strengthen oversight of oil and gas extraction as we phase out our dependence on fossil fuels and focus on clean energy sources.” Now, according to the oil-well watchdog group Newsom Well Watch, the Newsom administration has approved over 7,400 oil permits since January of 2019. Newsom was elected governor of California just the previous year. Newsom has also been pretty lax on private utility companies previously responsible for starting the fires that consistently are set off in his state, he has failed to execute a public takeover of one of them, Pacific Gas and Electric Company, despite activist repeated calls to do so.

Adam: Now, in Newsom’s mild defense, you know, there’s only so much governors can do. But the point is, again, if you’re going to go to these burn sites and posture about climate change being real, and at the same time constantly approve the extraction of oil and gas from the ground of the state you have authority over, you have jurisdiction over, you have to forgive people for not really believing you believe it and I think that’s the sort of central issue here is, okay, liberals are hypocrites, you know, huge insight Citations Needed, everybody knows that. The point is not just that they’re hypocrites, which they are obviously, the point is that that hypocrisy is itself (a) a form of soft climate denialism, but (b) and I think somewhat more perniciously, and even maybe even somewhat less studied, is I think it’s sows cynicism, when people hear liberals speak in these apocalyptic terms, and then turn around and then go to fundraisers, or events at Rice University, and brag about expanding oil production, well, then I don’t take them very seriously. I don’t think they really believe it and I think that cynicism that that sows makes people not be as urgent as they need to be or say, ‘Well, you know what, they don’t really care so why the hell should I care?’ Because again, if you really believe that these timelines of 10 years, 15 years have to be met, the fact that every single goddamn conversation isn’t started politically with talking about that, again, if you really believe if I don’t accept Jesus, I’m gonna go to hell, right? If you really believe the fucking asteroids come and if you really believe our planet is existentially threatened, if you really believe that, then it should be the absolute first thing you talk about all the time, 24 hours a day, in the most urgent and absolute terms possible. And they don’t.

Nima: Well, right.

Adam: So that means they either don’t believe it, they don’t have the wherewithal or the interest in taking on these powerful interests, I mean, again, you have Biden and Vox and there was a whole 48 hour news cycle about whether Biden can have people who lobbied for and worked for climate polluters, fossil fuel industries on his climate committee. Now, he eventually said no, but the fact that we’re even battling that in the year of our Lord 2020, the fact that we’ve been talking about bringing fossil fuel lobbyists and people tied to and paid by the fossil fuel industry, into the tent of the liberal climate policy is absolutely 100 percent incongruent with the alleged appeals to science.

Nima: To talk more about this, we’re going to be joined by Basav Sen, Cli­mate Jus­tice Project Direc­tor at the Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies. Before that, Basav worked for 11 years as a cam­paign researcher for the Unit­ed Food and Com­mer­cial Workers Union. Basav will join us in just a moment. Stay with us.


Nima: We are joined now by Basav Sen. Basav, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Basav Sen: Yeah, thank you for having me on.

Adam: So in your excellent article at In These Times, the headline of which is, “This Is a Climate Emergency. We Need More Than Half-Measures From Democrats,” You sort of lay out what you view as being the issues with the Democratic approach to climate change. We want to set the table by talking about what the current consensus is of the party. You use the House Select Committee on Climate Crisis Report, the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force — what we call the go-have-progressives-pencil-sharpening-committee — and the official Democratic Party platform itself as well as the Senate Democrats Climate Plan. Using those as a kind of reference point to gauge where the party’s at, because we don’t want to bash a straw man, we want to sort of establish what the consensus is, as of now, 2020, when it comes to what the party stands for, what do you think Democrats get right and what does in your mind convey the urgency of the problem and what do they get wrong, namely in the context of fossil fuel production?

