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David Roberts of Vox, says that Biden’s climate strategy targets many key areas that scientists say must be addressed. David Roberts joins Paul Jay on theAnalysis.news podcast.
Hi, I’m Paul Jay, and welcome to theAnalysis.news podcast.
One has to judge the Biden climate plan, released on July 14th, in two ways. First, compare it to President Trump’s plan. Okay, we’ve just done that. Now compare it to what scientists say is necessary to face up to the climate crisis. Is Biden’s plan more substance or fluff? Is it a political tactic aimed at winning over the left’s vote, or is it a real plan for reaching critical targets that scientists say we must hit to avoid climate catastrophe? Of course, it could be both.
Then judge it according to the realities of the balance of power, the massive political clout of the financial sector, which mostly owns the fossil fuel sector and most everything else. Can effective climate policy be implemented without winning over or weakening or winning over by weakening the BlackRocks and other financial titans? So far, finance is learning green rhetoric, but doing next to nothing real. The only climate policy they really support are plans that can be financialized from which they can make money like cap and trade. I’m not moralistic about that. If climate crisis can be averted by policies that make Wall Street rich? Well, so be it. There’s just zero evidence that effective policy can be merged with the short term profits of finance. That’s a difficult paradox given the urgency of the situation.
When discussing this, there’s always a tension between what’s necessary and what seems politically possible. The problem is, “Without preventing warming, reaching and passing two degrees centigrade above pre-industrial levels, we’re looking at the end of human civilization as we know it.” That’s a quote from Australia’s top climate scientist, but many others have said it. In 2019 U.N. annual emissions gap report states that, “If all the countries that made commitments to the Paris agreement fulfilled those promises completely, we’re still headed for two degrees warming by 2050 and three degrees by the end of the century, and that three degrees, many think is a conservative estimate.” I’ll say it again.if the Paris objectives are fully met, we hit almost unlivable conditions in 30 years and a catastrophic tipping point in 80 within the lifetime of our kids.
Of course, the Paris agreement targets are not being met, especially after four years of presidential climate denial. The IPCC says the world must avoid hitting 1.5 degrees warming because once 1.5 degrees is hit, it might be impossible to prevent further warming. And even at that level, the consequences of extreme weather will cause terrible damage. Scientists are saying we must have a rapid phase out of fossil fuels, particularly coal, mass deployment of solar and wind energy and the eradication of emissions from cars, trucks and airplanes. Does the Biden plan accomplish that? Does it at least create a space to discuss more effective policy? Or given Biden’s history, is it a ploy, as many Sanders supporters fear? Now joining us to discuss the Biden plan and the political struggle in the Democratic Party that gave rise to it is David Roberts. He’s an energy writer at Box, where he covers climate change, clean energy and politics. Thanks for joining us, David.
Glad to be here.
So let’s start by talking about the politics of this. The Biden plan came out of a task force that was created and worked out as a plan between Biden and Bernie Sanders, the AOC co-chair of the Task Force with John Kerry. So talk about the politics of how we got to this task force and this plan, and then we’ll kind of dig in more into the substance of the plan itself.
Sure. I mean, I guess it depends on how far you want to go back, but I would say it was right around 2018 when Dems were winning big in the midterm elections. I think that kind of prodded a lot of people to think, well, you know, because ever since Trump came in office, everybody’s been on defense, the Democrats have been completely on defense and in a panic and just trying to keep up with the outrages, but that’s sort of like raised the possibility that come 2020, there might actually be a chance to do something. And it became very clear that on the Democratic side of the aisle, on the broad left of center, let’s say, there wasn’t really a plan, there wasn’t a clear answer to what would we do if we got power because after that kind of explosion of the Cap and Trade bill back in 2009, 2010, you know, the movement just kind of fractured and everybody went off on their own direction. Some people started the climate movement, started protesting pipelines, some people went after States, state level action or city level action, some people went after the corporate sector. There was a fragmentation and what started happening just before and after the midterm elections of 2018 were people on the broad left of center coming together and talking and trying to figure out, okay, you know, where are we now? What do we want? What policy do we want? How much do we overlap? How much do we share goals, et cetera?
There’s just been this profusion of meetings and councils, and processes, discussion processes on and on. On the left, various leftist center groups, including; environmental justice groups, union groups, traditional green groups. And then in Congress, Democrats on various committees started trying to put together kind of bills and visions. Then, of course, the Democratic candidates running for president, notably all have had climate plans, very ambitious climate plans. I think it’s safe to say every Democratic presidential candidate had a plan that would have been more ambitious than anything Hillary Clinton ever proposed in 2016. There was this burst of action and discussion and thinking and writing, and what emerged from that is that there is a lot more alignment than people necessarily thought there would be or expected.
