After four years of environmental rollbacks and inaction on climate change, the tides have turned on Capitol Hill. Since Biden took office in January, we’ve seen a slew of climate initiatives and introduced policies, including an early Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis, a proposed climate-focused infrastructure bill, and new greenhouse gas pollution reduction targets. Policymakers and advocates at the state level have asked — what does this action mean for states? How can state legislators and climate activists best complement the work of the federal government?
To tackle these questions and many more, we were joined by two prominent climate leaders who head national organizations fighting for effective and equitable climate policy. Keya Chatterjee, the Executive Director of U.S. Climate Action Network, and Jasmine Sanders, the Executive Director of Our Climate, discussed what’s taken place to date within the Biden Administration and contextualized what federal climate action will mean for states across the country.
Jasmine Sanders, Executive Director, Our Climate
Jasmine Sanders has roots in Louisiana, and when Hurricane Katrina hit the shores of her state in 2005, it was the first time she had seen not only climate migration but also the nuanced aspects of intersectionality and exacerbation of existing inequities. This experience prompted her to study environmental science and climate change, and during her research in Indonesia, she found her voice and how to use it for good. She then moved to Washington, D.C., and for the past 10 years has been a fierce climate advocate. She’s currently the Executive Director of Our Climate, an advocacy organization empowered by youth grassroots movements.
Keya Chatterjee, Executive Director, U.S. Climate Action Network
Key Chatterjee began working on climate issues during her time at NASA in Washington, D.C., when she received shocking Arctic sea ice data that spurred her action in the climate change space. She’s currently the Executive Director of the U.S. Climate Action Network, and her work focuses on building an inclusive movement in support of climate action.
Overview of Federal Climate Action to Date
Jasmine: We are all excited about the possibilities of federal climate action, but we also know that progress will take time. Every great social justice movement has started at the local level, and what we’re seeing now is federal action catching up to the grassroots movement. A great example of how amazing this sort of activism is was clear on Wednesday, when TC Energy announced it was terminating the Keystone XL Pipeline. This announcement obviously came after over a decade of Indigenous and other climate justice leaders fighting the development of this project. President Biden had already revoked a key permit on his first day in office, and before that, the project faced legal issues from a court ruling in 2018 which declared that the former administration had not prepared an adequate environmental review. Hopefully this is the start of a new recurring trend where we can defeat these pipelines.
Moving on to other federal actions, in President Biden’s first week in office, he made it clear that environmental and climate action is a priority for this administration. He reinstated the US to the Paris Climate Agreement, announced a moratorium on oil and gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, directed federal agencies to review over a dozen of the previous administration’s regulations and actions to increase fossil fuel production, and issued an Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad. This included an outline of taking a holistic, government-wide approach and developing a plan to stimulate clean energy industries by revitalizing the government’s sustainability efforts.
Another hot topic in the news lately is the America Jobs Plan, or Biden’s Infrastructure Plan. The original plan would have invested $2.6 trillion in repairing and upgrading America’s infrastructure while investing in clean energy jobs and supporting communities. Is it enough, though? This amount is a starting point to reaching the necessary $10 trillion that Our Climate’s frontline youth warriors and many others around the country are demanding through a Green New Deal.
The Green New Deal is a piece of legislation proposed at the national level that serves as a model for community- and state-level Green New Deal legislation. Congresswomen Cori Bush and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently announced the Green New Deal for Cities Act of 2021, which would fund city, state, local, tribal, and territorial governments to respond to the climate crisis and create hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. It includes authorizing $1 trillion with 50% going each to frontline communities and climate mitigation, funding an array of climate and environmental justice projects, and supporting equitable housing and labor initiatives. The momentous grassroots power across the nation demonstrates the need for politicians on all levels to act on climate.
Keya: I just got back yesterday from northern Minnesota, where I was with a group of people blocking Line 3 in solidarity with Tara Houska and other Indigenous leaders. Important to note here is that the federal government is still highly problematic on climate policy. Just a few weeks ago, we saw their support for Project Willow in Alaska, a project which is equivalent to 66 coal-fired power plants, 100 million barrels a day of oil; we see in Minnesota that Trump allowed this permit and the Biden administration has not yet revoked it — unacceptable from both a climate perspective and an Indigenous rights perspective. When we were out there, we had a Customs and Border Patrol helicopter come about 5 feet above our head and dust us, which is the federal government attacking climate activists. We should realize that there are a lot of highly problematic things still happening, and we must still keep our vigilance and our activism alive.
