With Biden’s Win, Climate Activists See New Potential But Say They’ll ‘Push Where We Need to Push’

Advocacy groups are preparing for the challenges of a likely Republican Senate and planning their next moves.

Nov 8, 2020
Rise and Resist activist group marching to demand climate and racial justice i n New York City on Sept. 20, 2020.

Rise and Resist activist group marching to demand climate and racial justice i n New York City on Sept. 20, 2020. Credit: Steve Sanchez/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

Even before Joe Biden won the presidential election on Saturday, climate activists and environmental groups began vowing to push the new president for aggressive action on climate and strategizing for a Biden administration.

"We've seen that Biden, in his final debate speech, committed to a transition off of fossil fuels. We're excited to hold a Biden administration accountable to that promise," said Emily Southard, a campaign manager with 350 Action. "We'll push where we need to push."

If the Senate remains in Republican hands, the chances of passing transformative climate policies are slim, worrying many advocates who say any compromise on policy will be insufficient to tackle the deepening climate crisis.

   

But with time running out for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, every possible action—from local green ballot initiatives to a new federal position of "climate czar" to financial regulatory reforms—is on the advocacy agenda. Already, climate advocates are celebrating a shift in momentum.  

"Simply because we have a Republican Senate that isn't representative of the majority of Americans who want action on climate change, doesn't mean that things like a Green New Deal aren't happening already," Southard said, noting that green ballot initiatives passed in several cities. "The Green New Deal isn't just a piece of legislation; it's a vision for an economy that moves us off of fossil fuels. There's a lot Biden can do, from stopping the Keystone Pipeline to banning fracking on public lands."

Environmental groups issued a list of actions on climate that the administration can take—without Congress—within days of taking office, including declaring a national climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act.  

But flipping the Senate to blue remains a huge priority. 

Progressive and youth climate groups are turning their attention to Georgia, where two runoff races in January could determine Senate control. Both 350 Action and the Sunrise Movement have said they will focus on the Georgia races in the coming months. Given activists' successful track record in boosting some candidates, those efforts could make an important difference in those races and, ultimately, in climate policy. 

"They should get out the vote in Georgia because Biden has just shown us what's possible there," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, referring to Biden's surge in the Republican-leaning state. "That's what will make climate action possible. Forget the whole question of compromise. That's not even an option right now. Even if you only want quote-unquote incremental progress, you're not going to get it without a Democratic senate."

Youth climate groups say they plan to issue recommendations to the administration for cabinet-level positions, though progressive candidates are likely to face a tough confirmation battle in a Senate likely to be under Republican control.

Saad Amer, an environmental activist and director of the youth voter mobilization organization Plus1Vote, said young people "have the potential to play the highest level of roles in the administration," and that sustained pressure from youth climate activists could be important in ensuring that potential Biden Cabinet members address climate change with the urgency it demands.

Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy at 350 Action, suggested that Biden create a youth advisory council to work with federal environmental agencies, giving the youth climate movement a permanent and authoritative voice in the administration.

Young climate activists are also looking ahead to the 2022 and 2024 elections, when Gen Zers will represent even greater portions of the electorate. 

"I think Gen Z is really only at the beginning of exercising what can be very substantial power," said Alex Leichenger, of NextGen America, the advocacy group launched by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer. 

'Make the Case About Energy, Not About Climate'

Environmental policy experts also note that innovation and adoption of renewable energy have shifted since the last vigorous policy debates on climate change and, they say, those policy debates should, too. 

"The most important consideration now is to realize how dramatically different the playing field is than the last time we had a serious debate on energy and climate, which was 11 years ago," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. "Back then, battery storage was something for a flashlight. The landscape has completely changed just in that short period of time."

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden addresses the nation at the Chase Center November 06, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware.

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden addresses the nation at the Chase Center November 06, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Credit: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Cook said that a Biden administration could direct resources toward clean energy research and jobs.

"Make the case about energy, not about climate. It's just so much easier and you end up in the same place," Cook added. "I think there's a new way for the incoming Biden administration to position themselves as agents in the transition that's already happening, as opposed to forcing the transition through regulatory means and accommodating political interests."

A first step, many analysts said, would be rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.

"Get the U.S. back in the agreement and reverse all the Trump attacks on everything climate and environment," Leiserowitz said. "If nothing else we can restore us back to where we were with the Obama administration."

Leiserowitz noted that there's a lot of momentum on climate change through voluntary efforts like We're Still In, a coalition of governments, companies, academic institutions, faith and tribal groups that have committed to reducing emissions in line with the Paris targets.

"Biden can build on that and invigorate the full-society effort even without passing legislation. He also controls some critical policy-making bodies," Leiserowitz said. "All of this is not close enough to where we need to go, but it's certainly a quantum leap better than where we are at the moment."

Ilana Cohen contributed reporting. 

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