US politics is stuck. Can the climate movement shake it loose?

A long shot. | Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft Media/Getty Images

The clash between what must happen and what can.

As Friday’s climate strike dramatically illustrated, the politics around climate change are shifting rapidly, around the world and in the US. Hundreds of thousands turned out across US cities, and millions more across every continent, sending an unmistakable signal to political leaders that there is broad public will for action.

This dynamic is mirrored in US polls, which show climate change rising to a top concern among Democratic primary voters and even among the general electorate. The pressure has clearly pushed the Democratic candidates for president, all of whom have released ambitious climate plans.

And those polls, along with a long series of surveys showing that younger people, including young conservatives, are worried about climate change, have even pushed Republicans in Congress to pretend like they care. (Baby steps.)

americans on climate changeChicago Council

All of this is thrilling for climate hawks, who have been beating their heads against this wall for years. The shift that has burst into the open over the last few months feels different from previous ebbs and flows in public opinion. It feels more durable, stronger, like it might keep growing — like the cavalry may finally be arriving.

americans on climate, by ageChicago Council

Even as the popular movement for climate action gains momentum, though, US politics is more stacked than ever against change, more frozen in place than it has been in decades.

Frozen means brittle, and the more brittle a thing becomes, the more likely it is to shatter; perhaps radical, stepwise change is on the horizon, for good or ill. It certainly doesn’t feel like things can go on as they are.

Nevertheless, throughout American history, it has always been unwise to bet against the forces of entrenched privilege. And it is unwise today to underestimate just how high polarization has raised the barriers to action.

To illustrate the point, let’s take a walk through the steps that will be required to secure substantial, durable climate action in 2020 or soon after — the kind of action that will be absolutely necessary if the US is to get anything close to halfway decarbonized by 2030, much less fully decarbonized by mid-century, as the IPCC suggests and as several presidential candidates have committed to backing.

The narrow path to short-term climate action

To begin with, let’s acknowledge that the GOP is not going to help on climate change, at least any time soon. If the party is in a position to block action, it will do so. (For an extended argument to that effect, see here.)

With that in mind, here is what must happen before anything big — or even anything small — is possible on climate change in the US.

1. Democrats win the House

Chances for this look pretty good, though it is by no means a sure thing.

2. Democrats win the Senate

Odds of this are still well under 50/50. It will mean running the table on a whole string of tight races.

3. Democrats win the presidency

This is probably under 50/50 too. Trump’s approval remains hovering around the low 40s — he’s an extraordinarily unpopular president — but all the pieces are in place for him to replicate his unlikely 2016 electoral college victory.

4. Trump leaves office without violence

Trump is increasingly breaking the law right out in the open, encouraged by House Democrats’ evident aversion to impeachment. There’s every reason to believe that he will continue to break the law in pursuit of victory. And his efforts will come atop a foundation of state-level GOP gerrymandering and voter suppression.

If the result is close, if Trump believes that he lost because of Democratic cheating — and every cheater believes everyone else is cheating — will he go quietly? Will Republican members of Congress back an effort to force him out? Will the Kavanaugh Supreme Court? Will his devoted state media at Fox or his highly armed base of voters?

Talking about serving more than two terms suddenly isn’t a joking matter for Trump anymore.

“In six years — or maybe 10 or maybe 14, right? — in six years, when I’m not here, the New York Times goes out of business very quickly,” he says, deadpan. pic.twitter.com/VN6zZUr5S0

— Aaron Rupar (@atrupar) August 21, 2019

It’s difficult to put odds on this, but that alone should be unnerving.

5. Democrats scrap the filibuster

If Democrats need a supermajority of 60 votes to get legislation through the Senate, they won’t get any legislation through the Senate. Period. If they want anything big on climate — anything that contains much-needed agency and regulatory changes — they will have to remove or substantially reform the filibuster. (One idea, supported by Senators like Sanders and Merkley: make the filibuster back into a “talking filibuster,” forcing Senators to remain on the floor as long as they delay a vote.)

Without filibuster reform, virtually the only vehicle for action is a budget reconciliation bill, which could pass with a bare majority, but would contain only a fraction of a comprehensive climate policy.

