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The pandemic holds important political lessons for the climate crisis, but they must be taught.
In recent months numerous claims have been made for the power of COVID-19 to upend politics as usual. Many have argued that the pandemic has exposed the deep failures and inequities of decades of neoliberal governance. It has shown that the federal government can create trillions of dollars to meet pressing needs, that predictions of catastrophe over deficit spending largely amount to fear mongering, and that the state has an essential role to play in safeguarding the welfare of the people. If these pivotal insights become widely accepted, we will be better poised than ever to undertake the societal mobilization envisioned by a Green New Deal and address the existential threat of climate change.
To lay the groundwork for a Green New Deal, the climate movement must recognize that mass education is one of its core responsibilities.
But that’s a big if. Though our experience with the pandemic offers crucial lessons, crises don’t necessarily trigger a shift in public consciousness. Worldviews could remain fixed, or new political perspectives could be short-lived. And people can draw different conclusions that reinforce the status quo rather than challenge it. In short, while a progressive transformation of society may seem more conceivable now than at any time in the last decade, we should not assume it is inevitable. On the contrary, fundamental change relies on the persistent effort of social movements to widely communicate vital lessons, to forge a new and enduring political common sense, and to translate it into transformative policies. To lay the groundwork for a Green New Deal, the climate movement must recognize that mass education is one of its core responsibilities.
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There are several forces that work against the emergence of this new common sense in the wake of the pandemic. In the first place, many people practice a narrow and fundamentally passive form of politics—participating in elections but neglecting to update their political worldview as crises reveal important lessons. Other significant barriers to transformation include fatalism and high information costs: on the one hand, repeatedly seeing elected officials ignore our interests suggests little reason to pay attention to politics, and on the other, paying close attention to politics can require a significant investment of time that many cannot afford. But perhaps most blameworthy is an information ecosystem that systematically underinforms and misleads. The problem long predates the current age of social media echo chambers: political elites and mainstream media have always worked to constrain political common sense within narrow limits. As Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky observed in Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988):
The ‘societal purpose’ of the media is to inculcate and defend the economic, social, and political agenda of privileged groups that dominate the domestic society and the state. The media serve this purpose in many ways: through selection of topics, distribution of concerns, framing of issues, filtering of information, emphasis and tone, and by keeping debate within the bounds of acceptable premises.
Despite what we may perceive as the clear insight arising from past experience, then, we can be sure that many people will draw conclusions about the response to the pandemic that reinforce rather than dismantle existing political narratives. We should not assume that neoliberal governance has been decisively exposed for its cruelty, or for that matter, that most voters now recognize the complicity of both political parties in creating a society with little social safety net, and the ability of—and need for—the federal government to spend trillions of dollars for public priorities. Consider some ways these essential lessons can be overlooked or distorted.
Government Spending Must Be Reined In
Just because the federal government has created trillions of dollars for pandemic relief doesn’t mean that the politics of austerity will become a thing of the past. Consider what happened after the Great Recession. In the two years following the 2008 crash of the global financial system, the Federal Reserve created around $1.5 trillion to finance the government’s bank bailout and economic stimulus. The inflation deficit hawks long warned of did not ensue, but the Obama administration still acquiesced to Republican calls for deficit reduction. “Families across the country are tightening their belts and making tough decisions. The federal government should do the same,” Obama declared in his 2010 State of the Union speech. “Like any cash-strapped family, we will work within a budget to invest in what we need and sacrifice what we don’t.” Treating the new money like a debt that had to be repaid, the administration imposed austerity, and as a result the economic recovery turned out to be historically slow.
While a progressive transformation of society may seem more conceivable now than at any time in the last decade, we should not assume it is inevitable.
These political forces show no sign of abating. Moderators in political debates continue to ask how we can possibly afford progressive policies. During Joe Biden’s presidential campaign last fall, a top advisor claimed that if Biden wins the election his administration will “be limited” in its ability to spend because of “what Trump’s done to the deficit”—“the pantry is going to be bare.” With the Fed’s high-profile response to the current economic crisis far exceeding its actions after the Great Recession, we can expect eventual calls for a return to austerity. Without a credible threat of inflation, the Fed’s capacity for money creation will be limited by elites’ assertion that it is debt we must repay. Falling back on such myths helps to keep us in the dark even in a moment of historic clarity.
Trump Was the Only Problem
It is easy to draw conclusions only about the unique incompetence and deadly narcissism of the Trump administration in the midst of the coronavirus crisis than learn a lesson about the cruel nature of neoliberal governance more generally. But the tight restrictions on government spending that maintained an utterly inadequate social safety net and made the pandemic truly devastating were a bipartisan achievement, worked out over decades. The spectacle of an exceptionally bad response to the latest crisis distracts from that reality.
Democrats had full control of the government in 2009 during Great Recession, but they produced an insufficient stimulus that left millions homeless and jobless, and Obama pivoted to spending cuts in 2010 when the unemployment rate was still nearly 10 percent. In 2019, congressional Democratic leadership pushed hard to enact a pay-as-you-go budgeting rule which mandates that increases in spending be matched by budget cuts or tax increases to avoid federal deficit increases, dashing any chance of passing large-scale progressive policies. Throughout the pandemic, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo provided frequent reassurances to the public while pushing billions in cuts to Medicaid. The words of one of Biden’s top advisors about the spending limits imposed by Trump’s deficits suggest more of the same. Trump’s unique incompetence can easily overshadow the fact that deprivation has been and often continues to be a commitment of both parties.
