No matter who wins this year’s US presidential election, current conventional wisdom is that the climate will be one of the biggest losers.
Donald Trump is the world’s most powerful climate denier, and Joe Biden had the least aggressive climate plan of any of the dozens of candidates running for the Democratic nomination. On the face of it, both options feel grim – especially for the people at the centre of the climate emergency, who bear the brunt of our decades-long delay on climate action.
But this stunning fact is also true: Biden’s version of the Green New Deal, which explicitly calls for a net-zero emission US economy, contains 30 times the finance commitment to green energy than Hillary Clinton’s plan did just four years ago. In almost every way, it’s even more progressive than the plan put forward by Bernie Sanders in 2016.
That remarkable shift didn’t happen spontaneously. This election season, the US saw its first single-issue climate presidential candidate emerge, Jay Inslee, who dropped a deluge of nuanced plans about every inch of a transition to a post-carbon world. And the Sunrise Movement, a group of young activists, hounded every major presidential candidate and helped put the climate emergency at the centre of campaign discourse in a matter of months.
These dry documents and unceasing political pressure are the nuts and bolts of transformational change. The result is that Biden, as remarkable as it may seem, has now assumed a role as the face of that change despite deserved scepticism. The status quo has become a revolution.
That, we might say, is progress.
Reluctant but revolutionary change
To be sure: I’m not saying Joe Biden is the best president a progressive could wish for. At best, he will be a reluctant vehicle for revolutionary change rather than its driving force.
Biden’s climate plan was the only one of all the Democratic nominees to receive an "F-" rating from the influential Sunrise Movement’s election scorecard. Its founder, 25-year-old climate activist Varshini Prakash, agreed to serve on his climate task force, but in a recent interview called his candidacy “disappointing” – twice. That’s because, all around him, change is happening even faster. Biden has been racing to keep up, and has brought the status quo along with him.
What I am saying is that, although it might not seem like it on the surface, we’re not in the same place today as we were only a few years ago. We’re not even close.
We’re doing better on climate change than we tend to think
Of course, ideological victories aren’t the point. The goal of the climate movement is to ensure a safe, healthy, and thriving future for everyone on an emergency time scale. Climate activists strive to affirm life in practical, tangible ways led by scientific evidence that demands a revolution in every aspect of society.
When put that way, it’s easy – even encouraged – for well-meaning people to shrug off incremental progress.
Besides, the steamroll of extractive capitalism – led by the fossil fuel industry – will continue to materially reduce humanity’s chances of surviving this century with global civilisation intact. Every year, we’re crossing irreversible tipping points in the climate system that will ensure a future filled with suffering for all living things.
When put this way, it’s easy to descend even further into cynicism.
Climate activists’ tendency to simultaneously set huge, transformative goals and beat themselves up as they are achieving them is as reliable and ominous as the rising sea levels. We’re doing far better than we give ourselves credit for, and yet we’re never doing good enough.
That’s why I want to put a spotlight on the progress that we’ve made, while fully acknowledging we’re not yet where we need to be. Because it is important to be aware of the steps we are taking – and to celebrate successes when they’re achieved.
How radical change happens
In November of 2018, two years after Standing Rock, a group of youth climate activists led by Prakash was joined by just-elected Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to protest in favour of the Green New Deal. But this wasn’t just any other protest. It was to be held in Nancy Pelosi’s office – the third-highest ranking elected official in the United States, and a member of their own party.
It was as close to a political takeover as you can get in an era of extreme party loyalty.
The protest made the news in a way that climate change rarely does. It prompted debate nationwide over the urgency of climate action. More than 50 of the protesters were arrested. Prakash’s Sunrise Movement propelled the climate movement into people’s living rooms almost overnight. Climate change was no longer just about emissions targets and degrees Celsius – it was about justice and revolution.
All of this happened in days that were still starkly different from today. The landmark Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report calling for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” had only been out a month or so. Few people had even heard of the Green New Deal. The wildfire that burned through Paradise, California – the deadliest in state history – was still ravaging. Swedish teenager and Nobel Prize candidate Greta Thunberg hadn’t yet sailed across the Atlantic Ocean.
But the takeover worked. Over the course of the past 18 months, ideas that had previously been considered too radical to even discuss – like a universal green jobs guarantee, advocating for 100% renewable energy nationwide by 2030 and refusing to accept campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry – have become central to the Democratic Party.
Polling support for climate action has also hugely improved. Climate is now arguably the centrepiece of progressive politics around the world, ranking number one in a global survey in 26 countries on a list of most important issues, with concern rising notably over the past six years in almost every country. Right now, even in the middle of a pandemic, a new survey shows that concern over climate change is at an all-time high in the US, and new methods of climate protest are flourishing. Globally, 71% of adults surveyed in 13 countries said that climate change is as serious a crisis as Covid-19.
Given all this, it’s no coincidence that the climate plan put forward by Democratic nominee Biden is, in many ways, much better than even the most progressive plan four years ago: it talks about a 100% clean energy economy as an “obligation”, and sets a new mandate that every new car be electric. It demands a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies, and will use the power of US trade agreements to enforce it. It doesn’t mention a carbon tax, leapfrogging a decades-old controversy and just gets straight to regulating the carbon-based economy out of existence.
This is how radical change happens. And we’re in the messy middle of it.
Next to politics, technologies are advancing rapidly as well
This shift in politics is just part of the revolution that is already underway.
