The Democrats, Markets, and Climate Change

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With the Trump administration’s ongoing devastation of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)—most recently he has worked to gut the Endangered Species Act—an oppositional climate politics that points to a renewable future for everyone is more important than ever. If you listen to much of the media or the mainstream #resistance, the most obvious way to do this is to vote for Democrats in the midterm elections this November, and for the presidency in 2020. After all, they believe the overwhelming scientific evidence that CO2 emissions are, in fact, heating up the planet, and at least nominally believe in regulating those emissions. However, the Democrats are not only not friends of the environmental movement, but actually impede it from achieving its goals, while paving the road for the extractivist right-wing agenda to dominate national politics. Put simply, the Democratic Party’s commitment to capitalism, and its ensuing approach to regulating the environment through markets, categorically prevents it from being an ally to the environmental movement in any instance.

It is an oft-recalled curio that it was not a Democrat, but a Republican, Richard Nixon, that signed into law the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) (1970), the Clean Air Act (1970), and the Clean Water Act (1972), as well as various other legislative initiatives that have provided the framework for environmental regulation in the U.S. to this day. He also used his executive authority to form the EPA, the independent agency of the United States government tasked with environmental protection. The first Earth Day was celebrated in 1970, under Nixon’s presidency.

Since then, climate change has become a much more partisan issue, with the majority of Republicans denying that man-made global warming is even real. To liberals and much of the left, this leads to an obvious strategic conclusion: vote for the people that acknowledge the overwhelming scientific evidence that human activity is in fact heating up the planet. However, a fair assessment of this strategy finds both a yawning gap between the language of the Democrats and their actions, and an uninspiring track record on policy changes that has served to hamper rather than help leftist environmental action.

At first glance, this line of reasoning might seem befuddling. Didn’t Clinton sign the Kyoto protocol? Wasn’t it Obama who pushed for cap-and-trade and blocked the Keystone XL pipeline? These accomplishments are real, but simply thinking of them as “wins” for the environmental movement obscures more important questions: what kind of wins were they, and did they help the left fight the right-wing’s gas-guzzling, climate change-denying agenda? Why has the left suffered more losses than victories on this issue? What can we do to change this?

President Carter’s environmental track record often goes unmentioned in debates around climate change, but he was the earliest adopter of market-based strategies to deal with environmental issues. While augmenting the budget of the EPA and creating superfund sites to clean up toxic waste (in response to the protests that emerged after the disastrous 1978 Love Canal tragedy), he also deregulated price controls on oil and gas and eliminated the utility monopoly on energy for resale, while providing generous subsidies for wealthy farmers. Of course, it was President Reagan who would thoroughly question the purpose of the EPA, and his zeal for unregulated markets earned him the trust of the oil and gas industry that has continued to supply the Republican Party with generous donations to this day. However, it was Carter’s friendly attitude towards markets that opened the door to this kind of attack.

After the setbacks of the Reagan years, several leading Democrats and their allies decided that they needed a new strategy, called “Third Way” politics. Dick Morris, a conservative political consultant, described the Third Way as taking ideas from the left and right-wing, “gett[ing] rid of the garbage of each position” and, by those means, “triangulating” the opponent. It was this political ideology that made Clinton a friend to environmental movements—of the top-down, corporate, NGO-dominated kind. Naomi Klein critiques this model of activism in This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. Climate. She writes that “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting [corporate] interests—they have merged with them.” Klein points out that many of the biggest environmental groups actually take donations from major oil and gas companies and even have members of those corporations on their boards. Thus, it should come as no surprise that during his presidency, Bill Clinton collaborated with major environmental organizations to find the most market-friendly solutions to the now widely-acknowledged problem of global warming, with these organizations’ lobbying and fundraising arms ballooning in an attempt to curry favor with the administration. Leaders and CEOs of the corporate environmental movement, such as Fred Krupp, were keen to “swap the ‘relentlessly negative’ tone of ‘polluter-pays’ environmentalism for market-based approaches and partnerships with major corporations — fossil fuel companies included.’’ This meant working with companies like McDonald’s and Walmart to create sustainability strategies rather than directly confronting the major producers of greenhouse gases.

