Maria Elena Durazo knows about immigrant workers, labor and civil rights. She has been the hospitality union UNITE HERE’s General Vice President for Immigration, Civil Rights and Diversity since 2014. Before that she was the first woman executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, which represents 600,000 workers, many of whom are immigrants and Latinos. She became a force for labor and living standards in the nation’s second-largest city—and a thought-leader for the rest of the nation.
When she was growing up, Durazo’s farm-worker family picked crops up and down the West Coast. Recalling that time, she told film maker Jesús Treviño, “As migrant farm workers, my dad would load us up on a flatbed truck and we would go from town to town and pick whatever crop was coming up. I think of my dad when he had to negotiate with contratistas [contractors]. I knew we worked so hard and the contratistas were chiseling us down to pennies. What was pennies to them meant food on the table for us.”
Durazo spoke with Capital & Main about the threats to working people and immigrants from a new Trump administration—and how to fight back.
Capital & Main: Let’s begin with the Big Question: What do you see as the next battle fronts for labor and immigration — what needs defending?
Maria Elena Durazo: There is a great degree of worry about Trump giving permission to do harm in our communities, to immigrant families and immigrant neighborhoods–permission for people to attack, to harass kids, adults.
Our job in the labor movement is to create safe-work places. Here in Los Angeles, and in a number of cities, officials are standing up and saying we’re not going to allow our local police to cooperate with ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.] Our schools are saying we’re not going to allow ICE to come in.
Families have an earthquake plan. Who do you call? How do you react? How do we protect ourselves? That’s the very first level, and we have to give confidence to our communities. We know how to be safe. Let’s remember that and do that stuff right away.
The president-elect has said he intends to cut federal funds to cities that don’t collaborate with federal authorities on immigration policies. Local municipalities are saying no—Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti has staked out his position–but what happens? Los Angeles could lose $500 million this fiscal year.
Remember the threats around apartheid? There were threats that pension funds in cities that divested from South Africa would be breaking the law…threats of lawsuits. Then divestment happened across the board. But it took a few to start it, to have the courage to say we’re not going to be threatened that way.
Some people called President Obama the “deporter-in-chief”—news reports cite 2.4 million “removals” during his administration. Is that title fair?
He certainly dramatically increased the number of border patrol agents. We in the labor and immigrant rights movement had big clashes with President Obama. He did try to do a version of [having] local law enforcement cooperate with ICE. We fought that.
At first he didn’t agree with giving deferred action to young people. [DACA, or Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals — the Dreamers.] We pushed back, and he eventually agreed with it. He tried very hard to get a complete overhaul of the immigration laws and immigration system. He tried in his way. We certainly pushed in our way. We got as far as bipartisan Senate approval of a piece of legislation.
Other Republicans were adamant about blocking him at every single step. He only got as far as the enforcement part of it, which is why he was given the title. But other than DACA, he was never able to get the other pieces of legislative immigration reform.
What lies ahead for the DACA students? There are some 750,000 young people completing their educations and working under a temporary protected status — it seems that makes them a very vulnerable population for deportation.
Unless we fight back harder they present an opportunity for Trump to be able to say, “See? I’m doing things. I told you I was going to do something.”
How real is President-elect Trump’s immigration rhetoric–“round them all up”? Should people be as afraid as they feel?
We should be worried about that. Not just worried, we should be acting on what he pledged to do, and what he continues to say he’s going to do.
The people that he’s considering for these different [government] positions are very serious. It’s not a threat. It’s a very explicit promise.
The other danger is to use the term “criminals” as a pretext to deport millions. [Trump] never said the majority of immigrants are hard-working men and women. There are at maximum a few hundred thousand immigrants [and] some that have had a run-in with law enforcement. That’s the pretext for going after millions. That’s the scary part because he knows people in this country could fall for that.
How many civil rights laws in our history have been violated–as recently as George W. Bush, as far back as what was done to Japanese Americans? In the 1950s we had the deportations of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants. It wasn’t in the millions, but it certainly was at least in the hundreds of thousands. We’ve been through this. Are we in a position to fight back and refuse?
How do we refuse?
There’s no doubt in my mind we have all the makings across this country to push back and show him. We won marriage equality, we’ve pushed and we’ve won a number of things on the environmental front.