There’s two categories of things we need to do. One is that we need to build nonviolent power as an activist movement that is equal and opposite to the power of militant White nationalists who we know have not gone away but are making plans; we need to build the same power as was built in the Indian independence movement, in the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, etc. The other category is that we need to take advantage of the “light blue trifecta” that we currently have — we don’t have a massive majority in the House or the Senate, we can’t actually get what we want right now because we don’t have the political power to. This is partly because we have such a weakened democratic system in this country, what the people want is not actually represented by our representatives at the federal level. A vast majority of people want climate action, but a disproportionately large number of elected officials don’t want it because of a continually weakened democratic system which is a massive threat to climate action. In this light blue trifecta, though, there’s a window of what’s possible, and we need to lock that in even if it isn’t everything we want. It is not a foregone conclusion that we will get what is possible with federal climate action — we really have to work with the reformer tactic, as Bill Moyer states. We need to really engage with the system if we want to lock in what’s currently possible, including some of what Jasmine was talking about, with the American Jobs Plan and the American Families Plan.
Something we’ve been working on, the THRIVE Act, which does add up to $1 trillion a year for ten years — that’s been introduced, it has lots of cosponsors, we feel this is within the window of possibility as well, even though it goes above and beyond what Biden’s asking for. Even when you look at Biden’s targets for the UN climate meetings, it’s not clear that what they are attempting to pass legislatively is sufficient for their own targets, and these targets are already insufficient when you look at the United States’ responsibility and capability for climate action. So, we know that regardless of what’s happening federally, we will still need state action to go above and beyond wherever possible. There is no scenario where we actually get what we need from our current federal trifecta. Much of the focus of potential ways forward is on investments, justice, and standards. A big focus in the entire progressive movement is on how to get things through via budget reconciliation, which is where a lot of issues are attempting to take up space. Meanwhile, we have the White House trying to negotiate with Republicans well past the Memorial Day deadline, so negotiating with people whose party has backed militant White nationalism and attacks on democracy rather than negotiating with the activists who got them elected. That continues even now, after one of the Republican packages got sent back, and so we have a difficult movement where there’s very little time before we go into the fall, with debt ceiling deadlines and some other things. And we know that negotiations with Republicans are not going to result in a strong climate package.
The other piece of this is the clean versus renewable energy standards. Representatives Welch and Clarke are putting forward a renewable energy standard, and there’s going to be a lot of tension in the community about the clean energy standard part of it, because we have a lot of communities that are very badly affected by nuclear, by biomass, by carbon capture and storage. So, we have to get those stories in front of members of Congress so that they understand the impacts, and then we also have to go back and fight this at the state level, because the politics at the federal level are just not that great, in either chamber.
There’s also quite a few other Green New Deal proposals that will be coming forward, because when you’re in a tug of war, you don’t want Biden’s plan to be the most extreme, with the Republicans on the other end. You want something on the other side of Biden, so that his plan is in the middle of this debate. Also, we know that Speaker Pelosi has a July 4th deadline to move forward on reconciliation, which seems to be becoming more difficult with each discussion that happens. And essentially, these discussions are about Black, and Brown, and Indigenous communities, they are about just throwing something out the window that is a core equity concern. The good news is that we have a lot of work to do at the state level, no matter what!
We asked the panelists various questions surrounding climate and environmental issues at the federal and state level, including the THRIVE Act, the John Lewis Voting Act, the role of youth and tribal advocacy, and what success looks like in four years. Below is a recap of their discussion.
Q: Could you briefly touch a bit more on the THRIVE Act — what that is, and what the potential importance of that is, for those who might not be familiar?
Keya: The THRIVE Act really looks at our current reckoning — at the intersectional crises coming out of COVID, economic injustice, social and racial injustice, and looking at what investments we need. We need to have a care economy where home care workers are treated well — those are low-carbon jobs — where teachers are paid well, where that economic development that is low-carbon is happening alongside a societal movement where we take care of each other and also deal with the climate crisis. And of course, we must invest in renewable energy, and insulation, and regenerative agriculture, and public transportation, all of the things we’re used to fighting for within the climate crisis, but on top of that, really making investments in this country. So we really are taking that very big first step toward what we envision as a Green New Deal, like Jasmine talked about, this holistic investment in society where we will all be better off and taking care of each other.
Q: A lot of the newly elected legislators, or those new to the climate policy landscape, are not sure what their key priorities should be. In a lot of places, particularly more conservative states, folks don’t want to be too ambitious — can we hear from you on which policies are good priorities for newly elected lawmakers or advocates at the state level?
