Maeve Higgins: Joe Biden's response to climate change is not enough. But it's a start

In the US, ground-up activism has forged the Green New Deal — a last-gasp chance to reverse climate change
Maeve Higgins: Joe Biden's response to climate change is not enough. But it's a start

Alexandria Villaseñor, right, with Greta Thunberg at a 2019 protest in New York. Ms Villaseñor was 13 and skipping school to take part in such protests when Maeve Higgins first met her. Picture: Richard Drew/AP

I first met Alexandria Villaseñor when she was 13 and had been skipping school every Friday for months. Instead of going to school, she was taking the subway to midtown Manhattan and protesting, often alone, outside of the United Nations headquarters. No matter how insane the weather was in the winter, she sat bundled up in scarves and mittens holding a simple sign saying ‘School Strike 4 Climate’ and ‘COP 24 failed us’. 

The latter referred to the latest annual UN gathering of almost every country on the planet for another global climate summit — these are called COPs — which stands for Conference of the Parties.

The disaster that created a climate activist

Villaseñor was radicalised into this action by witnessing the fallout of a terrible climate event in 2018, when the smoke from the notorious Camp Fire cloaked her family’s home over an hour away in Davis, California.

Flames tearing through Paradise, California, in November, 2018. Having fled to the sanctuary of the east coast, Alexandria Villaseñordiscovered an entire continent was not far enough away from the Camp Fire as a pall of smoke hung over New York. Picture: Noah Berger/AP
Flames tearing through Paradise, California, in November, 2018. Having fled to the sanctuary of the east coast, Alexandria Villaseñordiscovered an entire continent was not far enough away from the Camp Fire as a pall of smoke hung over New York. Picture: Noah Berger/AP

The Camp Fire caused 85 deaths and destroyed more than 18,000 buildings, making it both the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California’s history, two records the fire still holds today.

The air quality was so bad people were dropping on the streets of Davis. And, because Villaseñor suffers from asthma, her parents sent her across the country to New York as soon as they could. That’s where they live now, and I thought about her again last week as the latest fires, more than 80 of them on the west coast of the US, sent smoke thousands of miles across the US. 

New York City’s air quality plummeted as a haze hung over the city. The sun and the moon appeared gauzy and red. New York State officials warned vulnerable people including older people and those with heart disease and asthma to avoid strenuous activities and to go inside to avoid the “fine particulate matter” causing the haze.

Increasingly, it appears that nowhere in the United States is safe from climate chaos. 

So, what is the plan?

For the longest time, there wasn’t one. There were hundreds and thousands of smaller plans being enacted throughout the country instead; there was the fossil fuel industry’s plan to continue profiting no matter the cost to the planet and the creatures living on it, humans included. In the pockets of those corporations, there were politicians who planned to quietly accept their money and permit the fossil fuel industry to continue business as usual. Billionaires planned to colonise other planets with some ultimate end-game of escaping to Mars in their spaceships. Of course, many individuals, organisations and communities had a huge range of other plans to resist this cynicism and instead work on solutions.

Women and girls driving change

I was fortunate enough to co-host a climate justice podcast, Mothers of Invention, where we met women who were driving powerful solutions to the massive problems the changing climate throws at them, and that is when I met Alexandria Villaseñor. 

Her plan, inspired by Greta Thunberg and countless other children across the world, was to skip school and protest powerful people for their dangerous inaction. I can still see Villaseñor’s small face, deadly serious, as she told me:

Our generation are going to be impacted by climate change the most. We are going to have the most extreme weather, we are going to have to learn to adapt.

It was young people who took the lead in formulating a plan to do just that — to adapt to a future climate and environment that will be more difficult to live in than the present. It is too late to stop climate change, but if we act quickly, we can blunt the worst and most dangerous edges.

In 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released their now notorious report declaring that “rapid and far-reaching transitions… unprecedented in terms of scale” would be necessary to keep warming below 1.5C, degrees, the threshold nations of the world agreed to target in the Paris accord. 