A million people march in the streets. We’ll disobey and we’ll have solidarity. We’re showing that in Los Angeles. We’re showing that in other cities. We have police chiefs saying they will not cooperate. That’s a very powerful thing that we have on our side. Community-based organizations saying we’re going to set up family safety procedures. The school districts saying, “We’re not going to allow that.”
I spoke with Reverend James Lawson, the other day– when I talked to him he said, “We know how to win. We’ve got these victories. Feel proud and great about them. This guy, there’s no way we’re going to let him destroy our country.”
Major industries in this country benefit from the immigration system being broken. Are they going to go along with mass deportations– an enormous disruption in the economic system?
It’s a new opportunity to exploit immigrant workers even more. Wage theft will just go through the roof because there will be such a dramatic increase in this atmosphere of fear. There are sectors of our economy where employers will love it because they’ll be more in control. They know that 12 million people are not going to be deported overnight. But they’re going to take advantage of that fear.
A chicken-processing plant in a Southern right-to-work state wouldn’t be happy if all its undocumented workers were deported.
No, they wouldn’t be happy, but let’s say Trump says, “You’re not going to like that. But how about if I give you unfettered guest workers?” They’ll be provided an alternative on that level. That’s one way that they could look at it.
Look at these high-tech industry leaders that pretend to be so liberal. What do they want? Guest worker status for “highly skilled” workers—to be able to have them here, to work them. They don’t care about them being permanently allowed to live in this country.
There are industries like hospitality, where I expect those employers to defend their work force. In the past they’ve shown courage by publicly being on the side of [immigration] legislation. But they haven’t really taken much risk. Now it’s going to take more risk to defend their work force. Courage. Leadership. They’re going to have to do more than just sign off on legislation.
Tomorrow: Talking with Dorian Warren
Conversations on Trump’s America: A New Series
Interviews with a range of thinkers reveal the likely shape of things to come during a Trump presidency.
Tense as it has been, the waiting period before Inauguration Day, not knowing what a Trump administration is going to look like, will not likely be the worst part of the recent election. All indications say the 45th president will want to turn back the clock on education, income inequality, immigration, the environment and other issues. To gain a glimpse of the shape of things to come, Capital & Main recently began interviewing a range of thinkers on what the months and years following January 20 will probably bring – and what options are available to keep that clock running forward.
- Judith Lewis Mernit gets a pessimistic assessment (tinged with a bit of hope) from climate-change activist Bill McKibben.
- Danny Feingold asks author and political commentator Robert Reich if we can expect Trump to help the middle class and working families to any degree at all.
- Bobbi Murray talks to labor icon Maria Elena Durazo about defending the rights of America’s immigrants.
- Erin Aubry Kaplan interviews economist and Roosevelt Institute Fellow Dorian Warren about race relations and what to expect in the Trump era.
- Bobbi Murray speaks to author Barbara Ehrenreich on the challenges women will face over the next four years.
Photo Credit: Detail from Notions Capital (Flickr/CC 2.0)
Conversations on Trump’s America: Barbara Ehrenreich Goes Heisenberg on The Donald
Lately Barbara Ehrenreich, who studied theoretical physics in Reed College, has been drawn to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle– as she contemplates the impending Trump administration.
This week President-elect Donald Trump let us know – again – what he thinks of women by selecting Georgia Congressman Tom Price, the current chair of the House Budget Committee, as the next Secretary of Health and Human Services. Price has a long record of opposing women’s health rights — voting to cut off Planned Parenthood from federal funding and being lauded with a 100 percent rating by the National Right to Life Committee.
Capital & Main looked to Barbara Ehrenreich to discuss the prospects for women as a Trump administration unfolds. Ehrenreich, in her 2002 best seller, Nickel and Dimed, investigated the impact of 1996’s federal “welfare reform” on working poor women, by chronicling her own undercover experience working at poverty-wage jobs while managing rent, food and transportation costs.
Lately Ehrenreich, who studied theoretical physics in college and holds a doctorate in cell biology, has been drawn to Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle as she contemplates the impending Trump administration. She didn’t wait for a question when she picked up the phone for this interview.
Barbara Ehrenreich: It’s impossible to predict what Trump is going to do next. I mean that in a very serious way. It’s outside of the realm of predictability.