Basav Sen

Basav Sen: Sure, well, if I may take the liberty to do so, before I dive into what they get right, I want to spend a minute talking about why they get those things right. Let’s not kid ourselves that the Democrats inserted progressive provisions into some of these plans out of the goodness of their heart, they did so because of pressure from social movements, especially from the frontline community led environmental justice movement and it’s because of years of pressure from social movements that they have, for instance, started to acknowledge that climate change is not an issue that exists in a silo, that climate change is intertwined with racial justice, and with issues of economic inequality and jobs and all of that. And so they’ve designed climate plans that take those issues into account, at least on the surface and even that messaging does matter. So that is one thing they’re getting right, the fact that they are framing the climate issue as one of racial and economic justice and they recognize that any successful plan to combat the climate crisis does need to and will create a lot of jobs, and that we need to draw the line at those jobs being good jobs and they do get all of that and that’s great. And so you have good rhetoric, sometimes weak on the specifics on, for instance, energy efficiency for especially people in frontline communities and people with low income and wealth and, you know, prioritizing them for deep home energy retrofits and those are all things that the Democrats get right. Now, what they get wrong, a few different things, I dived into two issues in great detail in my article, but let me mention just one more issue that they get wrong, which I just didn’t have the time and the space to cover in my article, which is the neoliberal fetish for technology neutral energy solutions where they elevate advanced nuclear energy, which I believe is an oxymoron, to the same level as solar energy and wind energy, which are genuine, renewable alternatives to our fossil fuel economy. But because they insist on being technology neutral, they come up with these absurd ideas like advanced nuclear, or even fossil fuels with carbon capture and storage, which is something I do get into in my article, and let me just say that chasing carbon capture and storage is a bit like chasing a unicorn because the technology is highly experimental, it’s speculative, and we cannot rely on it to address a grave existential crisis for humanity. And the more we spend time, attention and resources on these solutions that are dead ends, the more we detract from and the more we lose the ability to spend resources where we really need them.

Nima: That makes so much sense, as we’ve been discussing on this episode already, there’s this major disconnect with the rhetoric and the action between how Democrats talk about the urgency of climate change, which we hear oftentimes in speeches and policy platforms, versus the actual policy proposals that they put forward, let alone work diligently to pass and that this, in its own way, can be seen as almost like a kind of soft climate denialism in its own right. I mean, not the way that the Republican Party does it, but by not taking action on something that you know is serious, or at least you claim you think is serious, that is really problematic. We hear the apt apocalyptic language, we have only five to 10 years to act or the planet will be gone as we know it, like that kind of stuff, but then we also hear speaker Nancy Pelosi dismiss even the modest proposals of the Green New Deal as what she called, “The green dream or whatever.” So basically, we used the analogy earlier in the show, if NASA were tracking a comet or an asteroid that was 12 years away, let’s say, from colliding with Earth, and the most powerful Democrat in the country glibly mocked the most popular and feasible plan to intercept and destroy that asteroid or comet to save us all, I think we would be rightly outraged that that was the approach of that powerful politician, but this type of blase wait-and-see attitude similarly defines how Democrats discuss the pending climate chaos and so how does this inconsistently in rhetoric versus policy make — I don’t know — your job harder, Basav? How can Democrats instead maybe match their rhetoric with real action that will save lives and the planet?

Basav Sen: So to answer the first part of the question, the inconsistency in rhetoric is one of two things that makes my job and the job of activists for climate justice, like myself, harder, and the other thing is the lowering of the bar. If one of two permitted sides in the political debate denies the existence of the problem, then the other side can turn around and say, ‘We’re the only game in town. If you are concerned about climate change, it’s us or no one.’ I almost feel like the lowering of the bar by Republicans has enabled the worst kind of, what you’re calling soft climate denialism, by Democrats, they can get away with it, because there is no opposition, barring, you know, I shouldn’t exaggerate, barring some opposition from more progressive people within their own party — and that sometimes shows up in primary challenges etcetera — but for the most part, they are not facing mainstream political opposition of any sort and that alone makes our job much harder. And then there’s the inconsistency in rhetoric and what that means is having to convince a lot of sincere, well-meaning people who might hear that rhetoric and think that ‘Oh, yeah, the climate problem is being taken care of’ trying to convince them that no, that is not the case. We cannot just sit back and be passive and expect our political leadership to take care of the problem because without active social movements holding them accountable, they will not take care of the problem and that’s, you know, that cuts across a number of issues. It’s not just climate, where if the people lead the politicians will follow, not the other way around. And in terms of how Democrats can match rhetoric with concrete action, the first step they should take, is actually talking to people on the ground, people who are living the crises of climate change and environmental injustice every day. The people on the Gulf Coast who’ve been battered by repeated hurricanes this year, the people in California and Oregon who have been forced from their communities by wildfires. They are the experts on their own situations and absolutely the first step should be to listen to people on the ground and address their real needs for both dealing with the greenhouse gas emissions themselves, what we call mitigation and for dealing with the inevitable impacts of climate change that are occurring right now and will continue to occur in the future, even as we got down our emissions and that we call adaptation in climate activists terminology. So yes, the first place to start is through deep and sincere engagement with frontline communities, not engagement to check a box saying ‘Hey, we consulted with you’ but actually listening to what frontline communities want and in addition to that, actually taking this 1.5 degree Celsius upper limit seriously, and recognizing that if a policy does not meet the need for keeping global temperature increase within 1.5 degrees Celsius, then it completely doesn’t matter how many powerful Democratic Party donors or how many powerful corporations or business people or think tanks think that that is a serious policy, it is not a serious policy. That’s another important threshold to keep in mind.

