Why It's Time for Biden to Concede to Political and Human Reality

Bill McKibben / The Crucial Years

An Organizer's View on Why It's Time for Biden to Concede to Political and Human Reality

Last week I wrote that, given some room, I thought Joe Biden would figure out that he had a unique opportunity to help his country—that by stepping down and turning over the nomination to someone younger, he could make it clear that any ‘cognitive impairment’ he was suffering hadn’t affected his heart and soul. That may have been optimistic—the week since has been a display of what increasingly looks like bull-headed selfishness. His insistence to George Stephanopolous last night that only he could carry the ball echoed too closely the Trumpian insistence that he alone could save the Republic.

I’m grateful for Joe Biden’s presidency; it has been, by and large, successful, and it was psychically relaxing after the daily chaos of the Trump years, a respite I think we underestimate. But there is no reason to think he’s uniquely qualified to run the country, and in any event it doesn’t matter if he can’t win the election. There’s been a huge quantity of punditry and tweetery this past week, most of which I’ve tried to ignore—a lot of it has consisted of raging at journalists and other elites. (Unsurpassed version from David Roberts). I’ve been more interested in talking with fellow organizers around the country—people who do the work of campaigns, which involves knocking on doors and making phone calls. And it’s clear to most of them that I’ve talked to that dragging Biden across the finish line will be a hugely hard—probably impossibly hard—task.

I’ve talked with people who’ve spent their lives as union organizers, and people who are state legislators in swing states, and I’ve been out on an organizing tour for Third Act, speaking with people who between them will write hundreds of thousands of postcards and phone bank for untold hours between now and November. And what I hear, overwhelmingly, is that this view from ‘the doors’ makes them think Biden must do the realistic thing.

Yes, they’ll work for the president’s reelection if that’s the only choice. We all are so scared of Trumpism that, in that sense, Biden has us over a barrel—no one is going to walk away from this election. But there’s a growing sense of anger that we’re being put in an almost impossible situation. We want to talk, at every door and on every call, about the climate crisis, about abortion, about a dozen other places where the contrast between progressives and MAGA blowhards is enormous and works in our favor. But that’s impossible when you first have to have a conversation about whether or not Biden can do the job—a conversation none of us can win with any real conviction even in our own minds.

The perfect example is last week’s run of Supreme Court decisions, so radical in their implications that at any other time they’d be not just dominant stories but also a huge help in getting people to understand Trump’s threat. Instead, they’ve barely been noticed. You can blame the media for that, but one of the things you learn on ‘the doors’ is that people care mostly about things that seem immediate and real to them. We all have opinions about aging, because we’ve all gone through something like this with our parents or grandparents; it’s visceral, real, fascinating. Most people aren’t experts on constitutional law; most people have had an aunt or a father who needed to have their car keys negotiated away.

It’s precisely because the stakes are so high—the future of our democracy, and the chance to avoid the very worst of climate disaster—that there’s a desperate need to change this conversation, to get back on topics where we can win. We may wish there was some way other than Biden stepping aside to do that, but that’s kind of like wishing carbon didn’t trap heat. Political reality may not be as decisive as physical reality, but it’s stronger than wishful thinking.

What follows Biden doing the honorable thing is unclear—perhaps it’s the anointing of Kamala Harris, or perhaps some kind of open convention. It may well be messy (Biden’s obstinacy is a reminder that politicians do not usually let love of country trump love of self) and it too will be a distraction at least for a while, but it’s possible to imagine that distraction ending. And a change could, even, set off some new energy: America has been saying for two years that it hates the choice it’s been given, so maybe a new choice will unleash something that looks like hope.

But whatever the fallout, it will be something that we can work with on the doors and on the phones. It won’t be impossible.

In other energy and climate news:

+To get a sense of how fast renewable energy is growing, Bloomberg contrasts the energy production of the emerging solar giants—mostly Chinese—with the seven sisters of Big Oil.

Companies such as Tongwei, GCL or Xinte that produce the polysilicon raw material for solar panels measure their output capacity in metric tons per year. It’s a simple process to convert that into gigawatts of the solar cells made by Longi, Jinko and the like, and ultimately into the exajoules that the resulting panels will generate3.

