Capitalist Carbon Regime or Climate Justice?

  We will not achieve climate action by means of an apolitical platform. Radical progressive policy may soon be possible, and we must build political power around this opportunity.

We will not achieve climate action by means of an apolitical platform. Radical progressive policy may soon be possible, and we must build political power around this opportunity.

The Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) is branded as a non-partisan grassroots advocacy group aligned with decarbonization from an apolitical perspective. The CCL’s key policy goal is passing revenue-neutral carbon tax legislation. Its main aspiration is to depoliticize climate issues, but its actionable policy timeline remains unclear. Through collaboration with the US House Climate Solutions Caucus, the “first ever bipartisan caucus on climate change,” CCL has positioned itself as a facilitator of discussion across the aisle. With dramatic growth to 84 Congressional members since its founding, these numbers suggest that bipartisan support for climate policy is stronger than ever. However, the past two years of zero policy progress suggest that its rapidly growing membership isn’t actually translating into meaningful decarbonization. Instead, CCL prioritizes an appeal to moderate voters rather than commitment to aggressive, sufficient decarbonization policies.

As the midterms draw closer with increasing optimism of Democratic gains, it is crucial to evaluate leftist strategy that best leverages the shifting balances of power within Congress rather than sacrificing crucial time, resources, and lives in the name of “bipartisan compromise,” which is often detrimental to progress.

Bipartisan legislation and climate justice appear mutually exclusive in this increasingly polarized political landscape, and CCL must prioritize its fundamental commitment to democratic values that facilitate meaningful climate action even where these conflict with bipartisanship. Despite idealistic visions of solidarity, climate change is inherently political, and addressing this reality requires leftist political strategy rather than ”bipartisan” initiatives that perpetuate existing structures of capital and power. The fee-and-dividend strategy is not tied to equitable energy transition, and the oil industry’s support of the policy hints that it could further cement corporate economic and political power. Will the left perpetuate existing structures of oppression to pursue a capitalist climate strategy? Should climate policy prioritize legislation inherently biased towards those in possession of political power, or strive to empower and uplift the diverse communities traditionally excluded from the climate debate?

Ideals of a bipartisanship climate coalition were fundamentally shattered after the July 19 vote in favor of House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise’s (R-LA) non-binding resolution against a carbon tax. The vote fell along party lines to a remarkable degree, with a mere six Republicans voting against the legislation. This reveals a harsh contrast to membership within the Climate Solutions Caucus, which boasts a total of 43 Republican members allegedly committed to debating US energy transition. However, CCL remains optimistic about this symbolic victory, with executive director Mark Reynolds describing the six Republican votes from Thursday as “an indication that there are cracks in the wall separating Democrats and Republicans on climate change.”

In peculiar timing, immediately following the anti-carbon tax vote, Rep. Carlos Curbelo (R-FL), a founder of the Climate Solutions Caucus, broke from the Republican Party line and introduced a business-friendly carbon tax dubbed the “MARKET Act.” Heralded as a commendable, albeit unpassable, step towards bipartisan climate reform, Curbelo’s proposition immediately received support from CCL and other establishment climate advocacy organizations. Although the plan is projected to reduce emissions below current estimates, it also eliminates the gasoline excise tax and cedes EPA authority over the Clean Air Act in an attempt to win Republican votes with federal pollution deregulation. This carbon tax bill passed under a Republican Congress would unequivocally lead to erosion of the EPA’s power and disadvantage a Democratic administration’s regulatory authority. Though there is an inherent value to an immediate carbon tax plan, the MARKET Act is far from a just compromise, as it firmly reinforces the status quo balance of economic and political power.

The Democrats and the climate left must now weigh the costs and benefits of supporting a carbon tax—burdened by other corporate-friendly tax offsets and deregulation—and its implications for not only carbon emissions today, but also the political landscape for years to come. The MARKET Act highlights the opportunity cost of ceding long-term progressive power for short-term symbolic victory and the costly consequences of collaboration with corporations for marginalized communities, often divided along lines of class and race. On July 25, in a perfect example of greenwashing, corporations including Shell and BP published a letter endorsing the measure, lauding Curbelo’s efforts towards a “collaborative, non-partisan solution” that involves an “economy-wide, market-based approach” to carbon pricing.

Despite apparent support for a transition toward renewables, Big Oil is ultimately only interested in hitting internal sustainability targets, competing with coal, and securing future profits. These corporations have a history of “economic extortion,” claiming that industry expansion creates job opportunities, typically hazardous, for the low-income communities of color most hurt by oil extraction and refinery. Shell and ExxonMobil are quick to add support behind legislation that legitimizes the involvement of Big Oil in the future green economy rather than creating the infrastructure for a fossil-free future—and this economic trade-off is paid for in the lives of the working class. With midterms fast approaching and a real likelihood of Curbelo's loss to Democratic challengers, the left must not undermine the real power of the EPA and backtrack on gasoline legislation. As it stands, the MARKET Act is ironically inadequately business-centric to garner Republican support, particularly regarding manufacturing job sector declines, and incapable of addressing the demands of marginalized groups all but absent from the climate debate.

Attempts to build market-oriented bipartisan ties with House Republicans have proved ineffective, and as near-future Democratic congressional gains appear promising there is increasing reason to push for leftist strategy rather than toe the lukewarm party line. The leftist climate movement has been hindered by anti-climate Republican control of the entire federal government and most state governments, and the MARKET Act represents a forced compromise under the constraints of a Republican executive. Now, when we could motivate a massive power shift with a new Congress, we must not let this GOP Congress pass deficient climate legislation. Instead of settling for ineffective centrist strategy, established green organizations like the Citizens’ Climate Lobby would better align with and uplift the fresh leftist voices, like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan’s 13th Congressional District, who are breathing energy into the climate movement. These upcoming candidates are running on a platform of the working class people, a demographic increasingly estranged from centrist leaders in the Democratic party. The CCL and Caucus’ “moderate” platform appeals to an increasingly nonexistent population, and as midterms approach with increasing hints of Democratic Congressional gains, cohesive climate legislation is becoming possible. Uplifting and supporting a radical progressive policy platform in the coming months is key, rather than continuing to enforce a "moderate" status quo only beneficial to the white, middle class.

Now more than ever, grassroots and youth-led organizations such as RISE California and Sunrise Movement are working to bring together the voices of immigrants, indigenous communities, labor movements, and many others. CCL, a notoriously white, male organization would do well to align with these groups and advocate for their needs. This would be a dynamic contrast to current support for big greens and their favorite politicians, an example being CA Governor Jerry Brown, who has issued over 20,000 new drilling permits during his time in office and fails to ban fracking despite devastation in the Central Valley. Investment in emerging green technologies and a shift away from fossil fuel permitting and expansion is key to advancing economic growth, labor justice, and creating sustainable leftist decarbonization strategy. The two need not be mutually exclusive, but it seems that much centrist climate strategy is targeted towards more affluent demographics of the nation rather than those at the frontlines of the climate crisis. And, given the rapid onset of unstoppable runaway climate disruption, this is no time for tepid incrementalism.

Curbelo’s MARKET Act shows some non-zero Republican support for climate action, which is a positive change. But, despite the allure of bipartisan compromise, the left must not lay the foundations for an unjust, capitalist pathway to decarbonization when we have the prospect for political leverage to enact radical climate reform of, by, and for the people.

Ishana Ratan is a PhD student at UC Berkeley. Her research interests focus on trade barriers and their role in the rapidly globalizing international economic landscape.