Democrats Need Both Climate and Jobs at the Center of COVID-19 Recovery

As the United States suffers through the dual epidemics of police violence and COVID-19, another crisis lurks in the background: the climate crisis. With May 2020 registering as the hottest May on record and June kicking off what experts fear will be a severe hurricane season, these crises could soon overlap in dangerous new ways.

While all this happens, more mundane matters are unfolding: "Unity task forces" convened by the Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns are hammering out policy proposals for the Democratic platform across a range of issues, including climate.

Compared to Sanders, Biden has been lukewarm at best in his support of a Green New Deal that could match the scale of the climate emergency and the deepest recession since the Great Depression.

But while many on the left are skeptical that the Biden-Sanders task forces are a shallow façade, there are some reasons for optimism. With prominent Green New Deal backers Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the Sunrise Movement's Varshini Prakash selected to the eight-member climate group, there are powerful voices pushing Biden to take a bolder stance.

Meanwhile, events on the ground have considerably accelerated the case for radical change. Across the globe, policies once dismissed as impossible have already been implemented.

From Australia to Morocco and Spain to Indonesia, manufacturers of cars, planes, and military equipment transformed their operations to produce ventilators, sometimes based on open source designs. As large parts of the global economy shut down for weeks on end, states and public financial institutions stepped in to guarantee incomes, prevent job losses, and place moratoriums on debt enforcement.

In many industrialized countries, a decade or more of austerity was binned, and global bailout funding runs into the trillions. Even the International Monetary Fund, usually a strident deficit hawk, told countries to spend what they can to tame the health crisis — noting that "exceptional times call for exceptional measures."

There is also at least some evidence that "crisis mode" could push Biden into taking more progressive stances.

When the U.S. federal government took majority holdings of car giants General Motors (GM) and Chrysler in 2009, for example, it sacked the boss of GM, restructured Chrysler, and made investment in more energy-efficient cars a core condition of the bailout. The Obama-Biden administration also passed tougher fuel-economy and carbon-pollution standards.

When Biden campaigned to win the Michigan primary in March 2020, he played heavily on his role in the auto bailout. The question now is whether such plans can be tied into a bolder vision for tackling the climate emergency.

The case for another radical idea — using public ownership to transform the oil and gas industry — is also stronger than ever.

With oil prices collapsing, hundreds of upstream oil and gas companies are expecting to face bankruptcy in the next two years. As in the auto bailout, the U.S. federal government could take an ownership stake in these companies and mandate a reorganization away from fossil fuel production and toward renewable energy.

Similar conditions could be made for other polluting industries seeking bailouts, like airlines. A "people's bailout" would also prioritize access to public health services, guarantee jobs and basic incomes, and pay for retraining displaced workers, placing them in new jobs, or securing dignified early retirement options for those shut out.

All of the precedents for broad economic change come out of big disruptions. In the last century, the Great Depression and World War II gave rise to the New Deal and welfare state. And in a longer sweep of historical truisms, it is generally understood that plagues drive change.

The immediate priority now is ensuring that Democrats hardwire climate concerns and social justice into their COVID-19 recovery plans. As we seek to rebuild, what comes next should be more resilient — not just to the spread of pandemics, but to the challenges posed by the climate emergency.

Oscar Reyes is an associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies and author of the new book Change Finance, Not the Climate.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​