THE LAST HURRAH
President Biden's climate plan is not a new beginning, but the culmination of old approaches.
The last month, we’re told, has been a historic moment for climate action.
In one way, this is absolutely true.
President Joe Biden last Thursday committed the U.S. to cutting its greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030—a landmark goal. This caps a first 100 days in the which the Administration took bold actions. Biden appointed leading climate experts to a host of key positions, signed critical executive orders, prioritized climate in his first budget and began to campaign for a two trillion dollar, climate-centered infrastructure bill. This is all, as the kids say, a BFD.
Add to this major pushes in Japan, China and the European Union; the relaunch of Green New Deal efforts here in the U.S. and a surge in green politics elsewhere; and a steady stream of corporate pledges to act to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and we have just seen an unprecedented surge in calls for action and concrete proposals for emissions reductions. More has happened in climate politics and policy in the last month than happened in whole years during the last three decades I’ve been writing about humans and our planet.
Don’t get this moment wrong, though. This is not the sea change we’ve been hoping for. What we’re seeing is not the start of a new approach to the planetary crisis we face, but the last hurrah of the old.
There is a knot in the heart of American climate policy, even today: what many Americans consider unreasonably radical changes are not actually bold enough in the face of the climate emergency. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Sure, it’s possible to critique these kinds of proposals and declarations from a blizzard of angles. We could start, as some have, by noting that even cutting emissions in half over ten years may not be enough to set us on the path to a stable-if-hotter climate. We could note the shortage of specifics. We could scoff at the budgets involved, noting that the tasks at hand could easily put to use funds that are ten or twenty times as large as the proposals so far made. We could criticize the fairness of the spending that is proposed, noting how much of it goes to propping up some of the very industries and practices that have put us in this crisis, and how little goes directly to those poorer populations least responsible for the mayhem ahead, yet most vulnerable to its manifestations. All of these criticisms have been made. Many are fair. I fully grasp the frustration many advocates feel in this moment—I get the sharply worded demands for details, for mechanisms, for bolder commitments, for faster timelines, for more, goddamit, MORE!
But politics is the art of the possible. The Biden administration is being led by some of the smartest, most seasoned, most committed climate policy leaders America has to offer. We’re talking about people who’ve fought tough, fruitless battles for years, waiting for their chance to change things. My gut take is that what this administration is proposing is probably close to the limit of what’s possible in 2021 in American politics.
This is not a problem unique to the Biden administration and its efforts (or even to America). Our debate is out of step with the times, and the Biden climate moment is very much a creature of our debate. Much of the American public debate still treats the planetary emergency like an issue among many—an abstract scientific topic to wedge between the bleeding news of the night and the sports scores, unless there’s awe-provoking disaster video to stream.
When we do get around to having sober conversations about the magnitude of the changes tearing through the world around us, most of the ideas we discuss are decades past their sell-by date, and treat the crisis as a distant problem. Acting on behalf of our grandchildren. Gradual policy changes. Slowly rising carbon taxes. Eventual improvements in technology. Living “a little more sustainably.” Planting trees. Planning to build some sea walls.
If the Biden moment feels to many like a headlong rush forward it is because of this context of silence and gradualism. When we suddenly leap from ideas and solutions that are in some cases 50 years out of date to ones that are merely a decade behind—to doing the stuff we should have done in the Obama years—we can almost feel the acceleration force smacking us back in our chairs. It feels like it’s fast, because it is; it feels like it falls short, because it does. It’s not enough. We’re still winning far too slowly to celebrate.
This is not an accident. It is a deliverable.
We’re winning too slowly because we face a set of interest groups for whom losing slowly is the same thing as victory.
We live within what I call the Interval of Predatory Delay, a time that began over 50 years ago, when a set of high-polluting industries decided it was wiser and more profitable to fight to delay change on climate and sustainability than to invest in lower-carbon and more sustainable systems and processes. Easier to torch the planet and lie relentlessly, they decided, than avoid catastrophe and lose revenue.
For decades now, they have been controlling the pace of their own defeat. They have spent billions of dollars denying the science, downplaying the consequences of inaction, inflating estimates of the costs of change, sabotaging our civic debates about the future, bribing and buying public leaders and attacking the reputations and livelihoods of thousands of scientists, journalists and advocates who’ve pushed for a greater sense of urgency. Not one single element of our debate about the Earth and our future on it has been left unharmed by this assault.
In a moment when speed is everything, our very ability to judge the tempo of needed action has been hampered.
The debate may have shifted from outright denial of the crisis to calls for measured and responsible action, but strategy is still the same: stall. Our public discourse is beset with climate triangulation: approaches to a present and all-consuming crisis that first emphasize ambitious distant goals, then solicit modest initial steps, and then agrees to accepting those halting, insufficient actions as “in line” with ambitious transformation. Triangulation reframes delay as responsibility.
