After Two Nights of Speeches, Activists Ask: Hey, What About Climate Change?

The threat to the planet made only a glancing appearance in the first days of the Democratic convention.

Aug 19, 2020
Former US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention on August 19, 2020. The four-day event, initially postponed from July, is taking place almost wholly remotely in response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Former US Secretary of State John Kerry addresses the virtual 2020 Democratic National Convention on August 19, 2020. The four-day event, initially postponed from July, is taking place almost wholly remotely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Credit: David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images

The co-chairs of Joe Biden's climate change task force addressed the Democratic National Convention on Tuesday night. But the planet's overarching environmental crisis was mentioned only as an aside—one of a laundry list of tasks that would need to be addressed in the wake of President Donald Trump's divisive tenure.

"Joe understands that none of the issues of this world—not nuclear weapons, not the challenge of building back better after Covid, not terrorism, and certainly not the climate crisis—none can be resolved without bringing nations together," said former Secretary of State John Kerry, who co-led the effort to craft a more ambitious climate platform for Biden.

Kerry's partner in that project, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Congressional sponsor of the Green New Deal, did not mention climate or Joe Biden in her less-than-two-minute appearance. Instead, Ocasio-Cortez, who for many is the embodiment of the drive for a bold climate justice agenda, was relegated to the role of seconding the nomination for president of Biden's chief rival, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)—a formality, since Biden won the majority of delegates weeks ago. Her fleeting appearance stirred so much consternation on social media that she took to Twitter to affirm her support for Biden.

AOC's endorsement aside, Biden's historic commitment to climate action clearly is getting less air time than the pandemic and the drive for racial justice in the meticulously produced show the Democrats are putting on this week.

To be sure, Biden's "Build Back Better" plan addresses all three issues in one program, a $2 trillion investment in infrastructure and clean energy, with a promise to direct 40 percent of the spending to historically disenfranchised communities.  And climate figured into the remarks of many of the headline speakers.  Former President Bill Clinton praised Biden's plan for its goal of "good jobs in green energy and conservation to combat climate change." Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, now a Los Angeles Supervisor, prefaced California's delegate roll call with a jab at Trump's science denial. 

"Climate change is not a hoax, it's real, and communities of color have been bearing the brunt of this reality for generations," she said. 

Voter Support for Climate Action

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), standing a few socially distanced paces away from Solis on the L.A. coast, chimed in, "Joe Biden's plan to crack down on polluters, to protect our air and water is about environmental justice and economic justice."

Nevertheless, some activists believe that party regulars are putting the climate crisis on the back burner, while they focus on the drive to win over independent and Republican voters.

Nothing illustrates the climate conflict within the party better than the controversy that erupted this week when the Democratic National Committee dropped language from its platform calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies and tax breaks. 

Every Democratic presidential candidate, including Biden and his vice presidential nominee, Kamala Harris, had called for such a move, which is far less controversial than other proposals, like taxing fossil fuels to level the playing field for clean energy. And yet, the final draft of the party platform that began circulating Monday for the delegates omitted the language on ending fossil fuel subsidies that had been added to the draft in July.

A DNC spokesman said in an email that the language had been "incorrectly included" in the draft. "After the error was discovered, both the Biden campaign and Sanders campaign, along with those who submitted the amendment, agreed to withdraw the amendment from consideration," the spokesman said. 

But the omission of the provision revived the anger that roiled progressives last year when Democratic Party Chair Tom Perez resisted calls for a presidential debate dedicated to climate change.

"Seething with rage," tweeted R.L. Miller, political director of the activist group Climate Hawks Vote and chair of the California Democratic Party's environmental caucus. As Perez addressed the virtual meeting of the DNC Council on the Environment and Climate Crisis on Tuesday afternoon, Miller voiced her frustration in the chat: "Hey Tom Perez you and the corporate Dems are trying to promote fossil fuels in the Democratic Party. **** YOU."

Climate activists are just one of many restive constituencies during the unconventional, online DNC convention, as party leaders focus on outreach to moderates by featuring Republican speakers like former governor John Kasich and former Secretary of State Colin Powell.

The DNC has indicated that there will be greater attention to climate change later in the week. And Perez himself underscored its importance in his remarks Tuesday afternoon to the DNC Council on Environment and the Climate Crisis, the panel that the party established one year ago to advocate for ambitious environmental policy within the party. Referring to Trump's finalizing earlier this week of his plan to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil drilling, Perez said, "You see what he's doing in ANWR. He's destroying the fabric of our democracy," he said. "He's destroying our physical environment...We cannot afford to lose."

For the 5,000 participants who signed in to the DNC's environment session, much of the discussion was on new polling by the think tank Data for Progress, showing that 56 percent of voters said that a 100 percent clean energy pledge would make them more likely to vote for a candidate. Although the opinions were politically polarized (with 76 percent of Democrats supportive of a 100 percent clean energy goal, compared to 42 percent of Republicans and Independents), only 8 percent of voters overall said that such a strong stand on clean energy would turn them off to a candidate.

"Democrats should champion progressive policies to win up and down the ballot this November," said Danielle Deiseroth, climate data analyst for Data for Progress.

Michelle Deatrick, a Michigan activist who chairs the climate crisis council, said that the panel, with the support of climate activist groups, was able to significantly move the party platform to include greater ambition on climate change. 

"The people want Democrats to step up, be bold on climate, and be the party of climate solutions," she said. But she noted the work ahead to make that happen went beyond electing Biden and Harris and flipping the Senate to Democratic control, to keeping the pressure on them for enactment of strong policy. 

"We're just getting started," Deatrick said.

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