It turns out there’s quite a bit of common vision about what needs to happen. The big sort of elements of that vision are, I would say a couple of background sort of facts informed this sort of consensus making. One is, I think everybody at this point, left of center, has come to terms with the fact that Republicans aren’t going to help. They’re not going to vote for anything, they’re not going to do anything serious, they’re not going to agree to anything serious, they definitely won’t vote for anything serious. And so, therefore, there is no point at all in trying to craft a plan meant to appeal to them, right-––meant to be sort of proposed as bipartisan, centrist, everybody can get onboard because, you know, they tried that back with Waxman and Markey back in 2008 and 2009, and the right made it very clear what their response to that would be. So it becomes about, we’re not trying to lure the right here. What the main strategic goal is to get it, because if you don’t have any help from the right, then you need the entire left right. If you don’t have any one from the right, that’s going to cross over, you’ve got to keep the entire left unified. So the sort of strategic focus shifted from bipartisanship to uniting the various factions of the left.
Second, I think was a sort of coming to terms with the fact that, carbon pricing, putting a price on carbon, either through a carbon tax or through cap and trade is not in fact, the silver bullet is not, in fact, the one true climate policy, is not, in fact, the only thing you need to do to solve this problem, it’s not some magic bean. It’s a perfectly credible and decent policy that deserves a place alongside many, many other policies, right. It’s a piece of the larger puzzle and not some “end all, be all”, best of the best.
So those are the sort of things that were informing the development of this new alignment. In the way I describe the alignment, in this big post I wrote about it is, I boil it down to three elements: standards, investments and justice. So standards means, never mind this sort of oblique, roundabout method of pricing carbon. Let’s just go right after the sectors where the big emissions are and where we know how to reduce emissions. So that means cars, buildings and power plants. In all those areas, we know how to do it, and the alternative technologies are available. What’s needed is just concerted effort to drive the carbon out of those sectors, so tight, declining emissions standards in those sectors. And, there are lots of other standards you could bring into this, too, but those are kind of the core. Then investments I think you can credit this in large part to the advocacy for the Green New Deal, sort of brought this back to the center of American politics, but investments means spending big public money on big infrastructure projects, you know, electric car charging networks, high speed transmission lines, CO2 pipelines, just building, building, building, building, which means jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs
So in this sense, harkening back to the New Deal, that was the sort of signal feature of the New Deal’s big spending of public money to drive deployment of these technologies; to drive the infrastructure we need for the technologies to grow and to create jobs; to grow our way out of this horrendous recession. The third piece is justice, by which I mean a couple of things. One, justice for workers, which means that all these new jobs created and all these subsidies you’re handing out and all these standards you’re imposing need to be good jobs, right? So in a sense, you sort of make the public assistance contingent on these projects having work plans or union standards that are high. Basically trying to make these into union jobs, because right now the oil and gas jobs really are better than the clean energy jobs. That’s just a fact. They pay better, they’re more unionized, there would be better pensions.
Yeah, the clean energy sector is much less unionized than the fossil fuels sector.
It’s a sad thing, and I think there’s a widespread recognition that that’s got to change. If you want to talk to workers about this transition, you can’t bullshit them. You have to really create good jobs for them to transition to. So justice for workers, justice for communities who are invested in fossil fuel economies. So, for instance, coal communities in Appalachia, et cetera. So justice for them, meaning not this sort of “hand wavy” kind of transition talk we’ve had so far, but real money, real long term money, training, assistance, income assistance, guaranteed pensions, et cetera. So really take care of fossil fuel communities.
Then third and biggest, of course, is environmental justice, justice for the communities hardest hit by climate change itself; Low income communities of color, indigenous communities, et cetera. So making sure that of all the public money you’re spending and all the standards you’re putting in place, that all of that is done with an eye toward the equity piece of it. So the money gets channeled, first to the most vulnerable communities and the standards you pass have provisions in them making sure that you don’t negatively affect these vulnerable communities as you implement the standards,etc. The justice pieces infused throughout the standards piece and the investments piece. So that’s the broad alignment that the left has come around to standards, investment and justice, S.I.J., is how I kind of attempted to boil it down. It’s obviously a little bit more complicated and takes more time to explain than just carbon tax. It’s more complicated, but it’s much more realistic, and it’s much more popular.
How many of those boxes does the Biden plan check?
Yes, that’s my very long winded windup to saying, Biden came out with his first climate plan early in the campaign, and it was widely panned. The Sunrise Movement, (Sunrise Movement is an American youth-led political movement coordinated by Sunrise, a 501 political action organization that advocates political action on climate change), gave it an F minus, which I think was a little overboard, but it was not great. And so what’s happened since this kind of alignment has formed.
