For many voters, the presidential election came down to one issue alone: Joe Biden’s commitment to take on climate change with all of his presidential powers should he win. And, within hours of securing Pennsylvania’s electoral votes, making him president-elect, a flurry of news stories detailed Biden’s campaign pledge to spend $4 trillion dollars over four years to drastically lower fossil-fuel emissions and accelerate the nation’s conversion to clean energy.
For all the talk about how this election came down to a referendum on President Trump’s personality, let’s never forget that a great many people voted against Trump because of his positions on immigration policy; a woman’s right to choose; LGBTQ+ rights; Obamacare; trade tariffs and threats against NATO, NAFTA, and Pan-Pacific Partnership members; environmental regulations; the Black Lives Matter movement; corporate tax policy; and more. All of these issues matter and President-elect Biden promises a different approach.
But this week, we’re here to talk about climate change—with as illustrious a duo of authorities as you’ll find anywhere—Noam Chomsky and Robert Pollin, authors most recently of The Climate Crisis and the Global Green New Deal: The Political Economy of Saving the Planet. Rachel Jagareski reviewed the book in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews, noting that it provides “a detailed action plan for mobilizing necessary political and cultural power,” but that it is also “clear-eyed in its recognition of the monumental challenges.”
Thanks to Verso for help in connecting Noam and Robert with Rachel for this conversation about the most perilous threat we face.
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Rachel, do your thing.
To say 2020 has been stressful and eventful is an understatement. There is the COVID-19 pandemic, extreme weather events, unprecedented glacial melting, the rise of nationalism and xenophobia, rising income inequality, a rancorous presidential election, and protests about racial justice. The looming threat of climate collapse seems to have been temporarily relegated to the background of public awareness. How do we get people to focus and take meaningful action on yet another large problem during this turbulent time?
Noam: It is indeed an understatement. That much was signaled in January, before the danger of the pandemic was widely understood—though governments that had some concern for their citizens had already begun to take effective action. Not all governments, however. Bringing up the rear is the most powerful country in world history, with incomparable advantages. That failure reflects a deeper malaise which, unless soon cured, may have lethal effects. It need hardly be stressed that what takes place in the United States will have an enormous impact on the fate of the world.
In January, the hands of the famous Doomsday Clock were set, as they have been since the dawn of the nuclear age. Every year of Trump’s term in office, the minute hand has been advanced towards midnight—that is, termination. It had reached the closest it has been to midnight two years ago. Last January, the analysts gave up on minutes and turned to seconds: 100 seconds to midnight. They gave the familiar three reasons: the growing threat of nuclear war and environmental catastrophe, and the deterioration of democracy. The last may at first seem out of place, but it merits inclusion among the most prominent threats. Engagement of informed citizens in a vibrant democracy provides the only real hope for addressing the two existential crises in a serious way.
Since January, President Trump has amplified all three threats, not a mean accomplishment. He continued his destruction of the arms control regime that has offered some protection against the threat of nuclear war, while also pursuing development of new and even more dangerous weapons. In his dedicated commitment to destroy the environment that sustains life, Trump opened up vast new areas for drilling, including the last great nature reserve. Meanwhile, his minions are systematically dismantling the regulatory system that somewhat mitigates the destructive impact of fossil fuel use, and that protects the population from toxic chemicals and from the pollution that is now doubly murderous in the course of a severe respiratory epidemic. He has also carried forward his campaign to undermine democracy, avoiding the legal requirement of Senate confirmation by “temporary appointments,” purging the executive of any independent voice, even firing the Inspectors General established by Congress to monitor executive malfeasance when they began to investigate the fetid swamp he has created in Washington.
This onslaught against democracy is only the bare beginning. Trump’s latest step is to warn that he will not leave office if he is not satisfied with the outcome of the November election. The threat is taken very seriously. To take only one example, Georgetown Law Professor Rosa Brooks, co-founder of the Transition Integrity Project, has just reported the results of the “war gaming” they have been conducting on possible outcomes of the election. The project members are “some of the most accomplished Republicans, Democrats, civil servants, media experts, pollsters, and strategists around,” including prominent figures in both Parties. Under any plausible scenario apart from a clear Trump victory, the games led to something like civil war, with Trump choosing to end “the American experiment.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/09/03/trump-stay-in-office/?arc404=true&utm_campaign=wp_post_most&utm_medium=email&utm_source=newsletter&wpisrc=nl_most.
