Interview: The politics of climate crisis.

AuthorBattistoni, Alyssa
PositionCLIMATE CRISIS

George Morris (GM): We were meant to be doing this in person, but instead we're doing it over the now ubiquitous Zoom; so let's start with the coronavirus. In A Planet to Win you talk about the crises on the horizon and the way in which ecological and economic crises combine and mutually reinforce. (1) Disease is a perfect example. Do you think that people will read the crisis in that way, as a sign of things to come, and take the climate crisis more seriously as a result?

Alyssa Battistoni (AB): I certainly hope so. I think there are two questions. The first is whether people will read the current moment as indicative of the kind of concatenating crises that we're likely to see as climate change and its effects become more severe. It's important that people recognise this kind of emergent disease is something we're likely to see more of.

The second question--which I'm much more worried about--is: if we recognise that these sorts of crises are likely to become more common, can we do anything about it? There's been a lot of discussion about whether this is a moment where we could have a Green Stimulus and a rethinking of our relationship to nature; I think this is a moment when people are really looking hard at the political-economic system and the potential to change it. But how do we do that? We published an excerpt from A Planet to Win in Jacobin a week or so before the first major stimulus bill passed in the US, arguing that the moment of crisis was also an opportunity to spend money in a way that would start the process of decarbonisation, and looking to the Obama administration's response to the 2008 financial crash as an example of a missed opportunity. (2) But the $2 trillion stimulus package that passed was definitely not a green stimulus. It included bailouts for airlines, for example, without imposing conditions on that around carbon reductions, or insisting on government equity, which would make it possible to make demands on airlines down the road.

The stimulus did prove that we can come up with unprecedented sums of money when we recognise that there's a crisis. But the people who recognise that this moment is indicative of broader ecological crises, and who see this moment as a chance to begin spending money in a way that decarbonizes the economy, just don't have power. The biggest challenge will be translating that awareness and those ideas into action.

GM: The Green Stimulus plan that's been published is fantastically detailed. (3) But as you say, actually translating that into power is impossible under the present circumstances. So what is the purpose of it as an intervention?

AB: It's important to show that our ideas are possible. The Green Stimulus proposal was published before the actual stimulus package. The plan called for spending $2 trillion dollars as a starting point, which people would have said is crazy, but now the US has actually passed a $2 trillion-dollar stimulus. Clearly, we have that money.

In moments when it's clear we can spend that kind of money, it's also important to demonstrate that there's a way that we could spend that $2 trillion dollars that would start to undertake some of the things that we know we need to do to decarbonise and mitigate the effects of climate change. It's important to start to circulate our plans and get movements to talk about them, to advocate for them, to get people who are in positions of power to engage with them. The Green Stimulus plan is an amazing package of everything we want to see, and I don't think anyone imagines that we're going to get all of that all at once under any circumstances. But starting that conversation is really important. As you note, it's unlikely under a Trump administration that we're going to get any of it, but we can start to push people on trying to include some of it in future iterations. There's been a lot of talk about an infrastructure spending bill since the first stimulus bill passed; if we could get at least some green infrastructure in that, that would be better than nothing.

But again, it's not for lack of ideas that we aren't tackling the climate crisis. We need to think hard about how we can change political and social dynamics to get some of these great ideas implemented.

Reframing politics

GM: The new climate politics is really good at putting forward concrete demands. As Ann Pettifor points out, the Green New Deal has formed a concrete centre around which a previously disparate green movement has coalesced. (4) Do you have a sense of why there's been that shift?

AB: It's been really important to have a positive vision around climate change, to offer something to fight for, rather than the politics of climate being a politics of apocalypse or catastrophe. It's very hard to mobilise people around that because it feels like there's no project, and no point. The Green New Deal has been important as a vehicle for a visionary project that is simultaneously a concrete programme that seems plausible and possible to imagine. It's helped cut through the disabling sense of doom, but also through the idea of climate change being a matter for experts or scientists or technocrats. Previous iterations of climate politics have often involved very technocratic policies; for example, a complicated cap and trade system which you don't really understand and which somebody else is working out the details of behind the scenes. Which isn't to say that there aren't technical elements to any climate programme--obviously there are. But it's been important to have something concrete that people can engage with.

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