Biden won the primary. He won it without young climate people, he won it with his strength with older voters, particularly older African-American voters. But he knows that he can’t win the general that way. He knows to win the general, he needs the enthusiasm and support of the youngest, most active parts of the Democratic base and to boot. There’s also good polling evidence that climate is one of the central issues for wavering Trump voters and for independents.
So this is not like a appealed here left only kind of thing. This is why I call climate change a sweet spot, a political sweet spot for Biden, because it actually gets it helps him with the Democratic base, but also helps him in outreach to sort of moderates and independents and also helps him peel off Trump voters. It’s kind of a win win win. So he won the primary and immediately started reaching out to left groups, left environmental groups and environmental justice groups said publicly, I’m going back to the drawing board, I’m making bigger plans. I’m talking to people. So what you see now is he talked with the very same people who have been involved in this alignment, in this consensus that’s been forming, and his plan now reflects that. I mean, it more or less adopted exactly the provisions I’ve been talking about. So you see the standards, you see carbon free electricity by 2035. It’s very, incredibly bold, similarly bold standards for cars and buildings.
You see the giant investments, you see, over and over again, environmental justice emphasized and the talk about creating a federal environmental justice cabinet position. So this is a very long winded way of saying the left kind of figured out in an unprecedented way, I think if you’ve been following climate politics for a long time, any kind of alignment or unity on the left is extremely rare, especially in climate, but some miraculous forces came together and the left got its shit together on climate.
You’re including Biden’s wing of the party in the word left?
Our vocabulary fails us here. I just mean everybody left of whatever the left most Republican-
I mean, it’s such a broad category, and that’s the one of the reasons there’s so little unity because there’s such variety, unlike on the right, which has become very sort of homogenous, you know, racially, ideologically, every other way, the left, to the extent the right becomes more and more homogenous, the left becomes more and more heterogenous, and has a bigger and bigger tent. And that’s why it’s sort of miraculous, and I think quite hopeful that like all those various parts of the party, including centrist Democrats in Congress. If you look at the bills that the Democratic House put out on climate during this session, and these are from committees that are headed by the establishment Democrats, they, more or less, reflect the standards, investments and justice consensus of the left.
So Biden heard that and picked it up and is pushing it. So it’s very weird for me as a climate reporter, and as someone who covers the left to have good news, but it seems like good things are happening here. A: consensus itself, is good, it’s good that people are agreeing. B: it’s good that Biden, the champion of the party and not someone people would have predicted, would be a champion of the left or a champion on climate, seems to genuinely appreciate the historical moment he’s in. And he seems to genuinely realize that his early plan of sort of like the return to normalcy is out the window. And he’s in a position now where he’s got to do something like FDR. This has got to be big. He’s at a pivotal point in history, knows he needs to go big, even though it’s not in his sort of history or probably temperament.
And third, the alignment itself is good. It’s good ambitious policy. So, you know, the left kind of weirdly has its shit together now. Of course, all of that comes down to how much power and latitude Biden will have after the election to get any of this done. Like the limits of policy will be set by the size of his Senate majority and just the number of Democrats in Congress, basically, and his staffing more than it will be by whatever he puts in his plan. But at least the plan is good, I guess is the shorter way of saying that. Very long winded answer.
Well, before we get more into the politics of it, because in the end, it’s going to be about power and politics about what actually happens here. One of the big critiques of Biden’s previous climate plan was that it relied a lot on carbon capture technology, which has yet to actually been proven that it can operate at any scale that would make it effective. And there’s still a suggestion in this plan, more than suggestions, there’s quite a bit of money targeted at research directed towards carbon capture. How much do you think that’s still part of the Biden team’s real vision? That somehow they don’t really have to take on the fossil fuel industry, they don’t really have to significantly raise emission standards for cars, trucks and airplanes and really pass regulations and move towards phasing out fossil fuels, not just make sustainable green, more competitive, relying on market mechanisms, because without that, there’s no way this actually hits what’s necessary. In fact, even the stated targets within the Biden plan don’t really come close to what scientists say are necessary, although no doubt, if they were to do them, it’s a hell of a lot better than what’s preceded it, which is nothing, at least under the Trump administration. But even if they got to by 2035, 100% carbon free power, it’s an advance. But it’s still not going to stop getting us to the two degrees when the rest of the world isn’t there, and they still haven’t closed down the fossil fuel industry because while they’re talking about carbon free power, I assume that means electrical power. It doesn’t mean there still won’t be fossil fuel transportation and such and also used in other forms in the industry.