Filibuster reform is, frankly, unlikely. Many Senators in both parties like the filibuster’s 60-vote threshold. It protects them. They don’t have to take any risky votes — they move only when consensus is overwhelming. Problem is, consensus is never overwhelming any more so they just don’t move at all. But plenty of them would rather cling to fantasies about a return to comity and bipartisanship than “make the Senate into the House,” as the phrase goes.

Filibuster reform would require enormous, coordinated pressure from both Democratic leadership and Democratic interest groups, both of whom are going to have a lot on their hands in 2021.

6. Conservative Democrats sign ambitious legislation

If Dems accomplish all the above, they will at last be in a position to pass … whatever Joe Manchin will sign.

A Democratic Senate will have 50, 51, maaaybe 52 Dems at the outside. Without Republican votes, that means virtually every Democratic Senator will have veto power over legislation, including the Senate’s most conservative Dems — think Manchin, Alabama’s Doug Jones, Arizona’s Kyrsten Sinema, or Colorado’s John Hickenlooper.

It’s not clear what level of pressure could induce Manchin to sign, say, a ban on fracking. Or a target of net-zero electricity by 2030, which would involve a phaseout of all coal plants and most natural gas plants. Or a massive, multi-trillion dollar investment program paid for by carbon taxes and/or taxes on the wealthy. To date, his support for climate policy has been limited to subsidies for carbon capture.

7. Democrats survive backlash and grow their Senate majority in 2022

In America’s closely divided political system, wave elections are typically followed by backlash. And the electorate in midterm elections tends older, whiter, and angrier than the presidential-year electorate. The 2010 midterms were one of the most significant elections in my lifetime — a liberal wave stopped cold, a Democratic administration legislatively frozen for six years, and a generation of partisan gerrymandering.

If there is a wave election in 2020 — and that’s what it would take to give Dems the Senate — there is a high risk of voter backlash in 2022, especially if they back several big, disruptive bills like Medicare For All.

On the other hand, the Senate map is much friendlier to Dems in 2022, with 22 Republicans and just 12 Democrats up for reelection.

If Dems come out if ’22 with a larger Senate majority, they will have a somewhat wider margin of error to work within. Indeed, 2022 could prove pivotal for a number of reasons, including possible leftist victories in several major EU countries. Roosevelt Institute scholars argue that 2022 is a “once-in-a-century opportunity for progressives to push through major changes to an international system that has often held back progress at the domestic level.” But that’s only if they keep control.

8. Democratic initiatives survive court challenge

Thanks to Mitch McConnell’s procedural radicalism, the federal bench and the Supreme Court are now packed with conservatives. If Democrats are lucky, Ruth Bader Ginsburg will survive to 2021 and they will win enough Senate seats to confirm — over inevitable, unified Republican opposition — a new justice. That will preserve the perilous 5-4 conservative balance, in which every decision will come down to the not-very-swing vote of “moderate” John Roberts. (Kavanaugh has certainly not been endeared to liberals by recent events.)

Roberts’ disposition toward environmental law is no great mystery. A new analysis last week, from scholars at Take Back the Court, found that “The Roberts Court Would Likely Strike Down Climate Change Legislation.” The court is emboldened, more nakedly partisan than ever, and hostile to government ambition across the board.

Unless the incoming Democratic administration does something equally procedurally radical, like expand the Supreme Court and stack the lower courts, the conservative Supreme Court will be limited in the number of climate initiatives it can block only by sheer quantity, by the number of cases it is able to take.

 Photos: Getty Images. Photoillustration: Javier Zarracina/Vox
The court situation, basically.

(That said, environmental groups have racked up an impressive legal record against Trump, with NRDC winning 49 of its 54 decisions so far.)

9. Democrats keep control in 2024 so everything doesn’t get reversed

As Trump has illustrated, and Obama before him, US politics is increasingly flipping back and forth between two radically different coalitions, leading to wild regulatory and legislative swings that make it difficult for businesses to do long-term planning and for other countries to trust any kind of agreement with the US.

Despite ongoing demographic shifts, prospects for Republican moderation still seem remote, so there’s every reason to believe that GOP control in 2024 would lead to another Trumpian attempt to block or reverse everything Dems have accomplished.