Electing Democrats Is Enough to Solve Our Crises
The same dynamics can suggest that serious climate action becomes possible simply by electing Democrats. The Republican Party has long ignored, mocked, and misrepresented scientists and scientific evidence, a trait Trump took to the extreme during the pandemic. But one party’s radical anti-science pedigree and obvious allegiance to the fossil fuel industry doesn’t mean the other party is adequate: the country’s reliance on fossil fuels has remained firm through both Democratic and Republican administrations. Continuing that trend won’t allow us to maintain a habitable planet.
Joe Biden has a $2 trillion climate plan that currently aims to make the country carbon neutral “no later than 2050,” the most ambitious proposal ever put forward by a U.S. president. It envisions the climate crisis as “an opportunity to revitalize the U.S. energy sector and boost growth economy-wide.” But research shows that in order to limit warming to 2 degrees Celsius, wealthy nations must aim to eliminate emissions by 2035–2040, at least a decade ahead of Biden’s carbon-neutral target. It also suggests that reducing fossil fuel use so quickly is very likely incompatible with economy-wide growth. With no mainstream Democrat expressing support for a degrowth approach to climate action—or even acknowledging the need for it—we cannot expect a commitment to the much faster decarbonization timeline that science prescribes. The Democratic Party has not yet offered a path to a stable climate, but it’s not difficult for many to assume otherwise.
Government Is Inherently Corrupt
In the face of an utterly disastrous response to the pandemic, it is also possible that deep distrust of government will only be worsened, a feeling stoked by decades of anti-government propaganda. A dismal view of the government certainly has roots in reality—just consider the track record I have pointed out above—but it poses a major obstacle to progressive policy if these failures are construed as an inherent feature of the state, rather than a reason for changes in public policy. A fatalist attitude toward politics can hurt the growth of social movements and the fight for policy in the public interest. And for those who have learned to fear or hate the government, a large-scale mobilization to address the climate crisis will seem like something to fight against. Mistaking excessive corporate representation in government for inherent government corruption helps to keep elites in control.
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For all these reasons, we should not expect an effortless transformation of public opinion after the pandemic is contained. Rather, we must make political education an essential part of the climate movement.
First, our collective notion of fiscal responsibility must be turned on its head. The power of monetarily sovereign governments to create vast sums of money has been demonstrated. Money is not scarce; we can afford to meet everyone’s basic needs. We must work to dispel years of propaganda about “living within our means,” or we will continue to see needless limits placed on government spending.
Citizens must also be able to put U.S. democracy in context, looking beyond the differences between Republican and Democratic politicians to see the political system’s general deference towards business interests. The state’s inadequate response to major crises is a result of this deference, not an inherent feature of government. If we build enough people power, we can win truly democratic governance. That lesson is essential for combatting the cynicism that undercuts efforts to organize a mass movement. Furthermore, it focuses the public’s attention on the contest between public and private interests, the real battle lines that define the limits of political possibility.
We also need the public to understand what serious climate action looks like. That means learning about the carbon budget concept and the factors that shape it, as well as ways that society may change when transitioning from fossil fuels to renewable energy. To take a central example: adhering to a small carbon budget to maintain a habitable climate may require a contraction of some economic activity. The pandemic revealed that we can quickly hit the brakes on the economy, but opponents of the transition will surely paint a threatening picture by linking it to the worst aspects of the virus-driven shutdowns. Mass education must work to convey why the energy transition is necessary and how it would prioritize public well-being.
Direct education must also grow into a large, permanent movement activity.
The climate movement is a necessary vehicle for this kind of education. During quarantine, the Sunrise Movement began offering virtual teach-ins where activists could learn about the Green New Deal concept and various movement-building skills. This could be a step towards a much broader vision. We need movement-run education systems that offer frequent programming in communities across the country. We could develop a comprehensive curriculum that conveys the deep knowledge needed for self-governance in this time of converging existential crises—covering ecological systems and energy sources to economic institutions, power structures, and culture.
Developing ecological and energy literacy allows us to see the many existential crises facing humanity, which are all rooted in overwhelming human demands on our finite planet and require us to adjust our lifestyles. Economic literacy gives lie to the myth that the economy is a “natural” entity arising from immutable economic laws only intelligible to business leaders and economists. Such myths encourage everyday people to accept a subordinate role rather than fight for their rightful place as equal participants in shaping a new, sustainable and democratic economy. The reality is that within the limits of ecology and energy, the economy is what we make it. It will also be crucial to develop general awareness of the power structures that determine how decisions are made in our society and the forces working against change—including a conservative, consumerist culture. Studying these systems allows us to anticipate the various challenges and forms of elite opposition that a full-scale Green New Deal will face and plan in advance to overcome them.
In the past, climate activists viewed the organization of demonstrative actions like sit-ins and marches as their main work, and over the past few years organizing around elections has gained increasing focus. Now, direct education must also grow into a large, permanent movement activity—building a broader political base, unencumbered by economic myths and conservative cultural norms and prepared for the challenges posed by the energy transition we so urgently need.
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