Low Energy Candidates

If we’re going to avert collapse, progressives have to dream bigger.

 Photo by  Joseph Pearson .

Photo by Joseph Pearson.

There aren’t many candidates running for office in the United States on the issue of climate collapse.  As the New York Times recently reported, “The vast majority of Democrats and Republicans running for federal office do not mention the threat of global warming in digital or TV ads, in their campaign literature or on social media.”

Of course Republicans don’t mention climate change. Their official position on it is that it doesn’t exist. Even many centrist Democrats shy away from talk of climate and energy. Some particularly timid Democrats might even well be considered deniers. The DNC leadership, moreover, recently decided to resume taking fossil fuel industry donations. If they really believed climate collapse was imminent, they wouldn’t still be empowering the people most responsible for it.

Denial, anyway, is just the most generous interpretation of the Democrats’ move to stay in bed with Big Oil. But what about the most progressive of their candidates? The 2018 midterm elections are seeing a record number of self-identified progressives and democratic socialists seeking office. Bernie Sanders’ ‘Our Revolution’ PAC—a clearinghouse of progressive candidates—has endorsed 196 individuals running for state and federal offices across the country. Of those candidates, 40 are running for US Congress or Governorships. These include big names on the left like Tulsi Gabbard, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Beto O’Rourke, Andrew Gillum, and Sanders himself. Are these forty, uber-progressive candidates prioritizing climate and energy?    

Honestly? It’s not looking great. Almost a third (12) of these candidates don’t mention climate change at all on their campaign websites. On the other hand, all but seven mention renewable energy, perhaps reflecting polling that suggests a huge majority of Americans—more than 70 per cent—want to see a lot more renewable energy. But while almost all candidates have at least one mention of either climate or energy on their sites, more than a third (15) of the forty candidates don’t list any specific policy goals related to climate and energy issues whatsoever. And many of those who do mention policy of some kind only include the feeblest of nods to “clean energy investments” or rejoining the woefully inadequate Paris Agreement.

When you dig a little deeper into the campaign literature (as I unfortunately have), the picture grows even bleaker. Only three of the forty most progressive candidates—Sanders, Sarah Smith (WA), and Deb Haaland (NM)—put forward comprehensive policy plans for climate or energy goals. Only two candidates—Jamie Raskin (MD) and Deb Haaland—list climate and energy as their top issue.

Looking at the data, two main questions arise. First, do progressive candidates really care so little about this issue, or is this just a messaging problem? Second, are any of these policy proposals—even the best— good enough?

One answer to the first question: it’s hard to tell. Despite the popularity of renewables, climate change often ends up low on the list of issues that Americans prioritize. With extreme weather events intensifying and broadening their reach, this is admittedly changing. Since 2010, climate and environment have enjoyed a nearly 20 point jump to 48 per cent in the proportion of Americans who think these should be top priorities. Millennials, meanwhile, overwhelmingly prioritize addressing climate collapse. Despite these data, however, most candidates just aren’t talking about it much publicly. Maybe they believe that it doesn’t move votes as well as free healthcare, for instance. Maybe they think it’s not as inspiring, or doesn’t seem as immediately pressing in voters’ lives, as policies like Medicare-for-all do. In some districts, this may be the case. For candidates running in districts in which climate change remains divisive, or where there’s low urgency around the issue, then making it less prominent in the literature may be reasonable if they want to win. But this certainly is not the case for all 37 of these 40 candidates who have failed to assemble a comprehensive energy transition plan. We can assume it’s either bad messaging, or that they simply do not see a need to invest in this issue with any urgency.

Can we expect these progressive candidates to prioritize climate and energy issues above all else while actually in power? That’s impossible to know right now. A few of these candidates, like Sanjay Patel (FL), Tulsi Gabbard, Ilhan Omar (MN), and Deb Haaland, were environmental activists before running, so maybe we can count on them to prioritize climate and energy.

The rest, maybe not. President Obama campaigned aggressively on addressing climate collapse, but he did little to advance climate policy and, in some ways, set us back on mitigating collapse. In 2009, when the nation’s only climate legislation passed the House of Representatives, he fatally neglected it in favor of focusing solely on the Affordable Care Act. His administration massively expanded oil and gas drilling and pursued weak, ineffectual, and non-durable climate policies. Obama may not be the most progressive politician, but there’s no reason to believe this new crop of candidates will be any more motivated to prioritize energy transition once in office either, particularly given their strikingly weak positions on climate. Unless climate and energy become major political mobilizers, and unless voters put tremendous pressure on these politicians to prioritize them when they’re in office, they’ll probably just do what all signs indicate: prioritize other issues instead.       