Given American power, far more than the “American experiment” is at risk.
Nothing like this has happened in the often troubled history of parliamentary democracy. Keeping to recent years, Richard Nixon had good reason to believe that he had lost the 1960 election only because of criminal manipulation by Democratic operatives. He did not contest the results, putting the welfare of the country ahead of personal ambition. Albert Gore did the same in 2000. Not today.
The survival of liberty is not guaranteed by “parchment barriers,” James Madison warned. It is founded on the expectation of good faith and common decency. That has been torn to shreds by Trump along with his co-conspirator Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has turned the “world’s greatest deliberative body” into a pathetic joke, refusing even to consider legislative proposals. McConnell’s Senate has time only for largesse to the rich and for stacking the judiciary, top to bottom with far right young lawyers—many ranked incompetent by the American Bar Association—who should be able to safeguard the reactionary Trump-McConnell agenda for a generation, whatever the public wants, whatever the world needs for survival.
Needless to say, the rest of the world is concerned, if not appalled. It would be difficult to find a more sober and respected commentator than Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. He writes that the West is facing a serious crisis, and if Trump is re-elected, “this will be terminal.” Strong words, and he is not even referring to the major crises humanity faces.
Wolf is referring to the global order, a critical matter though not on the scale of the crises that threaten termination as the second hand of the Doomsday Clock ticks towards midnight. These crises too are of course international. Environmental catastrophe, nuclear war, and the pandemic have no borders. We are all in this together, and true internationalism offers the only hope for the human experiment to persist.
We can, therefore, no longer be surprised when Trump takes aim at the efforts to address major crises through international cooperation. Dismantling the arms control treaties expresses his lack of concern for survival of humanity, just as abandoning the Paris agreements demonstrates his contempt for the fate of the species as the environment collapses under his hammer blows. True to form, Trump’s wrecking ball is now aimed at the international consortium seeking “to develop, manufacture and equitably distribute a coronavirus vaccine.” https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/coronavirus-vaccine-trump/2020/09/01/b44b42be-e965-11ea-bf44-0d31c85838a5_story.html. Trump’s pretext for withdrawal is that the World Health Organization is involved, and for Trump, destruction of the WHO is imperative, whatever the human cost in the poor countries that depend on it for survival from dread diseases. That is part of his desperate effort to find some scapegoat to cover up his primary responsibility for American deaths from COVID-19 that already exceed three times the toll of the Vietnam war, a tribute to his gross mishandling of the pandemic after having steadily demolished the protective systems that had been in place, from his first days in office. The malevolence is hard to believe.
This is the world we are facing, right now. The issues are coming to a head in the next few weeks.
The word “terminal” is not a new entry into public discourse. We have been living under its shadow for 75 years, when we learned, on an unforgettable August day, that human intelligence had devised the means that would soon extend to capacity to bring about terminal destruction. It was not then understood that humanity was entering a new geological epoch, the Anthropocene, in which human activities are despoiling the environment in a manner that is now also approaching terminal destruction.
Every one of the grim threats that may soon bring the human experiment to an inglorious end has realistic, feasible, solutions. But it is not enough to know. It is necessary to grasp the opportunities that exist.
Which brings us to the critical question: “How do we get people to focus and take meaningful action?”
That question is eliciting despair among those with eyes open. Another sober and highly respected voice not given to exaggeration, former Defense Secretary William Perry, one of the leading specialists on nuclear war, declares himself “terrified” by current circumstances, in fact doubly terrified: by the growing threat of nuclear war, greater than at the peak of the Cold War in his expert estimation, and by the terrifying silence about it. A study of school and college textbooks reported by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists found shocking disregard of the terrifying threat, even about the essentials of the history of our escape from terminal destruction; by a near miracle, the chilling record reveals.