So, yeah, still, it’s better than anything else we’ve seen. But let’s focus on this issue of carbon capture, because that seemed to be a big deal for Biden. And if it still is, it seems very unrealistic, it seems, from what most scientists are saying.
Well, I would dispute your framing of that actually in a couple of ways. One, I would just say, if you look at the models the IPCC is drawing on, or you just pick your model, pick a model that shows us, that shows the U.S. reaching net zero carbon emissions in 2050, which is Biden’s goal. It’s sort of the Democrats goal. It’s kind of the IPCC’s global goal. It’s sort of, it’s coming close to being kind of the consensus taken for granted kind of target. So if you look at a model of what’s going to be required to get us to net zero by 2050, even if you go gangbusters on electricity and cars and buildings. A couple of things, one: there are some sectors that are just very difficult to de-carbonize. Maybe, you know, like heavy industry, long haul trucking, those kind of things. Maybe you can get some of that with biofuels, you can get some of that with hydrogen, if you start investigating and standing up the hydrogen piece of things. But even if, I mean, this is what the IPCC tells us. Even if you could go to zero emissions, it is already the case that the atmospheric concentrations of CO2 now are too high to be safe. So even if we stop adding new emissions entirely, we would still, for long term safety, need to draw it down rapidly, somehow. So I think almost every credible model, with very few exceptions, shows that we’re going to need some carbon capture and sequestration to reach our long term targets. And you’re right that it’s not scaled up yet. Those technologies are in the prototype or demonstration phase right now and need rapid innovation. But that’s true of lots of technologies we need and not just on carbon capture. You know, we look at electrification and we’re like, “oh, we have electric cars and we’ve got solar, we’ve got that taken care of,” but there are a ton of technologies that are going to be involved in rapid large-scale electrification that we don’t have ready yet. So there’s just there’s tons and tons of innovation needed on tons and tons of different technologies. This is what the big IEA report (the International Energy Agency is a Paris-based autonomous intergovernmental organization), recently came out and said, and one of those is carbon capture. So I don’t think, to sort of answer your question more directly, no, I do not think the Biden people are thinking of carbon capture as a way of relieving pressure on them having to reduce other emissions. I do not think anyone who takes climate change seriously is still thinking that way. The numbers just don’t add up. The fact is, if you go full bore gangbusters as fast as humanly possible on electrification and on biofuels and on hydrogen and on carbon capture, then, maybe, you have some slim hope of getting where you want to go, but you’ve got to do everything as fast as you can on all fronts. Basically, it’s what all the models are saying.
I’m not arguing against investing in research on carbon capture even, who knows whether other forms of geo-engineering may even turn out to be necessary and possible. I wouldn’t exclude any line of investigation. It’s just a question if you can, at this point, rely on any of that until there’s some proven technology and the sense of urgency on all the other areas can’t be lifted.
Yes, you need to go as fast as possible in every area. And that, I think is, if there’s one thing I’ll give really big credit to the Sunrise Movement and kind of the youth climate movement and the climate striker’s and Greta[Thunberg] and the whole all of that, I think that message finally got through for which we have waited so long now, that there’s no wiggle room on any piece of this. Every piece of it has to go fast and has to go well and has to go right for us to accomplish our goals.
I just don’t know that the public appreciates how difficult and unprecedented it would be for the U.S. to hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050. People discuss that target as though it’s some like compromise or weakness. And it’s true, like in an ideal world, if you want the globe to de-carbonize or to get to net zero by 2050, which is what the IPCC, (The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change),says, fairness and equity indicate that the developed countries, the wealthy countries ought to go a little faster to leave a little more room for developing countries or poorer countries to take more time. So ideally, we would hit net zero before 2050. And that’s fine. I’m happy to concede that. But I just want people to know and remember that if the U.S. did hit net zero by 2050, that would represent the most amazing, concerted, coordinated feat of collective action in U.S. history. It is not a small thing.
Let’s assume that this plan is mostly good. We’ll dig into it more and maybe even another time. But the reality of dividing the division, or the reality of the division in the Democratic Party, I would argue with you, is not a split or division on the left. I think it’s a division of the Democratic Party as kind of a broad front alliance, if you will, between sections of workers and, you know, urban populations that are working people, some intellectuals and poor people in alliance with section of what Bernie Sanders calls the oligarchy, the billionaire class and sections of Wall Street and Biden’s wing of the party, I would never call left. I mean, even compared to Trump, I don’t think it’s the right way to use the terminology. I think it’s different sections of the oligarchy ruling circles, however you want to call it. And the Biden, Obama, Clintonesque section of the party, well, no doubt is far more rational and has somewhat more of a longer term outlook about society than the Trumpian infection, which is essentially becoming virtually fascist. But it’s very much controlled by sectors of finance, sectors of Wall Street, and that’s who they always turn the Treasury Department over to. And so when you’re talking about what’s really possible, let’s assume Biden gets elected. And right now it certainly looks like he will be. I guess we don’t know about the Senate yet, but even that’s looking like the Democrats might have both houses.
