The centrists’ Hail Mary worked: While Mike Bloomberg set hundreds of millions on fire to win American Samoa, it turns out former Vice President Joe Biden’s win in South Carolina was a far better investment. His rivals dropped out and endorsed him, and he surged on Super Tuesday.
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Biden cleaned up in states he was expected to win (Virginia, North Carolina) and states that came as a surprise (Minnesota, Massachusetts). He did it riding a wave of older voters. Senator Bernie Sanders is still in this race, too, (as is Senator Elizabeth Warren, for now) but only one represents a true path forward. That’s because the climate crisis has swallowed the politics of the past as surely as it has beachfront real estate around the world, even if some voters clearly haven’t realized it yet.
For the many decades Joe Biden was a senator, Congress had ample time and opportunity to curb the climate crisis. Instead, it made it worse by fostering the fossil fuel industry and letting carbon pollution skyrocket. As vice president, Biden was part of an administration that oversaw a fracking boom that made matters worse.
With each passing year that emissions rise (or fail to drop) in the U.S. and abroad, the world will require more and more dramatic solutions to address the crisis. This simple reality points to the need to obliterate the politics of the past. That includes Republicans’ denial as well as the idea that politicians should operate solely under the framework of what’s possible. Instead, the climate crisis dictates we need to focus on the politics of what’s demanded by our atmosphere and physics and the impacts on society.
Those demands are becoming clearer. Wildfires, storms, and heat waves have become more intense and frequent. The oceans are more acidic. The West Antarctic ice sheet is on a dangerous precipice of unstoppable melt, unleashing flooding along the coasts.
Democratic voters have certainly perked up to these dangers as well, with climate change becoming a top-tier issue for the first time in a presidential primary. But what does that really mean to them? I won’t conjecture about what lives in the hearts and minds of millions of Americans, but it’s clear there’s a disconnect between caring about climate change and understanding what actions are necessary to address it. Washington Post exit polls show Super Tuesday climate voters actually broke for Biden despite him having a climate plan that, while laudable on some points, is ultimately nowhere near the scope of what’s needed to address the problem. The plans put forth by Sanders and Warren, in contrast, are in line with the radical reforms that are needed.
In many ways, climate voters for Biden are like people living a few miles inland from the coast, blissfully unaware of the increasingly angry ocean coming for their homes—or at the very least comfortable with the idea the flood won’t reach them.
“I’m not sure [voters] are capable of differentiating the degree to which the candidates are true climate hawks versus faux climate hawks,” Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, told E&E News. Indeed.
Rather than embrace a new politics that prioritizes all people equally, a number of Democrats—including former candidates wanting to preserve the status quo—have turned to Biden like a blankie in scary times.
And look, I get it. Things are supremely fucked up right now. But returning to the past to weasel out of the present isn’t going to happen. There is no centrist position on saving the planet, let alone a compromise one with Republicans. And the longer people clamor for the past, the more likely the future will be even more radically different.
Biden supports continuing fracking and has been wishy-washy on renewables targets and whether he would support banning U.S. oil exports. He thinks he can work with Republicans to pass meaningful legislation despite the fact they are actively using their Senate majority to sink his candidacy by perpetuating a conspiracy theory and have put forward laughable climate solutions.
In his speech on Tuesday night, Biden talked about how “the middle class is getting clobbered.” But the poorest among us are suffering, too, and often feel the worst impacts of climate change, compounded by every other factor working against them in society.
So where does that leave us? In a place where we still need to mobilize and help people understand the true differences and risks. Young people aged 18-29 years old broke for Sanders by 41 points on Super Tuesday. People aged 30-44 years old broke his way by 18 points. But their turnout wasn’t enough to beat the number of older people who voted for Biden.
Getting those people to turn out, not just to vote for the better climate candidate, but for everything, is crucial. Whether we address the climate crisis isn’t a one-time, vote-in-the-primary-and-you’re-done thing. It’s a grind-it-out, long-haul assault on the powers that brought us to the point of no return. And it means building a movement for long-term power. Contrast Biden’s speech with what Sanders said, and I think you get where things have to go.
“What we need is a new politics that brings working-class people into our political movement,” Sanders said in his speech on Tuesday. “Which brings young people into our political movement.”