Another such reversal of climate progress in the US could poison international efforts at cooperation (at least with the US) for good.

Navigating this path will require a large, ruthless, and pragmatic movement

As much progress as it’s made in just the last six months (building on decades of slow, grinding efforts), it is safe to say that the climate movement is not yet strong enough to push US politics through the narrow aperture described in the last section. And it knows as much.

Friday was historic & beautiful. 4 million people joined the #ClimateStrike around the world.

But we gotta be honest with ourselves if we want to win & survive.

There are not enough of us yet.

Join our call Tuesday to talk about how we step it up: https://t.co/kZf8TiYX0j

— Sunrise Movement (@sunrisemvmt) September 22, 2019

For any hope of success, the movement is going to have to do a bunch of things, and it’s going to have to do them quickly:

First and perhaps most importantly, it must prove that it is an electoral force. It will have to turn out in numbers and make a difference in electing candidates who support it or punishing those who don’t. Nothing else (except maybe money) will get through to Congress.

It’s got to get right with labor — not the service unions, many of whom are already on board, but the industrial trade unions, which have more sway among conservative Democrats. Some labor leaders and their allies in Congress were extremely put off by the rollout of the Green New Deal resolution. Suspicion among labor is one of the key reasons support for the GND seems to have topped out in Congress.

While reassuring unions that the GND will mean good jobs for its members, the movement must also commit to equity to reassure environmental justice groups that their constituents won’t get the short end of the stick again. EJ groups are highly suspicious toward many of the very efforts that labor views as essential, among them nuclear power and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Those issues can be navigated in good faith; there’s a lot of confusion on all sides to work out, and conflicts to be mediated, but they don’t need to stand in the way of the larger effort. Given the slim chances of victory and the desperate stakes, any sectarian disagreement that can possibly be put aside should be. That will mean securing the trust of the EJ community by baking equity in from the start.

It needs to rehabilitate the term “Green New Deal,” which has been poisoned by Fox News for many inside Congress. Making it the rallying cry of a global movement doesn’t hurt, but in the US context, it needs to make some public alliances with unexpected coalition partners, things like the newly announced Farmers and Ranchers for the Green New Deal. And it needs to convince members of Congress that they can be part of the broader GND effort without buying the whole package (e.g., the job guarantee). Ecumenicism, within limits, is to be preferred.

It needs to work with Democratic leaders on a package of first-100-days legislative priorities that are focused, above all, on building political momentum. In practical terms, that might not include everything wonks want or everything democratic socialists want, but the priority must be on simple, popular policies that produce visible benefits. Both Congress and the public need to be convinced that climate legislation is possible, even pleasant. Backlash in 2022 must be avoided.

Tea Party
2010 was sure fun.

In the event Democrats don’t take the Senate, the movement needs to think about a few bottom-line demands regarding the president’s use of executive powers. Declaring a national emergency and taking money from other parts of the government, as Trump has done? Banning fracking on public land? Fuel economy standards that phase out gas and diesel vehicles? (I’ll be doing more down the road on the limits of executive powers.)

Finally, and more generally, any good movement organizer acknowledges the need for both an outside and an inside game: people on the outside organizing strikes and nonviolent civil protest in the streets, and people on the inside making deals, fighting for inches, and getting incremental progress in every appropriations bill and amendment fight.

The movement must figure out how to develop both of these and, crucially, a base level of trust between them. This has been the downfall of many a progressive effort, including the 2008 climate bill: those on the outside think those inside are selling them out; those inside think those outside won’t show up to support progress when it’s actually on the line.

An enormous outside game will be required. Strikes and protests will have to become a large, disruptive, and regular feature of US political life to make lawmakers genuinely nervous. But a good inside game, people who know how to work the system for every increment of advantage, is desperately needed as well. Both sides must give the other support and room to work.

This is an incredibly steep hill to climb and a lot to ask of a bunch of young people, who might reasonably ask where the hell their elders have been for the last 30 years.

But there’s no time to get rid of all the old people or build a whole new system. The movement has got to throw itself against this system, which is built not to move. It must become unstoppable.

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