It’s easy to look at any number of stories about our ongoing and impending climate disasters and get very discouraged about the future. I personally do it all the time. It’s not healthy and I don’t recommend it.
Kate Aronoff is a staff writer for The New Republic who has immersed herself not just in reporting on the climate, but climate justice, particularly when it comes to the labor movement and building a truly working-class movement to take on climate change and the forces of capitalist power that are accelerating it. Her second book, Overheated, was released in April and focuses on this.
Earlier this week, we talked to Kate about her new book, the forging of an alliance between climate and labor, how the Democrats are perpetually disappointing on climate issues, and where she finds cause for hope on one of the bleakest beats out there.
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Paul Blest: Overheated makes a strong case for why capitalism is really the source of climate destabilization. There’s been a big emphasis on big polluters for years, but a lot of the mainstream discourse on climate change has danced around the threat capitalism itself poses for a long time. Why do you think that is?
Kate Aronoff: The short answer is that socialism has for a long time put a broader focus on the economic system in general, whether that’s ecosocialists or just folks who live next door to fossil fuel and polluting infrastructure who see the effects of the stuff close-up. It’s not a new thing in some parts of the environmental justice movement to name capitalism as an enemy in the climate fight.
So I think as we’ve seen the strength of those movements grow, we’ve seen a more widespread recognition that capitalism is the problem, both in the sense that it’s not just a small number of actors that are causing this. There are some phenomenally bad actors, like fossil fuel executives. We live in a system which was built around fossil fuels, which was built around coal, oil, and gas. And so taking the climate crisis on requires really going to the root of how we got here.
PB: Right now the Democratic leadership (particularly Joe Biden) seems to be desperately trying to get a bipartisan stamp of approval on an infrastructure bill, and in your new book you write about the 2009 cap-and-trade bill as a sort of cautionary tale about relying on corporate allies and bipartisanship to tackle the climate crisis. Do you view the current crop of progressive Dems as having learned any lessons from 2009 or what’s happened in the years since?
KA: There’s certainly a big spread among Democrats, but some people have learned those lessons. One big thing that’s changed between 2009 and today is we’ve seen Occupy Wall Street and the Movement for Black Lives, and things like the Sunrise Movement and [the protests] against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. And all of those have forced a really different conversation about policymaking and made left-wing ideas more popular, and have made it more popular to see the failures of the Obama administration on a number of different fronts. But one is strategically, in terms of not waiting for some mythical moment where Republicans are suddenly interested in coming to the table for a good faith negotiation about anything on climate policy.
There are folks like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Jamal Bowman, who come out of that movement moment. I don’t think they have any illusions about what sort of bipartisan compromise is possible, and I don’t think we’ve seen quite the same thing that happened in 2009 and 2010. But I think the worrying thing is that Joe Biden’s abiding political commitment throughout his career has been to bipartisanship by any means necessary. I think we’re seeing that now with a slightly bizarre commitment to having bipartisan talks, but thankfully, finally, there seems to be some pushback against that.
PB: As you wrote last week, New York just failed for the second year in a row to pass any climate legislation. This is a state that’s not only controlled by Democrats top to bottom but has a very significant progressive presence in the legislature. Is it as simple as that the leadership is bought and sold by energy interests?
KA: So, a little bit of background for folks who thankfully do not track New York politics closely, which is extremely bleak: after several years, this bill called the Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act passed in 2019. That passed after this big sort of wave of progressives got elected and kicked out the Independent Democratic Caucus, which had handed a majority to Republicans. So now the Democrats have a supermajority, and the thing they passed was targets of how quickly the state should decarbonize. Now the challenge is to get legislation to make good on those targets.
[But] the Democratic leadership has routinely just not brought those to a vote, including three bills that tackled different parts of that problem—none of which were massively ambitious, but all were trying to get New York state to get carbon out of its system. And they still haven’t come up for a vote. What I talked to folks about in reporting that piece is that it’s so easy to pass targets and much harder to make good on those promises. And what Democrats in New York state have found it really easy to do is just not vote on anything, right? They’ve made a choice not to take a side, and that’s what voting on these bills does. It forces you to say, ‘I’m with the utility companies,’ or ‘I’m with the climate,’ and you can’t do those two things at the same time.
It’s been two sessions in a row of Democratic supermajorities that have not passed climate policy. For anyone who says New York and California are provinces for green energy and climate policy and all things good in the world, I would just encourage you to look at what happens in state legislatures.