This is deeply unknowable in a Heisenbergian sense. Unfortunately, we are sort of reduced to reacting right now. We can’t make any plans based on thinking, “This is what will happen.” Obviously, women’s rights are in peril, as they were before Trump was elected.
Capital & Main: But he’s a reality TV star — is his bluster and hate speech toward women real, or is it just posturing?
I think it’s real. Not that there’s a big difference here between posturing and real. I think there’s enough evidence for me to say that with some confidence.
You said that women’s health has been under attack anyway, so how much worse can he make it?
Hard to say. He can just let state-level anti-choice forces loose, or completely encourage them. We’re basically going to be left with some big cities where one can go for an abortion.
What does that mean for women’s health overall if such services are reduced or eliminated?
You know the answer. It’s disastrous.
Culinary workers voted to unionize in a Las Vegas Trump hotel and his company has fought it at every step. But there are two slots open on the National Labor Relations Board that he can fill, with another appointment opening up a year from now. Hospitality-industry jobs are dominated by women — what does a Trump presidency mean for them?
Actually, there’s a little uncertainty here, right? He’s now for the white working class. Which, of course, is only part of the whole working class. Whether he has any idea how many of those people are women, we don’t know.
It seems he dog-whistled the white working class about immigrants or “those people” taking your jobs—rather than actually addressing working-class needs and support.
Of course. It’s complete opportunism. He saw that he was getting some attention and support from blue-collar white people, and he just doubled down on that. Now, whether he realizes some of them are women…?
Once Trump finalizes his cabinet picks and makes the National Labor Relations Board and other appointments, can the labor and women’s movements regroup and develop a stance, a posture?
They have a stance. There’s no need for a new stance. We’ve got it. Whether the labor movement can develop some spine and some initiative, I don’t know. The women’s movement — I don’t even know what I would refer to as the women’s movement right now. Ten, 15 years ago I would say look at what NOW [National Organization for Women] is doing, but you know, I haven’t heard a peep from NOW.
What would you imagine the next steps might be?
Obviously our first priority has to be defending those people who are most vulnerable to attack. Which are immigrants and people who look like immigrants, or who are speaking a foreign language. They’re defenseless — we’ve got to protect them.
And if I may say something from a perspective of old age, and having been in the second-wave feminist movement pretty much from the start: We started in the ‘70s in an absolutely hostile environment. It wasn’t 100 percent hostile — we had, you know, the antiwar movement and things like that. But the masculine culture was all against us. It used to be that feminism was defined by [some] as a disorder related to penis envy.
I have never envied the penis.
We started in a very hostile atmosphere, and I think we have to get in touch with that. We have come a long way. We can do things again. I’m looking a lot to younger people—I mean really young. My 14-year-old granddaughter went to her first demonstration led by young people—there were 6,000 people there. We’re still feeling our way forward.
Conversations on Trump’s America: How Much Will Black Lives Matter Now?
Often called to television roundtables and policy conferences to speak about race, economic inequality and labor, progressive scholar Dorian Warren talked to Capital & Main last week on the coming Trump years.
Roosevelt Institute Fellow, MSNBC pundit, Columbia University professor, author (the upcoming The Three Faces of Unions) – Dorian Warren is or has been all these things, along with chairing the Center for Community Change, and serving as Research Associate at the Institute for Research in African-American Studies. Often called to television roundtables and policy conferences to speak about race, economic inequality and labor, Warren talked to Capital & Main last week on the coming Trump years.
Capital & Main: So after this unprecedented presidential campaign, what can we all do now?
Dorian Warren: Number one: We need to build a defense around immigrants. We need to mobilize non-immigrant folks around this deportation issue, which is immediate. Making schools sanctuaries, et cetera. Two: We have to defend the social safety net– Social Security, welfare, everything. Those are all in danger. Without them, people are going to suffer and people are going to die, without question. We have to raise up those stories of harm. Even if mainstream or legacy media don’t do it, social media can do it, for younger folks especially. The media landscape has changed to the point where there are options.
And as we do these things we have to keep the long-term vision in mind. We need to be recruiting people to be engaged all the time, not just for the short term. I’m hopeful that this Trump victory will mobilize everybody. Frankly I don’t think we have a choice — our backs are to the wall now. Republicans are going to be drunk on power, and there’s a lack of compassion and a lack of apology about it.