In order to protect these strategies of (as climate scientist Mike Mann puts it) “inactivism,” one thing is critical: slowing the rate at which the public grasps the true nature of the events around us. A boundary on our debate is fiercely defended: urgency must always be paired with the idea of terrible costs and risks if we act too fast.
As long as we accept this boundary, we’re bound to having an outdated debate. We cannot have a 2021 debate in 2021. The moment our debate catches up to current realities, that boundary will cease to exist. The moment triangulation is revealed to be not acumen, but denial, a giant tear will rip through our assumptions about what works, now. The moment the interval fails to prevent planetary realism from informing our ideas of political realism, predatory delay will fall.
We have run on for a long time, living in (often willful) blindness, telling ourselves comforting stories of continuity and gentle transitions, but sooner or later the fierce realities of life on Earth were always going to catch us. They’re very close now. That’s their breath you feel, raising the hairs on the back of your neck.
Reality is about to get very fucking present in our public debates, institutional decisions and daily lives. The Interval of Predatory Delay is about to end.
When it does, we’re going to find ourselves in a landscape transformed in the time it takes to shut your eyes tight and open them again, like people huddling together in a basement while a terrible storm howls outside, waking to find their whole house has been flung away by the winds. Blue sky and bare branches above.
Few politicians have the brass to go around talking this way, which means few, if any, are willing to talk about the discontinuity already spinning around us. Sure, we can discuss worsening disasters, the promise of new technologies and the jobs to be had in a greener economy. But that’s not what this discontinuity means.
This discontinuity means, first of all, the bursting of financial bubbles surrounding the most unsustainable and indefensible parts of our world. Not just the coal industry—not just fossil fuels, for that matter—but a vast array of industrial and business practices that have no future, and are about to be priced accordingly.
It also means the need to ruggedize, to prepare not just for the next big hurricane or wildfire, but for the increasingly brittle nature of economies tied to climate-vulnerable places. Many communities around the world are already growing uninsurable, unlendable, uninvestable—places those with prospects flee from, and those who cannot flee grow desperate within.
It means not just a need to “incorporate” climate and sustainability into current expertise, but the shattering realization that most expertise has been rendered out of date, that the past is no guide for building future acumen, and that the sheer scale of the opportunities for action in the immediate term will be the most powerful force for economic upheaval since the invention of the steam engine.
All this is happening, right now, and you’re in the middle of it.
How do we act—successfully and for the benefit of all—in the real world, the one made discontinuous by the planetary crisis? That’s the only conversation worth having. Climate leadership in the real world means direct collisions not only with entrenched interests, but entrenched beliefs.
When we look at the Biden climate moment through this lens, we can understand it as an effort to do real good without tearing apart the political fabric of America. The same America that has already experienced rapid political polarization and a violent insurrection. The same America that suffers catastrophic refusals to believe science even when (in the form of medicine and epidemiology) it can save lives. The same America that has a political party not only essentially inseparable from fossil fuel interests, not only supported a Russia-backed con man as president, but is actively engaged in every form of civic sabotage it can find. The Administration is going as far as it can within the agreed-upon boundaries of the debate as it stands, while seeking to avoid a wider political war.
It’s obvious why politicians and public figures might be hesitant to throw themselves into the front lines of that fight. All who gain from the old order become your enemies, while those who will benefit from disruptive action still largely think in outdated terms. The Beltway crowd is absolutely not ready to do that, at all. We are not going to see this Administration, the Democratic party, pundits and opinion leaders center discontinuity in their politics any sooner than they have to—if for no other reason than because many of those people have little, if anything, to offer in terms of expertise or leadership in a discontinuity with the situations that gave them their existing expertise, standing, and wealth.
To look at this moment clearly is to see that the planetary crisis isn’t an issue, it’s an era. It’s the fundamental context in which all good decision-making now operates… and that alone renders much of our current thinking obsolete. If we’re still talking about how to meet the planetary crisis gradually, without disruption, while preserving a continuity with business as usual, we’re not having the debate that matters now.
If we want to be at home to this moment, we cannot wait for those leading out-dated institutions to guide us. We have to take the good we can get from the actions that are politically possible now, and also ready ourselves for the fastest pace of change humanity has ever experienced.
The Snap Forward—this book I’ve been writing with Justus Stewart—is an attempt to anticipate the nature of planetary discontinuity and grapple with the demands of climate leadership in the real world.
Paying subscribers and Kickstarter supporters of the book can listen to an ongoing private podcast covering the new ideas in the book one at a time. The book itself will shortly be available for pre-order.
If you’d like to be part of that conversation, please join us:
A snap forward in our thinking is inevitable. Let’s bring it on faster, and be ready when it comes.