We Can Still Make This Election About Climate Change

by Daniel Hafetz

With a decade or less remaining before the worst effects of climate change become irreversible, the headlining issue of this election should have been this looming catastrophe. If Joe Biden wins, we should still conclude there is a mandate to tackle climate change. That’s because the consequences of our rapidly changing climate — how it will shred our social fabric, incinerate notions of equality and justice, devastate global health, and drown our economy — are the same concerns that define this election. Thinking about climate change as a standalone issue that gets tacked on at the end of a debate is to fail to comprehend its nature; climate change is the issue, and it will engulf all of the rest.

Climate change aside, our country faces three metastasizing crises that reinforce and feed off one another: gaping inequality that is the product of a rigged economic system that stokes rage and resentment and is marked by a exploitation and unfairness; a deterioration of our democracy through the loss of common notions of truth, respect, and rule of law, and beset by a miasma of bitterness, conspiracy and division; and structural racism that permeates the other issues and everything else — our economy, our healthcare, our schools, our housing, our roads, our policing, our courts, our prisons, the very freedom of people of color to be — to breathe, to sleep peacefully in their beds, to go to a friend’s house to give his child a gift. It is tragically fitting that even in an election where there is overwhelming support for racial justice, the issue of voting rights — whether communities of color have equal access to the ballot free of intimidation and suppression — may dictate next week’s outcome.

Increasingly — exponentially — these diseases afflicting our economic security, racial divide and democratic system will converge with climate change. The changing climate and its impacts will play out locally, invariably hurting the poorest the most, with black and brown people hit hardest. When American communities are forced to migrate and relocate — from burning California and Colorado, drought-ridden Arizona and Nevada, blacked out Puerto Rico, or flooding Florida and Louisiana — it will stir the worst of our fears and hostilities. The fleeing masses will be shut out of services, schools, and housing in the communities where they seek refuge by exclusionary local laws that malign and dehumanize outsiders, blaming them for a situation they did not create. For those remaining in communities and regions that have been forsaken by the wealthy, the tax base will be eroded, and government and private lenders will deem them unworthy of investment, leaving those who remain with scant opportunities to rebuild or thrive. And in the other places that soldier on, income inequality will devolve further into second class citizenship, where the poorest will die disproportionately during extreme heat in their treeless neighborhoods and homes that are insufficiently air conditioned. The fractures in our society will cleave further, fueled by a sense of scarcity that will make denial of the rights of others a matter of survival. Meanwhile, the conservative plutocracy — which understands full well the magnitude of the threat of climate change — will continue to deny the crisis and refuse to help fund the solutions so they can amass fortunes that will become their fortresses, preserving their high perch with the materiel of dark money, packed courts, disinformation and deception.

And all the while, we will have collectively sanctioned it through our elections, whether by apathy, blindness, corruption, delusion or disenfranchisement.

We are at a critical moment of not just opportunity to set a new course, but of hope. Voter turnout is likely to shatter records going back at least a century. The country’s great reckoning on race that began this summer is a signal of promise. Although the unrest is a product of great suffering and mourning, it’s also a testament to how the bravery and sustained advocacy of those who have been fighting for equality and justice long before it was in many of our consciousnesses can ignite a nationwide movement. The protests and unrest demonstrate the breadth, diversity and strength of this coalition— more far-reaching than any of us would have imagined. While polls may indicate waning support for the protests, the awakening has happened. It is intact.

So maybe, just maybe…

Joe Biden, in his unspectacular way, is a different kind of answer to our existential crisis. A Biden administration will most certainly need sustained pressure to go big. Maybe we won’t get a blockbuster new New Deal; instead, maybe we’ll get actions parceled out into a series of laws that showcase that dealing with climate change means addressing infrastructure, healthcare, housing, jobs, our workplaces, and measures to ensure our communities remain open to the most vulnerable amongst us. The result could look kind of boring, but nonetheless be bold and expansive. Boring might be a good thing because it means it’ll be more acceptable and accepted. And that could be the genius of it: that we meet the moment by doing many consequential things in humble ways that add up to something appropriately grand.

We undoubtedly have dark and turbulent days ahead, but we still have time to influence our fate. We have 5 days before that window shuts a little more.

Go vote.

Hafetz is a lawyer living in New Jersey.