We have just experienced the two quadrennial extravaganzas, the Conventions of the two political parties. Scarcely a word was voiced about the imminent threats to survival. The fate of the human experiment is not the business of the managers of the political system.
At another level, the management of fossil fuel corporations, the banks that finance them, and the governments that subsidize them understand perfectly well that they are depriving their grandchildren of the hope for a minimally decent life. But they go on. Meanwhile some eighty percent of Republicans, tuned to the Trump echo chamber at Fox News, do not see human contributions to roasting of the atmosphere as an urgent problem.
It is all too easy to continue. How indeed do we change this course before it is too late? We can be sure of one thing: in all of human history there has been no such urgent task. We do know how to undertake it, just as we know how to deal with the existential crises. There is no magic key, just the hard constant work of education, organizing, and appropriate actions. Actions like those of the climate strike of young people, of Extinction Rebellion, of the Sunrise Movement that occupied congressional offices and moved a Green New Deal from the margins to the center of legislative attention, and to Biden’s official program, much to the apparent discomfiture of the Clintonite party managers who removed such heresies from the Party website. There’s a hard struggle ahead, on many fronts.
It is encouraging to see many Global Green New Deal policies and actions folded into the Democratic Party platform. There is even some talk of having a Climate Change Czar if Joe Biden is elected President. Are you surprised by or optimistic about this progressive shift in the Democratic Party agenda? What happens to the Global Green New Deal if President Trump is re-elected?
Robert: There are several positive features of Biden’s program—to be specific, “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice (https://joebiden.com/climate-plan/#). To begin with, the total spending amount proposed in Biden plan is $500 billion per year for ten years, with about one-third coming from the federal government, and the rest divided between state and local governments and private investors. According to my own estimates, this is roughly the amount of investments to expand clean renewable energy sources—solar and wind power, especially—and to increase energy efficiency standards that will enable the US to cut CO2 emissions by roughly fifty percent by 2030 and to reach net zero emissions by 2050. The Biden program also correctly emphasizes that these clean energy investments will generate millions of jobs throughout the country. The Biden program also makes a point that these new jobs should be good-quality jobs, in terms of wages, benefits, and workplace conditions, and that labor unions will play a central role in ensuring that the newly-created jobs are good jobs. Biden’s plan also commits to providing generous transitional support for the workers and communities throughout the United States that now depend for their well-being on the oil, natural gas, and coal industries, with these industries facing a phase-out in a clean energy transition project.
At the same time, I have some major problems with Biden’s proposal. The biggest one is his strong support for carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) technology as a centerpiece of his overall program. CCS technologies aim to capture emitted carbon and transport it, usually through pipelines, to subsurface geological formations, where it would be stored permanently.
This technology is the last best hope for the fossil fuel industry, because, if CCS works, then fossil fuel companies can keep drilling for oil and fracking for natural gas, and keep selling oil, coal, and natural gas to produce energy. Despite this, CCS technologies have not been proven at a commercial scale, despite decades of efforts by the fossil fuel industry to accomplish this. A major problem with most CCS technologies is the prospect for carbon leakages that would result under flawed transportation and storage systems. These dangers will only increase to the extent that CCS technologies are commercialized and operating under an incentive structure in which maintaining safety standards will reduce profits. In any case, we don’t have the luxury to wait a decade or two to see if this technology can be made to work safely.
Despite this, the Biden document gives much more prominence to carbon capture than to solar and wind energy, even though, cost-wise, solar and wind are now roughly equal to or cheaper than fossil fuels plus they are guaranteed to generate zero CO2 emissions in producing energy. I have to assume that Biden has put emphasis on carbon capture over solar and wind because he knows that is what the fossil fuel companies want to hear. Biden also gives nuclear energy much more prominence than solar and wind. We only have to recall the disastrous nuclear reactor meltdown in 2011 in Fukishima, Japan to be reminded of the severe public safety dangers we face with nuclear. And recall that the public safety regulations at Fukishima were almost certainly much more stringent than what would be the case at an average US nuclear plant if we were to build out large numbers of these plants around the country.
