Build Back Better? Or Double Down on Disaster?

Peace Advocate November 2021

"Build Back Better, The Caring Economy - New Castle, DE - July 21, 2020" by Biden For President is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

by Nick Rabb

We have entered a new era of climate catastrophe. Whereas the major problems of the past were denial and delay, the current political terrain is one where it is no longer tenable to deny the crisis itself. Now, the emerging battle is one over the question of what to do about it: Do we adapt in a humane way that addresses the underlying causes, or double down and jealously guard what led us to disaster in the first place? Current federal spending battles (or lack thereof) — over the Build Back Better (BBB) Act and the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA)  — give clues as to the balance of forces on either side, and the scales are not tipped in our favor. Those advocating for transformative change are currently outweighed by military and corporate giants. There is an urgent opportunity to frame the conversation around which path we want to take, and we must rise to the occasion.

Official bodies and institutions are now admitting what environmental groups have argued for so long: the effects of the climate crisis are going to be catastrophic. A recent UN report synthesizing the Nationally Determined Contributions of nations across the globe projected that greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are on track to increase 16% by the end of the decade, with projected warming of 2.7C by the end of the century. The threshold for severe crisis remains at 1.5C. The U.S. Financial Stability Oversight Council warned that the economy will be shaken by extreme weather. Even the institutions who have contributed immensely to the crisis are no longer denying, or silent about it. The Department of Defense (DoD), National Intelligence Council, and Department of Homeland Security (DHS) simultaneously released reports warning of climate change leading to increased geopolitical tensions, outsize effects on developing nations, and threats to U.S. hegemony. Given the unanimous agreement on the problem, the question now becomes: What do we do about it?

There are two paths that our societies can take in the face of the challenge: we can radically change the way things are run (advocated for by environmental groups and international bodies alike), or the powerful can double down and ensure their survival at the expense of everything else. The track of radical change includes stopping emissions, ending extraction, and prioritizing life-giving systems to heal society and our planet. In contrast, those doubling down build climate bunkers, hoard money, and argue for increased militarization, continued industrial growth, and more burning of fossil fuels. These latter institutions and their proponents, dedicated to hurtling society off the cliff, are also some of the most powerful and entrenched on the planet. Which track is taken will depend on the outcome of a tremendous power struggle — one which our movements must take up.

While far from the radical change we need, the BBB Act would be a major step towards building a society that could mitigate the crisis — that is, if it doesn’t continue to be whittled down to nothing. Originally set at $3.5T over 10 years, politicians like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va) and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), among others, who are in the pockets of fossil fuel companies and big business lobbies, have stopped the bill in its tracks. Their main argument (given to them by those same lobby groups) is that the price tag of the bill is too high. What remains, a $1.85T bill — removing Federal paid leave, Medicare expansion, and free community college — is even further from what is necessary. A $150B climate provision to penalize energy companies clinging to oil and gas was cut after pressure from Sen. Manchin, who notoriously profits enormously off of the fossil fuel industry. Radical change will not come if entrenched powers have something to say about it.

At the same time, a $778B spending bill (spent over one year) sailed through the House with 83% of Democrat and 64% of Republican support, and appears likely to pass the Senate. This hefty price tag belongs to the National Defense Authorization Act. The NDAA represents the epitome of doubling down. What to do in the face of climate collapse? Militarize borders, ensure soldiers can fight in extreme heat, control the domestic population, protect resources and supply lines. When it comes to funding these ends, there is no question of price, no months of debate and haggling. Death and domination are simply business as usual in our system, while life and sustainability must be arduously fought for.

Right now, the priorities that are winning out — those of the rich, militarized, and powerful — are setting the rest of the world up for unspeakable chaos. The question of what to do in the face of climate disaster is a political one. Radical change necessitates a shift in priorities, which requires social movement. The climate crisis was not always universally recognized; it is thanks to social movements that it is currently in the spotlight. Now we must fight to push back against militarizing and doubling down in the face of fear.

— Nick Rabb is a member of MAPA’s Peace and Climate Working Group and a PhD candidate at Tufts University. He recently presented a two-part webinar series, “Opposing Militarism: A Key Task for Climate Justice,” on October 16th and 23rd.