How do we mobilize black people around immigration? What’s little discussed is that African Americans have complicated feelings about immigration and always have because of their struggles with employment and discrimination that cuts across color lines. It’s one reason why some black folks voted for Trump.
Black people are immigrants, too — even though we don’t think of immigrants as black, especially in California. But what worries me is that if the new administration has a law-and-order posse rounding up immigrants, they could come for us. So we have to link our fates, protect groups that are as targeted as we have been, historically. But it won’t be easy because [the] Latino leadership has ignored black crises. We’re going to have to figure it out.
Black Lives Matter is related to the deportation question—Republicans will deploy the same troops to quell our protests. That’s scary. We’ll all be targets. So what does pushback look like? I think in this period we have to be really local. There’s some silver lining there. In Chicago, where I live, we won a really important DA race, replacing a conservative Latina with a progressive black woman. It didn’t get a lot of media attention but that’s the kind of thing that could make a big difference. We could still offer transformative policy and reform on the local level. It’s part of something else bigger that we have to do, which is developing a deeper bench—training progressive people, running them for office and really holding them accountable. I’m over electing Democrats and hoping they’ll do the right thing, voting [while] keeping my fingers crossed.
What power do black folks have at this point in enacting their own agenda of change that has some momentum going, mostly around Black Lives Matter? In the current atmosphere of blatant racial intolerance, that agenda feels like an uphill battle, to say the least.
Race is a big issue that we don’t want to look at fully. The voters who scored high on racial anxiety voted overwhelmingly for Trump. But there’s this other story perpetuated about the white working class: We say they voted against a bad economy, but really they voted their self-interest in being white. It wasn’t a class vote, it was an emotional vote. I go back to W.E.B. Du Bois who talked about “the wages of whiteness.” He talked about whites benefiting by allying with the planter class and getting a psychological wage, not a material wage. We’ve seen this story before, and black people have certainly seen it. But the bottom line is that a lot of whites can’t admit to this tribal dynamic, it’s too painful for them.
White supremacy kills us, but it also kills white folks on food stamps. Black people have always been trying to hold up the mirror, from Frederick Douglass on. We were lulled to sleep because of the Obama years, all that post-racial talk–a lot of white people believed that. Then we were waking up — because of the attention being focused on police brutality, and some of us just assumed that white tribalism wasn’t a thing anymore. But it is. There’s not much we can do, white folks have to step up and have courageous conversations amongst each other.
It’s no longer the case that the white fringe dwellers are on the fringe — they are literally in power now. I’m really worried about vigilante violence, about this idea of putting people back in their place. George Zimmerman showed us that. This election for Trump is a big Zimmerman on steroids, and everyone out there is Trayvon Martin.
Are there certain civil rights gains that Americans will absolutely fight to protect?
I’m at a loss as to what will persuade whites to take action or do the right thing. I don’t think they’ll even stand up for civil rights, because some white folks see civil rights as not affecting them. I don’t think Republicans will try to roll back gay rights, but they will go after reproductive rights for sure. They’ll try to defund Planned Parenthood. Will women stand up for it? I’m not sure. What’s certain is that white folks in need will be very hurt overall, and our job as a progressive movement is to lift these things up and explain to people that this is a result of Trump. Keep saying that over and over.
Tomorrow: A talk with Barbara Ehrenreich
Conversations on Trump’s America: Robert Reich Previews a New Era of Savage Inequality
Last fall, Robert Reich published Saving Capitalism, in which he called for a sweeping realignment of political power to counter the excesses of contemporary capitalism. A realignment has followed, but not the kind Reich had in mind.
Last fall, Robert Reich published Saving Capitalism, in which he called for a sweeping realignment of political power to counter the excesses of contemporary capitalism. A realignment has followed, but not the kind Reich had in mind.
While most observers don’t expect Donald Trump’s stunning election to lead to greater shared prosperity, there’s little question that rampant economic inequality was critical to his success. It’s hard to imagine Trump’s ascent without the dramatic hollowing out of the American middle class over the past several decades.
Capital & Main spoke by phone with the former labor secretary about how the Trump years will affect inequality and the working class voters who were so instrumental in the business mogul’s rise to political power.