The real issue is going to be to what extent is this climate plan a positioning for the election? And to what extent will the sections of the Democratic Party, and it’s not just Biden at the leadership level. All through the Senate and the House, for that matter, they just had a bill in the last few days to try to slightly reduce the Pentagon budget, and they couldn’t even win it in the House, never mind the Senate.This whole section of the Democratic Party, you know, it’s hard to even use the word to my mind anyway, the word “left”. That being said, given the urgency of all this, we’re not having any massive transfer of power from the financial sector to the people in the next five or 10 years. And the reality is that somehow there has to be an accommodation with some sections of finance, if that’s possible.
So imagine now the Biden presidency. This alliance you’re talking about, this convergence. It’s an electoral thing. Once he wins, doesn’t the war break out? And how does it unfold?
Well, that’s a lot of layered, complicated stuff, so I am going to take it in pieces. One is, and we’re not going to resolve this on a podcast, a long running debate in the left. But one is, I tend to think that people on the left overestimate the commitment of establishment Democrats like Obama and Hillary Clinton and Biden, overestimate their ideological commitments. And underestimate the strategic and tactical forces driving what they do. And a short way of saying that is I think Obama was trying to accommodate a very broad party and Biden is, too. But they ultimately, I would say all of them, Pelosi, Biden, pick a name , all of them would like to go farther left than they’re allowed to go now. I mean, we can argue how far everybody wants to go ultimately, but, they’re all trapped in this horrible situation now and they all want to go further than they’re allowed to go. So it’s all ultimately about power and how you hold the coalition together and how you get power. And basically, as the party has shifted left and as the youth sort of that youth Sanders wing has grown in power and have, and as more and more people have sort of come to terms with the true nature of the Republican Party, which is late in coming, but I think has finally arrived. I always thought that Obama and Clinton and Biden, etc. are more weathervanes than people who are ideologically committed to some sort of financialised version of the world or whatever you have. But I think they’re more weathervanes. And as the party is moving left, they’ve been moving left. Like Hillary Clinton in 2016 was putting forward the most progressive policy agenda that any Democratic presidential candidate had put forward in decades, and not because she’s particularly brave, but just because the party was heading that way, and it’s similarly with Biden. Biden, I think is looking around and and sees the world. And the world is demanding bold, progressive policy, and so he’s putting it forward. I don’t think he has any inherent, deep in his gut, objections to that kind of policy it’s just all about realism and strategy and et cetera. And those discussions are what has changed. The character of the party has changed, and the strategic positioning of the whole game has changed a little bit. And if Republicans are going to become a sort of quasi-fascist rump party that is foursquare opposed to any cooperation on any issue, on anything, then that just changes the strategic landscape for Democrats. It all becomes about, OK, well, we can do whatever we can do on our own, so how do we get things done on our own, and what do we want to do on our own? And that sort of changes, and I think you’re seeing that changed thinking reflected in the increasing progressiveness and kind of boldness of Biden’s policies.
I suppose you can think, and I’m sure plenty of people do, that he’s secretly in his heart this evil centrist who’s just biding his time and waiting until he’s elected, and then he’s going to go suck up to the power-brokers or whatever. But just all forces in the party are pushing in the other direction and they’re going to keep pushing that way once he’s elected. That’s just the first thing I’d say.
The second thing I’d say is the financial sector has been, the climate movement, I think, decided a couple of years ago to really focus on the financial sector, to go after the financial sector, because, and I’ve discussed this with a few activist leaders precisely because they thought there’s more possibility of movement there than there is in federal politics. So you can actually get to these people, you can get the big businesses, you can get to the big financial houses. And so it has been years of sort of incremental, they getting pushed and pushed and pushed. But you’re starting to see, now even among the heads of of national banks, big people in finance are recognizing that the facts of the matter are that like giant investments in fossil fuel infrastructure and carbon intensive projects are probably bad investments, never mind your morals, never mind the ethics or any of the rest of it. The world is visibly turning against these investments. It’s clear there’s going to be push for de-carbonization that’s not going to go away. And it’s clear that if we don’t de-carbonize, we’re going to be in a horrible situation of having to insure increasingly uninsurable assets. It’s going to cost them up the wazoo if climate change is unrestrained. So I think just on a purely sort of real- politic, clear eyed view, the finance world is coming around to the need to de-carbonize.
