In Overheated (Bold Type, Apr.), journalist Aronoff probes climate policy failures and outlines a path to success.
You suggest in the book that we’re seeing the last gasp of outright climate change denial. What roadblocks remain?
Climate change denial has always been a pretty marginal force. The biggest threat now is certain actors—certain companies and executives—having a role in writing the policies that should be constraining them. The big thing to watch is how actively they’re staking their claim in climate policy.
What’s the danger in giving a voice to oil companies?
The example I use in the book that I think about a lot is the coalition that formed around the cap-and-trade fight in 2009. It looked likely coming into the first term of the Obama administration that some kind of climate policy was going to happen. Green organizations wanted to bring together the biggest polluters in the country with the idea that getting their support would be an inroad to getting Republican support. And it just didn’t work. Instead, it allowed the companies to do this brilliant thing—they can join this coalition that is ostensibly trying to pass climate policy and water down what’s in it. So the cap-and-trade bill that comes out is riddled with loopholes and giveaways to polluters. It’s a mistake to treat Shell, BP, and ExxonMobil as good-faith actors.
You draw a comparison in the book between the Great Depression and the Covid-19 pandemic. How can the Biden administration harness this moment to act on climate change?
What they can do is to go really big, really fast, and say who is standing in the way. For all of the inequalities baked into the original New Deal, the ethos was that government was going to step in and solve a problem. Roosevelt used the phrase “bold, persistent experimentation.” The Biden administration needs to have faith in government’s ability to get things done. They need to deliver wins that will save people’s lives and also build durable electoral coalitions. And to say, “Look, we’re trying to deliver $2,000 checks, we’re trying to deliver jobs, and Republicans are standing in the way.” Just say that rather than diluting proposals beforehand in the hopes that Republicans will pass them.
What was the most intriguing place your research took you?
I went twice to the conferences for the New Jersey Emergency Preparedness Association. It’s a meeting of emergency managers from across the state. These are the people whose job it is literally to deal with climate change—when a hurricane hits town, they figure out where resources go. It’s great to talk to folks who are doing that work, often despite difficult constraints imposed by the federal government.