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An ‘excruciating year’: Climate activists reset with Biden’s agenda on life support

<i>Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</i><br/>Climate activists rally near the White House in Washington on June 28
Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Climate activists rally near the White House in Washington on June 28

By Gregory Krieg and Ella Nilsen, CNN

In a year weighted by disappointment for the US climate movement, the lowest low of 2021 might have taken place nearly 3,500 miles away in Glasgow, Scotland, where world leaders gathered early last November for the largest United Nations climate summit in history.

The UN’s COP26 summit had been touted as an opportunity, however slim, to forge an off-ramp from climate catastrophe. Instead, negotiators walked away with another series of ambitious goals and commitments, with no mechanism for enforcement.

President Joe Biden “was supposed to show up with Build Back Better in his back pocket and slam it down on the table and say, ‘China, India, how do you like them apples?’ climate activist and writer Bill McKibben told CNN, referring to Biden’s ambitious climate and social policy package. “But he showed up with nothing. And had nothing really to say.”

The story of Washington’s failure so far to move major climate legislation with Democrats in full control of government is one fraught with slim congressional majorities, rising economic inflation and the breakout of war in Europe. Underlying it all is what climate activists see as major legislative missteps. Biden was the first president to center his administration around the threat of climate change, but major progress has proved difficult to achieve.

The new year has brought unexpected and heightened complications. The global crisis set off by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has further scrambled the politics of clean energy. Biden’s move to ban oil imports from Russia, which is expected to cause even higher gas prices, has the American fossil fuel industry primed to increase output. And though some clean energy advocates are hopeful the squeeze will inspire renewed investment in renewable sources, the administration has been focused in recent days on discussing how to get more oil on the market, which has included the highest-level discussion with Venezuela in years and encouraging increased production from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Even before war seized Europe, Congress’s inability to take the steps scientists agree would offer a baseline for curbing, if not reversing, the climate crisis and sending a statement to other high-polluting countries is a maddening one for a movement that came within spitting distance of a generational victory.

In Glasgow, Biden arrived with the framework of a climate and social spending package the White House said all House and Senate Democrats — including pro-coal Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia — had agreed to.

But as the international conference took place, Democratic leaders in the US House of Representatives allowed for the passage of a $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that — as many on the left had predicted when they sought to tie it to the Build Back Better plan — all but eliminated pressure on Manchin to back the President’s signature proposal. A month later, Manchin announced his opposition to the Build Back Better bill, effectively killing it in a 50-50 Senate, where every Democratic vote would be needed for passage.

In the months since COP26, the already fragile climate credibility of the US has been thrown further into doubt. Build Back Better is “dead,” Manchin declared in February. And even though Biden’s climate provisions are one of the few things in the original bill he’s publicly expressed support for, they have little momentum behind them.

 ”We threw everything we had at this moment”

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate activist group, was among those who had worked for years to create the circumstances for federal action on climate. In an interview, she reflected on what she described as “this last, laborious, excruciating year.”

“We threw everything that we had at this moment,” Prakash said. “We got people out to vote for a candidate (in Biden) they weren’t that excited about. We elected climate champions., We did action after action. We showed up at the debates. We pressured people to increase their ambition. We even sat in on policy formations” that secure a beefed-up climate platform for Biden’s 2020 campaign.

For Prakash and many other activists, Manchin, along with another Democratic holdout on Build Back Better, Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, has emerged as the central villain in the story.

“There was so much that young people did in the last two to three years to set the stage for climate action at the federal level,” Prakash said. “And I think in this moment, it’s just very hard to see the way in which all of that has been whittled down to one man standing in the way of that action.”

There is also some frustration among advocates the President’s recent actions.

“It does seem like since then, Biden tried to go back to the old way of doing things,” Evan Weber, a co-founder of Sunrise, told CNN. “He forced progressives to break their block on passing the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and other things that show a naivete about American politics for a guy who has seen a lot of transformation in the way the Republican Party and the national media operates.”

White House officials take exception to that narrative.

“From Day One, the President has spurred an all-systems-go effort to take on the climate crisis — one that harnesses an all-of-government approach,” Ali Zaidi, deputy White House national climate adviser, told CNN.

He pointed to the administration’s climate-related successes such as phasing out super-pollutants, turbo-charging offshore wind development in federal waters, tightening fuel mileage standards and enacting funding for a nationwide electric vehicle charging network.

The long path to a stalemate

The Sunrise Movement arrived unannounced.

On a November morning in 2018, days after Democrats won a sweeping House majority in the midterm elections, young activists from the group staged a sit-in in once and future House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office on Capitol Hill. They had a simple demand: “Back the Green New Deal,” an ambitious agenda for reducing carbon emissions over a decade and recreating the American economy and social safety net in the process.

Fifty-one people were arrested by the time Pelosi’s office was cleared and the group’s specific request, to resurrect a select committee on climate change, had been mostly brushed aside. (A lesser version of what Sunrise envisioned was eventually formed.) But over the next two years, the organization would emerge as the preeminent force in American climate activism, a siloed and often incoherent movement that had for decades operated on the fringes of official Washington.

Within days of the sit-in, the Green New Deal became a rallying cry for a new generation of progressive activists, who saw it as the only viable off-ramp on the road to further climate disaster.

Early in 2019, freshman Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez of New York — the youngest woman elected to Congress — formally introduced the Green New Deal resolution.

“The goal was to create a movement that would elevate climate change to one of the top three to five issues in our country,” Massachusetts Democratic Sen. Ed Markey, who introduced the resolution in the Senate, told CNN.