And so you see commitments coming from some of these big banks that are more than just notional, that they are more than greenwashing. They are really putting together, there’s a coalition of these finance groups, putting together real standards on the carbon intensity of investments and the risk of carbon investments and kind of formalizing that in a way it hasn’t been before. Everybody has been sort of winging it on that, up to now, they’re going to really put that into place. And that’s going to effect the Fed, it’s going to affect the big finance houses. We’re really just on the front edge, but we’re really starting to see climate being infused into the world of finance because climate is not like it was seen of, you know, a decade ago, this kind of, frivolous lefty issue that’s orthogonal to the real world of business and finance. It’s just I think they finally realized, no, it’s a genuine risk that faces our investments. And we could get taken to the cleaners if we don’t tighten our standards on these things. So I think Biden and in that wing of the party are moving on this for political reasons, substantive reasons, every reason and I think finance, the world of finance is moving on. This world of big business is moving on this like, again, like after years and years of sort of notional commitments and kind of handwaving a greenwashing. What you’re seeing from big corporations today are genuinely interesting and ambitious commitments like Microsoft. Microsoft is not just going to go carbon neutral, it’s going to try to go carbon negative and wipe out all its legacy emissions from the time it was founded, which is like beyond what anyone was asking of it. So there’s enough young people in these in these companies now in the workforces of these companies that they just for their own purely sort of financial reasons, they’ve got to listen to it. They’re being pushed like everybody else. So I would just say a lot of the kind of nefarious centrist and business forces that we’re pushing back against climate stuff for a lot the 21st century, those forces are shifting along with everybody else. And so they’re coming into alignment, too, like the the right way to see the picture in U.S. politics is almost everybody now united behind stronger climate action than what we’re doing.
I mean, it’s all we can argue about, how far we want to go, how fast. But almost everybody is aligned behind doing more faster than we’re doing. And the only kind of the thumb in the dike is the Republican Party, which is which is anomalous even among conservative parties in the world. It is crazier even than most other major conservative parties, like I don’t know if average U.S. voters really appreciate this because they just see this kind of both sides media coverage and this sort of like team sport coverage of politics. And they’re just like, oh, it’s this side and this side, they’re two equal sides. But if you step back or look from the perspective of a different country, you see, no, it’s like the entire civilized world versus this shrinking demographic of rural and suburban white men who are panicked about losing power and are getting increasingly anti-democratic and lunatic about holding onto power, but they’re not one half of the country.
Yeah. Let me argue with you a little bit here.
First of all, I don’t see Biden as some evil, Machiavellian, whatever, who’s totally just waiting to get elected so he can play out his real right-wing ideology or whatever corporate ideology.
He may or may not be any of that. And I kind of don’t care. I don’t think it matters that much. Even take Sanders and Warren and others who have dealt with him, including Larry Wilkerson, who I interview all the time, who was there during the passing of the nuclear deal with Iran and worked with Biden on it. I take it that he’s probably within the realm of that world, a decent guy. And I don’t think– I don’t even use the word evil ever, even with that of Hitler. I don’t use the word evil. These are historical processes and they give rise to people, and individuals play a role, but it’s not just about whether they’re going to get into heaven or not.
So the issue is, I think, going to come down to yes, there’s a recognition even amongst the smarter, more conscious sectors of finance, of which there are some, although a lot are not a lot are pro-Trump, even Larry Fink from BlackRock, who came out with a suppose it plan on climate. And I wrote an article about this. And when you really dig into BlackRock’s climate stuff, it’s mostly smoke and mirrors.
It’s just for example, they say they’re going to start divesting from coal, but that’s only in their investments that are by choice, not their index funds. Aaron Sorkin asked a good question to him, “why don’t you push for the index funds to get rid of coal and then you don’t have to have them in your index? You know, you’ve got such cloud on the on Wall Street these days”, and there was no good answer to that. But even smoke and mirrors on what they have said, because like, for example, one of the energy companies and I don’t have the name off the top of my head, but if people go see the article on my site, it’s about the headline is something like, ‘Three Investment Banks Control More Wealth Than GDP of China – and Threaten Our Existence”, which is true, BlackRock, State Street and Vanguard. When BlackRock said they’re getting out of coal. They said they won’t invest in any company. And this is when they’re not doing these broad index investments for where they’re picking investments, which is part of their funds. Any company that has more than 20% or 25% of revenue from coal, well, turns out one of the largest coal producers, the United States, has many other investments.
