This article is part of Covering Climate Now, a consortium of news outlets strengthening coverage of the climate story.
It’s doubtful that Donald Trump or the bloodthirsty armed supporters who invaded the US Capitol threatening to kidnap or kill Vice President Mike Pence and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi were thinking much about climate change at the time. Nevertheless, the mob Trump unleashed to try to overturn his election defeat was an assault not only on American democracy but also on humanity’s climate survival. If Trump’s attempted coup had succeeded in keeping him in power for a second term, it would have been, scientifically speaking, “game over for climate,” as Michael Mann of Penn State University put it: Four more years of the world’s biggest economy accelerating rather than ending fossil fuel development would have made limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius impossible. Nevertheless, Trump’s insurrection, besides being an enduring stain on America’s reputation as a nation of law, also threatened climate survival in a second way, because a US democracy that works is vital to avoiding climate catastrophe.
A democracy that works is not one merely in which a losing president does not seek to overturn their defeat through coercion and violence. Well-functioning democracies reflect the wishes of the majority and provide effective channels through which citizens can make their voices heard and help shape the decisions made in the halls of power. Trump’s coup was a deliberate attempt to nullify this social compact and subvert an election in which a clear majority of the voters rejected him. As it happens, many of those voters were motivated in no small part by the climate crisis and a desire to replace Trump’s disastrous denial and obstruction with Biden’s commitment to tackle what he calls “the existential threat of our time.”
It’s no secret that the United States has fallen short of the democratic vision outlined in the Constitution, starting long before an authoritarian con man tricked and lied his way into the Oval Office in 2016. For centuries after the nation’s founding, the right to vote was withheld from African Americans, Native Americans, and women, among others. Voter suppression and gerrymandering, which effectively enable politicians to choose their voters rather than vice versa, continue to make a mockery of majority rule. And for going on 50 years now, American democracy, especially as played out in the nation’s capital, has been dominated by Big Money, as campaign finance laws were whittled away to today’s pitiful twig, where money is defined as speech and unlimited sums can be spent in secret for or against policies the super-rich or corporate power like or don’t like. Profit-making prevails over public interest more often than not.
Climate change is a prominent example, though the phenomenon is distressingly clear on issues ranging from health care to taxes as well. ExxonMobil and the rest of the fossil fuel industry have enjoyed a de facto veto over federal climate policy for decades, going back at least to the 1980s, when NASA testimony put the climate crisis on the front page of The New York Times and the cover of Time. Ample campaign contributions steadily channeled to members of Congress and presidential candidates was the most direct way Exxon, et al, made sure that Washington didn’t do much about the gathering climate crisis—a crisis, we now know, that oil company executives knew threatened the planet’s habitability—but it was not the only way. As the sector whose products provided the energy, the lifeblood, that animated the economy as a whole, the fossil fuel industry exercised a broader political power that made the grade school civics concept of one person, one vote sound quaint.
The influence of Big Money in US politics is so pervasive and entrenched that it’s almost hard to condemn the politicians who continue to play the game—almost. Which is why the problem has long been a thoroughly bipartisan one. Today, Republicans are branded, correctly, as resolute opponents of climate action. But throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Democrats both in the White House and on Capitol Hill were only slightly less resistant to meaningful policies than their Republican colleagues. In 1997, the Clinton-Gore administration didn’t even put the Kyoto climate treaty up for a vote in the US Senate, Gore told me in a 2006 interview, because they couldn’t find even 10 Democrat Senators who would vote yes. Similar examples abound.
But neither bipartisan domination by Big Money nor an out-of-control commander in chief directing a siege on the US Congress comprises the whole story of contemporary American democracy. For all its apparent weaknesses, our professed system of governance also contains enormous promise for “we the people” to make ourselves heard. On paper at least, the system stipulates and guarantees rights and processes by which citizens can petition government officials and hold them accountable, if only through the ultimate sanction of voting them out of office.
Here again climate change illustrates the point. A big part of the reason climate change is now a top issue in US politics is that citizens worked the tools and levers of democracy to pressure elected officials to take the problem seriously. A grassroots climate movement first emerged during the Obama years—it was plainly evident at the UN climate summit held in Copenhagen in 2009—as activists used protest marches, public education, election campaigns, civil disobedience, and other tactics to press their case. The movement scored a landmark victory when it got President Obama to reverse course and block the Keystone XL pipeline in 2015. By January 2019, a sit-in House Speaker Pelosi’s office launched the Green New Deal into the public arena. In 2020, climate activists demonstrated such electoral strength while backing the campaign of Senator Bernie Sanders that Biden, taking the hint, ended up adopting the strongest climate platform of any major party presidential nominee in US history. Climate activists, joined by counterparts demanding racial justice, then delivered the dramatically increased turnout among younger voters that proved decisive in Biden’s victory over Trump.
Without that expression of grassroots democracy, the world would likely be entering the climate nightmare of four more years of Trump. Instead, we’re witnessing the fascistic nightmare of the president of a country that considers itself the greatest democracy of all time fomenting a coup to remain in power despite a landslide electoral defeat. The first nightmare has been narrowly avoided, as will be formalized with Biden’s inauguration on January 20. The second will go down in infamy, with the names of Trump and his many enablers in the Republican party, the news media, and social media platforms permanently inscribed in US history’s book of shame.
Going forward, whether American democracy can regain sufficient vigor and respectability to avoid descending into the authoritarianism that Trump and his supporters represent remains to be seen. And what’s at stake is not only the continuation, however imperfect, of a government of, by, and for the people, as Lincoln phrased it, but whether that government will rise to the challenge of defusing the climate crisis while there’s still time.