Put the two side by side, and the result is striking. The biggest polysilicon producers right now can go head-to-head with some of the biggest oil companies such as BP, Eni and ConocoPhillips — and panel makers aren’t far behind. Should Tongwei go ahead with plans announced in December to build a 400,000 ton polysilicon plant in Inner Mongolia, nearly doubling its current output, it might overtake even ExxonMobil:

+Interesting book watch: If you’re interested in hopeful stories about how communities can get things done, here’s one about creek restoration in Michigan. And if you’re interested in some of the strategies for removing carbon or reducing heat on our planet, Stanford’s Rob Jackson has this new entry.

+Fascinating account from Jacob Baynham of the story of lithium—how can one element work to assuage schizophrenia and also power batteries?

“I’m such a fan of lithium,” the astronomer Brian Fields told me over the phone recently. “It’s the third simplest element. And yet it’s always got surprises for us.” Fields teaches astronomy and physics at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. He specializes in a field called galactic chemical evolution, which seeks to explain the origin of elements in the universe.

“Lithium has one of the most complex stories,” Fields said. “The oxygen you’re breathing, the carbon in your DNA, the iron in your blood — that came later, out of stars. But lithium comes straight out of the Big Bang.”

Big Bang nucleosynthesis, as it’s called, first produced hydrogen, the simplest, lightest and most abundant element — 75% of the newborn universe by mass. Helium formed next and accounts for most of the remaining mass. Lithium was created last, in minuscule amounts — one lithium atom for every 2 billion hydrogen atoms. Heavy elements, like gold, are generally the universe’s rarest. Lithium is an outlier — the third-lightest element and yet “barely there,” Fields said.

+One more story getting lost amidst the Bidenist kerfluffle concerns the TVA, the federally run utility that maddeningly continues to build toward a gas-powered future. Even more maddeningly, the White House is not using its power to appoint clean-energy-minded new board members

+Truly mindblowing irony alert: the huge new LNG terminals being built in the Gulf—the biggest global warming machines on earth—come with 26 foot tall seawalls to keep out the rising seas. Someday historians will shake their heads (and that’s optimistically assuming there are any)

The company says these fortifications will protect the facility, known as Plaquemines LNG, from whatever the Gulf of Mexico can deliver.

“During the operations of Plaquemines LNG, stormwater management systems will enable the efficient and safe management of flood plain storage and stormwater flows within the Plaquemines area,” Venture Global spokeswoman Jessica Szymanski said. “Regulators concluded Plaquemines would not cause any significant impacts to the surrounding area during any storm surge events.”

But the company is taking enormous risks in building a gas plant in low-lying Plaquemines Parish, said five environmental scientists interviewed by The Washington Post. A large storm could overtake the facility, they say, flooding it and spreading debris, or it could simply be cut off from the land.

+Meanwhile, in California, insurance authorities are asking the state to stop insurance companies from running up prices

The Board of Supervisors unanimously voted June 25 to adopt a resolution that asks California Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara, Gov. Gavin Newsom and the state Legislature to declare a state of emergency and to take action to strengthen and stabilize the homeowners and insurance marketplace.

“We’re trying to get the Legislature, the executive branch and the governor on board with the insurance commissioner to direct regulatory change,” said Supervisor Dawn Rowe, who introduced the resolution.

Rowe said she did so because county residents frequently complain about their ongoing lack of insurance options.

“San Bernardino has a lot of mountain and desert communities, and both communities are struggling to get homeowners insurance,” she said. “Buying a house and getting insurance is much more expensive and difficult if you live in an area considered to have a higher risk for fire and disaster.”

+Brett Christopher’s book on the fact that renewable energy is in some ways too cheap (big companies can’t figure out how to make Exxon-scale fortunes from it) continues to produce valuable and interesting commentary, in this case from James Martin in the Financial Times. (And apropos of nothing, how much better America would be if our business paper was the FT, not Murdoch’s baleful Wall Street Journal

Until recently, I still hoped we could be lucky: market forces (plus massive investment by China) might drive the world towards renewables fast enough. This no longer seems plausible, because the pace of the switch to renewables needs to be vastly accelerated (quite apart from the many other needed investments). In his book, The Price is Wrong: Why Capitalism Won’t Save the Planet, Brett Christophers argues that the falling price of electricity generated by renewables does not make these an attractive investment for investors: it is profits, not marginal costs, that matter. If Christophers is right, some combination of heavy carbon taxes, long-term subsidies and changes in the design of electricity markets will be needed.