Capital & Main: What will happen to economic inequality under Donald Trump?
Robert Reich: It will worsen for a number of reasons. First, Trump and the Republican Congress will pass a huge tax cut for the very wealthy, larger than the Reagan or George W. Bush tax cuts. That would mean large deficits. Those deficits will require, at some point, cuts in public spending.
Second, Trump and [House Speaker] Paul Ryan are already talking about privatizing Medicare and rolling back or eliminating the Affordable Care Act. Trump says he wants to maintain the portion of the Affordable Care Act that requires insurers to provide insurance to people with preexisting conditions, but there’s no requirement that insurers charge an affordable rate to people with preexisting conditions. My fear is that they won’t. On paper, they will be complying with the letter of the law in terms of what Trump says he wants, but, in reality, people with preexisting conditions will pay enormous premiums, giant copayments and deductibles.
Third, I have every reason to believe that the person Donald Trump names to the Supreme Court will be a right-wing conservative who has no interest in reversing Citizens United — in fact, if anything will probably eviscerate what remains of campaign finance limits and may do terrible damage to low-income and poor people through a variety of decisions.
What was the most decisive factor that explains why millions of Americans voted against their own economic self-interest — again?
The resentment [against] the ruling class has been building for 30 years, and that resentment is based on two related things. First, the majority of Americans have been on a downward escalator for 30 years. Second, Republicans have for years stoked the fires of racism, and they did it long before the middle class began to shrink and the working class began losing good jobs, but the crisis of the American working class added to the potency of Republican race-baiting. Obviously, that applies not just to African Americans but to Muslims and Latinos. It was that poisonous combination of economic stress and appeals to racism, all wrapped up in a kind of right-wing populist garb, that won it for the Republicans. Hillary Clinton did not provide a convincing message of what she was going to do to turn the economy around for most people, and she seemed to be the embodiment of the ruling class.
Will the white working-class voters who were crucial to Trump’s victory see any real economic benefits from his administration?
No. They may see some initial Keynesian benefit from a big infrastructure project if that’s, in fact, what Trump manages to do, combined with an increase in military spending and a tax cut. That all will stimulate the economy much the same way Ronald Reagan’s military Keynesianism stimulated the economy in the 1980s, but it will be short term. It won’t change, fundamentally, anything and the white working class, along with the poor and the lower middle class — white, black and Latino — will continue to be on the downward escalator they have been on, but it will be worse.
What do you think a clearly weakened American labor movement can do at this moment to oppose a conservative free-market economic agenda?
I still think it’s a great time for the labor movement, particularly with regard to the large retail chains, hospitals, restaurant chains, hotel chains. A very substantial group of low-paid, mostly women, and significantly black and Latino workers, need a voice. They don’t have to compete with foreign low-wage workers and could really gain ground if they united. This is exactly the right time. I think organized labor might be moved to put some pressure on Congress to make sure that the infrastructure plan that Trump has advised is large enough, respects labor laws, such as Davis-Bacon, really does have the multiplier effect on jobs that it should have. Finally, I think that labor has some new ground to stand on in terms of such things as trade policy where there’s lot of room to shape new consensus around trade that’s not just protectionist but enables working people who lose their jobs for whatever reason to move to a new job that pays as much as the job they lost.
Would you counsel progressives, liberals, Democrats to join with Trump in trying to repeal or alter trade agreements or to pass a major infrastructure spending bill, both of which have been major progressive priorities?
Look, I wouldn’t urge anybody to team up with Trump. I think he’s unreliable and rather awful in every way. But mainstream Republicans are not going to want to do a huge infrastructure spending program. They’re not going to want to modify or reduce the effects of free trade on average working people. If Trump provides an opening, then I’d say let’s use that opening. It doesn’t mean necessarily siding with him, because I honestly don’t believe that Trump stands for anything. I don’t think he is going to take on the Republicans in Congress.
I think when all is said and done, he’s going to do exactly what they want, because he wants to score victory. He doesn’t care about what kind of victories, he just wants to be able to show that he has a lot of wins.
How important is California to the advancement of progressive ideas in this time?
