On January 13, Congresswoman Kathy Castor, Chair of the U.S. House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, joined a coalition of environment action groups in a virtual town hall to discuss the climate solutions democrats intend to push forward under Joe Biden’s administration. The event, which was hosted both on Zoom and Facebook live, took place after democrats won both senate elections in Georgia, securing the party control of the legislative branch for the first time in 10 years.

Castor is adept at weaving in the benefits of “aggressive climate legislation” as she answers questions; one can see the broad coalition of interests she represents coalescing around her. Furthermore, she’s not the sole democrat to wield the far-reaching potential of climate action. 

Global Economic Competition and Clean Energy

On the campaign trail, President-elect Joe Biden said “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’”. He’s right, there is immense opportunity for job creation in clean energy. Democrats have a message to incentivize congress to spend the money—competition with China. “The United States, not China, [will] lead the world in clean vehicle production,” he said.  

Global economic competition has long been thrown around as justification for proposed legislation on both sides of the aisle. President Trump used this competition to fear-monger congress into passing protectionist tariffs, despite centuries of information that reveal that tariffs don’t work. It’s almost reminiscent of the space-race, only we’re staying right here on earth, and green energy is much less poetic. 

Healthcare and racial justice advocates have a place in the clean energy race, too. A representative from “Moms’ Clean Air Force,”—a group that seeks to protect children from “air pollution and climate change,”—, asked Castor to highlight upcoming legislation that offered “equitable climate solutions for a strong economy and healthy families”. Castor responded by pointing to the Environmental Justice For All Act, introduced to the house by House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Raul Grijalva and Representative Donald McEachi. The Act calls for a range of actions to protect BIPOC communities and embed environmental justice considerations into federal policy and agency action. 

Intersection of Environmental and Racial Justice

Environmental justice advocates have long called for federal attention to the disproportionate effect of the climate crisis on BIPOC and low-income communities, and, based on democratic talking points, it seems their demands have caught the attention of top-level democrats. President Elect Biden promised to create an environmental and climate justice office at the Department of Justice, and Castor parroted the hard-won wisdom that climate justice is racial justice.  

Political reframing is nothing new—think of when republicans transformed “capital gains tax” to “death tax”—and democrats are putting their best spin on the climate crisis. Investing in natural ecosystem resilience—spending money to protect wetlands and other coastal ecosystems that mitigate damage when natural disasters strike—is framed as “empowering local communities,”. 

The fact that we need to make these investments now because we failed to two decades ago is pointed out by Carol Browner, former director of the EPA and board-member of The League of Conservation Voters. Likewise, enacting a carbon-free electricity grid by 2035 is an “enormous opportunity,” but one that is sorely needed considering market-friendly “cap and trade” systems failed to reduce emissions to survivable levels.

For all the positive change to the party platform pushed for by progressive activists, many of whom are from poor, Black, or indigenous communities that experience the devastating effects of climate change firsthand, democratic plans to combat the climate crisis are heavily influenced by financial interest.

Environmental Activism and Economics

 There exists many schisms within environmental activism. A big one is between climate activists who believe that with a few tweaks, we can solve the climate crisis and preserve “free” markets, and those who see solving the climate crisis and capitalism as fundamentally opposed. (Water, that pesky natural resource dubbed “the petroleum of the 21st century” by Goldman Sachs , follows the laws of nature, not markets). Democratic action on climate change, primarily, veers away from market intervention.

Major talking points of the pro-capitalist camp include investments in technology that will “save” us. They focus on transitioning our economy from fossil fuels to one powered by solar, wind, or—more controversially—nuclear. With solar and wind power cheaper than ever, it makes sense that democrats have finally come around to this plan, especially when they can use competition with China as fuel for the fire. 

The democratic party’s embrace of the idea that climate action is a “win-win” for the economy and for the planet has its roots in 80’s era policy shifts, when scrappy, combatant environmental advocacy groups like the Environmental Defense Fund changed their mottos from “sue the bastards” to something more “business-friendly”. I am not saying that legislation to protect the environment can’t also be good for business, I’m just pointing out that it shouldn’t have to be. Historically, legislation that strives to be pro-business and pro-environment tends to do better with the former.

Castor did make an exciting claim during the town hall, when she remarked that climate legislation was changing; the Biden/Harris administration plan is to “embed climate action into every single thing they do.” 

This feels like a revelation, and potentially the government’s best chance to make legitimate progress in the battle for our shared future. What remains to be seen, is if elected officials will stand by their promises, or if those climate protections can be traded away in the name of bipartisanship, or worse, the economy.