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Presidential debate proves the power of the climate movement

Presidential debate proves the power of the climate movement
© Greg Nash

The first presidential debate of 2020 proved two things: climate change is more real than ever and the climate movement is stronger than ever. For the first time in the past 20 years, an explicit question about climate change was posed from a moderator on a presidential debate stage, with Chris WallaceChristopher (Chris) WallaceBiden adviser: 'He does not have any concern' about Trump lawsuits Public health expert: Americans no longer acting 'with common purpose' on pandemic Anti-Defamation League criticizes White House appointee 'who has consorted with racists' MORE of Fox News yielding 10 minutes to the subject.

Over the past few months, not only have millions of people lost their jobs due to the economic crisis and had to navigate a pandemic in a broken health system, their lives and livelihoods have also been threatened by climate-induced raging wildfires, extreme drought and dramatic increases in hurricanes. This year we have seen more storms in the shortest amount of time in history. There is no denying it — climate change is hitting the U.S. hard.

At the same time, the climate movement has organized, sharpened and gained power. New energy from young people in the United States — ready to see the intersections between climate, jobs and racial justice — has invigorated political action and led to some of the most aggressive political climate platforms to date. Throughout the Democratic primaries, climate groups used their political muscle to push for a debate wholly focused on the climate crisis. While they didn’t get their debate, the amount of time candidates spent on climate dramatically increased and they got a seven-hour Climate Town Hall. There is no question that the movement’s organizing put climate on the lips of Wallace on Tuesday night. 

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Joe BidenJoe BidenMinnesota certifies Biden victory Trump tells allies he plans to pardon Michael Flynn: report Biden says staff has spoken with Fauci: 'He's been very, very helpful' MORE’s comments on his plan were also telling, showing how much the conversation has moved in four years. He laid out a plan to retrofit 4 million buildings in his first term and achieve carbon-free electricity by 2035, creating thousands of good-paying jobs amidst a major economic crisis and relieving massive energy bill burdens for low income households — economic burdens disproportionally felt by Black, Brown and Indigenous families. This is a far cry from earlier cap-and-dividend or carbon tax proposals that operated from a constraint-oriented framework and failed to either catch political fire or match the severity of the crisis. 

Trump’s reactions to Biden’s commitments to addressing climate disaster were largely focused on costs: fuel efficiency raises the cost of cars, he said, and the Paris Agreement was burdensome for U.S. businesses. But that narrative is uncompelling next to the even greater costs of the climate-fueled Northwest fires burning uncontrolled as the candidates debated. As Biden put it, “We spend billions of dollars now — billions of dollars — on floods, hurricanes, rising seas. We're in real trouble.”  

Even Trump’s infantile and wildly false goading of Biden around the Green New Deal — which prompted a Biden pushback to which Trump responded, “you just lost the radical left,” demonstrates that the dramatic actions the Green New Deal call for to decarbonize the economy have a voting constituency to which attention must be paid. The data supports this — multiple polls in the past year, including in the past few months, show the Green New Deal is popular. Americans increasingly see the climate crisis as one of their most important issues, and they don’t believe that the federal government is doing enough

Young climate voters are particularly focused on climate as a major issue and are increasingly showing their political savvy and power. This power was prominently on display in the Massachusetts Democratic primary between incumbent Sen. Ed MarkeyEd MarkeyUS national security policy in the 117th Congress and a new administration OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Biden eyes new leadership at troubled public lands agency | House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally | Trump administration pushes for rollback of Arctic offshore drilling regulations House progressives tout their growing numbers in the chamber at climate rally MORE (who sponsored the Green New Deal in the Senate) and challenger Rep. Joe KennedyJoseph (Joe) Patrick KennedyConor Lamb defeats Trump-backed challenger for reelection in Pennsylvania Van Drew fends off challenge from Kennedy after party switch Markey wins reelection in Massachusetts MORE. Slated to lose his seat early on, a massive mobilization by the Sunrise Movement and young organizers put Markey squarely back on the map and ushered him to victory last month. The “Markeyverse” used innovative online organizing tactics and cross-movement relationship building to put their climate champion back in office.

Because of this sort of hard-hitting organizing and increasingly detailed policy development, Biden’s climate plan contains some major commitments. In particular, over the past few years, the climate movement has with increasing intention built connections with the Movement for Black Lives and other fights for racial and immigrant justice, particularly amid the recent uprisings against the continued subjugation of Black people. From this growing fight for intertwined racial and climate justice, advocates have secured commitments from the Biden campaign that include “target[ing] 40 percent of his historic investment in a clean energy revolution to disadvantaged communities.” This a level of commitment not seen before from a general election presidential candidate. 

But the Biden climate change plan, like any presidential candidate proposal, should be viewed not as a final word but as a platform for organizing, in communities as well as the halls of power. The natural state of a traditional politician is to work within the what they think are the political boundaries of success. It is up to us, though, to redraw the boundaries to get the future we want: an economy that works for all and keeps our planet safe. 

Johanna Bozuwa is a researcher at The Democracy Collaborative specializing in energy and climate.