Adam: I want to talk about these frontline communities, what people mean by this, because one of the things that we discussed at the top of the show, we recently talked about, you know, a report talking about the Global North being responsible for the vast vast majority of net carbon emissions that are in the air today versus, you know, now, right? United States, 40 percent, etcetera. It seems to me like the scope of the conversation we ought to be having, and the one that I know that dyed in the wool activists are actually having, is one of reparations, and how are we going to manage the pending refugee crisis — or that’s already here in many ways — and we’re not having that conversation at all. We have a second episode about this in the context of national security, the militarization of the topic, so we’ll table that specific topic, actually, for now, but I do want to talk about how we can’t really even address climate change as a social justice issue without talking about some form of reparations and this is not theoretical, this is going on right now. I mean, there are actual famines, there are actual droughts, floods, and to some extent, you can even measure hurricanes, which of course, like all things, this shit rolls downhill, it’s affecting the most vulnerable, the poorest already and it seems like we’re not even having that conversation at all, that’s not even in the realm of possibility. I mean, without that conversation I’m not sure what an actual equitable solution even looks like.

Basav Sen: No, absolutely, that conversation needs to happen and that’s the role of social movements. The more optimistic side of me thinks that if we can get the establishment of the Democratic Party to move as far as we did, we can push them harder and pushing them harder does entail, you know, taking away some of their bar, which could mean in the electoral arena with, for instance, progressive primary challenges, but also very importantly, outside of the electoral arena with organized people essentially winning more rights and more safeguards in every way and some of it could be directly climate policy and some of it could be more issues of governance and democratization that make our governments at every level more accountable to real people. But obviously, we need to force that conversation upon an unwilling elite, to make it impossible for them to ignore the fact that there is a sizable constituency within this country, sizeable and very organized constituency, that is demanding justice, certainly for frontline communities for, you know, black and indigenous and low wealth communities in this country, but also, very importantly, people in the Global South, people on Pacific islands that are slated to completely disappear from the map with the rising oceans and people in northeastern Africa who are dealing with years and years of drought and famine and are drowning in leaky boats in the Mediterranean etcetera. And essentially, it would mean, for one thing confronting white supremacy, American exceptionalism, etcetera because unless you recognize the fundamental humanity of these people, unless you recognize that they have as much of a right to survive with dignity on Earth, you will resort to measures like a fortress America, keeping refugees out, trying to create a safe, what I call in my article almost a gated community for North Americans or even for privileged North Americans, at the expense of everyone else. So you do need to confront these underlying ideologies of race and empire if you are to honestly address the U.S. role and not just the US, rich countries, so-called advanced countries’ role in creating both the climate crisis and the extremely unjust and unequal economic order that we see in the world today and, of course, those two are related because the wealth of the wealthy countries, this will be the Global South, came from colonialism, it came from the Industrial Revolution, and then the Industrial Revolution led directly to the climate crisis.