Under Bush things were no better, with his administration seeking to “undermine the view held by the vast majority of climate scientists that human-caused emissions of carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases are making a discernible contribution to global warming”. Because of this, many left-leaning and environmentally concerned voters were hopeful that the Obama administration would finally change course.They would be disappointed.

Despite his campaign promise to focus on a transition to renewable energy sources, President Obama doubled down on the United States’ commitment to pollutant, “dirty” fossil fuels. In his own words, “Over the last three years[...] [the U.S. has] opened millions of new acres for oil and gas exploration. And tonight, I’m directing my administration to open more than 75% of our potential offshore oil and gas resources.” CNN reported the next day that Washington announced “plans to sell off oil and gas leases on 38 million acres of the Gulf of Mexico seafloor in a new domestic energy push.” Furthermore, his administration used the US Import-Export bank to spend “nearly $34bn supporting 70 fossil fuel projects around the world.” Actions speak louder than words, and a quick glance at the money spent by the Obama administration to not only maintain, but expand oil and gas extraction, lay waste to its claims of a clean future.

What of his achievements? Didn’t Obama halt the construction of the Keystone XL, a major tar sands pipeline that stretched from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico? The reality is a little more complex. For one, he did not oppose the construction of the pipeline until there were major protests against it, including blockades at many of the construction sites. Many state governments also objected, as the pipeline was slated to pass over the Ogallala Aquifer, which much of the Midwest and South depends on for drinking water. Despite all this, Obama still chose to wait and request that TransCanada, the company building the pipeline, “reconfigure the pipeline route”. It was only when Republicans forced him to take a position that he rejected construction, arguing that “Washington needed more time to study the matter.” Even after this decision, TransCanada was “already developing an alternative route in the full expectation that it will be accepted several months after the election.” The status of the pipeline is still in limbo, but a recent decision by Nebraska’s Public Safety Committee indicates it might be moving forward. The Trump administration has given it the green light.

Perhaps even more important is the Dakota Access Pipeline, which received national attention after thousands of activists flocked to South Dakota to support the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in their effort to prevent the pipeline from being built over sacred burial grounds. Obama received much praise for halting construction by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, again on the basis that the route needed to be studied more. However, he did not take lasting action, even knowing that Trump was coming into office and would allow the pipeline to be built when he did. He also did nothing to stop the brutal police/private army repression that was occurring at Standing Rock, leading to the permanent injury of various protestors. Most egregiously, he did not respect the existing treaties that gave the Standing Rock tribe autonomy over their land.

As we have seen, President Obama was no enemy of the oil and gas industry. Nonetheless, his administration did, at least on the surface, attempt to transition away from dirty fuels to the extraction of “clean gases” that can be drilled for through horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking. In his 2014 State of the Union he described it as a “bridge fuel” that could “power our economy” with “less of the carbon pollution that causes climate change”. He went on to add, “my administration will keep cutting red tape and speeding up new oil and gas permits”. The realities of these forms of extraction, however, belie the promise of a transition to a cleaner energy future. For one, fracking pollutes the air and water where it is being drilled for, and constitutes a danger to those living in the area. It is banned in several countries, such as France, Germany, and Ireland for that reason. Even the EPA, which had at first stressed that fracking had no “systematic, widespread impact” on the water supply, had to reverse course. Furthermore, while not completely settled, there is evidence the methane emissions caused by the process of drilling for natural gases offsets the reduction in CO2 emissions. As one paper puts it, “There is no doubt that in terms of carbon dioxide and some of the EPA criteria pollutant emissions, natural gas is much preferable to coal. However, its role is often exaggerated in the media and by fossil fuel industry front groups. Investing heavily in natural gas exploration can only lower CO2 emissions as long as it occurs at the expense of coal. But the newly built infrastructure is expensive, and must be monitored for leaks continuously to prevent offsetting effects from methane emissions.”

