When the 2020 Democratic primaries first began, months before the national election, climate activism was making a comeback.
“Through [the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces], Biden adopted the most ambitious climate plan that a presidential candidate has ever had. We consider it a big step to the full scope of the Green New Deal.”
Many of the candidates for President were Senators who had co-signed the Green New Deal, the radical-but-necessary climate bill sponsored by Senator Ed Markey and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, though some of them (Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) stood by it more than others (Amy Klobuchar and Kamala Harris).
Even lesser-known political figures vying for the nomination, like Washington Governor Jay Inslee and hedge fund manager Tom Steyer, made climate action a crucial part of their plans.
One of the presidential aspirants who was always a little behind when it came to enacting urgent climate change policy, however, is the one who ended up making it all the way to the top. Joe Biden, during primary season, was not known for his innovative or aggressive climate policies.
He was more interested in returning to the bygone days of the Obama Administration—which, due to its lackluster climate policies, is a place we can’t afford to return to. But now, activists hope he will listen to calls for radical change—because he needs to.
The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led political movement focusing on enacting radical climate policy, published a grading sheet for the top three presidential contenders’ climate change plans in December 2019, scoring Sanders highest, followed by Warren. Biden trailed in last place with an F.
Sanders received the Sunrise Movement’s support because he speaks about climate change vigorously, calling it a “national threat.” He advocates for serious climate policy as an opportunity to create good jobs and isn’t wishy-washy, like Biden, on ending fracking.
“We were all behind Bernie in the Democratic primaries. We gave him the best rating for our climate plan,” says John Paul Mejia, a Miami-based organizer and strategist for the Sunrise Movement. “But this movement is much larger than one politician. We had to make sure that Trump’s time is over, and that Biden’s time is ours.”
After Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race in April and endorsed Biden, the two acknowledged their apparent ideological differences and announced a joint task force intended to unify the Democratic Party. Among other suggestions, the task force recommended that Biden commit to eliminating carbon pollution from power plants by 2035 and to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions entirely by 2050.
The result was a much more ambitious climate plan from the Biden campaign, which increased proposed spending on a “plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice” from $1.7 trillion to $2 trillion.
The Sunrise Movement never explicitly endorsed Biden, but co-founder and executive director Varshini Prakash told The Washington Post in August that there was a “pretty huge transformation in Biden’s climate plan,” and that the organization would start campaigning for him.
“Through [the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces], Biden adopted the most ambitious climate plan that a presidential candidate has ever had,” Mejia says. “We consider it a big step to the full scope of the Green New Deal.”
Speaking out about environmental justice and how climate change disproportionately impacts people of color and marginalized communities has become an important part of climate activism. Biden addresses this in his new climate plan, saying he will “make it a priority for all agencies to engage in community-driven approaches to develop solutions for environmental injustices affecting communities of color, low-income, and indigenous communities.”
We can thank environmentalists of color for Biden’s shift on this, and for bringing climate justice to the mainstream.
But some people criticize progressives who back Biden, saying electoral politics won’t be enough to curb climate change.
Dominique Thomas is the mid-Atlantic regional organizer for 350.org, an international environmental organization focused on building a worldwide grassroots climate movement. She says it’s important for climate activists to demand the dismantling of systems of oppression against Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color.
“I came into the environmental justice movement to uplift the stories of Black folks doing environmental work, and making sure that, when we talk about climate change, we’re also talking about environmental racism and how that affects Black, brown. and low-income communities nationally,” Thomas says. “Especially if you’re an older white organizer in the climate movement . . . you need to be unwavering in that commitment.”
Mejia says he got involved in climate activism after a close call with Hurricane Irma in Miami, when he saw how marginalized communities suffer the most from climate change.
“I realized that it was those who were already the most marginalized and had the least resources who paid the highest price for this crisis, despite the fact that they didn’t cause it,” Mejia says.
Unlike the Sunrise Movement, 350 Action did endorse the Biden-Harris campaign in the general election after supporting Sanders and Warren in the primaries. In its statement of endorsement, which was published in September, 350 leaders said that “the planet cannot withstand four more years of Trump” and that they believe Biden and Harris “can continue to be pushed towards an aggressive climate agenda.”
But some people criticize progressives who back Biden, saying electoral politics won’t be enough to curb climate change. An October article in Jacobin said “only class war can stop climate change” and the only way to deal with the problem is by dismantling the capitalist system entirely.
While ending capitalism—the economic system that drives the fossil fuel industry, promotes massive wealth and resource disparities, and encourages putting short-term profit over long-term planetary health, among many, many other problems—is the ultimate goal of many in the movement, most climate activists, including climate scientists, supported voting for Biden because they thought they had to be more realistic in their immediate strategy.
“Although our vision at Sunrise is a future of collective liberation beyond capitalism, we have timescales here in which that likely won’t happen,” Mejia says.
And with the dismal bar that President Trump has set—he regularly tweets that global warming isn’t real because it’s cold outside—getting him out was the first step.
“A lot of people follow what the President says, regardless of who’s in that seat, and look to them as if they hold some knowledge that everyday people don’t hold,” Thomas says. “If you have someone in that position denying something like this, it does a lot of damage.”
She says it’s going to be important to push Biden even further on his climate policy with the ultimate goal of implementing the full-fledged Green New Deal.
“With the kind of people power movement that 350 and other grassroots organizations have built, we will be able to demand the things we want and not accept the scraps,” Thomas says.
And if Biden doesn’t follow through, there will be consequences.
“The establishment leadership is currently failing to meet the needs of working people,” Mejia says. “If the Democratic Party doesn’t step up with progressive policies, it will pay the price.”
Thomas, meanwhile, cautions against complacency on the left.
“I am worried that people will be like, ‘Whew, Trump is out, let’s take a break.’ This is not the time to take a break,” she says. “We need to be creating strong, people-powered movements where demands are coming from the community and not relying on politicians to save us. They are not our salvation.”