Nima: Yeah, I mean, there’s this idea that to condemn and then change policies on a certain kind of extraction, you also need to reckon with the legacy of extraction, right? So it’s not just pulling stuff out of the ground, but it’s also pulling stuff from south to north in that way and I think everything you just said, you know, about really confronting colonialism, confronting imperialism, confronting white supremacy, is wrapped up into this constant kind of democratic, not only inertia, but unwillingness to confront some fundamental truths about our own society, namely, that as our leading Democratic Party politicians consistently, depending on who they are, but the major one, certainly Joe Biden, you know, consistently making sure that everyone knows that he’s not a socialist, right? And so like, ‘I’m not a socialist, I’m certainly not a communist.’ So what that all comes down to is to reaffirm a commitment to capitalism and in that way to racial capitalism, which, you know, speaks to everything you were just saying, so that when you then bring the conversation around to anti-displacement policies, to right of return, to water affordability and accessibility, it comes around also to self determination of these communities that have been so extracted upon and if you actually start talking about that, you wind up having to confront the fundamental question of capitalism, which seems, at the end of this all to be the thing that the democrats refuse to actually do and that is then preventing them from seeking genuine solutions.

Basav Sen: No, that’s exactly right and I don’t know what to attribute that to but I think it’s one of these “all of the above” situations where I do believe that, I mean, that’s kind of the inevitable outcome of the fact that we have only two official major political parties in this country and so there’s a range of political positions within each party, or at least, there used to be and now there remains within the Democratic Party, though the other party’s becoming increasingly homogenous. But there are people within the Democratic Party who actually identify with all of those things you mentioned with capitalism, with imperialism, etcetera. So it’s not so much a mistake or a lack of analysis on their part, it is a conscious political and ideological choice in terms of whose interests they see themselves as representing and then you have people who might have misgivings about capitalism or imperialism or could be pushed to have misgivings about them but who regardless, are stuck in the past, they seem to think that this country is exactly what it was, I don’t know, 30 years ago, and if red-baiting and socialist bashing, communist bashing got votes then, it should get you votes today. So there’s an element of that as well. So, I really think it’s both where some people do those things because they believe that’s how you win and that’s what people want to hear but there may be some people in the Democratic Party who really sincerely believe those things.

Nima: Right. Sure.

Adam: So earlier, we presented a trichotomy, if you will — I’m not sure that’s a real word, but we’re gonna use it anyway — that the gap between the rhetoric and the policy proposals, the actual concrete policy proposals, and also I think the sort of urgency of the rhetoric, that that gap can be explained by one of three realities (1) Democrats don’t really care about the disastrous, inevitable environmental collapse, (2) they don’t really believe the science so they think maybe it’s overhyped, or (3) they’re simply hopeless and/or spineless. I want to talk about the third option, which is that I think it’s the kind of unspoken subtext of much of this discourse, which is that I think a lot of people in power, and this is just speculation on my part, but I want to assert it for the sake of argument, I think a lot of people in power, believe the science, maybe even are open to some mitigation, but I think there is a sort of unspoken subtext to much of what they’re doing that they kind of think there’s nothing we can do about it and that really what we’re talking about is going to be a Fort Apache approach of defending quote-unquote “American interests” and making sure that the suffering doesn’t befall Joe Blow in middle class America but mostly falls upon the poor in the Global South and the poor stateside. What do you suspect that maybe the sort of subtext of a lot of this is that mentality and if so what are ways in which we can sort of maybe provide a little hope, or maybe counter this kind of implicit cynicism?

Basav Sen: You know, that cynicism may be a factor and likely is a factor with many people in Democratic Party leadership certainly, but also never discount the fact that sometimes these people really cannot think beyond the next election cycle. Just like a lot of publicly traded corporations can’t think beyond the next quarterly financial report.

Adam: Right.

