Among the biggest losers following last Tuesday’s stunning Trump victory, is the environment. Donald Trump has called climate change a hoax perpetuated by the Chinese, complained about the aesthetics of wind turbines and solar panels, pledged to be a champion of American coal, vowed to hobble the EPA, withdraw from the already insufficient Climate Paris Agreement, stop funds going to UN climate programs, and repeal the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts. In a moment where the incremental compromises that have become the hallmark of climate action in the past decade reveal themselves to be inadequate for stopping a runaway climate, the specter of Trump poses, potentially, the greatest threat the world has ever seen. That’s not hyperbole. Already the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in the world, under policies of unfettered use and distribution and exploration of fossil fuels, the US will lead the charge of irreversible destruction of our only habitat.
In times like this, we look to the leaders of opposition for organization, support and strategy. But while leading groups like the Sierra Club, the League of Conservation Voters & NRDC vehemently oppose a Trump administration and the misdeeds that will surely follow, they are culpable in leading us to this brink and the solutions they set forth to this point are counter-productive if not overtly dangerous.
The failing of these groups at the national political level are no more apparent than in their support for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential election. Hillary Clinton, regardless of how you voted or feel about her, is the embodiment of corporate liberalism. Clinton’s ties to Wall St. and corporate power have been thoroughly litigated throughout this campaign: her cozy ties to Wall St. who she represented in the Senate and enriched her personally through a number of paid speeches, her Foundation that takes millions from special interests including ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, and her time at Secretary of State where she transformed the position to that of corporate sales rep, securing contracts for the likes of Boeing and Chevron among many others.
That the high profile environmental groups chose to throw their weight behind Clinton early in the primaries when she was running against a populist progressive with a stronger record on environmental issues, running a campaign against inequality & special interests should be viewed as political malpractice. Critics will argue that Clinton was viewed as the safest bet for these groups to secure a seat at the table, that Sanders was too risky. But even had Clinton won, these environmental groups would find themselves at the same table as those who are directly responsible for the problems they’ve vowed to fight.
The environmental movement’s allegiance with the Democratic Party is an obvious one. At last count, 72% of Republican Senators deny the existence of climate change, much less are willing to take legislative measures to curb it. The GOP for decades, and increasingly so over time, have been a corrosive force against mobilizing an effective transition away from the practices that are destroying us. For that service, they are reaping the rewards in the form of incredible funding from the fossil-fuel industry. There is no home for the Sierra Club in the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, the Democratic Party isn’t a hospitable landscape for them either. As Matt Stoller articulated last month in his piece for the Atlantic, since the 1970’s, the Democratic Party has transformed itself from a populist party of the working class to a pro-Wall St, pro-deregulation party focused more on social issues than economic policies created under the New Deal. Some would argue that climate change is a social issue but the mechanisms that both create and combat climate change are wholly economic. As Stoller outlines, this new generation of Congress people known as the Watergate Babies had no reason to distrust banks and big-business and worked to embolden them, culminating with the election of Bill Clinton in 1992.
Clinton’s administration repealed Glass-Steagall, which separated investment banks from traditional ones. He deregulated industries enabling mergers of unmatched power. He signed NAFTA and granted China Permanent Normal Trade Relations setting in motion a new world order of globalization.
All of this work since the 70’s, especially that done in the 90’s, has lead to levels of inequality not seen in this country since the lead up to the Great Depression. The Watergate Babies and Clinton Democrats refer to this as an unintended consequence but examining the data it is painfully obvious that they were simply repeating history. New Deal policies stabilized the economy, established a middle-class and held powerful special interests in check. When they were repealed, we returned to the world that existed before them.
With such grotesque levels of inequality, in a country that looks more like an oligarchy than a democracy by the day, the power of the proletariat has crumbled. For the environmental movement, whose only leverage against such power is public outrage and activism, their influence has been substantially diminished. Even as climate change has been moved to the top of our lexicon, as communities and countries alike recognize its imminent threat and 70% of Americans now believe in its existence, society’s resistance to special interests is among its weakest ever.
Instead, the environmental movement has attempted to ingratiate itself in Beltway politics, fashioning itself of as its own special interest. Emails from John Podesta released from Wikileaks shows Sierra Club’s Michael Brune arranging meetings with the former chief of staff of Bill Clinton, former Councilor to Barack Obama and campaign chairman to Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign. Other emails show internal communications stating that NRDC’s Rhea Suh committed NRDC to endorse Clinton in November 2015, seven months before Suh publicly endorsed Clinton under the guise of a binary choice between her and Trump. Evidence published by The Intercept revealed that the League of Conservation Voters’ endorsement of Clinton was decided by the league’s board, much to the ire of the league’s actual membership.
As a means of combatting the corpulence of special interests, environmental groups are now strategically embracing the party responsible for those interests’ mutation. Their attempts to infiltrate the smoke filled rooms of Washington, to wear tuxedos to State Dinners, at tables opposite those who knowingly destroy the planet in a conquest for shareholder dividends, to back corporate candidates who offer lip service of pragmatic half-measures, produce milquetoast results at best. Much like the Black community, with limited options for allegiance, the environmental vote has been taken for granted and its ambitions have been marginalized.
For their servility in the last decade, these organizations got a president whose cabinet was chosen by Citigroup, who lifted decades long limits on oil exports, who’s marquee agenda in his second term was passing the TPP which is unanimously viewed as horrendous for the environment (notably by Brune himself) who granted leases to drill in the Arctic only for the purchasers of those leases to pull out because of their own insecurities of drilling safely, who just this week, without an election at play, signaled he’d green light the Dakota Access Pipeline, all while being lauded by these same organizations as the most consequential president in the fight against climate change.
Their refusal to endorse Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election proves that they have learned nothing from their dependence on the Democratic Party. While Sanders was stirring enormous energy among young, working-class and disenfranchised people, building a grassroots movement designed to stretch beyond November, to bring millions into the political process to demand change instead of obediently waiting for compromise, they went with talisman of the corporate Democrat, Hillary Clinton. In a moment when these groups could harness the proletariat once again, to break from the constraints of a party in bed with the enemies, to make transitioning from fossil fuel and mitigating climate risks a national priority, they stuck with the establishment who brought us here.
What’s worse, since last Tuesday, there has been zero sign of self-reflection or willingness to correct course. There has been no mea culpa to Sanders and his supporters, no sacrifice of leadership, no calls to find a new way forward; only encouraging affirmations that we must continue to fight.
But continuing to fight is not good enough. In the coming weeks and months, there will be several discussions whether progressives should reform the Democratic Party or build a new party from scratch. These decisions will likely be based on the new leadership at the DNC and which direction they wish to take the party. It’s fundamentally important that environmental groups take the same measures. If the pillars of environmental action and defense invite the progressive left of this country in to fight on a broad, grassroots level, they can be saved. If they choose to remain close to the Democratic Party establishment, betting big on the potentially powerful, they will continue to lose influence. If they refuse to agree that no movement, not environmental or otherwise, can win against an oligarchy with an enormous disparity of wealth and power, they will continue to lose trust. If they stay the course they chose in 2016, allied with corporate America, Wall Street and their favored iteration of the Democratic Party, we’ll all lose this planet altogether.