Jasmine: I would shout out our work in Oregon and Washington. Oregon is normally highly conservative, and there has been no momentum moving state policy. Between Oregon and Washington, we passed 16 state-level policies, which is because we’re in this moment that Keya was talking about, this moment where we can get things done. And so, from the clean fuels standard to the HEAL Act, which really has to do with environmental justice, to the Growth Management Act, the Farmworker Overtime, Working Families Tax Credit — again, it’s going back to the intersectionality of this issue. Something does not have to directly relate to climate change; say, with a police tactics bill, the same people who are oppressed by these tactics, by White supremacy, are the ones who are most and disproportionately impacted by climate change. So, when we talk about the complexity of this issue and look at alternative ways of getting things passed, that’s how change can happen on the local level.
Keya: U.S. CAN members put something together called the Equitable Climate Action, which goes sector by sector and suggests the policies that are needed. We have a long commentary there on carbon pricing that highlights a lot of the concerns that members have with regressivity, with the effects on communities. I do think that the framework of the Green New Deal, in terms of the sectors being focused on, is a great starting point for climate action at the state and local levels. Sustainable transportation, for instance, that’s mostly happening at the state level — funds need to come from the federal government, but there’s so much that can be done and must be done at the state level, regardless of the federal level, like implementation. That’s also true for a lot of the work on regenerative agriculture, on conservation, oon renewable electricity. The basic framework of the Green New Deal, with high-bar labor standards, high-bar equity and justice standards, and high-bar climate standards as we work in the sectors that we must address is the ideal framework for getting things moving. I definitely very much agree that the more intersectional we are in that work, the better, and we made this resource as a very detailed blueprint, everything from building standards to going sector by sector to work that must be done in responding to climate change at both the state and federal level.
Q: How connected and important is the John Lewis Voting Act to climate action?
Keya: It is absolutely critical, to be clear. The attacks on democracy that are coming at the state level, like some of the more egregious things in the news — you can’t hand out water in line, that is not a democracy if you can’t hand water out to people. We’re just making it way too hard to vote, and specifically, we are making it too hard to vote for Black, Indigenous, Brown communities, and that’s being done on purpose. If we don’t intervene at the federal level, then we are going into the next election cycle almost guaranteeing that we will lose support for climate action. I think that the alignment we’ve had in this country for about 40 years of White nationalists and fossil fuel billionaires and war-mongering imperialists and White evangelicals who just don’t like women or people of color or anyone different from them having power — that alignment is going to gain a lot of power if we don’t pass voting rights acts. They will gain power because they are manipulating our democracy so that it’s not really a democracy. I can’t think of anything more important in terms of fighting back fascism, and we all just lived through the past four years of the Trump administration. We know that’s really bad for climate action, we don’t have to imagine a potential future. We know what it’s like, and it will be far worse if we don’t take a stand right now.
It’s very frustrating that over the weekend, we had Senator Manchin saying that he would not vote to move forward with a majority of the Senate. Some people call that eliminating the filibuster — you can do that on a case-by-case too, just to be clear, in the Senate. You don’t have to say, from now on, we will not be voting with the majority; they could do it just for the Voting Rights Act, but we have a few of these Democratic Senators who are refusing to do that. I can’t really overstate the importance of making sure that those Voting Rights bills pass, because I just don’t see how we get durable climate action that is equitable or just unless we reform our democracy and actually just go back to when people could vote a little bit more. Eventually, we have to go far past that, as I said in my opening, with D.C. statehood and making sure that we have representation here in D.C. and also have two Senators — these are basic human rights that we have to fight for.
Q: We’d love to hear more about your work with youth advocates, and that’s really at the core of the mission of Our Climate. Could you describe a bit more about how Our Climate works with youth advocates and what other organizations should know about how they should be complimenting and elevating this work?
Jasmine: OC is a national program, but we have 5 target state programs, so New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Washington, and Oregon. Most recently, our Fellows just graduated in May, it’s a year long program. We teach them skills and they go through this core curriculum that has climate justice, climate advocacy, storytelling, self-care as a form of protest, organizing, coalition-building, and lobbying. It’s really about getting them to learn, what’s that knowledge base, getting them in touch with experts in the field, showing them that being a climate activist looks a variety of different ways. When I was growing up, you had a poster in your hand and you were walking down the street. Now, I can show my daughter how you can be on social media, you can create these TikToks. Our youth love to do that, those TikToks, those Instagram Reels, creating those informational carousel posts. So one thing I didn’t talk about, the Justice for Black Farmers Act, recently we had Senator Booker repost and like an information post we did. Because we want to be able to explain to the everyday person, whether you are a 15 year old or a 75 year old, what is this bill? There’s a gap of knowledge between federal policy, unless you’re in the D.C. area, and everyone else. Unless it’s a huge bill, like the Coronavirus Relief Bill, there’s things that happen on the Hill every single day and we don’t hear about it. So that’s what we like to do.
