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The Democrats Are Climate Deniers

If the Democrats really believed the science on climate change, they'd be offering far more radical proposals. We have to make them.

Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer talk during an event at the US Capitol on January 16 in Washington DC. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Imagine for a second that the scientific community has just told the world in no uncertain terms there is a meteor headed to Earth that will almost certainly wipe out most, if not all, life on the planet.

One of the major political parties in the US is skeptical. They cast aspersions on the scientists, call the whole thing a hoax, repeat meteor-denying propaganda even as the enormous space rock becomes more visible in the sky, and, rather than working to try to stop the meteor from hitting Earth or making preparations to mitigate its impact, they actually implement policies that hasten its arrival and increase its eventual destruction.

The other party attracts the support of anti-meteor activists, groups, and philanthropists. When pressed, its members affirm their belief in the existence of the meteor. They defend the beleaguered, increasingly panicked scientists from attacks. They criticize the other party’s denial of the meteor’s obvious existence.

But for all their talk, they don’t really seem like they believe what they’re saying. They roll their eyes at anti-meteor campaigners when no one’s looking. They continue to take money from industries profiting in the short-term from the meteor’s arrival. They hardly talk about the meteor unless pressed, and they balk at implementing the kinds of radical policies needed to deal with the meteor. And they frequently team up with the other party to push through policies harmful to anti-meteor efforts.

Sure, only one of these parties continues to deny outright that the meteor isn’t coming. But when it comes down to the actual, material outcomes, the difference isn’t that great.

This hypothetical state of affairs is essentially the situation in the United States when it comes to the rapidly approaching climate crisis. The Democratic Party is ostensibly the anti–climate denial party. And yet, despite a massive report released only a few months ago warning that the world has an alarmingly short amount of time to make the radical changes needed to stave off permanent environmental destruction, the Democrats tread water on the issue.

Before the midterms, the Democrats weren’t even planning to do anything about the matter. They had to be dragged kicking and screaming by activists and an insurgent socialist politician to make it a priority.

Sure, House speaker Nancy Pelosi will refer to climate change as “the existential threat of our time.” But even once activists pushed her to put it on the post-midterm agenda, Pelosi declined to establish a select committee with the kind of broad powers activists want, such as the authority to issue subpoenas (something the previous House select climate committee could do, when the crisis was less urgent) or even, flabbergastingly, to draft legislation.

The politician tasked with heading this committee has some of her wealth invested in the fossil-fuel industry, and balked at the idea of barring politicians who have taken fossil-fuel donations from sitting on it, arguing it would violate the First Amendment. After New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez floated the idea of a 70 percent marginal tax rate on the rich to pay for climate policies (which, considering the scale of what must be done, is a moderate position), the House’s number two Democrat, Steny Hoyer, literally laughed at the idea before saying he didn’t support it. The Democratic chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee recently said that while the US “should take a look at” going carbon-free or carbon-neutral by 2030, it “may not be technologically or politically feasible.”

Does this sound like a party that genuinely believes in the “existential threat” of climate change?

Few in the party have taken a firm stance on the Green New Deal, even though at this point it’s an amorphous concept with next to no specifics attached to it. When they have endorsed the Green New Deal — as most of the big names angling to be president have by now — it was only after being pressed by the media, and they tended to carefully qualify their language: they back the “idea,” “concept,” and “goals” of a Green New Deal, to single out a few. Kirsten Gillibrand also gets points for releasing a letter she sent to Sen. John Barrasso, chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, broadly outlining the steps needed to prevent future ecological collapse.

But other than that, none have actually said which policies they view as essential to this program — for instance, higher taxes on the rich and a massive federal jobs bill for green energy infrastructure, at the very least — nor released any sort of serious plan to deal with the climate crisis. Harris’s spokesperson simply said the California senator was “eager” to see potential legislation, apparently in lieu of suggesting policies of her own. Of the four presidential contenders who have released their agendas (including Gillibrand), only one — former San Antonio mayor Julian Castro — included climate policies, and even that was limited to rejoining the Paris agreement and supporting the “GND,” whatever that might entail. It’s a nice start, but that’s all it is.

Granted, it is still early. But if these presidential contenders really believe the science, wouldn’t they have urgently drafted their own version of a potential Green New Deal program before running, given the scale of the crisis science is warning us about? Wouldn’t they have made such policies key to their agenda? And wouldn’t they have at the very least, when asked about supporting a Green New Deal, not hedged their language?

If a presidential candidate acted this way about an impending meteor strike, we wouldn’t take them seriously. Why should we when it’s the climate that threatens extinction?

Elizabeth Warren is instructive in this respect. She is considered one of the most progressive candidates in the race in 2020, but Warren has never really shown any leadership on the issue, as numerous environmental activists attest to. The leading piece of legislation she authored (“I’ve got a plan to fight back,” she said at the time) only came in September of last year, and it’s a bill that — drum roll — would force public companies to disclose climate risks, so that “investors would have the information they need . . . [to] make smart decisions with their money.” If that sounds like what might generously be described as a quarter-measure that relies on market solutions to a problem actively being driven by the market, that’s because it is.

