Front-Line Communities Are Driving Force for Biden’s Climate Transformation, Salazar and Goloff Say
Adrien Salazar is Senior Campaign Strategist for Climate Equity at Dēmos, a U.S. racial and economic justice policy organization. Ben Goloff is Senior Climate Campaigner at the Center for Biological Diversity. In this feature interview, they talk about what the Biden-Harris administration can get done on climate, energy, and environmental justice, and how front-line communities across the United States put them in a position to make a difference.
The Energy Mix: The first 100 days are always considered the most important “moment” in a new U.S. presidency, and a lot of the climate community’s advocacy has been focused on the first 10 days. What will the new Biden-Harris administration absolutely have to get done?
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Ben Goloff: We could talk for hours about what the Biden-Harris administration should do in the first 10 days, with or without the Senate. For the first 10 days, even the first day, really, Biden’s team has already committed to end new leases and permits for fossil fuel projects on public lands and waters. They’ve committed to killing the Keystone XL pipeline once and for all. They’ve committed to do what they can to eliminate fossil fuel subsidies. They’ve committed to put in place a climate and economic justice screening tool. They’ve committed to make sure new infrastructure projects are compliant with a climate-safe scenario. These are all things they really could initiate on Day One, and they don’t need anybody’s permission to do so. Re-entering the Paris Agreement is the lowest bar.
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Our job is to provide the wind at their sails to really follow through on those Day One commitments and go way farther. A transformational agenda on climate justice is possible, even through executive action, and we have a couple of plans that are movement-based and deeply grounded in science and justice that lay out a suite of pathways for them.
Adrien Salazar: The important thing to remember is that Joe Biden ran on climate justice and taking action on climate. In the week before the election, he put out three climate justice-focused ads, and that was incredible. The climate crisis was an issue that activists persisted with until it became part of the national conversation, and Joe Biden listened to that, incorporated it, strengthened his platform, and showed to the very end that this is a priority for him.
He continues to say climate will be a top priority for his administration. He has the legal authority to do so much with the stroke of a pen. And it’ll be important right out of the gate to send a signal to the American public and to the world that he is taking the climate crisis seriously.
He can do that by taking some of these bold measures that are required immediately. That includes stopping oil and gas pipelines currently under development, curtailing the growth of fossil fuels and our fossil fuel dependency, regulating concentrated pollution in communities of colour, and declaring a national emergency on the climate crisis. These actions will show that this government is going to take the crisis seriously. All of these things are critical for Biden to fulfill the promises he made that got activists and advocates who care about climate to mobilize for him through the election. We’re going to continue to push him to make sure he fulfills those promises.
The Mix: There’s a long history of candidates in the U.S. and elsewhere offering bold action on issues like climate change and environmental justice during an election campaign, then tacking to a more cautious approach once they assume office. What has the U.S. climate community done to try to minimize that risk this time?
Salazar: We are where we are today because of the climate movement, not just the pressure we put on candidates this year, but the years and even decades of work that folks have done to persist on this issue, to test and iterate the solutions we need and build power from grassroot communities to the grasstop. In this last election cycle, you saw the climate crisis have dramatic, real, present-day effects on people across the United States, from wildfires in the west turning the skies orange to the hurricanes that have been battering the Gulf Coast. We have now broken the record for the number of storms in an Atlantic storm season, and the Louisiana coast has seen four hurricanes this season.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, we had these large youth climate strikes with millions of youth and adult allies coming out to call for climate action. That momentum led us to this moment by embedding the necessity for climate action into the minds of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and a future Biden administration. We know they have commitments. We know politicians don’t follow through on their commitments. So we have to be the ones reminding them that the crisis is not going away, and that the United States has a responsibility to the rest of the world as one of the largest emitters.
Our communities, particularly Black and brown and Indigenous communities across the country, are more vulnerable and are experiencing the effects of the climate crisis now. So Ben and I are working on a campaign with many allies to push a Biden administration to take the bold action required to confront this crisis, with or without the Senate. Policy experts, people who care about designing strong climate solutions, are already in conversations with the Biden transition. And we also have to put pressure from the grassroots up to make sure Biden does take the most aggressive approach. The impacts are accelerating, and we have no time for incremental action anymore.
Goloff: Looking back to 2009, there was no climate justice movement at scale, and it wasn’t because there weren’t climate justice organizers and communities. It was that the largely technocratic environmentalists hadn’t caught up to the Black-, brown-, and Indigenous-led movement that was based in real, lived experience of urgency—because your daughter’s bedroom window is within arm’s reach of an active oil well and she’s getting nosebleeds every night, or your community is at risk of flooding on a yearly basis, or the air is unbreathable for months at a time because of the fires.
