Progressives gear up for broad new push on climate action

A coalition of progressive groups say they are organizing a sweeping network to mobilize around climate change, racial and environmental justice, making a new unified push as President-elect Joe Biden is days away from taking office with Democrats set to control both the House and the Senate.

  • By Juana Summers/NPR

(Washington) — A coalition of progressive groups say they are organizing a sweeping network to mobilize around climate change, racial and environmental justice, making a new unified push as President-elect Joe Biden is days away from taking office with Democrats set to control both the House and the Senate.

The group, the Green New Deal Network, plans to invest in partner organizations in 20 key states to mobilize grassroots power to pressure elected officials to support their goals; introduce Green New Deal-related legislation at the state and local level, spearhead federal legislation that would implement parts of the Green New Deal agenda, and to pressure the incoming Biden administration to enact a series of executive actions related to climate, jobs and justice.

“Every day [SEIU members] confront the crisis of climate, as well as environmental racism and economic inequality, so the Green New Deal is not something that is abstract to them,” said Rocio Sáenz, the executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union. “For our members the Green New Deal means clear air, clean water, safe communities, good jobs and a growing economy. So this, for us, is why we are part of this network. What we see, especially now more than ever, is that we cannot think about these issues in siloes.”

Named for the sweeping proposal for cutting U.S. contributions to climate change over the next decade, the coalition has already raised more than $20 million, organizers say.

Introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, the Green New Deal sparked a fierce political debate on how to best combat climate change. The plan drew significant attention from President Trump and Republican lawmakers, who have panned the plan as costly and unrealistic and used the policy to cast Democratic supporters of the framework as socialists. The Green New Deal was introduced as a nonbinding resolution, written with out some specifics, making it challenging to specify a price tag. Supporters say the plan will pay for itself through economic growth, and that the urgency of the climate crisis requires a bold and immediate response.

The groups coming together to back it now include the Center for Popular Democracy, Climate Justice Alliance, Grassroots Global Justice, Greenpeace, Indigenous Environmental Network, Indivisible, the Movement for Black Lives, MoveOn, People’s Action, Right to the City, Service Employees International Union, the Sierra Club, Sunrise Movement, US Climate Action Network and the Working Families Party.

Leaders of the coalition say they plan to put the majority of their resources into a coordinated campaign stitched-together across key states, that rely on local activists and organizers.

“We have a shot to create millions of green jobs, to transform the way our economy works so it actually helps working people,” said Kaniela Ing, the climate justice campaign director for People’s Action. “Change doesn’t happen from the top down. You can’t just hire a bunch of experts and lobbyists if you want something to be lasting. We’re not just lobbying D.C., we’re actually lobbying on the ground in all 50 states.”

They are also applying pressure at the federal level. The Green New Deal Network has already written a letter to President-elect Biden and his transition team, arguing that “there is a dire need for action beyond legislation.”

“Massive federal investment is past due and a down payment on a regenerative future is urgently needed,” the coalition wrote, calling on the incoming Biden administration to do “everything within its authority to ensure healthy communities, a more just economy and a livable planet.”

The letter calls for a number of steps that the coalition argues that Biden could take unilaterally, including an executive order upgrading public buildings, transportation and energy in a transition to a clean energy economy; an executive order that requires federal agencies to secure informed tribal consent from Indigenous nations; declaring a national climate emergency; and banning new fossil fuel projects on federal and tribal lands and waters, as well as in environmental justice communities.

For his part, Biden has announced his own climate change agenda that stops short of endorsing the Green New Deal. It includes trillions of dollars in spending on green initiatives and calls for the elimination of greenhouse gas pollution by 2015. Late last year, he named key members of his climate change team, including former Obama-era EPA director Gina McCarthy to lead a new White House Office of Climate policy and New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland to lead the Department of the Interior. Haaland is a congressional co-sponsor of the Green New Deal.

“We’re going to call on President-elect Biden to lean into the agenda that he ran on, which was bold with a vision for addressing climate change and racial and economic justice,” said Saenz. “We know that our job will continue to be to hold him accountable to his promises, to support him and support other elected officials when they do right, and to campaign hard against those that would stand in the way.”

Some compared the scope of the effort to that of the Health Care for America Now coalition, the vast, progressive coalition that was crucial to the Affordable Care Act cause.

“That work was critical to convincing the Obama administration that there was a real path to get the legislation through,” said Maurice Mitchell, the national director of of the Working Families Party. “So we plan on using that strategy. Sometimes, the best way to influence a president is indirectly by doing the work on the ground and shoring up members of Congress to inspire in the administration the belief that there actually is a legislative path.”

Part of that work, said Ing, is helping to build capacity on the ground in a state-by-state level.

“People in their communities know their communities best,” Ing said. “We are all the expert of our own experiences, just kind of recognizing that and supporting that by not just bringing money into a state, but creating a way where people can come together cooperatively, build their own local coalitions and then we can support that.”

Lindsay Harper, the national coordinator for Arm in Arm, a group organizing to end the climate crisis through fighting for racial and economic justice, said that she views this as an opportunity “to focus on local fights that have real, true national and international implications.”

“I’m really excited about bringing people’s faces and experiences into a conversation where folks from the south, Black folks, Black women, people of color and in some low wealth communities have not been at the table.” Harper said. “They have not been a part of the fabric. They have not been in an opportunity to lead and to contribute. I think that Georgia spoke very loudly in the last election, so it’s very clear that we are an integral point of moving what needs to be moved forward.”

The coalition is also taking lessons from past attempts at climate actions including the comprehensive climate package, known as Waxman-Markey, that attempted to create a cap-and-trade program for carbon emissions. The bill, colloquially named for then-Rep. Henry Waxman of California and Sen. Ed Markey, then a representative, passed the House in 2009 and died in the Senate. Leaders of the effort say that one of the reasons that effort collapsed was that it was too much of an “insider play” and did not engage organizers and workers in the field, mistakes that organizers say they won’t repeat.

“When the far-right movement built a ground swell and pushed back on things like Waxman-Markey, there was no countervailing movement force to challenge that,” said Mitchell. “We plan on having a 50-state strategy that is rooted outside, in order to shore up Congress because we know that every single member is going to need to be held accountable.”

The new group’s leaders also say they will not shy away from backing primary challenges to sitting lawmakers.

“To me and to us, this is a moral imperative,” said Mitchell. “We don’t have another shot at this. So if the science, if the wildfires in California, if the increased intensity of tropical storms and hurricanes… if all of this isn’t enough for you, you don’t deserve to be in office.”

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