Support for the program quickly became a litmus test for ambitious Democrats in the runup to the 2020 presidential election — as the party’s progressive grassroots sought to reassert itself after Donald Trump’s election and, in a broader scope, after a decade of deference to more cautious and technocratic-minded party leaders.

The stage was set and Sunrise, a group McKibben described to CNN as “the best combination of far-reaching, idealistic and politically pragmatic that I’ve almost ever seen,” nailed their lines. Aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary, Sunrise and its allies successfully set the bar for climate policy in a field that would eventually swell to more than 20 candidates.

When a climate adviser to Biden suggested to Reuters in a May 2019 interview that carving out a “middle ground” on climate was the only feasible policy-making route, the movement swarmed. At a Sanders rally at Howard University in Washington, Ocasio-Cortez declared, “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act are going to try to come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.”

The remark, which set off chants of “No middle ground” inside the packed hall, prompted Biden into a defense of his record. A spokesman for Sunrise at the time offered a more measured appraisal: “We’re nervous about where (Biden) stands … but there’s time for him to do the right thing.”

Eleven months later, the moment arrived.

All but defeated after Biden scored a decisive victory in the South Carolina primary before cleaning up on Super Tuesday and consolidating support from the primary field, Sanders dropped out of the race. Biden, whose climate platform Sunrise graded as “F-” early in the primary, would be the Democratic standard-bearer in the campaign to unseat Trump and, if he succeeded, the chief agenda-setter in Washington.

Biden was a willing listener on climate, David Kieve, a top campaign climate adviser, told CNN. Clean energy investment was of personal interest to the former vice president — who had managed the 2009 Obama stimulus package and seen how its investments spurred renewables development in the US. Biden wanted to find a way to marry climate action with a message on delivering middle-class union jobs, according to Kieve.

“He also understood that if we were going to turn a corner and sell climate to the American people in a way we never have before, we needed to be really explicit in connecting it to the jobs piece,” said Kieve, who later served as director of public engagement at the Council on Environmental Quality in the Biden White House and is now president of climate advocacy group EDF Action. “Labor was treated as a partner rather than an interest group.”

The Biden campaign, sensing a need to engage and energize young progressives, forged an alliance with Sanders and his allies. Most notably, they formed task forces designed to close the gap on a number of issues on which the candidates had clashed. Climate, ultimately, produced the most coherent set of goals and fostered a sense of partnership between Democrats’ establishment and progressive wings.

After Biden won the presidency, Democratic lawmakers moved swiftly to pass the American Rescue Plan, a $1.9 trillion Covid-19 stimulus package. The legislation included billions for public transit, a win for climate advocates, but the real test lay ahead — and the memory of false dawns from more than a decade ago sharpened the minds of veteran Democratic lawmakers.

Markey told CNN that the last major Democratic push on climate, a 2010 cap-and-trade bill that bore his name, failed in part because “we did not have a movement outside to ensure it would get passed through the Senate.” Markey still believes the movement around the Green New Deal is the missing piece.

Recent history has shown it is more complex. The barriers imposed by the coronavirus pandemic, leading activists told CNN, have blunted the movement’s energy and taken many of its most passionate supporters off the streets. Now, the legislative path forward, if one exists, sits largely in the hands of Manchin and Sinema and a possible resurrection of Build Back Better.

Or, as it’s now called: “Building a Better America,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said earlier this month.

“No one cares about the name in the American public,” Psaki said. “They care about what’s in it and what it’s going to do. And so that’s what we’re most focused on.”

Biden and Democrats consider their options

Increasing public and governmental attention, however, on the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and domestic inflation at home, has pushed climate legislation to a tenuous position in Congress.

And outside efforts to squeeze financial institutions out of the fossil fuel industry and encourage divestment — a direction some in the movement have pivoted toward — are complicated by worries of an energy crisis tied to the European conflict.

On the legislative front, Manchin appears to be nudging along a process he previously halted. Climate is one of the few things in Biden’s agenda that has survived Manchin’s red pen.

The West Virginian outlined a potential deal to CNN that could include allowing the government to negotiate prescription drug prices and raising taxes on the rich and corporations. The new revenue, he said, could be directed to climate investment.

For now, though, it’s just scattered discussions and sound bites. Conversations on a path forward are happening among Senate committee chairs, but, even with Manchin’s latest gesture, a cohesive framework for a new bill remains far off. And Manchin, in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has pushed for boosting fossil fuel production and infrastructure immediately.

With the clock ticking until 2022 midterm campaigning picks up in earnest this summer, climate groups are feeling anxious.

“Where we are right now as a climate movement is feeling pretty panicked, I would say,” Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, told CNN recently.

Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee, who campaigned for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination on a climate platform, said Congress and the administration cannot wait too long and suggested passing the Build Back Better climate provisions as a standalone package.

“I would certainly defend, embrace, even advocate for getting that done tomorrow,” Inslee told CNN. “It’d be wonderful to get these other things done as well, but if it means you’re waiting till next September to think you’re going to get climate through two weeks before the election … I am very concerned that that is not going to be a successful strategy.”

The White House maintains it is continuing to push every lever it can — both on the legislative side and with executive action and federal regulation to meet Biden’s emissions target and spur job creation.

A White House official, while acknowledging that climate advocates’ role is to continue to push for more, emphasized that the White House climate office is pushing a lot of smaller policy changes across the administration — infusing them with environmental justice and climate considerations.

And even if full climate investments of Build Back Better are passed, that would only be the beginning, some Democrats say.

“We have to get as much done as we can get every year,” Sen. Brian Schatz of Hawaii told CNN, “and whether it was a good year or a bad year realize we’re nowhere near where we need to go yet.”

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