So coal only represents less than 25% of that of their revenue, even though they’re one of the top three coal producers. So BlackRock will continue to invest in that company. So there’s a lot of rhetoric going on. I would even take– like give them something. I don’t think the main leaders of BlackRocks and the others, I don’t think they’re fascists, I don’t think they’re evil. I think they have a growing consciousness that this climate thing’s real and they have kids and they have grandkids. They’re just systemically incapable of doing what’s necessary because the pressures on them to return money on their investments are such that if they do anything that doesn’t prioritize return on their investments, another company will, they’ll just lose their positioning in the market.
And what they know is the case the only happens if government makes them do it. And then it becomes kind of a level playing field where all the finance firms or all the asset management companies have to divest and do this and do that. It needs really strong government intervention.
And here’s where the paradox says the problem for them is, even though they know it needs government to play such a strong role for it to happen, they hate the idea of government having so much power and playing that kind of role. They’ve resisted these kinds of regulations and government intervention, both in terms of regulating the finance sector and in other sectors. They just don’t want to the extent that the government still has some democratic character to it and it does have some it has to get elected. I don’t know, the democratic process in United States is questionable, but there’s something there. They don’t like it. So there’s this terrible thing.
And I think the ingredient that’s missing so far in our conversation, and I think the only thing that will really make an effective climate policy actually get implemented, and I take it that this Biden plan is better than most and some very progressive people have signed on to it and so on, but there really has to be a mass movement. There has to be a people’s movement of a serious scale that hits the streets, because I think without that, the Biden administration caves to the narrow short sightedness of the financial and fossil fuel sector.
Well, I’ll say a couple things. One, nobody, least of all me, would turn down a giant mass movement if it should have started pressuring, I mean, there you see the germs of it and it’s absolutely having effect and it absolutely needs to keep going. But the reason I always liked Elizabeth Warren more than Sanders, just for my part, was that she understands something very important, which is that, it feels to me like one of the, let’s say, flaws in the thinking that might be too harsh, it’s sort of one thing I notice among kind of Sanders types and lefty types that I interact with online as they’re very focused on who are good and bad people like who are the people who have the good and noble intentions and the people at the bad intentions. And they’re always trying to divide people up, and who’s really an ally and who’s actually secretly bad and so on and so forth. But it seemed to me like one thing Elizabeth Warren got that I don’t see a lot of other people in politics generally really getting is that everything comes down to the rules of the game, sort of the structures and rules and institutions in which we’re operating.
And you sort of gesture at that when you talk about, you know, the finance people are constrained by a certain, you know, like they could just based on personal morality and nobility, go beyond what their industry is doing and put themselves at risk. But what you really want, right, is for the decision not to be devolving down to them. The decision should be democratically made, we’re going to change the rules. So they have to operate that way. And this is what Elizabeth Warren got, is that to get the progressivism that progressives want, to get the policy that progressives want, you need structural reform. You need to change the rules and the structures. And it’s not sexy. It doesn’t get crowds roaring at political rallies to talk about the rules, you know. But that’s something she understood instinctively cause she saw how it worked from the inside when she started studying finance and bankruptcy and etc., she saw that the rules have been grinding people up and you’ve got to change the structures. And I would even say the same thing about politics. If you could get rid of the filibuster, if you could do something about gerrymandering, if you could do something about rural overrepresentation in the Senate, if you could make D.C. a state or Puerto Rico a state or just any number of other structural or any number of reforms to voting law, make voting registration automatic, you know, or you could get rid of first past the post voting and you could talk about these reforms forever. But like any one of those reforms would be more a more reliable way of getting positive outcomes than choosing a person who says the right things. You know what I mean? Like choosing a person with the right moral character. Like you need rules, rule of law, so you’re not depending on people.
And I feel like Elizabeth Warren got that, and her campaign documents to me were just the sweet spot, the perfect combination of sort of progressive goals, right. Progressive outcomes, but with very technocratic means. Like she got down into the muck of the bureaucracy and figured out, like, who’s in charge of this? How do we need to change the structure of these offices? Like how do we need to change these rules? She had a plan. You know, this was her thing. She had a plan for all these things and I just like almost all the dysfunctions of our politics, including climate politics, come down to me primarily to these structural impediments. And if you could get rid a few of those, you could, like, get stuff done even with, like, you know, half-assed weathervane politicians like Joe Biden, if you could change some of these structural things.
Yeah, I mean, I don’t disagree at all. I mean, I agree completely. It’s just the question of how do you get the structural changes? And I must say, I don’t think Bernie Sanders didn’t understand that, it could be some of his supporters didn’t, but that’s, I think, true for everybody’s supporters. Most American politics is all about personality. And determining who’s good and who’s is bad. It’s like wrestling, you get people to do the characters that play heroes, and some characters get to be the villains and then they change.
