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The Whole World Is on the Ballot

As American democracy teeters, so does the fate of our burning planet.

A man watches flames approach from the Woolsey Fire in California in 2018.
David McNew/Getty Images

Every morning, I wake up to the sound of a new nail thudding into the coffin of yet another institution of U.S. democracy. From the craven and brazen police violence this summer to the sitting president’s encouragement of white supremacist militias, to protesters disappearing and being held without charge, to the president’s outright refusal to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, it’s clear that American democracy is on life support. 

It’s not a surprise, in a nation that has repeatedly sacrificed civil rights while claiming to be liberty’s poster child. As far back as the George W. Bush years of extrajudicial imprisonments and warrantless wiretaps, I’ve heard warnings that the United States is on the brink of authoritarianism. But this time, with the looming and accelerating climate crisis, feels different. This time feels real. That sinking feeling in your stomach is vertigo. This is the edge.

America’s democracy was designed to be anything but democratic: built on stolen land, shifty suffrage, the Three-Fifths Compromise, and an Electoral College insulating the presidency from popular will. These days, it’s hard to tell if the system is broken or if it’s working as designed. I think it’s both: The system was flawed—rigged—from the start, and has now degenerated into something even worse. We’re seeing the corrosion of a corrupt system. And it could lead to full-out collapse, right on top of us.

But as inherently inadequate as our democracy is and has always been, it would be a mistake to think that losing it is no loss at all. Even a flawed democracy has the bones of the framework we need to create the world we want. And this year, our choice is between a hollowed-out democracy and full-blown authoritarian chaos.

There’s no hyperbole there. The world is literally on fire. Global warming has not paused for the Covid-19 pandemic or the long-overdue reckoning on race or any of the other crises at play. Quite the opposite. The climate crisis has gained strength and run right smack into every other crisis at hand. Just on the West Coast, for example, voters are struggling to find their way to polling places that may have burned down in an apocalyptic wildfire season that the state was ill-equipped to fight, partially because the prison labor it often exploited for this purpose has dwindled due to the coronavirus pandemic in its overcrowded prisons. 

Americans suffer from a strange sort of exceptionalism. We think our democracy is invulnerable and that climate change is something that happens elsewhere. These are fatal fallacies. From our burning West Coast to our sinking Gulf Coast, climate change is not stopping at our borders, even if our government turns a blind eye to the refugees there. Furthermore, any climate action that even remotely resembles climate justice—which is built on equity, compassion, and respect for humanity—needs democracy, and becomes nearly impossible under authoritarianism. At the same time, a climate that’s hostile to humans begets a political climate that is hostile to democracy.

There’s another fallacy in the political discourse in this country: that only one party has a climate plan. That’s simply not true. For one thing, there’s no such thing as “climate inaction” anymore. Even if we were to change literally nothing about our systems or the ways we live, that would mean continuing to allow the plants, factories, and pipelines that are operating today to spew poison gas into the air, baking our planet and roasting our future. There is no more neutral.

Furthermore, the policies we label as “inaction” are often quite active. Bailing out a fracking company, subsidizing oil and gas, and cutting down trees and calling it clean energy—all of those things are actions. They are, in fact, acts of aggression. 

It’s ridiculous to say that Donald Trump does not have a climate plan. He absolutely does, and it’s terrifying. His plan to “mitigate” the crisis is to egg it on by pouring money into the fossil fuel fiasco; his plan to adapt to the crisis is to dehumanize and deny the waves of climate refugees as the blood of needless deaths coats his hands and the children kidnapped by the U.S. government cry out for their parents. Just because he doesn’t outright call it a strategy doesn’t make it any less of one.

Joe Biden, on the other hand, has a climate plan and says as much. As his campaign will tell you, it’s the most aggressive climate plan in history. As most climate activists will tell you, when you factor in how much more ferocious the crisis has gotten with every election cycle of delay, Biden’s plan still falls short. At the same time, it’s the best option on the table. Jane Fonda said it best: “I’d rather push a moderate than fight a fascist.”

This election is less about whether we should act on climate than how we should act on it. Should we act with compassion or with cruelty? Given that our national commitment to democracy has become debatable, this election is also about whether we even have the ability to act on climate in any meaningful way in the future. 

I’ll take a shot in hell over a shot to the head any day. 

The U.S. is the largest historical contributor to climate change, and the second-largest current contributor. We have both a moral and a logical obligation to be a big part of the solution. There is no pathway to meaningful global climate action without our federal government playing a prominent part. This country is too powerful, too armed, and too rich for the rest of the world to solve the climate crisis without it.

Spare me the half-baked schemes to run away to Europe or Canada or New Zealand. There is no place on earth that will survive the climate crisis unscathed, at least not for long. Those empty threats are really just declarations of privilege, anyway. As a Black woman, I could never make them. The climate crisis has made much of the Global South perilous almost to the point of unlivability. Even if I made it to a country that was temporarily safe from the climate crisis, it would not be free from anti-Blackness. The Middle Passage was a one-way ticket.  

Once the climate that fostered human civilization is gone, it’s up in the air whether you can ever get it back. The same is true with democracy. And as goes one, so goes another. We’re not just voting for a president. We’re voting for a chance at something that should be the bare minimum: a livable future. The bar has never been lower, and the stakes have never been higher. 

As a Black woman, I’m under no illusions that American democracy was ever perfect, but it did offer the chance to wake up and fight another day. There was at least the specter of recourse. And I am terrified at the prospect of losing it altogether. 

I’ve never been proud of my country, but in 2020 I’ve never been more afraid for its future. As a “climate person,” I know that the future of the planet is, cruelly and inextricably, tied to the future of America. As a Black climate person, I know that “climate action” does not necessarily mean climate justice. It can mean eco-fascism or climate apartheid. It can mean that there is, as the president puts it, “crystal clean water and air” for some people, but none for me. Which means, as a Black American climate person in 2020, I’ve never been more afraid for my life. 

As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, “Voting for Joe Biden is no longer about whether you agree with him. It’s a vote to let our democracy live another day.” This past weekend, on the first day of early voting in New York City, I stood in line for more than five hours to vote like my life depended on it. Because it does. Everything does.