To meet that target, the IPCC announced, would most likely mean roughly halving global emissions — which are still rising — by 2030. By 2050, they continued, carbon emissions need to zero out. To get to zero emissions the US — the world’s most powerful economy with the largest historical share of carbon emissions — will need to cut emissions faster and sooner than other nations. The US would need to lead the way and that remains a fact, however wildly unlikely that may sound to those who have been paying even the slightest attention to US climate policy.

The birth of the Green New Deal

Today, at least, there is a plan. While we don’t know how chaotic the climate will get in the future because that depends on what we do in the present, today in the US there is a bigger, more cohesive and positive plan to deal with it, a plan that attempts to pull the country in one direction — toward decarbonisation and a safer future than we currently face.

This plan is called the Green New Deal, and if it could potentially and very literally change the world. As you can tell from its title, the Green New Deal borrows heavily from president Franklin D Roosevelt’s original New Deal, and the stunning economic mobilisation that occurred in the US during and after the Second World War.

Explicitly borrowing from Franklin D Roosevelt's radical New Deal, the Green New Deal was introduced in February 2019 by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, right. Picture: Alex Wong/Getty
Explicitly borrowing from Franklin D Roosevelt's radical New Deal, the Green New Deal was introduced in February 2019 by US Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey, right. Picture: Alex Wong/Getty

The Green New Deal is a congressional resolution introduced by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and senator Ed Markey “to mobilize every aspect of American society to 100% clean and renewable energy, guarantee living-wage jobs for anyone who needs one, and a just transition for both workers and frontline communities” — all in the next 10 years.

Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise youth movement and who architected much of the strategy, explains it this way: “Rather than one priority among many, the Green New Deal is best thought of as a governing agenda that guides every aspect of public policymaking. Its many components will not all be accomplished through a single piece of legislation in Congress.

“Like the original New Deal, it will require dozens or hundreds of bills and executive actions, implemented over the course of a decade. The federal government must lead this project, in coordination with additional policies at the state level and in thousands of municipalities.”

The ambition and scope of the Green New Deal makes it an easy target for sceptics.

Swept away by floods in Dernau, Germany, crushed cars lie piled up on a roadside after last week's flooding across central Europe, the latest in a global series of record-breaking weather events. Picture: Thomas Frey/DPA/AP
Swept away by floods in Dernau, Germany, crushed cars lie piled up on a roadside after last week's flooding across central Europe, the latest in a global series of record-breaking weather events. Picture: Thomas Frey/DPA/AP

The plan was released in 2019, when then president Donald Trump was in office, and he predictably and gleefully mocked it even as he plunged the world into further peril by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement and doling out ever more fracking and drilling licences. Republican senator Tom Cotton joked about riding around on “high-speed light rail supposedly powered by unicorn tears”.

That one stayed with me. As a comedian I am consistently intrigued by how deeply unfunny right-wingers are, despite their best efforts. The only gags they seem able to generate are through bullying and punching down and still they miss. And as with this unicorn ‘joke’, their humour often lacks logic, leaving the listener slightly confused, as well as put off. I mean, why would the unicorns be crying? Surely in this utopian and imaginary future the senator is making fun of, unicorns, of all creatures, would be delighted. In any case, I’m ignoring the cynics because the future they are planning for is unremittingly bleak and dangerous.

As the planet floods and burns, I’m focused on a way through that saves as many people as possible. The Green New Deal is one way, and already there are movements in that direction from the current US administration. In January, president Biden announced his executive order on tackling the climate crisis at home and abroad calling on federal agencies to get to a carbon pollution-free electricity sector by 2035.

He spoke about creating a civilian climate corps echoing the New Deal’s civilian conservation corps. Mr Biden focused on climate jobs and environmental justice, and this is a departure from every US president that came before him.

It isn’t enough, not by a long shot. It isn’t the massive heave we need to turn this nightmare around, but it is a start.

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