10. The Electability Concern

Wouldn’t a more “electable” candidate than Bernie be better for the fight against climate change?

In light of the dramatic urgency of the climate crisis, one of the worst mistakes we can make is to assume that a return to the pre-Trump status quo will be sufficient. Those who are inclined to vote for a candidate they believe (perhaps mistakenly) is more electable than Sanders must grasp that establishment Democrats are, from a climatic perspective, not much more reassuring than Trump, because their neoliberal, free market policies are responsible for the plunder of the earth. Decades ago, going for the “safe” candidate would have made sense; today, it no longer does. We have a hail mary pass to save the planet by electing the most progressive leaders we can (in every race, in every state, in every country). 

The history of the Democratic establishment’s sell-out of the planet began with Bill Clinton’s avid support of NAFTA and the WTO, which gave mere lip service to the environmental movement. Clinton’s ties to Al Gore, a later champion of green causes, meant that “the mainstream environmental movement has been in no rush to draw attention to the disastrous climate impacts of the free trade era.” Just to proclaim your love of the environment means little if, through no ill will but a paucity of analytic sophistication, you simply “talk about light bulbs and fuel efficiency” (85) — a move akin to promoting individual charity as a response to massive and systemic global poverty. 

This was largely Al Gore’s approach — a plea to individuals (212) — even though “if these sorts of demand-side emission reductions are to take place on anything like the scale required, they cannot be left to the lifestyle decisions of earnest urbanites who like going to farmers’ markets on Saturday afternoons” (91). 

As for Obama, he missed a series of extraordinary opportunities. He found “three huge economic engines — the banks, the auto companies, and the stimulus bill” — all brought to their knees before him and in a “state of play…Imagine, for a moment, if his administration had been willing to invoke its newly minted democratic mandate to build the new economy promised on the campaign trail…The stimulus package could have been used to build the best public transit systems and smart grids in the world. The auto industry could have been dramatically reengineered so that its factories built the machinery to power that transition…Retrofitting factories on that scale is expensive, to be sure, and that’s where the bailed-out banks could have come in. A government unafraid to use its newfound power could have used the leverage it had over the banks (having just pulled them from the precipice) to enlist them — kicking and screaming if necessary — in this great transformation… If one refused [to privilege green loan recipients], it could have been nationalized, as several major banks were around the world in the period” (121-3). 

True, this would amount to an historic realignment of major industry and government prerogatives on the scale of — did someone say the (Green) New Deal? It would have been the first time — not at the global climate conferences, not in NAFTA or the WTO — that anyone wrote economic enforcement provisions with real teeth into an environmental plan. But this doesn’t mean it would have been impossible. We must judge Obama harshly for these sorts of missed opportunities. Mark Hertsgaard writes that Obama clearly grasped the significance of the climate crisis but did not rise to the occasion. Good intentions are not enough; “science does not care about fair, and leaders inherit the history they inherit” (142). Obama’s “much-heralded move in June 2014 mandating emission reductions from power plants was certainly the right direction, but the measures were still much too timid to bring the U.S. in line with a safe temperature trajectory” (141). 

Now — which candidate, alone among the others, would actually be fearless and radical enough to seize an historical moment like that with both hands, to do the unorthodox thing, and to turn such failed capitalist enterprises towards the common good? It can only be Bernie Sanders. Anyone thinking of voting for a moderate Democrat this year and hoping that that person will implement the sorts of bold changes necessary to save the planet should look at the sorry history of the contemporary Democratic party on this issue and think again. It is not enough, for instance, not to disband the EPA.

Meanwhile, Obama’s secretary of state, John Kerry, pontificated about how the climate crisis is a “weapon of mass destruction” (225), yet when it seems that the Democrats might nominate the man with the most radical plan to save the environment from that figurative WMD, he gets so upset that he considers running against him… perhaps thinking that he could get the United States to sign on to another completely ineffectual climate agreement, like he did the first time. 

What about Bloomberg, a billionaire businessman who has given abundantly to environmental causes? In Klein’s account of would-be philanthropist messiahs, Tom Steyer fares the best among ideologically, financially, or politically compromised magnates like Branson, Buffet, Gates, and Pickens (235), all of whom, for all their extraordinary wealth and big talk, have done absolutely nothing to save the planet. Bloomberg, a man whom I consider for many other reasons to be a monstrosity, has donated a great deal to the Sierra Club. But his fortune is also managed by Willett Advisors (a firm he helped to establish), which “invests in real assets focusing on oil and natural gas areas” (216). Bloomberg has also donated to the Environmental Defense Fund. Sounds good, right? Except that the EDF has invested heavily in shale fracking, which produces methane gas twenty-five times more dangerous for the atmosphere than CO2, and which for all its reputation as a “bridge” resource historically mitigates against sustainable (wind and solar) energy consumption, not oil consumption. And “it’s not simply that Bloomberg is actively snapping up fossil fuel assets…It’s that those gas assets may well have increased in value as a result of Bloomberg’s environmental giving. Bloomberg has been characteristically tight-lipped with journalists and reporters who have pressed him on those concerns (236). 

The big problem here, to which Klein devotes considerable attention, is that the sheer amounts of money to be had in the fossil fuel industry corrupt even the supposed “good guys.” Big Green, the movement of environmentally concerned corporations and environmentalists, has almost invariably brought representatives of big oil onto their boards in order to build consensus (196); the presence of these wolves in sheep’s clothing has had the effect of watering down bold ecological plans to the point that they are eventually abandoned wholesale (225-8). And the most devastating moment in this chapter occurs when Klein reveals that the Nature Conservancy — “renowned for buying up ecologically important tracts of land and turning them into preserves” (191) — silently began drilling for fossil fuels, itself, on those very preserves (192).

Corruptio optimi pessima: the worst thing in the world is the corruption of the best. The fact that we are dealing with such corruption among those who are supposed to be the planet’s advocates and allies is all the more reason to elect the candidate who is the most unyielding, the most untouchable, the most sincere about whom he stands with. That is Bernie Sanders. Buttigieg interprets Sanders’s uncompromising stance as “my way or the highway”; Buttigieg may not recognize that to have an agenda is a good thing because Buttigieg doesn’t stand for anything

Read on for more.