Can The New Populism Save The Climate?

Bill Scher

The rising tide of populism has been sparked by the inherent unfairness of an increasing wealth gap and stagnating wages in the aftermath of a Great Recession caused by some in the top 1 percent. The economic strain directly felt by millions drives support for increasing the minimum wage, expanding jobless aid, raising taxes on the wealthy and tightening rules on banks.

But the climate doesn’t directly benefit from the populist wave. The threat of global warming isn’t as viscerally felt as a insufficient paycheck. The solutions are complicated to craft and easy to demagogue.

As progressives gather in Washington on May 22 for the New Populism Conference, to shape and organize around a populist agenda, it’s worth discussing if and how populism can be harnessed to save the planet.

President Obama is moving forward with a major package of regulations designed to cap carbon emissions from power plants. Also of note are plans to address methane leakage from extracting and transporting natural gas.

But this is mainly technocratic work that does not require a mass uprising to enact.

Still, the White House has not completely ignored the need to rally the public. Case in point: This month’s PR push around its slick climate report. But Obama does not need the public to call Congress in favor of the regulations; it only needs the public to not call Congress to demand the new regulations be scrapped.

These regulations cover much of what the President can do without Congress. What we need Congress for is spending money.

And a green investment agenda is something that has populist potential. Direct creation of jobs can counter concerns of jobs lost. Making green energy prices stable and affordable provides relief to people constantly frustrated by oil price spikes.

The most comprehensive green jobs package is the Blue-Green Alliance Jobs 21 plan, which notes we can create or support nearly 8 million jobs with a $550 billion transportation infrastructure bill, create 1 million jobs by investing $234 billion in energy efficiency, create 300,000 jobs with $1 billion put towards efficient buildings, create 58,000 by expanding the advanced manufacturing tax credit and create 239,000 jobs with a $10 billion investment in modernizing the power grid.

Does even a piece of this have a prayer in Congress? Certainly not immediately. But it is notable that Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who infamously won his Senate seat by shooting the House carbon cap bill in a TV ad, last week was acknowledging the reality of climate change and making hints at pursuit of a compromise.

What may have compelled his shift in tone? Because coal companies see these regulations coming fast down the pike.

They passed up their chance to play ball with Congress in Obama’s first term. But all that did was cede turf to the Environmental Protection Agency, which unlike Congress can’t give them any money. Only through Congress can fossil fuel industries get help to meet the standards set by regulations. As I observed two years ago, “If the corporations don’t want the EPA to keep issuing more rules, without getting help to adhere to those rules, they have a choice. Tell Congress: we are ready to come back to the table…”

Now that EPA regulations are on the horizon, corporations may come crawling back to Congress shaking their tin cup. And that could open the gates to spending real money on green job creation.

But the more pressure wielded by the populist grassroots, the faster Congress will act.

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