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Climate movement must stop hoping for political heroes

Greg Nash, AP-Alex Brandon

The climate movement, and indeed all of humanity, has good reason to be heartbroken right now.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) — after over a year of hinting at support for climate investments as part of a filibuster-proof reconciliation bill — has now “unequivocally” killed the inclusion of any climate provisions. This comes after President Biden opened up even more public lands to oil and gas drilling in April, reversing a pledge to permit “no more drilling on federal lands, period.”

It’s escaping nobody’s notice that these are both Democrats. Climate activists and political insiders are calling Manchin’s actions a betrayal and likening it to being “left at the altar,” while many reacted to Biden’s pledge reversal (also called a “betrayal”) by threatening to not vote and bemoaning a lack of “heroes.”

As a climate activist myself, I too am enraged and frustrated. I know many lives will be lost while politicians ignore the climate crisis, but I’m also deeply worried by what my fellow activists’ reactions reveal: a stunning lack of agency, as though the environmental movement’s success or failure can only depend on politicians being loyal or traitorous, brave or cowardly, heroes or villains. In short, a belief that climate policymaking depends on politicians’ virtue, rather than our own political strength or weakness.

Activists are increasingly (and disturbingly) viewing politics almost like religion: we put our “belief” and “trust” in a politician to save us, and then when they don’t deliver, we consider it a betrayal, and we either find someone else to worship or we stop believing altogether. This approach simultaneously makes it harder to support politicians, while also not grasping that voting is an expression of power, not prayer.

You would never hear powerful groups like the gun rights advocates speak like this. If they lose a policy fight, they correctly diagnose the problem as a lack of political power and then organize, vote, get even more power, and force politicians to comply with their priorities. In short, the climate movement needs to stop believing in politicians and start believing in ourselves; and we must internalize that politics always drives policymaking.

When Biden made his “no more drilling” pledge during the New Hampshire primary, 28 percent of Democratic primary voters listed climate change as their top priority, second only to health care. Now, with gas prices surging, a recent NBC News poll showed that 69 percent of voters — including a plurality of Democrats — are more likely to support candidates who expand domestic oil and gas production.

The same dynamic is at play with Manchin, where recent polling shows his popularity has jumped 17 points — more than any other senator — since he started publicly humiliating the Biden administration by playing rope-a-dope with the reconciliation bill.

To be clear: I am not excusing Biden, Manchin, or any other politician for their lack of climate leadership. I dearly wish they would do the right thing without having to be forced to by voters, especially when the ramifications of climate inaction are so disastrous. However, we all know that’s not how politicians operate. Politicians are going to be political and it’s naive for us to think otherwise.

Few things motivate a politician more than the prospect of winning or losing an election, and the climate movement’s theory of change simply isn’t viable so long as we rely on political bravery rather than political power. I say this not to disrespect the efforts of fellow activists or allied politicians, but simply because the brutal arithmetic of democracy always demands that politicians get enough votes to remain in power. 

Accordingly, what the climate movement truly needs right now is raw political power — and lots of it — consistently applied in local, state and federal elections by a growing wave of climate voters. We must vote in ever-greater numbers not because the politicians we elect will always do the right thing — of course they won’t — but because with enough political power we won’t have to rely on them doing the right thing. Instead, politicians will lead on climate out of political necessity; they will do it to win elections and stay in power.

The climate movement must stop hoping for heroes and start becoming so powerful that we can frighten politicians into leading on climate. It starts by voting this November in midterm elections — not because current politicians deserve our support — but because the climate movement deserves more political power.

Nathaniel Stinnett is the founder and executive director of the Environmental Voter Project, a non-partisan nonprofit that uses behavioral science to improve voting habits.

Tags Biden climate Climate change Fossil fuels Global warming Joe Manchin

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