The fact that the climate emergency is here, and is deeply uneven in terms of who’s responsible and who’s seeing the impact, was not a driving force of the push for transformative climate policy in 2009. There were well-intentioned scientists and policy-makers trying to make something work. But in many cases, they didn’t have the movement at their back, they weren’t grounded in grassroot relationships, they weren’t justice-forward, and the people on the ground weren’t telling their own story. And because of that, fossil fuel executives and their far-right allies were able to block efforts to keep fossil fuels in the ground and advance climate justice.
Now it’s totally flipped, thanks to the incredible organizing by women of colour predominantly, and by Black and brown organizers across justice movements. Climate pervades every part of Biden’s agenda, and that’s not because he was always totally awakened to this. It’s because of extremely intensive organizing. That organizing proved essential in states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia that pushed Biden over the edge, and that mandate is leading him directly forward in a way that corresponds with the energy the movement has been building over the last decade.
Salazar: That’s just so important. For me, as a person of colour, as somebody who comes from front-line communities in the Philippines and California, I had never thought before until this election that my people were critical to victory on the national stage. That has policy implications. Now, when Biden goes into office and thinks about climate action, he has to remember the communities of colour on the front lines of pollution and industry that are facing the impacts of the climate crisis now. We are communicating that message, and if we continue building momentum that Biden cannot ignore, we’ll get the action we need from this administration.
The Mix: How is the transition going so far?
Goloff: The transition is just beginning, and we’ll see. There’s a lot to be encouraged by. One of the things everyone is very attentive to is the array of constituencies that got Biden a ticket to the White House—again, youth, people of colour, Black women especially. Now we need to see whether his cabinet is going to be accountable to people over polluters. Not just on a superficial level, but whether we’ll be assured that there will be no fossil fuel representatives in the White House, that there will be no revolving door with big, polluting corporations, that we’ll get away from a model where the [fossil] industry has access and influence. The Democratic Party doesn’t have a clean record on that. So Biden has a moment to show that he’s serious about his bold climate agenda by following through and assembling a cabinet that reflects the interests of working families and people who are most threatened by the various crises we face.
Salazar: I’m heartened that the Biden transition is at this moment talking to a wide range of folks. That includes people who traditionally have not been a part of the transition, including climate justice and environmental justice leaders and experts. And Ben is right, it’s just beginning. Some of it is opaque, and we won’t know until they make announcements about various positions. But there are many layers to this. I’m hopeful that we have allies in the transition. And at the same time, we have to stay vigilant in pushing the Biden administration to make sure their commitment to climate justice is not just reflected in policy, but also in the personnel they bring onboard.
The Mix: We heard during the campaign, and we’ve been hearing since, that Biden, Harris, and their senior advisors genuinely get it about the depth of the climate emergency, that it’s one of the standard issues Biden is raising in all his introductory calls with world leaders. Is this real?
Salazar: This is such a low bar, but if we compare Biden to Trump, this is a president who will take science seriously, who understands the intersection of racial justice, economic justice, and the climate crisis, who is saying he will do what he can to address the climate crisis from the beginning of his administration. From the perspective of an outsider, albeit a pretty active outsider, I think he’s going to take it very seriously. And it’s going to be up to us to make sure he feels compelled to take the strongest action and not just settle for the lowest-hanging fruit.
Goloff: I agree with that, but I remain vigilant. The Trump administration has absolutely abused the language of emergency, but the truth is that we do have a real emergency in the climate crisis. I believe the Biden-Harris team understand that deeply, and that’s one of the reasons we’re hopeful that they will user their executive authority to fully mobilize the tools of emergency response that are designed to grapple with something as large as the climate emergency. They have many, many tools under existing law, even without enacting a climate emergency. But to do so is critical, and there is no breach of precedent in using the National Emergencies Act. There is nothing more appropriate than mobilizing for the climate emergency and using tools like the Defense Production Act to make sure we’re building out 100% clean, renewable energy in a way that is democratic, distributed, and timely by 2030. Ultimately, actions speak louder than words, and we need the Biden-Harris team to materialize that urgency and action.
The Mix: The same question in different form: We’re hearing that Biden’s climate plan is his economic recovery plan, is his social recovery plan—that the three are all interconnected. Is this really happening?
