Since President Joe Biden took office in January, tensions between the White House and the environmental justice movement have ratcheted up. In recent weeks, though, they’ve come to a head over an email campaign. Ten high-level administration officials had their inboxes flooded with 5,600 messages over two days in August. Movement leaders with Stop the Money Pipeline said the administration’s reactions to the email blast were “appalling” and that they confirm that the White House isn’t taking the fight for environmental justice seriously.
Stop the Money Pipeline, a coalition of 175 groups that aim to pressure banks and other institutions to stop financing environmentally dangerous and unjust projects, set up a digital action. Supporters could submit their contact information to have a form email sent to officials in their name.
“We are counting on you to prioritize people and the planet instead of polluters and their Wall Street backers,” the form email said.
On August 18, thousands of people signed up for the action, sending a deluge of emails to high-ranking officials’ inboxes. (The news was first reported by Politico.) David Kieve, who handles the White House’s outreach to environmental organizations, emailed members of Stop the Money Pipeline to ask organizers to lessen the load. Jackie Fielder, the communications coordinator for Stop the Money Pipeline, said that they tried to assuage Kieve’s concerns.
“As soon as we heard about this concern, we transitioned the email tool to use batch emails, so that they were not receiving an email from every single person and constituent, but rather a batch of emails,” she said.
Kieve also requested to speak with a representative of the campaign, so Fielder and other spokespeople offered up their phone numbers. That evening, Kieve left a voicemail for Erika Thi Patterson, campaign director with the Action Center on Race and the Economy and steering committee member for Stop the Money Pipeline.
“He left a polite voicemail so I returned the call assuming he was reaching out to set up a meeting as we requested. But he quickly transitioned from niceties to interrogating me,” she wrote in an email.
Patterson said Kieve “berated” her for 17 minutes on the call, complaining that the emails were clogging officials’ inboxes and making communication between them nearly impossible.
“I tried to tell him, ‘thank you for your feedback, I’ll pass this along to our partners about 5 times,” she said, “but he kept asking, ‘when will you tell me who is responsible, when will I be able to talk to them tonight?’”
Earther reached out to Kieve for comment about this phone call and the administration’s financial climate regulation plan. We will update this piece if he responds.
Patterson and Fielder said it was not their intent to shut down officials’ ability to communicate. Rather, their coalition merely aimed to get their attention about the administration’s failure to implement its own policies.
In May, Biden issued an executive order on climate-related financial risk back in May. The order set dates to issue two key reports. By September 17, it directed the Director of the National Economic Council Brian Deese and the White House’s National Climate Advisor Gina McCarthy to develop a “comprehensive, Government-wide strategy” on how to measure climate-related financial risks and finance a transition to net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. The September deadline came and went with little fanfare and no report. We reached out to McCarthy’s deputy for comment about this and will update this piece if we receive a response.
The order also set a deadline of November 20 for the Financial Stability Oversight Council (FSOC)—a group made up of all federal regulatory agencies chaired by Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen—to issue a report on how regulators will integrate climate-related risk into their policies.
A week before its email blast, Stop the Money Pipeline sent 10 Biden administration officials a memo detailing their demands for how the executive order should be implemented. Among them were Kieve, McCarthy, and Deese.
“Our demands of the Biden administration were to use the full force of their powers ... to basically make financing fossil fuels impossible,” said Fielder.
Organizers received no direct response to their email, which is why they decided to escalate. “It wasn’t exactly our intention to overwhelm the system, but it was our intention to get the administration’s attention and I think we did just that,” said Patterson.
Fielder said that she found the administration’s response to the email blast “appalling.” More than that, though, she said it’s is indicative of a larger problem: a lack of communication and accountability to the grassroots climate movement.
“It confuses me that the highest office in one of the wealthiest countries in the world is not set up to receive emails from their constituents, whether it’s two a day or whether it’s 5,600,” she said. “It’s not the kind of government that we deserve, honestly. Government should be responsive.”
The administration has taken some steps to center environmental justice, including yanking permits for the Keystone XL pipeline, pledging to deliver 40% of overall benefits from climate investments to disadvantaged communities. But in other areas, advocates said the Biden White House has fallen short.
“Biden is certainly doing better than all the presidents before him, but that’s not how the climate unfolds,” said Fielder.
His administration has refused to cancel permits for the Line 3 pipeline, which carries tar sands from Canada through Minnesota. The Justice Department went so far as to defend the pipeline in court earlier this year over the protests of Indigenous water protectors. Last week, Line 3 officially went into operation, but the administration said nothing.
The administration also hasn’t definitively put a stop to the Formosa Plastics complex set to be built in an already highly polluted region of the Gulf South. In August, the Army Corps of Engineers said it would issue a requirement for an environmental impact statement for the project, but it’s not a guarantee that the project won’t move forward.
Activists said the continued money being put up for polluting projects like these shows the importance of using the financial agencies to put an end to investments in dirty infrastructure. “Since the Paris Agreement, banks and insurance companies have continued to throw billions of dollars, hundreds of billions of dollars, at fossil fuels,” said Fielder.
Moira Birss, a campaign director at Amazon Watch who is on the steering committee for Stop the Money Pipeline, said the lack of action stems from an underlying problem with the administration’s approach to greenhouse gas pollution, which purports that it can reach net-zero emissions while prioritizing business interests over transformative climate action.
“The net zero approach has to be aligned with science-based targets, which means rapid phase-out of fossil fuels and the end of widespread deforestation,” she said. “Forest offsets, carbon capture technologies, and carbon trading schemes are a false solution because they are based on the unacceptable premise that they can ‘compensate’ for a lack of emissions reduction.”
Next month, nations will begin negotiations at the United Nations’ climate talks. There, the U.S. will have a chance to show the world whether or not it is really a climate leader.
“I think Biden has about a month to really show what he’s worth,” said Fielder. “I’m not super optimistic.”
Patterson said the administration’s response to the email blast was disappointing, but not surprising. “This chain of events fits into a broader pattern of the administration’s dismissiveness of frontline leaders,” she said.