What if Trump is re-elected, or at least manages to stay in office by whatever means necessary? Speaking on the climate issue alone, this would be truly disastrous. As it is, it is almost beyond reach already to think that we will be able to reduce emissions by fifty percent as of 2030. Under Trump, emissions will not fall at all, but will rise, and at an accelerated rate. Four more years of this could well be irreversible for the climate.
Your book calls out the American labor movement for its conscious decision in the 1950s to abandon support for broader workplace and social reforms and focus instead on specific negotiations with management for benefits and wages. How can union leaders and membership be persuaded to once again take up the banner for broader social and environmental issues when their ranks have been thinned, or they mainly represent retirees rather than workers, and unions are not nearly as strong as they once were?
Noam: That conscious decision in the 1950s provided some benefits to their own workforce, but at a cost to them and to the larger society. Workers were able to obtain the “Cadillac health insurance policies” that President Obama deplored when designing his Affordable Care Act, but workers ceded control of the workplace to management and the US remained internationally isolated with its disastrous health care system. North of the border, the same unions advocated health care for all. The consequences have been clear enough for a long time and have become brutally evident since the pandemic struck.
Much too late, union leaders came to realize that they were not dealing with the “soulful corporations” of the doctrinal system. As the first stages of neoliberalism began to hit home in the late Carter years, United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser resigned from a labor-management committee set up by the Carter Administration, expressing his shock that business leaders had “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country—a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and had “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress,” the period of class collaboration. In short, business had broken through the limited barriers of regimented capitalism and was escalating the unremitting class war to which it is constantly dedicated.
Under Reagan a few years later, the gloves were off. Among his first acts was to strangle the labor movement, even calling in scabs, a practice soon emulated in the private sector. Thatcher did much the same. Both understood well that unions are the primary means of defense of working people against the neoliberal assault on the general population. The attack on unions continued under their successors. For decades, the fine economists of the Economic Policy Institute have been compiling evidence about the effects of the assault against labor on rising inequality and other social ills. Their conclusions are now reaching the mainstream. Economists Anna Stansbury and Lawrence Summers conclude that undermining of unions is “a major cause of increasing inequality and lack of progress in labor income” in the US—that is, virtual stagnation of real male income for forty years, leading to a situation in which 0.1 percent of the population have twenty percent of the wealth while a majority stagger from paycheck to paycheck, with little in reserve. They also question the Friedmanite doctrine that “corporations should be run solely for the benefit of their shareholders” and they “suggest that policy should tip the balance more in the direction of supporting union organizing activities and empowering unions.” https://www.brookings.edu/bpea-articles/declining-worker-power-and-american-economic-performance/.
This sharp reversal towards recognition of reality is indicative of significant changes of general consciousness.
We can be confident that the highly class conscious US business world will have to be compelled to accommodate to any such reversal of the programs they have crafted for their own unlimited greed and empowerment. But popular pressure—bringing what business leaders call “reputational risks”—can have an impact, especially if it rides the wave of militant labor organizing. We’ve seen that before. By the 1920s, the powerful US labor movement had been virtually crushed by state-business power, culminating in Woodrow Wilson’s Red Scare. The Great Depression struck in 1929, and within a few years, labor began to revive with CIO organizing and militant action, reaching the level of sit-down strikes, a real threat to management because the next step can be “We don’t need bosses and can run the enterprise ourselves.” With a sympathetic administration, that led to the New Deal, an array of social democratic initiatives that have greatly benefited the population.
Circumstances are different today. Neoliberal globalization has significantly diminished the domestic industries where labor actions had been most effective, and such actions have been shifting to the growing service industries: nurses, teachers, and so on, with some revival in the manufacturing sector, as well. Though still limited, the growing sector of worker-owned industry and cooperatives can become a component of these efforts. The post-pandemic socio-economic order will pose new challenges, but nothing insuperable. A revived and vibrant labor movement can resume the leading role it has played in social progress, now also facing today’s existential crises. There are encouraging steps in the work of the Labor Network for Sustainability and initiatives of union leadership in several states. Labor may even begin to live up to the badly needed internationalism that was a founding principle of the rising labor movements in earlier days, surviving mostly in their names.