We also have a podcast called, Is It Hot Enough For Ya?, on Spotify, Google, Apple, and this is bringing together our young people and a person who is working on climate change professionally. So we’ve had a NASA software developer, we’ve had Andrés Jimenez from Green 2.0, we’ve had people from EDF. And it’s really having this lighthearted conversation about climate change, the intersectionality of it, the disproportionate impact on communities of color, and what can you do as a person? I think it’s very important for our young people to know that they have adults who are looking out for them. Many young people are very much distraught, and my Fellows, a majority of them are from frontline communities. You hear the term “climate anxiety” — I don’t like to say that, I like to focus on resilience. It’s something we were all born with, we see it in our kids. If you are someone who comes from a frontline community, if you are a person of color, you are dealing with things on an everyday basis. Climate change on top of a pandemic, racial unrest, political despair — I would not have wanted to be a 15 or 16 year old a few months ago, even now. So we are really trying to connect them to adults such as yourselves on this call, to give them access to different opportunities.
Another thing our Fellows do, is they’re part of these coalitions that we’re part of. For our U.S. CAN meetings, I have two Fellows who attend those on a regular basis. They love being part of those coordinating policy team discussions, and coming back and telling our staff team, okay, this is what was talked about, here’s what we need to do, here are the steps that we can be involved in. It’s about uplifting and empowering them, and so us as adults, as grown people, no matter what generation we are in, we can give them that guidance, we can lead them and empower them.
Q: As we’re talking about policy priorities, I’d love to ask you: is there anything you think that federal or state governments can be learning from tribal governments or groups as far as how to develop effective and equitable climate policy?
Keya: I think that we have to enter into a broader process of decolonization, and part of that is listening and learning. Of course, part of the beginnings of decolonization is a lot of personal work, for people including those in the federal government of really starting to understand our positionality in this place where we are right now, Turtle Island, as Indigenous folks know it to be, also known now as the United States. Just trying to understand, where did we come from, and what are our stories and how are they similar or different from the stories of the peoples of this land. How can we start to work together in a way where we are decolonizing, un-colonizing this land, which is a settler colonial location? The first thing we need to do is listen to Indigenous communities about the need to stop ongoing colonization, you’ve got to do that before you can really decolonize. I would describe a lot of what’s happening with these private companies that are violating treaty rights — that is colonization. We have ongoing colonization right now, and I think it’s incredibly important for us to acknowledge that. History has accumulated, and that is where we come from, and it is not a coincidence that Black, Indigenous, Brown people are more vulnerable to the impacts of climate change. It’s because Black, Indigenous, Brown people have been purposefully made vulnerable through policy and practices. A lot of it is like, really leaning into practices of anti-racism and decolonization that go well beyond just listening and learning from governance models but really involve some introspection and changes to the way we do things.
Q: Clearly, there’s been a positive shift in approach to climate action with the change in administration, but also the work is certainly not close to being done. What do you think are misconceptions about how progressive the new administration is regarding climate action, both positive and negative?
Jasmine: I want to bring up that the Washington Post has been tracking Biden’s environmental actions, and since January, Biden has added 22 policies, proposed 15, and of the Trump administration’s environmental policies, there have been 35 overturned, 69 targeted, and 130 not targeted. They update this on a daily basis, you can look at it any time. I would note that we are starting to see where President Biden said things during the campaign, and now we are starting to see the standard is going down. I think it’s very important as we are talking about holding people’s feet to the fire, that’s what we have to do. We have to speak up, we have to be those reminders of, “this is what was promised”. Your work doesn’t stop after voting. We all got excited about voting, about the presidential election, but that’s not where the work stops. That’s actually where the work begins. We are now in the midst of work, and it’s people such as Keya and several of my U.S. CAN colleagues who went to Minnesota. That’s work right there – it’s work going behind the scenes and writing the op-eds and the LTEs. It’s work being with your elected officials, whether that’s via Zoom, a phone call, writing a letter, or tweeting them. Tweet, it gets noticed. They keep logs of that, their staff has to. So we have to actually stay in the know with all of this information, and we are realizing that so much work is trying to be done, but we also have to realize that so much work has to be undone. For the past four years, a lot of stuff has happened. And when we say that the federal government moves slow, I need you to get in your head that it moves slow and so many unnecessary things happened behind the scenes. Even within the agencies, they’re trying to undo all of those things and enact some of these greater things. Having a holistic government approach to climate change, it is going to take time. That’s where we have to push, that’s where we have to extend grace, that’s where we have to work on the local level. As U.S. CAN says, it’s building power from the grassroots up. That’s what we have to do.
