Spring has sprung, renters across America are stubbing their thumbs installing window AC units, and Utah and Missouri are partially underwater. In a world increasingly facing the chaotic consequences of climate change – floods, fires, storms, and droughts – the livelihoods of working-class people are ever more at risk of disaster. Climate chaos poses the real question of how working-class people’s lives, homes, and safety can be protected as we fight not just to adapt to a changing climate but try to roll back the damage. The Biden White House, however, is more concerned with how to avoid paying out for the catastrophic do-nothing approach of capitalism at large.
In March, the Biden administration published its annual Economic Report of the President. Lurking in one particular chapter was a proposed approach that is as cynical as it is potentially destructive – the suggestion that government disincentivize “bad climate decisions” by refusing disaster funding for areas that are now at a higher risk of being damaged by climate-related catastrophes.
One might think the federal government could respond to climate change by providing substantial aid to climate catastrophe victims, like free healthcare and subsidized relocation or home repair, while investing in public transit and rapidly transitioning our grid away from fossil fuels. Instead, the White House wants to know: how can the government spend less on helping people survive climate change?
In a feat of theoretical gymnastics, the report argues that, while climate mitigation is a ‘public good,’ climate adaptation is a ‘private good.’
The report claims that, “for [climate] adaptation, communities, households, and businesses all have their own motivations for responding to and planning for climate risks.” This, the authors argue, makes climate adaptation a “private good,” meaning that the federal government can only try to incentivize “good” climate decisions – not step in directly.
The public/private good distinction may seem useless, but it’s actually worse than useless. It provides a pretext for the federal government to abdicate responsibility as communities continue to suffer from climate catastrophes.
How exactly does the Biden administration plan on “incentivizing” us to not die of smoke inhalation? The report identifies a “major opportunity” to “use access to Federal funds to incentivize sub-national adaptive reforms.” In plain English, this means withholding funds from cities and states that continue to build in possible disaster zones, including barring access to the National Flood Insurance Program.
This could even be interpreted to mean that the federal government could refuse to provide immediate disaster relief to people who apparently just shouldn’t have chosen to live in a given area.
In an episode of The Daily, the podcast of The New York Times, titled “Should the Government Pay For Your Bad Climate Decisions?” White House reporter Jim Tankersley explains (with disturbing enthusiasm): “The report says, hey, if we keep fighting fires around say, gated subdivisions in parts of the West that are bone dry, that will continue to encourage people to live in those places when maybe they should not be taking the risks of living in.”
The obvious problem with this policy is that people would die. When states, counties, or towns make “bad climate decisions,” ordinary working people would suffer the consequences, losing their homes, jobs, or even lives.
The reality is that most “climate decisions” are not actually decisions at all. The people most threatened by climate catastrophe are not the people in the hypothetical gated subdivision in the dry West, but the people living in basement-level apartments who can’t afford to leave before the unexpected flood hits, or the people living in trailer parks where hurricanes and tornadoes have become far more frequent. Under capitalism, life for most working-class people is a race to the bottom. People make decisions based on their economic realities, and most often can’t afford to change their lifestyles based around the growing risk of disaster.
In addition to being morally repugnant, this policy would drive poor and working class people further into the arms of the right wing, especially in already-conservative states like Florida and Texas. We’re already seeing this with the train derailment in East Palestine, Ohio; the slow response of the Biden Administration and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in particular gave Trump the opportunity to swoop in and cynically pose as being on the side of the people of East Palestine. This particular disaster, while man-made, shows clearly how the federal government is abandoning people in unlivable conditions to the whims of big business.
From East Palestine to Fort Myers, Florida, corporations are already profiting from disaster at the expense of working people. Since 2005, most major home insurers have pulled out of Florida due to an increase in storm damage. Following Hurricane Ian, the smaller insurers that now cover the Florida market are cutting homeowners’ claims by up to 97%, according to a Washington Post investigation. More than six months after the storm, about 34% percent of property damage claims related to the storm have either been rejected or remain unpaid. This shows clearly that leaving “climate adaptation” in private hands is not just a disaster in the making – it’s a disaster here and now.
Democrats Offer No Solutions
On top of this is the reality that neither adaptation nor mitigation are being treated as a “public good” by the Democratic Party – the party which claims to take climate change seriously.
The Biden administration, after publicly committing to end new drilling on federal land, approved the Willow Oil project, an Alaskan drilling venture that would by the administration’s own estimates add 9.2 trillion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere per year. That’s roughly the equivalent of adding 2 million cars to the road.
The climate chapter of the report is rife with similar contradictions. But these contradictions are not random – they’re connected to one huge, underlying contradiction: the Democratic establishment will pay lip service to climate change, and even take some action to expand green energy as seen in the Inflation Reduction Act, but will not directly oppose the corporations that are largely responsible for climate change. They will attempt to incentivize consumers not to consume fossil fuels, but will not stop corporations from producing them.
Even as the federal government encourages Americans to install solar panels or invest in an electric vehicle (as if that’s a realistic option for most Americans as our paychecks are eroded by inflation and low wages), we are also set to become the biggest exporter of liquified natural gas this year. So, even if the US manages to reduce fossil fuel consumption domestically, it will export the oil it continues to produce to countries with less robust green infrastructure – likely with imperialist strings attached. And last time we checked, a barrel of gas burned in Senegal goes into the same atmosphere as one burned in Kentucky.
And yet, we should not see the deeply insufficient steps that the Biden Administration has taken to reduce climate catastrophe as worthless. Rather, they are a faint echo of what could be won by an organized, working class political movement that makes no rotten deals with capitalists, by militant labor unions that allied with social movements rather than the Democratic Party – and better yet, by a political party of the working class that could serve as a center of gravity for both.
The report is yet another illustration that the capitalist class, and the Democratic establishment in particular, are navigating the climate crisis like a blind raccoon operating a forklift. It has never been clearer that an international socialist program is the only way to reverse climate change for future generations while saving the lives of working people who are faced with climate catastrophe. In contrast to the Biden administration’s cost-cutting, cynical victim-blaming “strategy,” Socialist Alternative demands:
- A Green New Deal for Working People, with sustainable infrastructure built by union workers.
- Slash federal spending on the military, the largest polluter in the US government.
- Immediate, unconditional aid for communities hit by climate catastrophe, including financial and logistical support for people who choose to relocate.
- Take top polluting corporations and predatory insurers into democratically controlled public ownership.