Enormously important. It has huge influence, even if Washington weren’t becoming an occupied city. California really is the largest and most important progressive beacon left in the United States. Washington and Oregon are close, physically and figuratively. My daydreams are the three states getting together and coordinating environmental policy, a minimum wage, labor policy, even perhaps a single-payer healthcare plan. I think that people are going to look to California for leadership in all these areas.
What are the one or two most important things that those concerned with economic inequality, racial inequality and climate change can do right now?
I think it’s more of an attitude than specific actions, because we don’t know what Trump is going to do first, how the Republican Congress is going to behave. But I think the attitude has got to be engaged in a much more active way than most progressives have been up till now. Many people are quite generous with their money, in terms of progressive causes. Some provide some time, but I don’t think there’s any choice any longer. I think people have to be willing to participate actively in a manner they haven’t been called upon before. I use the phrase “peaceful army of resistance,” and I do think it’s partly that at every level. I think that turning our cities into sanctuary cities and uniting against the kind of brutality we might end up seeing in the coming years with regard to undocumented workers is an important step.
Keeping progressive ideas boiling at least at the state and local level. Getting rid of the electoral college. Eliminating the kind of voter suppression we’ve seen. Being a force for democracy, in a very practical sense.
There’s much to be done. It’s hard to find any silver linings in this dark storm cloud, but if there is one, it has to do with us being awakened to the emergency we face. Not normalizing what we’re about to experience. Not telling ourselves, “Oh, this is just another president, another administration, maybe more right-wing than before, but we’ve gotten through these kinds of things.” I don’t think that’s the right attitude. I think that there’s nothing normal about what we’re about to experience. We’ve got to be peaceful warriors.
Tomorrow: A conversation with Maria Elena Durazo.
Conversations on Trump’s America: Bill McKibben Sees the Oceans Rising Higher
If Bill McKibben was not optimistic about the future of the climate movement in the wake of the jarring U.S. presidential election, neither was he particularly sanguine before.
“Nature, we believe, takes forever,” wrote Bill McKibben at the start of The End of Nature, his landmark treatise on industrial man’s devastating impact. “It moves with infinite slowness through the many periods of its history.” But the slowness was an illusion, McKibben argued. Nature can also change in a century, a decade, an instant: especially when humans and their technology get involved. In 1988, the year in which McKibben was writing, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere had just hit 350 parts per million—the upper limit, credible scientists believe, for life on earth to persist as we know it. An ozone hole had opened over the South Pole. We had already “stepped over the threshold” of change and were “at the end of nature.”
In the nearly three decades since he wrote these words, McKibben has emerged as one of the world’s foremost environmental activists, authors and persuaders. He has written more than a dozen other books, taught environmental science at Middlebury College in Vermont and encouraged activism through his nonprofits, 350.org and Step It Up. If he was not optimistic about the future of the climate movement in the wake of the jarring U.S. presidential election, neither was he particularly sanguine before. “We’ve been in a very hard place for a very long time,” he told me in a phone interview. “But no one is giving up.”
Capital & Main: As we speak, the North Pole is 36 degrees warmer than normal for this time of year. The ice at both poles is retreating at a pace beyond all expectation. Last March, carbon dioxide in the atmosphere hit 400 parts per million. And after several years of maybe what one would call incremental progress, the U.S. now seems poised to slam into reverse on climate policy. How much did this election matter to the fate of the earth?
Bill McKibben: I fear that it matters a lot. But, you know, it’s not as if stopping climate change was one of the options in this election. All trouble is relative. The fight now is whether we can stop anything short of cataclysmic climate change or not. And even that is a difficult proposition. Things are changing very fast. The pessimistic part of me thinks that our last real opportunity to get ahold of things may be slipping through our fingers.
The Obama administration did try to take some action. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency instituted the Clean Power Plan, for instance, to set rules for states to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from the energy sector. Did that make any difference?
If President Obama turns out to be the high-water mark of American engagement on climate policy, it won’t have been that high a mark, and it wouldn’t have been nearly enough to change the curve.
Basically what Obama did was substitute [natural] gas for coal. As a result, our carbon-dioxide emissions have gone down, and that’s what people normally measure. But our methane emissions have gone way up. [Methane is a shorter-lived greenhouse gas than carbon-dioxide, but a much more powerful one.] It looks like it’s pretty close to a wash, actually, for these eight years in terms of greenhouse gas emissions.