For all their supposed acknowledgement of the science, Democrats don’t really seem to believe climate change is an existential risk. As Warren made clear when rolling out her bill, she thinks climate change is “an economic disaster waiting to happen” that “will have an enormous effect on the value of company assets.”

Warren is far from unique. “It is here, and it is costing companies money,” one of her cosponsors said about climate change. “Climate change is a pressing economic issue,” said Harris, another cosponsor. It’ll “continue to have increasing and significant impacts on our country’s infrastructure and economy,” said Booker, yet another cosponsor.

Of course, left unchecked, environmental collapse is going to do a lot worse than just shrink GDP and hurt companies’ pocketbooks. The fact that prominent Democrats can’t articulate its threat in anything but such Reaganite terms says much about the party’s current state. (By contrast, Jeff Merkley, also a cosponsor of the bill and one of the most progressive members of the Senate, at least led with a comment about climate change’s effects on US communities.)

In fact, the only popular, nationally recognized presidential aspirant who seems to recognize the scale of the threat before us isn’t even a Democrat. Bernie Sanders has been regularly citing climate change over the last two years as one of the greatest threats facing humanity, calling it at various times a “major planetary crisis” and “the single greatest threat facing our planet.” His 2016 platform boasted an ambitious and detailed program (compare it to Hillary Clinton’s skimpy one) that served as an actual vision for what a Green New Deal might look like.

Sanders has a long record of leadership on the issue, and year after year has been ranked among the top in Congress in this regard. While Democrats regularly fail to talk about the issue in their responses to Trump, Sanders does not, including calling it “the biggest crisis of all” in reply to Trump’s televised address on the border wall earlier this month. He hosted a town hall last year on climate change, challenging TV networks to cover the crisis. And he’s not only put forward policy proposals, such as a federal jobs guarantee, that would be essential to a future Green New Deal, but is already working on ambitious, Green New Deal–style legislation to be released this year.

And how has the Democratic Party responded? Various Democrats, in conjunction with the centrist group Third Way, have met to plot how to stop him and the movement he represents from gaining power, while the party’s loyalists try to tamp down enthusiasm for his run. This is a sorry state of affairs.

But while the Democratic Party remains resistant to actually dealing with the climate crisis, we’ve already seen that grassroots pressure can have some success.

Through protest and primary challengers, and more, the Democrats have been dragged ever so slightly leftward. This is all the more reason to challenge the party even more aggressively in the coming years. Justice Democrats are already reportedly planning more primary challenges come 2020, but they are one organization with limited resources and must be selective; ideally, their efforts would and should be reproduced all over the country.

It’s a disgrace that even Democrats who are considered progressive and reside in safe blue districts treat climate change as a boutique side issue, or even continue to take money from fossil-fuel companies. The idea that talking about climate change is a political drawback — the typical excuse Democrats give to explain their presence on the sidelines — is untenable anyway; Sanders does it all the time and manages to stay the country’s most popular politician. While politicians like Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez have used their newfound prominence to push the issue with voters, the current Democratic Party doesn’t seem to think it even has the power to shift the national conversation, preferring instead to tinker on the margins of what they think voters find acceptable.

As activists move to pressure the party going into 2020, a strong, serious stance on climate akin to Ocasio-Cortez’s should be considered a baseline element for being considered a progressive or socialist candidate. For that matter, no presidential aspirant should be considered a serious contender until they’ve worked to demonstrate a commitment and intention to seriously tackle the crisis on at least the level that Bernie Sanders currently demonstrates.

The fact that presidential contenders are suddenly saying “yes to passing a Green New Deal” all of a sudden is encouraging, but it has to be taken further. Don’t ask them to vaguely endorse an idea that hasn’t been publicly defined yet; ask them which policies are critical to their vision of what a Green New Deal is. For instance, do they support much higher taxes on the rich, without which such a program is all but impossible? And if they do, are they simultaneously courting a donor base opposed to such a thing, suggesting less than genuine commitment to that policy?

It’s probably true that Elizabeth Warren is the second-most progressive candidate in the race after Sanders. If her supporters are dead set on her candidacy, they have a responsibility to make her take some massive strides on the climate issue. One piece of legislation that makes companies disclose climate risks doesn’t cut it, and neither does the issue’s seeming absence from her policy priorities. The same goes for every other Democrat. When the world’s scientists hand us a ticking clock, this should not be controversial.

The Democratic Party is currently a party of climate denial. Only it’s not the denial of a craven right, happy to create an uninhabitable planet if it lines the wealthy’s pockets for the moment. It’s the denial of well-meaning liberals who would never be caught dead calling climate change a hoax, but scoff at the radical steps needed to meet the emergency; the denial of those who would rather plug their ears and not have to think about the problem than to really face it head on; the denial of politicians terrified that simply uttering those two words will lose them votes.

The Democrats are afraid to treat climate change as the crisis it is. We must make them afraid not to.