The people living in the coal country of West Virginia and Kentucky have historically suffered economically, socially, and environmentally, no matter what political party is at the helm of state and federal government. Your book touches on some ways polluted mines and industrial sites could be restored, and how various small-scale clean energy companies might be structured with alternative ownership forms, but can you expand upon your vision for targeted and sustained community and economic development in this particular region?
Robert: The contraction of the fossil fuel-dominant energy system will necessarily entail job losses. It will also produce hardships for communities whose well-being is currently dependent on the vibrancy of the fossil fuel industries. These negatively impacted workers and communities will require significant transitional support, or what the late great labor and environmental leader Tony Mazzocchi first termed “just transition” policies. Just transition policies are certainly justified according to any standard of fairness. But they are also a matter of strategic politics. Without such adjustment assistance programs operating at a major scale, the workers and communities facing retrenchment from the clean energy transition project will, predictably and understandably, fight to defend their communities and livelihoods. This in turn could create unacceptable obstacles in proceeding with effective climate stabilization policies.
For all workers facing displacement through the phase-out of the fossil fuel industry, I support a just transition policy package that includes guarantees of both their pensions and re-employment at a new job in which the pay is at least what they had been earning at their fossil fuel job. These workers must also be given retraining and relocation support as needed. I have estimated the total budget for a generous version such a program. The figures are minuscule relative to the size of the US economy—on average, less than one-one hundredth of one percent of overall national income (GDP).
With respect to the communities that now depend on the fossil fuel industry, it is important to first recognize that these communities are small in number and are highly concentrated geographically in a small number of states, and even a small number of communities within these relatively few states. Focusing therefore on the heavily impacted communities, the first project needs to be land reclamation—cleaning up the areas around the former coal mines and plugging all the oil and gas wells. Then we need to figure out ways to effectively repurpose these areas. There are some good models out there, including in Germany’s Ruhr Valley, what had been country’s primary coal-producing region. As one important example of this repurposing project in the Ruhr region, RAG AG, a German coal-mining firm, is in the process of converting its Prosper-Haniel coal mine into a 200 megawatt pumped-storage hydroelectric reservoir that acts like a giant battery. The capacity is enough to power more than 400,000 homes in the region.
The philosophical discussions threaded within your book are very arresting. Noam’s challenge to define a more humane social order and understand “what is a decent life?” and Robert’s concerns for workers and communities, particularly in the Global South, who have been most severely affected by the climate crisis, are poignant counterpoints to the other policy-dense sections. Does your personal philosophy inform your social and political activism? Or is it the other way round?
Noam: I’m not sure that the phrase “personal philosophy” is merited by commitment to basic human rights, a just society, mutual aid from the local community to the international arena, and other simple values. But whatever we call it, I think that it is pretty much common human ground, rooted in our nature, often suppressed and distorted within the structures of illegitimate authority that arise in human society. As history shows, these institutional and ideological structures can be dismantled, step by step, by popular activism and engagement. It is often a painful process, not without periods of regression. That same activism and engagement leads to greater understanding and appreciation of guiding values. What seems unchallengeable common sense at one stage of social life can be an unspeakable abomination not long after. We’ve witnessed that dramatically once again in recent years. It’s not a simple matter of which comes first. Rather, social progress and raising of consciousness interact in an integrated process.
In the current remarkable moment of confluence of terrifying threats to decent survival, unique in human history, we have no choice but to dedicate ourselves to accelerating the pace of these complex processes, bearing in mind that a solution to each of them is within reach, but that we do not have much time to spare.
Robert: What informs my personal commitment around the idea of a Global Green New Deal are two very simple observations. I don’t know if these thoughts would qualify as a “personal philosophy,” but here goes. The first observation is that, if we believe the most credible climate scientists, we are facing a truly existential threat with climate change. Nothing less than the continued existence of human life on earth as we know it is at stake. The second is that, in my view, we still have a chance to stabilize the climate, and that the only viable path for achieving a stable climate is also fully consistent with expanding decent work opportunities, raising mass living standards, and fighting poverty in all regions of the world. In my view, this is the combination that needs to be recognized as constituting the core propositions undergirding the global Green New Deal.