The world is facing a make-or-break moment for climate policy. Without unprecedented action, we’re all but guaranteed to see catastrophic climate breakdown by the end of the decade.
As the world’s top historical emitter and current second biggest carbon polluter, the U.S. has a particular responsibility to take climate action. This November’s election is shaping up as a generational turning point. Presumptive Democratic nominee for president Joe Biden and Democrats looking to win the Senate and hold the House have a chance to change the course of the U.S.—and quite possibly the world.
During the primary, Biden put forth a $1.7 trillion plan to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a number dwarfed by his main rival Senator Bernie Sanders’ plan. He’s since said he’ll expand that platform and convened a task force with Sanders to advise him on climate policy. But he hasn’t clarified what power it will have, and has also also appointed advisors with awful environmental records. Meanwhile, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has put together a committee to offer suggestions on climate as well, though with similarly vague authority.
Biden and the DNC have a choice now: They can follow the centrist route to climate doom or embrace radical but necessary climate policies. Doing the latter wouldn’t just help the planet. It could help open up a whole new era for the Democratic party by appealing to voters who, polls show, are ready for to embrace legit climate action.
“We need strong, bold, ambitious policies because it’s what science tells us we need,” Michelle Deatrick, the chair of the DNC’s Council on the Environment and the Climate Crisis who was a surrogate on Bernie Sanders’ campaign, told Earther. “It’s the right thing for us, for the future, for the communities disproportionately impacted, but it’s also really good politics.”
Earlier this month, the council Deatrick leads put forth a call for the party to commit to spending $10 to $16 trillion over the next decade to draw down carbon emissions, help communities adapt to climate change, and put the country on track to phase out of greenhouse gas emissions by 2040.
The ambitious proposal includes plans to move the country’s electricity, transportation, and building sectors to 100% renewable energy by 2030, ban fracking and crude oil exports, end federal funding for all domestic and international fossil fuel projects, and establish a federal Just Transition Task Force to help workers and communities who are disproportionately affected by both the climate crisis and the transition away from fossil fuels. The council is pushing the DNC to fold these policies into its platform at the national convention in August.
If adopted, the language would mark a sharp departure from any previous DNC platform. Unlike previous platforms, the council’s plan was explicitly crafted to not only draw down national carbon emissions, but also promote equity.
“This started out talking about climate justice and environmental justice. That’s a first,” Peggy Shepard, the executive director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice who served on the platform’s drafting committee, told Earther.
The 14-page plan is also far more comprehensive than previous platforms. 2012's platform included just half a page on climate policy, and 2016's included 3 pages. Getting the DNC’s platform and Biden’s plan to embrace a justice-centered approach to climate is only a first step and not the end goal, but there’s evidence it could help win over voters. Throughout this election cycle, Democratic voters have consistently listed climate change among their top two political priorities, and young Republicans have also begun to show they’re not so fond of climate denial. In polls, Democratic voters also show support for justice-focused climate policy.
Deatrick has seen this yearning for climate action firsthand. Earlier this year, the council held a listening tour across the country to meet with communities who’ve experienced climate devastation, including floods, droughts, and wildfires.
“What we heard over and over... is that the clock is ticking, that we are approaching or are past the tipping point, and that they are seeing impact in their local communities,” Deatrick said. “They want the Democratic Party to be the party of climate solutions.”
If the DNC created a more inclusive process to hear from more voters across the country, she’s confident they’d see this is the case. But doing so would require a fundamental shift in the party—one that prioritizes the interests of voters over the interests of the fossil fuel industry which is largely responsible for the climate crisis.
Whether or not the Biden campaign or the DNC will take the recommendations seriously is an open question. The DNC has not yet announced who will be on its 15-person platform drafting subcommittee or said when their platform draft will be written.
Whatever the process is, it’s fair to assume Deatrick’s council will face an uphill battle to get its recommendations included in the platform. Anonymous party insiders have already attempted to dismiss its proposal, telling Reuters it was a “nonstarter.” And the climate council was born out of combat with the DNC’s infamously centrist leadership, forming a year ago after the party angered climate advocates by refusing to hold a primary debate focused on climate.
“The challenges are going to look a lot like the same challenges that we saw in the climate debate,” RL Miller, a climate activist and founder of the political action committee Climate Hawks Vote who was recently elected to the Democratic National Committee and also advising the council, told Earther. “Democrats generally understand climate science... but the places where there is tension are between those who demand that we move fast, and those who say that we can move slow.”
But Miller, who herself was forced to flee 2018's Woolsey Fire and nearly lost her home, said that as more people witness the urgency of the climate crisis firsthand, continually delaying bold climate action is a losing strategy for Democrats.
“People know climate change is not some sort of abstract distant thing, it is right here right now,” she said. “And ultimately, that is what we need to bring to the Democratic Party platform.”