But what if candidates do pursue even the most aggressive policy proposals being put forth in this election season? Will they be enough to avert collapse?

Short answer: no.

Slightly longer answer: Two central, specific energy transition targets that pop up repeatedly in progressive Dems’ platforms are 100 per cent renewable energy by 2035 and 100 per cent by 2050. In this case, the angel is in the details. Though they may look like fairly similar targets, the difference between the two is profound. With the recent IPCC report giving the world about twelve years to pursue massive energy transition and about thirty years to reach zero carbon emissions, that fifteen-year difference could be absolutely critical. As Alex Steffen notes in Mother Jones: with climate policy, “It’s all about speed.”

But given the need for zero emissions by 2050, even a 2035 deadline for 100 per cent renewables begins to appear completely inadequate. First, it’s not always clear in these platforms whether “100 per cent renewable energy” refers to only electricity, or all energy. This is another profound but easily overlooked difference. The Data for Progress version of the “Green New Deal” package appears to resemble Ocasio-Cortez’s, which has been called “the most progressive of that of any sitting Congressperson in the Democratic party.” It seeks 100 per cent renewably-powered electricity by 2035. While electricity accounts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the US, industry, agriculture, and transportation together account for nearly twice that amount. Decarbonizing electricity would certainly be amazing, but we won’t reach safe targets if we still pump out record amounts of CO2 from freighters, farms, and factories. Further, while these deadlines can be good politics, they’re not great policy; it’s nearly impossible to hold politicians accountable for achieving goals whose deadlines may sit far outside their terms of office. If they can’t be held accountable for achieving the goal while they’re in office, then as effective policy the goal doesn’t matter much.

Goals like 100 per cent renewable electricity by 2035 don’t even begin to substantively address the very difficult questions of how we decarbonize aviation; how we feed a growing population with non-carbon, deindustrialized food systems; how we extract greenhouse gas from the atmosphere; reforest much of the world; or how we coordinate a global drawdown in emissions in the span of a few decades. To be fair, the Green New Deal does call for more than faraway energy targets, and its goals are close to what will be needed to reach safer emissions targets. But the pathway to those goals remains mostly glossed over. As David Wallace-Wells recently pointed out in New York Magazine, expanding a NYC subway line by three stops took 45 years. The herculean undertaking of completely shifting the global economy within a shorter timeframe cannot be overstated. So, while these policy platforms may be the best we’ve gotten so far, they’re not nearly good enough.

Though the situation looks bleak, there may be one reason for optimism. As one candidate, incumbent Jamie Raskin, has stated, “Climate change isn’t just an issue,” but rather “the entire context in which we have to make all our public policy decisions.” Instead of siloing the issue, several candidates have tied climate and energy into larger, cohesive policy packages and broader justice issues, the Green New Deal being the most prominent example. It’s some comfort to know at least a few people in power are living in the real world. While the aims of the Green New Deal alone may be insufficient, a paradigm-shifting policy package like it could usher in the kind of multi-faceted changes in culture, economy, infrastructures, and lifestyles needed to avert civilizational collapse.

But the number of candidates with such big dreams remains very small: only about seven among the forty progressives. And only three of those seven have put out detailed policies. This is unacceptable. If voters want to see their children survive into adulthood, if they want to secure a stable planet on which life can thrive, and if they want to foster the conditions suitable for organized civilization, then we have to work much harder at pressing aspiring politicians to prioritize these issues. If we are to survive, then every person involved in controlling our institutions must prioritize energy transition and climate policies above all else. This means we have to call them, meet them, organize for or against them, speak out against their weak positions, get out pro-climate votes or withhold our votes, run for office ourselves, attach these demands to our donations, sue them, hold strikes, rallies, and demonstrations, and do everything else in our power to force them take this issue as seriously as it deserves. Our lives depend on it.

Samuel Miller McDonald is a writer and geography PhD student at University of Oxford studying the intersection of grassroots movements and energy transition.