Keya: I shared my frustrations earlier, but I think that Biden needs a huge amount of pressure to actually move on this investments package and do something on climate, as well as a huge amount of pressure to not treat all of this undoing of bad stuff in a whack-a-mole fashion. It needs to be done holistically. It doesn’t matter if you’ve done 39 things, what was the total? They need to all be done. So, I feel like the pressure needs to be on, and right now, we know who they’re meeting with. We just heard, they’re meeting with the American Petroleum Institute, they’re meeting with the Republicans. You know who they’re not meeting with? Youth climate activists, or any climate activists. So we really need to keep the pressure on, if we want to get something out of this moment with the federal government. Because we don’t have time for what we’re seeing right now. But I also want to say that we’re closer to getting stuff than we’ve ever been. We have the pieces in place to get what is possible from this window of opportunity, and we absolutely can do this. But it will take so much pressure at the state level, on the federal representatives that are representing each state. That’s really what will decide whether or not we can take advantage of this moment.
We are on the cusp. If you just look at what Biden put forward, with the American Jobs Plan, the American Families Plan, and THRIVE, obviously THRIVE is three times larger, but even what they put forward is pretty large, and we are very close to getting something like that. It will be decided in weeks, not months, so I also want to give people that hope and optimism. We are maybe about to do something very, very big, if we can pressure people at the state level to move and do it. And give them the courage to, as well. Sometimes, we just have to find our bravery.
Q: If we’re looking four years ahead, at the end of the first term of the Biden administration, what would we have ideally accomplished as a movement? What are some of the key points, objectives, pieces of legislation that you think would be guaranteeing success, or at least success that is feasible in this current political climate?
Jasmine: I think that THRIVE is a huge thing. That’s one. A plan such as the American Jobs Plan, increased, would be great. Also, something I didn’t mention, Biden put out an executive order and it was the first time you were seeing that we are wanting to work on climate migration, and we are establishing protections for people who have to be displaced from climate migrations. We’ve seen in this country, with wildfires, the hurricanes across the Gulf Coast and Northeast, we see Florida and Louisiana are washing away, and bits of Texas. So these are things we have to start accounting for. Another thing would be food sovereignty. So addressing the food deserts in this country, establishing equity for many of these frontline communities. And it’s really having clear pathways and standards for implementing not just equity but reinvesting into these frontline communities who have been most impacted. What are those clear pathways? That’s what I want to hear. And I would like, four of five years from now, that we are seeing the effects of that actually being impacted. We’re seeing people have good-paying jobs, being able to have climate change be something normal we can talk about at the dinner table, something that our kids are learning about at school. We are really revolutionizing how we are dealing with this issue.
Keya: I would say success looks like us having power, so that whoever’s in the next administration has to listen to us. So, I talk a lot about Erica Chenoweth’s research, where she looked at turning out dictators in countries, that level of change where you can get fast and deep change. And what she found repeatedly was that if you had 3.5% of the population engaged in nonviolent civil disobedience consistently, you won. Even getting a dictator out of office. It’s not enough being the majority in this country, we actually have to do something in solidarity. You can’t just be there and get things, you have to do things. And doing things brings us hope. So, for me, the end of the Biden administration is a success if we have enough people acting in solidarity that, if we don’t like what’s happening, if it’s not going to be okay for climate justice and our communities, then we can pull off boycotts, we can pull off stoppages, we can make ourselves ungovernable, so that it has to be done. And that is a kind of power that can’t be taken away, you can’t roll that back. There’s no executive order that can undo a solidarity ability to pull off a massive boycott. 3.5% of the U.S. population is 11 million people, we can calculate what it is state by state. If we get to that, then no one can say no to us, regardless of what comes after the Biden administration.
It’s clear that while there is a lot of amazing federal action in the works, including the America Jobs Plan, the THRIVE Act, and the John Lewis Voting Rights Act, there is also a lot of work to be done. Our speakers highlighted that the way forward must center the voices of youth activists, Indigenous leaders, and communities of color in order to ensure a just climate future. If we can empower ourselves, mobilize our communities, and push the federal government at the local and state levels, we can achieve lasting climate action that is not only effective and equitable but also creates a reimagined society based in collective care for each other.