Basav Sen: So a lot of them are not looking at this so much in the way of ‘Okay, so where will the country, the world stand 10 years from now, 20 years from now?’ What they’re thinking of is, ‘How can I please my donors, how can I please some key voters to make sure I get reelected, or even to make sure that I have a position of power within the party apparatus.’ So it’s not just a question of getting reelected, they want those speaker and committee chair and those kinds of positions. So it’s a lot of short-term calculation and what drives a lot of short term calculation is number one, political campaign contributions, which, if you look at senior Democrats, you will find a lot of corporate money, including a lot of fossil fuel money, etcetera, and so their lack of urgency and their weak positions on climate is partly the fossil fuel money talking honestly. And then there’s the more complicated issue of organized labor. Now, at the outset, let me say, as a former union person, I am very much a supporter of the right of workers to organize and that should be foregrounded, that should be a key part of every plan to address the climate emergency and we must make sure that the jobs that we create in any Green New Deal, or whatever we call it, are good jobs that pay livable wages and good benefits, good working conditions, and very importantly, and show that workers have a real right to organize without employer intimidation, which is routine in organizing drives in the US. Now, having said all that, I must say that some unions who represent workers in particularly the fossil fuel and construction sectors, and I’m saying construction because there are workers who build the refineries and the pipelines, etcetera, and a lot of those unions often take this knee-jerk position that we are not going to sacrifice job growth today to fight with a whole lot of other movements for a much better future five years from now, 10 years from now, where actually there will be a lot of jobs for our members. But they’re also thinking short term and that’s partly driven by the defensive posture that organized labor finds itself in in this country with the massive erosion in union membership that has happened over the last few decades. So that’s partly just a defensive posture, you know, circling the wagons, but regardless, there is some very real resistance from many unions to serious action on climate change and — you know what? — that’s partly understandable because everyone wants job security, everyone wants a future that they can count on and economic uncertainty is not something anybody really wants to live with and I completely understand that a lot of membership in these unions are very legitimately concerned about the future of the jobs but you do need to balance that against the fact that if we were to have a transition away from fossil fuels into a renewable energy economy, away from a gas guzzling, auto-centered, transportation system to one that’s much more reliant on mass transit and rail and stuff like that or an agriculture system that transitions away from big corporate agribusiness, which often is very mechanized and does not employ many people, to a more labor intensive agro ecological model, we are going to create a lot of jobs. And the role of the labor movement should be to fight to make sure those are good jobs and I’m not pretending that that will be easy. It’s going to be a very hard fight but it’s one where a lot of justice minded, anti- racist, anti-imperialist, climate activists are going to be on board with them and honestly, it’s the kind of risk that all social movements need to take for a better tomorrow, instead of clinging on to a dwindling number of particular jobs, which are going to disappear often one way or the other. For instance, if you look at what’s happened to coal country, in the U.S., coal jobs have declined, they’ve gone off the cliff, because of market forces, and the unplanned transition that has resulted has left economic devastation in its wake. If instead, everyone, the government, local communities, unions, environmental organizations, if we all sat down and planned the transition, we would have much better outcomes.

Nima: So I’m going to ask you something that we usually don’t ask people on this show, because we’re usually a real downer, but do you see movements for environmental justice that you think have a chance of breaking through? What do you see that is happening that is good? I mean, there are, you know, kind of things like the introduction of the Climate Equity Act in Congress, there are initiatives like the Equitable and Just National Climate Platform and Environmental Justice for All Act, but, you know, do you see these as being movements towards something good or are there other things that you have seen happening in the environmental space, in the labor space that you think maybe bodes well for this issue in the coming years?

Basav Sen: There are several things I could tell you that do bode well. I’ll give you a few examples. All the pieces of legislation that you mentioned, or for that matter, the language on environmental justice in all of these platforms, would not, as I had mentioned earlier, have happened but for the fact that there was massive pressure from social movements to the point where the powers that be, at least in the Democratic Party, couldn’t pretend to look the other way anymore. Just a few concrete examples. So for instance, I’m very actively involved with the Climate Justice Alliance. My program is a member of CJA and many organizations within CJA are doing cutting edge work both what’s called prefigurative work, as in creating their own sustainable agriculture co-ops and their own renewable energy co-ops, etcetera, to transition from the ground up, as well as pushing for visionary good legislation at the state level, at the local level, etcetera, and, you know, a few examples being the CJA member organizations in New York pushed for the state level Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act — I guess that’s what it is called, CLCPA — which is quite simply the best piece of climate legislation at the state level and that was a major victory. Likewise, very recently, environmental justice groups in New Jersey, won a historic EJ bill in New Jersey, and again, it was the result of years of organizing, but it’s borne fruit and these victories on the ground are happening and the question is, how do we scale up from the local to the state and from the state to the national level? And that’s what the best minds in the movement are thinking about right now. So yes, there is hope and there is hope, even in the language and language does matter, because language is how people understand the policies and it’s how they get framed. So for instance, the fact that the national climate debate has moved away from this magical thinking of all ‘Oh you just put a price on carbon and the market will take care of everything,’ the fact that that’s not considered a serious climate proposal at the national level anymore is again, because of years of organizing by frontline organizations and community groups. For instance, two years ago, in September of 2018, the then governor of California organized this climate summit and there was a major mobilization of people protesting outside the summit, and that did shift the media coverage and it did start to shift the perception. You know, the media was seriously asking, ‘Why are environmental activists protesting an environmental conference?’ And they asked the question in all seriousness, and found out, it’s because a lot of the movements on the ground regard the so-called market-based solutions, like cap and trade and carbon offsets, etcetera, as false solutions and the recognition that those are false solutions, or at least politically toxic solutions, seems to be taking hold. So I would call that a victory as well.