Wind and solar are now the cheapest sources of new energy for most of the world. Between 2010 and 2020, prices have dropped from $300 per kWh to $50 MWh for new solar, low enough to match or even undercut the cost of new coal and natural gas plants.
The renewable energy industry has become an enormous industry within less than a decade, tripling in size since 2010, and becoming a thriving engine of low-carbon electricity at prices that were unimaginable even just a few years ago. Already, the US is on pace to produce more electricity from renewables than coal for the first time ever in 2020.
The use of coal has gone down even more during the coronavirus lockdown. The UK and Portugal have gone weeks without a single coal plant operating, and more than 60% of the world’s coal plants are currently operating at a net financial loss due in part to the pandemic.
Meanwhile, new coal construction has slowed quickly over the past several months, starting even before the pandemic. By one measure, there are only a few hundred coal plants still being planned or built in the entire world. Of course, the bad news is that there are coal plants still being planned or built at all. But still: at this rate, the UK – the birthplace of the industrial revolution – will be entirely coal free by 2025.
Simultaneously, the cost of batteries – an important component in our transition to a renewable economy – has also gone down significantly in just a few years’ time.
Batteries are the missing link in an economy that can run on entirely renewable energy, because the sun and wind can’t be turned on and off on a whim. And prices have dropped far quicker than analysts have expected. The cost of lithium-ion batteries fell 85% from 2010 to 2018.
There will be 175 different models of electric cars available for purchase in Europe, up from less than 100 total cars of a single model sold in 2010
The battery evolution has spurred electric vehicle production too. By the end of 2020, there will be 175 different models of electric cars available for purchase in Europe, up from less than 100 total cars of a single model sold in 2010.
And instead of merely transitioning to an electric version of fossil mobility, cities around the world are re-imagining their streets all together too. From New York to Mumbai, people are closing streets to vehicle traffic and reclaiming urban space for pedestrians and cyclists. Flying, too, has become an ethically conflicted activity – 30% of people in a recent survey reported having a “bad conscience” while flying. And that was before the coronavirus.
All these developments have made the 100% clean energy goal a real possibility well before 2050, just as Biden plans to do. The Sunrise Movement, from the looks of it, will keep pressuring him for it to happen much sooner.
The new climate movement, focused on energy justice
Of course, solar and wind are not morally positive technologies just because they reduce our carbon footprints. The answer cannot be an ecomodernist doubling down on capitalism, only this time with solar panels and Teslas. As the infrastructure of the fossil fuel industry is irreversibly breaking down, we need an entirely new society to replace it.
Fortunately, an emerging movement focused on energy justice has changed the framing of renewable energy proliferation from a greenwashed, unquestionable good thing to something that must be done not just in consultation with marginalised people, but led by them. The climate movement, after all, has been dominated so far by white people, even though people of colour have been and will continue to be disproportionately harmed.
On a rainy summer day in Washington, DC in 2018, Zero Hour, a climate advocacy organisation led by young women of colour, began with a sparsely attended march that focussed explicitly on diversity, equity, inclusion, and anti-imperialism. It was the first youth-led climate march in history.
By May of the following year, CNN had the first cable TV panel in history on climate justice.
By October, presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren had an entire environmental justice platform.
Globally, the climate movement is also aligning with workers’ rights movements, thus becoming a key force in left-leaning politics. The just-launched umbrella organisation, Progressive International, has assembled groups like the Movimento dos Atingidos por Barragens (Movement of People Affected by Dams) in Brazil and Aksi Ekologi dan Emansipasi Rakyat (Action for Ecology and People’s Emancipation) in Indonesia alongside broader labour, justice, and women’s rights organisations around the world.
There is a community and solidarity aspect to the climate movement that is now out in the open, where before it was more private and segregated. People are openly talking about the incredible emotional toll that climate change is having on them: disasters like the fires in Australia, California, southern Europe, the Amazon, and the Congo basin have generated public moments of grieving from which there is no escape.
The best news: we’re just getting started
In 2020, we have already succeeded beyond some of our loftiest goals set only a few years ago. We’ll do the same by 2030.
Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, has calculated that based on previous non-violent movements over the past 100 years, just 3.5% of the population is needed to kickstart revolutionary change in society. In 2019, the climate strikes in New Zealand were the first to reach that magical number, and ushered in sweeping new climate law as a result.
Urgenda – a Dutch advocacy organisation – won a landmark ruling that forever links climate action with human rights, sparking similar court cases around the world. As of today, there are court cases in more than two dozen countries worldwide, forcing governments to take action on climate change via the rule of law.
The idea of degrowth – abandoning the concept of eternal expansion on a finite planet – is becoming a transformative call for an economy that’s fundamentally different. A recent survey of UK residents found that a majority would prefer the economy to be measured by indicators of quality of life instead of GDP. We can achieve that by building an economy that’s not based on quarterly reports and profits, and instead on distributing resources to those who need them most.
One way of achieving that aim is through a circular economy – basically, recycling on steroids with radically distributed access to information, production, and consumption. By putting ecology and biodiversity in the centre of our new economy, we’ll be building on a foundation of life and connection, not competition and inequality.
In that kind of world, everything changes. Care work is valued as essential. Quarterly stock reports will become meaningless. Our entire concept of value will shift toward what is truly sustainable from a planetary perspective.
We’re just at the beginning of it. But we’re getting closer every day.