Don't just defend Obama's legacy against Trump: fight for radical climate action | Kate Aronoff

Kate Aronoff
‘We need a head-on collision with oil, coal and natural gas executives.’ Photograph: John Giles/PA

The fossil fuel industry is rejoicing. Donald Trump issued an executive order on Tuesday that would tear up many of the so-called burdensome climate protections – those regulating things like power plant emissions and leasing to coal companies – put in place by the Obama administration. Horrified by this move, many have vowed to jump to their defense.

That’s not enough.

The clean power plan, perhaps the biggest target of today’s executive order, is far from perfect. It’s a parallel of sorts to the Affordable Care Act (ACA), or Obamacare. Both policies – however flawed – address deeply pressing crises that will kill millions if left unaddressed. Each are far preferable to nothing, of course. But they were each crafted to appease Republicans, many of whom are funded by the industries (insurance and fossil fuels, namely) that the measures set out to curtail.

So while the clean power plan was not a result of the kind of legislative sausage-making that birthed Obamacare, it still bears the trademark of the Democratic establishment’s politics of compromise. That’s why we must do more than simply defending existing policies: now is the moment to fight for something better.

Like the ACA, the clean power plan is wildly complicated, creating a patchwork of regulations alongside a vast and incomprehensible new marketplace. States who don’t comply in creating their own plans would be automatically entered into a national emissions trading scheme.

Unlike the ACA, the clean power plan has yet to save any lives. It’s also horrendously difficult to explain – let alone appeal – to ordinary Americans. Given all this, its gutting is unlikely to provoke the same kind of public outcry that helped saved the ACA.

Defending the clean power plan shouldn’t obscure the fact that we need so much more. A 2013 study in Nature, co-authored by 14 climate scientists, predicts that, left unchecked, warming will reach a “point of no return” by 2020 in the tropics, triggering still more disastrous impacts in a part of the world already dealing with climactic fallout.

The global north could experience similarly “unprecedented warming” by 2047. To put that in perspective, when the proverbial shit really starts hitting the fan, vis-a-vis climate in the US, I’ll still be seven years away from being able to collect Social Security. “Within my generation,” lead author Camilo Mora told Bloomberg, “whatever climate we were used to will be a thing of the past.”

A new and slightly more hopeful study in the journal Science outlines a roadmap to keeping warming below 2C (3.6F), the target set out by world leaders in the Paris climate deal. Chief among the researchers’ recommendations is cutting global emission in half every decade from the 2020s to the 2040s, with the most rapid decarbonization occurring in wealthy nations like the US – a far cry from the just over 30% cuts to one sector outlined by the clean power plan.

“By 2020, all cities and major corporations in the industrialized world should have decarbonization strategies in place,” the papers authors write, adding that industrialized countries should stop selling gas-powered cars in the next 10 years. Any earnest attempt at staying below 2C, then, means a head-on collision with oil, coal and natural gas executives. It also presents a chance to upend who holds power in our economy.

Mustering anywhere near the political will necessary to enact changes as ambitious as the ones science demands means giving working people a stake in the climate fight and the policies it’s pushing for.

Technocratic jargon won’t cut it, but the silver lining of the climate crisis careening toward us is that the solutions to it lend themselves to populist times. In addition to taking on a fossil-fueled 1%, curbing greenhouse gas emissions also means fueling job creation in everything from clean energy to insulation to grid electrification to already low-carbon parts of our economy, such as nursing and healthcare.

In this vein, greens should take a page from those who fought to defend the ACA, itself a horrifically insufficient program. While the Republican’s doomed replacement would have left 52 million people uninsured by 2026, the ACA itself stands to leave 28 million uninsured along the same timeline.

Neither figure is acceptable in a society which claims to care about keeping people healthy and alive. That’s why several unions – joined by Vermont senator Bernie Sanders – have used the opportunity provided by the Republicans’ “Trumpcare” debacle to push for single-payer healthcare, or “Medicare for All”, and to extend healthcare to all Americans.

A livable planet is no less of a right than healthcare, and climate policy should treat it as such. So defend the clean power plan from Trump’s attacks, because God knows we need it. But don’t forget to demand the changes we really need along the way.

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