One of America’s Most Prescient Political Thinkers on the Changing Politics of Climate Change

University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher. | Credit: Jenn Tran Photography

BY: Jeremy Deaton

A little more than two weeks before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, University of Maryland sociologist Dana Fisher warned that “America is drifting towards a violent schism.” Later reflecting on the insurrection, she mused that she got everything right except for the date and the time. But it’s not all bad, she said. Fisher, author of American Resistance: From the Women’s March to the Blue Wave, has studied the growing fissures in political life and found rays of light shining through the cracks. She recently told Nexus Media News how progressive wins have created an opportunity to finally tackle climate change. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What do you think are the odds of passing meaningful climate legislation through this Congress? 

Anything that can actually make it through both houses of Congress and get signed by President Biden that is called climate legislation is going to be extremely weak because of the fact that Congress is not prepared to support really strong climate legislation right now.

In a hyper-polarized setting, like we’re living in now, calling something a “climate bill” is probably going to make it much harder to pass, but so much can be done in our country through the different levers of policymaking that are not specific to calling something a “climate bill.”

If the goal is just to get us where we need to be with regard to emissions to stop the climate crisis from being exacerbated… what we really need to do is focus on the lowest-hanging fruit.

That’s where the focus should be, at least until we see either fewer Republicans in Congress, or we see Republicans more open and willing to embrace the issue of climate change.

I expect that we will see very, very aggressive legislation that comes out as, probably, a recovery bill or an infrastructure bill that addresses a number of issues that will be very helpful for addressing the climate crisis.

But because it won’t be called a “climate bill” and it won’t be called “climate legislation,” it’s going to be a lot easier to get bipartisan support for it. And I do think that we will see bipartisan support for such a bill.

One thing I have been thinking a lot about is this disconnect between what the public wants and what Congress is prepared to pass and how the Electoral College and the Senate and the House, for different reasons, tilt towards Republicans and what that does to how we make policy. How should the climate movement be thinking about that?

Historically, issue-based groups, like climate groups, tended to focus specifically on lobbying and persuading people who were already elected rather than starting at the beginning with campaigns and working on electoral politics. I think in the past few cycles, particularly since Donald Trump took office, there was a big push by a lot of groups on the left, beyond just climate groups, to start thinking through who is actually running for office and how they’re representing their constituents once they’re there.

A lot of people in the climate movement have been talking about changing the makeup of Congress rather than trying to lobby and pressure people who are already elected. I know [the Sunrise Movement] has been talking about running a class that’s going to be involved in the midterm elections in 2022.

So one idea is basically to change who’s in Congress, so that it’s a lot easier to pass legislation. [Another idea]–and there was a big push around this for people running for the Democratic nomination–take fossil fuel energy money out of elections.

I think environmental groups and climate groups should continue to do that. And if they continue to do that at the same time that they’re running candidates who are very pro-climate regulation and moving forward on making real, meaningful policy, we could see something come out of the next Congress.

What do you see as the future of the progressive movement?

Historically, a lot of organizations that work very hard in opposition to Republican administrations take a step back at the beginning of Democratic administrations. What we’re seeing right now is many groups talking to their members and saying, ‘You know, we took a pause at the beginning of the Obama administration, and we can’t do that right now because we need to continue to provide ground support for the Biden administration.’

I think what we’re going to see is people engaged in different ways, but still paying attention. The one place where I actually think that there will be no blip in energy and enthusiasm is the climate movement.

The climate movement has had some very specific goals for a long time that weren’t being met before the Trump administration came in and rolled back a bunch of progress. They’re starting farther behind. But they also have identified, very clearly, the ways that they want to focus on thinking through a Green New Deal and the ideas within a Green New Deal to push through progressive change that focuses on the climate crisis and deals with the combination of climate justice and systemic racism, et cetera.

Climate was not the main thing that got people involved in the Resistance. At the same time, as of 2018, the number one issue that everybody thought was a challenge to our country was climate change. These people who are on the left are very, very concerned about the issue. And they’re actively engaging with a bunch of different groups, not just climate-related groups. So climate groups have a lot more capacity than they might think, because there are lots of sympathizers on the left or among groups on the left.


Jeremy Deaton writes for Nexus Media, a nonprofit climate change news service. You can follow him @deaton_jeremy.