Now, that’s why Larry Fink runs BlackRock. I can fully believe Larry Fink if he could just have a magic wand would love, the climate crisis to be solved. Well, he doesn’t want to live in a world that burns up. For most of these people on Wall Street, they’re not insane. On the other hand, they can’t do otherwise. So I don’t think we’re disagreeing on that. The only thing I would say just to kind of come to a conclusion is that I don’t have any faith that the finance sector or the Biden-Obama wing of the party, or frankly, even the progressives, no one is going to accomplish very much if the movement that’s erupted now in the pandemic moment. And I hope and I think it will broaden as people start losing these unemployment checks and these sections of the working class that never lived in poverty are now not going to be able to eat and pay their rent.
And I think we’re going to start seeing in the streets, you know, demonstrations of the unemployed. And I hope the unions get out of their self-serving little boxes and actually start organizing the unemployed, as was done in the 1930s. You know, if we start seeing a movement that becomes more conscious and makes demands especially, and I shouldn’t say, “especially” because people are obviously going to start with, “they need to eat”, but also on the issue of climate and see the convergence. And then this is one of the positive things about the Biden plan, because it does at least adopt the idea that big infrastructure spending and direct employment. I hope it’s direct employment. It’s probably not going to be. It’s probably going to be Obamaesque, tons of money goes to the private sector to create the infrastructure and hopefully that actually filters out being more jobs, not just various companies skimming a lot of that money. At any rate, it all comes down to people do not have faith that without a movement, there’s going to be real change.
WelL, I think, kind of by way of wrapping up, this is sort of like the specter that has always haunted climate change, which is that things are moving in the right direction. The movement is growing, they are pushing and pushing and pushing finance, and finance is starting to budge, and finance is responding to pressure. And partially because, like the workforces of these companies, like I said, are young people and young people are way more progressive in the U.S. than their parents. And, you know, all the social science tells us that, your basic political orientation when you’re young and come to political consciousness really sticks. It tends to stick over your lifetime. The millennial generation is bigger than the boomer generation, and the [Gen] Z generation is bigger than the millennial generation, and these are incredibly progressive generations. So like the finance companies are going to be run by these people not long from now, and politics are going to be run by these people not long from now.
So on some timescale, it’s going to work itself out. Like the people who get it are coming up and taking over slowly but surely, despite the fact that Congress is still mostly composed of 100 year olds. But, slowly but surely, the young people are forcing their way into these institutions, and they are changing them from within. I think that’s why you’re seeing change happening. It’s just as you know, as your listeners know, as everyone knows by now, we just don’t have much time.
That’s what I was going to say.
It all comes down to accelerating, you know, sort of amplifying the voices of these young people, pushing them as fast as possible up into positions of leadership and appealing to people like Joe Biden. And I really think, I know we probably will never agree on this, but I really think that Joe Biden has been in discussions with enough young people, has seen their passion, has seen where they are, see what they talk about, what they care about. And really does view himself, as he says on the trail, as kind of a transitional figure, kind of a caretaker, to get us out of this shit-hole we’re in, and then hand over the reins to this young generation. So I think he really does care about what young people think, and really wants to move in that direction.And there are lots of old people, I think, who are on their side, basically.
So it’s just a matter of like taking these positive trends that are really all around us, and blowing them out, speeding them up, just like pushing them as fast as humanly possible, for the rest of our lives. And that’s gonna be everybody’s job. And it’s never going to be one single victory, one single like Ultimate Climate Plan passes one ultimate bill. It’s just gonna be this back and forth dialectical, like push, pull, push, pull, push, pull. But it’s moving in the right direction and it’s gaining momentum. So I think people should not act like these institutions or old politicians are immune to these forces, like they hear the young people, they see the marches, they see the changes in public opinion. Like, just look at public opinion polls now, they see the way the wind is blowing and most of them are happy to be, like I said, weathervanes.
So, you know, it’s on net. The developments in the broad left of center climate world over the last two years are positive. Like it’s a good consensus. They come around and they’ve more or less talked to Joe Biden into adopting it. So it’s working. You know, there will be a whole new set of challenges if Biden wins, even if he gets the Senate. You know, there’s the filibuster, there’s all the rest of these structural impediments.
But for the first time in my memory, at least, kind of working, like people are rowing in the same direction at least. So I’m choosing, to contrary to my nature, to be optimistic, at least for the time being.
All right. Well, let’s let’s leave it there. Thanks very much, David.
And thank you for joining us on theAnalysis.news podcast.