Earth Day 2021: New directions for US climate policy rhetoric

Biden delivers remarks on Afghanistan troop withdrawal
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From the war on poverty to the war on drugs to the more recent war on the COVID-19 pandemic, the U.S. government applies wartime language to express an urgency that has historically driven the attention of the American media — and the global public. Yet thus far, not one of these ‘wars’ — nor America’s other “endless wars” — has really been won.

In recent years, government officials around the world — from the UK, to China, to Bangladesh, to Indonesia — have announced their own ‘war footings’ against climate change, perhaps to attract the ear of powerful U.S. counterparts. Even high-profile American climate activists have advocated for literally declaring war on climate change.

Critics of such language — including former UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon — say that it makes floods, storms, and pollution into enemies and shifts focus away from human capacity to build solutions.

Now the Biden-Harris administration straddles a rhetorical divide. Early on, using war language on climate mobilized public attention. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry even classified climate change as a “maximum threat” from his seat on the National Security Council.

But wartime rhetoric is not enough.

Using wartime language on climate change gives the problem the urgency it needs. Declaring wars and states of emergency pushes critical policies along in the executive branch rather than leaving them to languish in a divided Congress. Equally important, the nexus of climate change and national security is a rare zone of bipartisan agreement. Climate securitization and war rhetoric were therefore useful frameworks for initial steps bridging party lines for a “unity”-focused administration.

However, war, emergency, and securitization rhetoric have historically undermined public support necessary for action. If the Biden-Harris administration further catastrophize climate change, the problem may seem too big to face, inspiring fear and making Americans less inclined to act.

This Earth Day, the Biden-Harris Administration can shift towards positive, collective language on climate change. Partnerships can then emerge across sectors, political ties, and communities.

Diverse coalitions are the only way that America has ever built unity during hard times. And collective rhetoric is the missing ingredient for taking on the world’s most critical challenge.

There is no long-term need to mobilize the public with war rhetoric because most Americans already support action on climate change. A 2020 Pew Research Center survey found — for the first time — that a majority of Americans across party lines say that dealing with climate change must be a priority for the president and Congress.

Biden-Harris rhetoric on climate change should open opportunities rather than draw limits. Investing in clean energy and transportation has been proven to revitalize American cities, tribal lands, and rural areas. Working alongside the new American Jobs Plan on infrastructure, climate rhetoric could focus on clean energy’s power to transform America’s low-income communities and communities of color, which bear the brunt of climate change’s negative impacts.

Success stories of everyday Americans changing their utility providers isn’t as glamorous as talk of tanks and bombs. But the coronavirus pandemic has pushed many cities towards more open regulatory conversations with utilities. Federal amplification of these successful grassroots practices would spark new partnerships, as macro-narratives of social problems must be relatable to resonate across America.

America’s colossal corporate sector could use a push to step up. After all, partnerships between technology, finance, fossil fuel, and auto companies are already laying groundwork for better climate commitments. The Biden-Harris administration could offer more concrete implementation support for partnerships. For instance, in 2018 Walmart, Target, Johnson & Johnson, Google, and the state of Georgia allowed companies to buy renewable energy directly from the state’s largest utility, Georgia Power.

Many American companies are already addressing the rhetorical divide through investing in circular economy concepts that de-risk their supply chains, drive down production costs, and reduce environmental impact. In a 2019 survey of 300 American executives, 62 percent reported plans to move toward circularity. Given that circular economy rhetoric is not yet mainstream, the Biden-Harris administration can also subsidize material resources needed to overhaul wasteful linear manufacturing streams at scale.

If U.S. companies can lead circular economy approaches, then labor unions making demands within them — whose platforms are widely supported under the Biden-Harris administration — should use generative rhetoric to support corporate collaboration on climate change. Unions across the country — particularly in Minnesota — are already doing this to re-balance power on who controls the climate conversation.

Changing war rhetoric on climate does more than shift a conversation or end yet another American war; it brings real employment and community revitalization opportunities into American climate change policy. History will view war rhetoric on climate change as needed in Biden’s first 100 days but ultimately echoing an old America; one predating generative, positive rhetorical approaches sparking the diverse partnerships needed to build back better.

Rebecca Peters is the Leland Foundation Association of Marshall Scholars Transatlantic Academy Fellow in the Energy, Environment and Resources Programme at Chatham House in London. A US Marshall Scholar from California with Masters degrees in Poverty and Development Economics (University of Manchester) and Water Science and Policy (King’s College London), she has worked extensively on environment, climate, and economic projects for the past ten years with a variety of organizations including the Nature Conservancy and the World Bank. Follow her on Twitter @rebeccampeters

Sophie Zinser is the Schwarzman Academy Fellow in the Asia-Pacific Programme and Middle East North Africa Programme at Chatham House in London. A native of Connecticut and former Fulbright Scholar in Amman, Jordan, with a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University, she has worked for five years on policy across the Middle East and Asia with both the United Nations and grassroots organizations.

Tags Biden climate policy Climate change Climate security Climate Summit Earth Day Framing Joe Biden Joe Biden administration John Kerry Rhetoric

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