Nima: Well, I think on those notes of hope, that’s a great place to leave it. Basav Sen, Climate Justice Project Director at the Institute for Policy Studies, before that Basav worked for over a decade as the campaign researcher for the United Food and Commercial Workers. Basav, thank you so much, again, for joining us today on Citations Needed.

Basav Sen: Thank you so much for having me on your show. I really enjoyed our conversation.


Adam: Yeah, I mean, one of the things we don’t want to do on the show is we don’t want to sow the cynicism that we are criticizing. There is hope, these movements outside of the electoral process, electoralism, will be the ones that define the terms and I think that there’s so many people working on this right now, Democrats are paid to do nothing, in many ways, right? That’s what they get paid to do and they only respond to pressure and this is why people talk a lot about peaceful protests, peaceful protestor, peaceful protestor, cops hit a peaceful protestor. One of the reasons I’m sort of squeamish about this kind of moral dichotomy between peaceful and non peaceful protest is that if you play the tape to the end, and this is just an ideological assertion on my part, I don’t have, you know, obviously can’t read the future, I don’t think you’re going to really meaningfully change the course of climate change without non peaceful means. Or I should say, at the very least, you need that option, right? I think there’s a place for voting, I think there’s obviously a place for primering Democrats on this, there’s a place for trying to go after misinformation spreading Republicans and that’s all good, I think there’s a place for nonviolent protest, but I don’t see realistically how in the next 10 years are going to change this without — I don’t know — having all options on the table.

Nima: Right. My favorite phrase.

Adam: I don’t, that doesn’t make sense to me, at the very least, it should be an arrow in the quiver as it were and so all this kind of preening about violence, nonviolent, peaceful, non peaceful, it’s like, well, I don’t break it to you but what the oil companies are doing is a form of violence.

Nima: I mean, that’s the thing when the active destruction of the planet and the oppression of communities and families that it takes to continue that kind of ongoing destruction, that is itself violence and so the idea that, to combat that, you have to maintain a posture of sort of pleading and hoping is probably not going to do it. It’s not going to match the violence that has been ongoing for not only decades, but centuries, when it comes to extraction and so how do you counteract extraction? I think there are a lot of different ways, right? Like, I’m not, I’m not anti-voting. I’m not anti-electoralism in that way. But it needs to be supplemented with other things, as our guest Basav Sen said, there are all of these moves made, you know, in party politics, in platforms, in bills, but none of that would have happened without the ongoing and committed determination of environmental justice groups who have been at this for decades and so, you know, that needs to be understood that there is a fight that is going to continue and it’s not just going to be asked for and hoped for. At one point, if we want to survive, it’s going to have to be demanded, and it’s going to have to be demanded with force.

Adam: Yeah, I mean, look, again, that’s only if you believe in the science. If you believe in the science, then we have to have the kind of urgency. Next week we will be discussing. Another aspect of climate change media coverage that we think is equally important and in many ways, overlaps with what we’ve been talking about, which is the militarization and jingoism and hyper nationalism approach we see from many liberals when it comes to climate change, specifically those like Pete Buttigieg, who insist on framing climate change as a national security issue, which sounds sort of wholesome and maybe a good way to win over a few proverbial NASCAR dads and soccer moms in Fairfax, Virginia, but is in fact actually quite insidious, and we’ll discuss why that is next week.

Nima: We’ll be joined next week by Laura Steichen, Outreach Coordinator for the National Priorities Project at the Institute for Policy Studies. So be sure to tune in for that episode, but until then, thank you everyone for joining us for this episode of Citations Needed. You can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson and as always, a very special shout out goes to our Critic-level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.

Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.

Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. The transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. And the music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again for listening everyone. We’ll catch you next time.


This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, October 21, 2020.

Transcription by Morgan McAslan.