Why I'm skeptical about climate bipartisanship

Republicans have always obstructed climate action. Why do we trust they'll be good-faith actors now?

Welcome to HEATED, a newsletter for people who are pissed off about the climate crisis—written by me, Emily Atkin.

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Yesterday’s issue featured an interview with Secretary of State John Kerry about his new bipartisan climate initiative, World War Zero. If you haven’t read it, you might want to. Because today, we’ll be focusing on reader reactions to that interview.

I’ll also share my own opinion of World War Zero, which I’m… weirdly nervous about doing?? But hey, that’s my job and them’s the breaks.

Ready? Here we go!

HEATED readers are totally split about John Kerry’s group (and my interviewing skills)

At the end of yesterday’s e-mail, I asked you all to tell me what you thought about World War Zero, Kerry’s star-studded effort to hold more than 10 million “climate conversations” with Americans across the political spectrum in the coming year. I also asked for reactions to my interview with the former secretary of state.

I got 30 responses, which I compiled in a spreadsheet HERE if you’d like to see them. (I removed people’s names and other identifying information).

Out of those 30 responses, 10 were explicitly supportive of Kerry’s effort; 11 were explicitly non-supportive; and three had mixed feelings.

Also, five people wrote to praise me for being tough on Kerry, while two people wrote to say I wasn’t tough enough. (One person said it “feels like a press release”—ouch!) Four more wrote with questions they would have liked to see asked, but those responses were not explicitly critical of the interview.

So yeah, you can see the diversity of opinions I’m dealing with here! But let’s look at some of the responses a little more closely, because I think they illustrate a critical discussion happening right now in the climate community: whether we need bipartisanship to solve the climate crisis, or whether we need to abandon the concept entirely.

Team love thy neighbor

“Working together doesn’t have to mean watering down the results.”

Another name for these readers might be Team Citizens Climate Lobby. Even if they’re not part of the volunteer-led group that seeks to push bipartisan climate solutions, they would likely support the group’s efforts. (Also, if my email inbox is any indication, very many HEATED readers are CCL volunteers).

In fact, one reader who was supportive of Kerry’s group is a CCL volunteer. She wrote: “Great to see more bipartisan work in the climate space. I love that this is both bipartisan and building agreement on a bold goal—working together doesn't have to mean watering down the results.”

She’s not alone. Many readers believe the government will never implement effective, long-lasting climate legislation (that is, climate legislation that won’t immediately be repealed if Republicans gain power) unless Republicans are on board. Thus, they’re focusing their entire advocacy efforts on converting people and “de-politicizing” the issue.

As one reader wrote:

The environment shouldn’t be a divisive issue among the public, and for that reason—I’m really hopeful and excited about this group. I hope they allow people to recognize that it is OK to talk about climate change and that it won’t harm their sense of self or be counter to their identity as say a Republican or a Democrat if they do.

In fact, all of us Americans, whether we consider ourselves Republican or Democrat know climate change/global warming is an issue. So—yes, I like this. … everyone [should] feel like they should be a part of this effort.

Other readers in the “love thy neighbor” space are just thankful for any climate-related effort that comes along. As another person wrote:

No nation is taking the appropriate action to combat climate change. America has a President that mocks climate change and science. Our emissions are increasing and the administration is pushing forward with more fracking, more exports of LNG, attacks on public lands, and dismantling of environmental regulations. T

This truly is a national and worldwide emergency. Anything that John Kerry can do to get people across the nation to demand immediate, and major action on climate change would be a major step in the right direction.

And that person is right: We aren’t moving anywhere near fast enough to prevent catastrophe.

Team kick ‘em to the curb

“We should not embrace coalition with deniers. We should seek to politically destroy them.”

I was inspired to call this team "Team kick ‘em to the curb” after I saw this tweet from End Climate Silence founder Genevieve Guenther:

Many HEATED readers would also consider Republicans part of that class of evil boyfriends—people who promoted poison (fossil fuels), lied that it was poison, and are now claiming they want to help cure us of poisoning. They don’t want any part of a group that associates with said evil boyfriends.

Several people who criticized Kerry’s effort explicitly called out the group’s inclusion of former Ohio Governor John Kasich. A famously moderate Republican, Kasich told the New York Times that he joined World War Zero because it was a way to advocate for climate action while still supporting fracking.