The Clean Power Plan’s obviously now going to be scrapped, along with a lot of other things. There’s a lot of new fossil-fuel infrastructure that’s likely to be built. So whatever momentum was beginning to really build around renewable energy—and that momentum was real, because the price has come down so much—that momentum has hit, at the very least a pothole. More likely a ditch, and quite possibly a crevasse.
In the big picture, things have changed a lot in the last 10 or 15 years. They’ll change a lot more in the next 10 or 15 years, we’ll get better at doing renewable energy, the price will keep going down, and on and on and on. Our problem is that there’s a time test, and we’re already way behind. What we desperately need is to ramp up the trajectory, the pace, of our response. And that’s clearly not going to be happening.
The New York Times recently ran a story about how 365 companies and investors have implored Trump to not renege on the Paris climate agreement, saying it would endanger the U.S. economy. Also, Trump says he wants to invest heavily in U.S. infrastructure. Is there any hope of riding herd on his administration to make some of that infrastructure clean-energy infrastructure? Can he be persuaded to act on climate for the sake of the economy, or at least preserve what we’ve got?
Well, there’s always hope, and I think people will try hard to work with him. But so far his cabinet appointments lean very far in the direction of the fossil-fuel industry, of climate deniers, of people who would be unlikely to support any of this.
I suppose if you were searching for hope, you’d say clearly Trump himself knows nothing, literally nothing, about climate change, so maybe if someone manages to educate him about it, he will change his mind. But I don’t quite know who would be doing the educating and how they’re going to be getting to him.
So what’s the strategy for activists going forward?
There’ll be a great deal of activism and an attempt to hold on to what victories we’ve won. Truthfully, I think there’ll also be a fair number of people, at least in the next little while, coming together to support other parts of this broad progressive coalition. People will be doing their best to defend immigrants against deportation in the next few months, for example.
When I put out a call to my Facebook friends asking if anyone had questions for you, a lot of them expressed concern for your well-being. How hard has this hit you, and how are you coping?
I’m enough of a patriot that it makes me sad for my country. I grew up in Lexington, Massachusetts, and gave tours of the battleground. It was my summer job. I literally told people hundreds if not thousands of times the story of the beginning of the American experiment. And if Trump is not the end of it, he’s certainly the nadir so far. One hopes that, as it has in the past, our democracy will self-correct eventually.
But the problem for climate change is that eventually doesn’t help very much. By the time we get things straightened out, if we do, there’s going to be an awful lot less ice at the poles, and the ocean’s going to get an awful lot higher.
It wasn’t very long ago that just about every energy expert you talked to, no matter how progressive, insisted that renewable energy wouldn’t be enough to meet the nation’s energy needs. In your August New Republic essay about staging a war on climate, you cited so many experts who now think that the opposite is true. Stanford’s Mark Z. Jacobson shows that we could get up to 85 percent of our energy from clean sources by 2030, and 100 percent by 2050.
The irony of this election is that the president taking over in January is the first president taking office with the advantage of cheap renewable energy. Which, if they were inclined to use it would allow them to make swift and really dramatic progress.
California is a case in point. California’s going to keep changing, and doing remarkable things [to rein in greenhouse gas emissions]. They’re the same things that could be going on in a lot of other places, and I worry that California’s going to be in many ways disconnected.
But there’s going to be a lot of effort to regionalize some of the progress in California—getting other states to enter into the carbon-pricing scheme that California has, and so on and so forth. It may be that people will be able to cobble together something fairly robust with that. I just think it’s going to be hard to do it on the level that we seem to require right now.
Always one of the important pieces of this is public opinion. The polls are all over place. Some say people believe the climate is changing and that humans are causing it, but only 17 percent of those polled say they’re alarmed by it. How can we inject some urgency into this message?
Keep doing the same things you’re doing. It’s making real progress. Understanding is changing, if not fast enough. And one of the things that’s not static here is that mother nature will continue to play a role in this debate. There will continue to be a series of teachable moments.
It’s worth remembering that the downfall of the Bush administration really began with Katrina. Nature will continue to concentrate our minds. We’ll see how quickly it works.
Tomorrow: A talk with Robert Reich.
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