Ultimately, the main problem with the transition to “clean gases” is that it isn’t really a transition. As long as is it in the control of private companies, any infrastructure created to drill for clean gases will not simply stop being used once the U.S. is “ready” for fully clean, renewable energy. Furthermore, it is not at all clear that “clean” gas wouldn’t compete with other forms of renewable energy (such as wind and solar)  on the market and actually prevent them from being implemented. Natural gas “represents a long-term investment not made into more effective replacements for coal, namely renewable energy. There is a real risk that the US locks itself into a natural gas future, which cannot deliver the deep carbon cuts necessary for a two degrees maximum global warming goal.” Relying on the same companies and mechanisms to fix the problem that caused it leads to a dead end. Instead of buying into simple narratives about “clean” vs. “dirty” energy, we should ask ourselves: why is it that Obama’s supposedly “clean” energy policy was “music to the ears of the oil and gas industry,” as one enthusiastic observer put it. And we should also ask, as Naomi Klein does in This Changes Everything: “why would notoriously ruthless for-profit companies accept a business model that relies on them not competing with large parts of the energy sector (wind and solar), requires that they submit to a huge range of costly regulation, all with the eventual goal of putting themselves out of business?” The answer should be obvious.

Obama’s most significant proposed environmental legislative reform was what’s popularly known as “cap-and-trade”. The American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (popularly known as Waxman-Markey), which passed the House of Representatives but never reached the Senate floor, would have established an emissions trading scheme similar to the one adopted by the European Union in 2005. Ultimately, Obama used his presidential authority to create a new set of emissions standards for the EPA (which were almost immediately rescinded by Trump upon entering office).

Roughly, cap-and-trade seeks to reduce carbon emissions by putting a price tag, or permit, on carbon emission —corresponding to the tons of CO2 emitted—and then limiting the amount of  permits companies can accumulate. To get under the limit, high-polluting companies can purchase permits from low-polluting companies. While this system may be effective in halting the most extreme excesses of the extractive energy industry, it leaves plenty of room for companies (which are often not based only in one state or country) to use trades to “balance” their emissions. Furthermore, a cap-and-trade scheme leaves plenty of room for the finance industry to take advantage of the opacity of the carbon credit system and the price volatility it introduces.

The ultimate problem with cap-and-trade, and the Democrats’ strategy on climate change reform in general, however, is not that they don’t meet certain specific targets, but that they rely on markets to solve a problem that markets created. Cap-and-trade’s permit system treats carbon emissions as a commodity, not an scarce natural resource, the use of which severely affects people’s lives and livelihoods. Ultimately, commodities must be sold for companies to sustain profit, regardless of the social consequences. Andrew Loewen writes of capitalism that “Whatever the virtues or faults of such a system, it doesn’t take a brilliant mind to understand something very simple about it: it is a system which by its very nature, in order to exist, grows and expands.” To maintain profitability, a company must constantly expand to find new sources of revenue. In such a massive sector of the economy as energy (just as an example, the top five oil companies raked in $900 billion in profits from 2001-2010), this means that billions of dollars are already invested in extracting dirty fossil fuels such as oil and coal, and the investors in these companies have no intention of losing out on their future profit. As one industry insider puts it, “Fundamental economics support sticking to oil & gas until the bitter end as supplies decline.”

Furthermore, these powerful companies are not neutral politically. In theory, one could imagine a very tightly regulated market that succeeded in limiting greenhouse gas emissions, but the reality is that oil and gas companies spend a lot of time and effort to prevent that from happening. They regularly pump millions of dollars into political campaigns and lobbying efforts with the goal of relaxing regulations on their industry and giving them free reign to pursue profit, regardless of the consequences. In other words, the fact that these companies are highly profitable and that they pursue laissez-faire economic policies is not a coincidence; it is because one is true that the other is, too. To challenge the latter is to threaten the former. In plainer English, “These companies are rich, quite simply, because they have dumped the cost of cleaning up their mess onto regular people around the world.” To change that would mean restructuring the imperatives of society as a whole.

Any environmental movement must face up this challenge if it wants to achieve any of its goals. It must ask: is it possible to have a sustainable future as long as energy policy is dictated by profit, rather than human need? Can we truly eradicate the uneven consequences of greenhouse gas production as long as those most directly affected have no say in these decisions? What would an alternative future look like? From this perspective, the Democratic Party, with its commitment to capitalism and ensuing inability to directly challenge the private companies that dig us deeper into this mess than the wells they drill, represents not only a difficulty, but the single biggest obstacle to changing the course of climate change and the future of life on earth.

Alex Bartiromo is a freelance writer and an activist with the International Socialist Organization currently living in Brooklyn, NY.