After Donald Trump was defeated and Joe Biden was declared president-elect, the climate movement is already in a heated discussion about how to move politics forward in the Biden era, especially if Mitch McConnell manages to maintain his control over the Senate. But the political debate overlooks one of the most important things Biden has to do if he finally makes it to the White House: use his new bullying pulpit to advance climate change politics.
Former presidents have used the bullying pulpit to sell and advance their political agendas, often despite opposition from the opposing party. Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, used it to rail against corporate monopolies like Standard Oil and to advance its environmental agenda (as well as some despicable notions about white supremacy). Ronald Reagan used his reputation as “the great communicator” to advance his tax cuts and anti-government agenda. Trump turned the president’s megaphone to eleven and used it to disrupt political norms and fuel his toxic ideology.
President Biden must use the Oval Office to advance the bold climate agenda he adopted during his campaign. Climate policy has changed in the last year, thanks in large part to youth-led groups like the Sunrise Movement and grassroots groups who have insisted on this climate justice become at the core of democratic plans to deal with the crisis. Large sections of the labor movement also got on board, confirming Biden’s claim that when he thought of climate change he thought of “jobs”. Meanwhile, investors continue to flee fossil fuels as the market shifts towards clean energy.
When Biden spoke about the climate crisis against the backdrop of forest fires, derechos and hurricanes, sections of the mainstream media eventually received the memo that reporting on the greatest crisis of mankind should be the top priority. Newspapers made the link between extreme weather and global warming. Climate change has more time than ever in this year’s presidential and vice-presidential debates, although most of the cable news lingers drop the ball.
All of this had an impact: even amid the coronavirus pandemic, the economic crisis and Trump’s daily tirades, the climate remained a key issue for Democratic voters. And large numbers of Republicans also said they were concerned about the crisis. According to a poll by Fox News on election night 70 percent of the voters supported higher government spending on green and renewable energies.
The lesson for the Biden government should be clear: keep climate change and the clean energy revolution in the spotlight.
For those of us who spend our lives following politics on Twitter or reading climate stories over coffee, it’s easy to forget that the benefits of protecting the climate are still abstract for many people. Worse, there are a lot of people out there who still hold the archaic notion that they have to choose between work and the environment. Little do they know that there are more people employed in the clean energy economy than in fossil fuels. That a Green New Deal could save communities that are dependent on coal, oil and gas. That all of these changes not only save the climate, but also make us healthier, safer and safer.
Also, most citizens don’t know that the fossil fuel industry is working around the clock to prevent all of these good things from happening. Your daughter’s asthma? Chevron knows the pollution from its refineries makes this worse, but is cracking down on regulations to control it. Is your city in Florida going underwater? Exxon predicted that and then spent millions to convince you it wasn’t true. Has your pension dried up and you can’t get your black lung benefits? The coal mining industry campaigned to get out of these demands, despite giving its CEOs a golden parachute.
President Biden could bring these issues to the fore in a dramatic way to justify the case for climate action. He could begin his tenure by convening an environmental justice summit at the White House to highlight the way blacks, browns and indigenous people are advocating solutions. He could hit the streets in an electric sports car and visit clean energy companies that create jobs across the country. He could take a helicopter ride over the Block Island wind farm and talk about the potential for offshore wind. He could convene the nation’s governors to discuss how to set state mandates for 100 percent clean electricity. And he could do all of this and more in partnership with the climate movement so that if people are interested in these issues, they can get involved in the grassroots organization that strengthens the political dynamics on the ground.
And here’s the thing: none of this requires McConnell’s approval. When Republicans retain control of the Senate and refuse to speak up on a Green New Deal-style climate bill, some Congressional Democrats are tempted to let the issue die and move on to other issues. This is exactly what consultants like Cream Emanuel urged President Obama to do this as early as 2009, which to Years of climate silence of Obama, who misinformed and made inactive the public and undermined his administration’s ability to pass tough laws on Capitol Hill. Instead, Biden and his Democrats should put a bill on McConnell’s desk and then go across the country and fight for it – getting McConnell and his followers to own their opposition to an agenda that most Americans support.
This barnstorming tour could visit poisoned communities because Republicans don’t crack down on pollution. It could visit solar companies that could hire more workers if the government only acted. I live in Utah, where we have a growing clean energy sector – and a senator named Romney who may be convinced that if local businesses were organized to put pressure on him, he might vote for a stimulus package.
We all know we don’t have time to tackle the climate crisis. The climate movement is definitely not going to let President Biden get away with just running a major public relations campaign on climate change. He will have to take action. And we’ll be there to make sure Biden keeps his promises to stop fossil fuel mining in public spaces and more. But as important as these political struggles are, the larger political struggle is just as critical. Even if we take action against the climate, we have to popularize climate protection measures. Biden should use his presidential pulpit to do just that.