Salazar: This is something I’m working on, and I absolutely hope this is the way they’re thinking. Because it is the necessary way to think about the overlapping crises we’re in. We’re still in a persistent COVID pandemic—the numbers are skyrocketing right now, and it’s very frightening. We’re going to see a very hard winter, and that means the humanitarian crisis is going to continue. And many of us have also been thinking and writing about the economic recovery we need, which must also transform our economy away from dependence on fossil fuels and create good, high-quality jobs. We need to upgrade buildings across the country, extend our transit infrastructure, and protect and restore the ecosystems that serve as buffers for some of the climate impacts we’re witnessing right now.
So a robust, green recovery can create millions of jobs, and there are people advising Biden who see that. We understand that confronting the pandemic and the economic crisis will be top of mind for the new administration. It will be the first thing they work on. But we also have to make sure they undo the systemic economic inequality that led to this crisis, and address the ongoing climate crisis through the recovery they put in place. It’s absolutely necessary that the first set of bold recovery packages this administration puts forward include targets to start getting a hold on the climate crisis.
The economic recovery we need must help people survive, but it can also be transformative. It can shift us away from an extractive fossil fuel-based economy to one in which everyone has a chance at a healthy life for generations to come. Joe Biden has expressed publicly his desire to be a Rooseveltian president. But he will face a lot of pressure from the right and corporate billionaire interests not to be. Our task is to make our movement unignorable so he feels he has no choice but to take transformative action.
Goloff: One of the most outrageous things we’ve seen under the Trump administration has been a cynical ploy to use pandemic relief and recovery to prop up fossil fuel executives and their dying industry. We owe it to workers and communities, and to all of us, to address this moment of reckoning by responsibly managing a just and equitable fossil fuel wind-down, and building out a just, democratic, renewable energy economy. That’s reflected in Biden’s commitment to end fossil fuel subsidies and stop new leasing for extraction on public lands. It can also guide actions to phase out U.S. fossil fuel production economy-wide and investments in the renewable energy economy that protect workers who are reeling right now, and not just prop up their bosses.
Salazar: We’re going to have to be prepared for Republicans, and even centrist Democrats like Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) to attack a recovery policy that reflects climate goals and invests in green jobs as a “job-killing” strategy. With companies like Shell and BP and Exxon laying off tens of thousands of workers, in an economic transition that was already happening before COVID, in a way that hurts workers and families, that’s a red herring. It’s a very volatile argument that has no basis, because the fossil fuel industry is already failing. A green recovery will in fact create millions of good jobs, while also helping us get on the path to avert climate catastrophe.
The Mix: What will it take to undo the division and deep cultural damage Trump has brought to the United States? How can a climate emergency plan both navigate that challenge and help ease it?
Salazar: Especially in this last year, we’ve seen the hurt that people of all stripes are facing, not just the poor, Black, and brown communities but rural America, white working class people, and the massive inequality we live with in the United States ballooning. Through this pandemic, we’ve had billionaires making tens of billions of dollars more while people struggle to pay rent and put food on the table. The bread and butter issues that many progressive candidates ran on, like access to health care, investments in their communities, education, addressing the climate crisis, these are things a lot of people can relate to in their day-to-day experiences.
This now exiting administration has sowed discord and division through its hateful, xenophobic, racist rhetoric and policies, creating scapegoats for the economic hurt that families are facing, racializing that pain, and we need a leader to undo that division. We also, as advocates, need to do the work of telling a different story and helping people understand that we’re all in the same boat.
When we talk about the climate crisis, we’re no longer in a place where it’s only that small island state over there that’s disappearing, but I can still get my Starbucks coffee and watch my Netflix. Our own family members face floods, storms, and fires. We have to be able to talk to each other about how this is affecting us, what we need, and how we can solve these problems together. If we get that from leaders like Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, we’ll start healing from this division that has really pushed the country into a very bad place.
Goloff: Trump has taken a racially charged flamethrower to communities and the climate. But he’s building on a legacy of decades of disconnect. Far too many of our elected leaders have relied on spewing division and discord, connecting with voters by blaming and scapegoating their problems onto immigrants, Black and brown people, and a mythical “other”. So the damage Trump has brought is really just the tip of the iceberg of decades of deliberate extraction, profiteering, and preying on front-line communities.
But we’ve kicked Trump out and pushed the incoming Biden administration so far from even where the incoming Obama administration was over a decade ago on issues like climate, health care, a fair, living wage, and all the other things the progressive movement has come to represent and has mainstreamed. It’s about surviving and thriving, having communities that are resilient, and the long arc of building justice and sustainable societies.
So we don’t need a leader to save us. We’re already building the groundswell for our own future. This election is beginning to reflect that work, and we have a long road ahead.
Details: The ClimatePresident Action Plan, and the Frontlines Climate Justice Executive Action Platform
Follow-up: @adrien4ej, @Demos_Org, @benjamingoloff, @CBD_Climate