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The climate consequences election

koched and loaded

An election can be “about” a number of different things. Identity, policy, justice, conspiracy theories, voter suppression, debates, grab-a-beer vibes, whatever. Our elections are chaotic, reframed daily based on the noise of a 24-hour news cycle. But regardless of the reasoning that compels hundreds of millions of people to bubble in names, when the votes are tallied, we shall hand power to a new state and federal government. Power means real, physical, long-lasting consequences, no matter how trivial or foolish the campaign may be. An administration that ignores national security threats and sidelines science killed hundreds of thousands and put millions out of work as we entered the workforce. We need departments staffed by ambitious and competent professionals who are able to navigate a crisis. And we need long-term planning to ensure our lives are not throat-punched by some predictable disaster. As the West burns (and burns), as our cities and farms flood, as grim thousand-page reports from thirteen major national science agencies call for urgent climate action, we have a chance to choose a new government. 

Scorched Earth

Trump, a vocal climate denier, has chosen a scorched Earth “climate policy.” He appointed climate deniers, fossil fuel lobbyists and anti-government activists to lead countless major agencies. Last week he appointed an active climate conspiracy theorist to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), one of the primary climate research agencies. The director of the EPA is a former coal lobbyist. William Pendley was so radical that he couldn’t get a confirmation vote from a Republican senate after a career lobbying against all public lands. He still illegally ran the Bureau of Land Management, the department that protects public lands, for over a year, hollowing out enforcement and forcing senior staff to quit. In total, Trump’s appointees rolled back over a hundred environmental regulations and censored key research energy and climate research across the government. Instead of spending stimulus dollars on unemployment relief, the Trump government gave more bailouts to the foundering oil and gas industry than any other sector. Over the past four years, generations of career civil servants and scientists who have spent a lifetime fighting for environmental protections have watched their life’s work get pissed on by climate deniers gleefully burning their agencies (and our nation) to the ground. 

Most of Trump’s anti-climate action can be reversed, but his judicial picks represent a generational change. Thanks to McConnell’s obstruction of Obama era appointments, Trump has minted over 218 young lifetime appointments to federal courts. The recent death of RBG opens the door for a third Supreme Court appointment, replacing the strongest environmental voice with yet another right-wing partisan. Trump’s appointment process was dominated by the Federalist Society (prominent on our campus as well, apparently they have great hors d'oeuvres) and the Heritage Foundation, powerful organizations that platform climate denial with deep ties and funding from fossil fuel industrialists. The courts are already pro-corporate—in the past decade, a partisan majority decided to allow unlimited campaign donations and gutted the Voting Rights Act, dramatically tilting the playing field in favor of deep-pocketed fossil fuel corporations. Trump’s appointments, aggressive activists unconcerned with past norms, will likely continue to pull silver-tongued shenanigans and weaken our government’s capacity to respond to crisis. Most of Trump’s appointments are really young and could be in office until 2050, the year we need to achieve global net-zero to avoid cascading damages of climate change. A legal system made in Trump’s image, and that of his radical donors, could delay necessary climate policy for decades. We seriously don’t have time for that. 

The next term will be much worse. All the checks and norms that slowed him down are gone; the whistleblowers have been rooted out and replaced with loyalists. Many of his rollbacks were blocked by courts, but unfortunately, the rule of law can only buy us a little time. Four more years means losing senior scientists with deep institutional knowledge, and locking in all his rollbacks. For example, the EPA is trying to pass a “Science Transparency” rule. Sounds neat, huh? Until you realize that they are trying to ban any study with de-identified data…in other words, all studies involving human health that are legally obligated to protect the names of patients. In one transparency-branded swoop, the EPA will no longer be able to use gold-standard scientific studies when crafting regulations. While the daily news cycles follow Trump’s chaotic and public damage, there are scores of clever lobbyists burrowed into our institutions inflicting untold damage designed to tilt the battlefield towards industry once Trump is gone. 

An Old Hope?

A Biden win would open up way more possibilities. While replacing Trump appointees with literal potatoes would be a massive improvement, Biden’s team has repeatedly demonstrated that they understand the importance and urgency of the energy transition. Over the past four years, federal agencies, think tanks and non-partisan academic groups like the Nicholas Institute have written up thousands of suggestions on how to mobilize the federal government to tackle climate change. In stark contrast to the mad king, Biden recently committed to block all fossil fuel lobbyists and executives from his transition team. 

If Democrats have enough votes to pass legislation, they are prepared to pass some legitimately impressive climate bills. Biden’s campaign proposal includes $2 trillion in spending to both help Americans recover from the pandemic and invest in necessary large-scale infrastructure to transition our energy system over the next decade. His plan comes on top of the 600-page report from the House climate committee, written after over 100 hearings (including several Duke professors). Biden’s plan and the current legislation on the table are comprehensive and ambitious with science-based targets. Given the stakes, our proposed policies could always use more juice, but represent smart and substantial progress. It’d save a lot of lives and a lot of dollars. 

Even if Biden doesn’t have the votes, his political appointees would improve things dramatically. For example, federal agencies could consider the systemic financial risk of climate change. Turns out, if all our major cities are flooded, or a big enough hurricane hits both Tampa and Miami, or fires burn down enough homes, some “too big to fail” insurance companies could knock down the entire financial system like dominos. The government has powerful financial levers to assess and regulate financial risk following the 2008 Wall Street corruption crisis. In addition, the US wields incredible power to shape international finance through the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund—a Biden administration could set international standards that internalize climate risk. 

Yes, Republicans will continue to obstruct action at every turn, and right wing media and social media companies will continue to spread climate denial. Yes, if Biden fails to stack the courts, every one of his plans may be gutted by a partisan judiciary hand-picked by fossil fuel interests. Yes, Biden may pick a few turds as advisors who fill his ears with malarkey. But despite all the devils in all the details, Joe represents an order of magnitude of improvement from this exhausting chaos, offering an ambitious plan that may just get us through this mess if we keep a healthy fire under his presidential buns. The alternative is…rough.

At the end of the day, this election is not just between two 80-year old men. It’s also about the 4,000 senior leaders responsible for overseeing a budget of ~$16 trillion over the course of 16 fiscal quarters with a staff of four million people. It’s about courts that have unchecked power to veto legislation and reinterpret laws long after both men are dead. It’s about whether our government uses the best available science to defend us with a long enough time horizon to protect our lives and our future. It’s about the emissions that will remain in the atmosphere for tens of thousands of years, and the world that will remain for the rest of human history. A Biden victory does not guarantee our salvation, and Trump victory makes things much much harder but does not eliminate all our options. Despite a pandemic and a hostile federal government, state governments, cities, and businesses have made real climate progress. Our generation is responsible for making the very last moves in the fossil fuel era and surviving the first moves of the climate change era. That work doesn’t stop after the election. If we don’t defend ourselves, who will?

Nathan Iyer is a second-year Master's student in the Science and Society program. His column, "Koched and loaded," normally runs on alternate Tuesdays. 

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