As one HEATED reader wrote, such rhetoric is akin to climate denialism:

World War Zero is good insofar as it is a measure of the success of the grassroots movements have had over the last year. People from ruling circles are starting to take notice.

But WWZ is just too muddy. Kerry says we need people/politicians who are not deniers. But then he also says that people who think gas is a bridge fuel are in his coalition, as are people who embrace fracking. That's denialism. We should not embrace coalition with deniers. We should seek to politically destroy them.

This particular reader also expressed another concern: That World War Zero would take attention and money away from grassroots, youth-led efforts to combat the climate crisis.

I'm tempted to think, in fact, that in founding WWZ, they are undermining groups to their left like Sunrise Movement, 350.org, and Extinction Rebellion. WWZ money could go a long way with groups like those, but those groups won't (and shouldn't) hold their rhetorical fire on corporate and bipartisan political failures, so instead we get the well-funded porridge of WWZ.

And I share some of these concerns.

Where I come down

One of the critical e-mails I received was pretty on the nose. The reader said, “Recounting your Kerry convo without analyzing it, putting it in context, is kinda... unHEATED. No?”

This reader, in other words, was disappointed I didn’t express my opinion about the Kerry interview. And I’ll admit, I thought about doing it! But I didn’t, for two reasons.

The first was that I spent a long time preparing for it, conducting it, and transcribing it. I was tired.

But the second, and probably more influential reason I didn’t share my analysis was because I was afraid it would leave some of you feeling alienated. Obviously, that was wimpy on my part. It’s best you know where my biases lie.

I am biased toward not trusting powerful people and institutions who have consistently failed to use their power responsibly. And when it comes to climate change, Republican lawmakers have consistently failed to use their power responsibly. Not only that, they have sabotaged efforts to get legislation accomplished, by demanding unreasonable concessions and pulling out of important processes late in the game. So I am deeply skeptical of efforts that seek to include Republicans and moderates with the assumption that they are needed to solve this crisis. They’ve never helped solve it before. Why assume they’ll help now?

Obviously, that means I’m skeptical of World War Zero. Guys, are you surprised? I literally wrote this article:

I’ll repeat what I said in that article: How can voters trust a party that promises to solve a problem caused by fossil fuels, but without doing anything to slow the use of fossil fuels?

Look, I’m not skeptical of the whole premise of World War Zero. I like the idea of a nationwide effort to get people to prioritize climate change in their daily lives and at the ballot box. I like the idea of “combining the grassroots with the toproots,” as Kerry said, to help make a stronger case for climate action in communities where people are skeptical that it should be a priority.

I also agree with the reader who wrote, “Anything that John Kerry can do to get people across the nation to demand immediate, and major action on climate change would be a major step in the right direction.”

But I’m also worried about rich celebrities and centrist Republicans taking up all the air in the room—right when a vibrant, youth-led, grassroots climate justice movement is also on the rise. The mainstream media only has a limited climate attention span. Who are they going to give their airtime to, do you think?

I respect my readers who think the only way to save the climate is to work with Republicans. Personally, I would much rather get everyone on board with preserving a livable climate before we take action to do so.

But we only have 11 years to act before we’re almost certainly locked in to irreversible catastrophe. And my priority is preventing death and destruction, not having everyone hold hands while we think about whether it’s the right thing to do.

I won’t ever just give Republicans, corporations, or fossil fuel companies the benefit of the doubt. I don’t think they deserve it. I think they have to earn it. And I think earning such trust will take a lot more than agreeing to pose for a serious-face picture on a fancy website with no information.

But that’s just me, and I’m not the only one here. So please, continue to bombard me with your opinions about climate bipartisanship via email at emily@heated.world. You don’t have to agree with me; I say it all the time. My job is to give you the tools you need to make informed decisions about how to solve the climate crisis, not to make those decisions for you.

Now look at this meme and have a nice day.

Sry to throw shade like this on a Sunday 😩😩😩
December 1, 2019

OK, that’s all for today—thanks so much for reading HEATED.

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As always, if you have questions or comments on anything you read in this issue, or want to pitch me a story idea, my inbox is open: emily@heated.world.

See you tomorrow.