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I'm a Political Scientist. This Is Why Climate Activists Need to Keep Turning the Heat Up on Joe Biden

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Back in December, which feels like a century ago, the Sunrise Movement gave Joe Biden an F on their Green New Deal scorecard. They gave an A- to Bernie Sanders. The next month, after a six-week long deliberative process, the group endorsed Sanders for president.

But with Sanders dropping out this month and Biden now the presumptive Democratic nominee, the question arises as to how the group—and more importantly, the broader Green New Deal coalition—should treat Biden’s campaign. In short, what should the climate justice movement do now?


Lots of people have opinions. Last week, Vox’s Matt Yglesias and David Roberts weighed in, suggesting that Sunrise tame its criticisms of the Biden campaign. These admonitions echo growing calls for party “unity” in the lead up to what will likely be a tight general election against a justly loathed Republican incumbent. “Unity” advocates invoke memories of the 2016 primaries, when Sanders supporters were blamed for Hillary Clinton’s weak performance—despite substantial evidence that depressed turnout for an uninspiring candidate did more to doom her candidacy than “Bernie or bust” voters.


Of course, it makes perfect sense for the Democratic establishment to want to corral the party’s progressive wing as well as social movements under the banner of an anti-Trump united front. Every faction in the party, including current leadership, desires control over what is ultimately a patchwork coalition of diverse constituencies. And dampening internal dissent is a key method for attaining that control. When party leadership calls for “unity,” what they are demanding is acquiescence.

But is “unity” the best way for climate activists to achieve their goals? A closer look at the political context suggests that activists don’t need unity. They need power.

First and foremost, the climate movement needs power because it hasn’t yet achieved its goals: Biden recently stated he would support a green, job-centric approach to economic recovery, but his climate plan remains woefully inadequate, proposing just $1.7 trillion in federal public investment. And, from campaign fundraising to key advising and campaign co-chair positions, he has a worryingly cozy relationship with the fossil fuel industry.

Second, the movement needs power because it can’t rely on governing elites to address their concerns about rapidly cutting emissions at the start of this crucial climate decade. The Republican Party has attacked any green investments whatsoever as an elitist distraction from workers’ immediate pain—even as they ensure that recovery dollars go to the wealthiest people and the largest corporations. Ever since their failed attempt to link airline bailout funds to emission reduction goals, Democratic leadership has failed to make climate-related demands in the unfolding battle over the shape of the federal stimulus.


Third, the current moment offers a crucial window for movement influence. The Biden campaign is clearly concerned about persuading Bernie supporters—who skew younger—to vote for him. He has specifically flagged climate change as one of this constituencies’ top priorities (and created a climate-themed “working group” in coordination with Sanders). This window for activists like the Sunrise Movement to get Biden to ramp up his climate ambitions, however, will only narrow as the general election approaches. When Biden pivots in earnest to facing off against Trump, he will be pulled to the center in the predictable attempt to woo swing voters instead of firing up the progressive base.


And fourth, the unfolding battles over the federal stimulus—battles which would continue under a potential Biden administration—have become a key arena to push for the job-centric, green economic recovery that young people favor. If Biden wins the White House, he’ll have a hand in any further stimulus efforts.

In other words, climate justice activists have the motive and the opportunity to put pressure on the Biden campaign now more than ever. And they have the means: disruptive tactics that hold politicians accountable.


In general, when groups with less institutional power want to make their voices heard, they must rely on the tactic of disruption since they don’t have access to the same levers as party elites. The young people who form the base of the Sunrise Movement are more likely to be Democrats, but they are also less likely to vote. It isn’t that young people are apathetic, but a variety of factors that disproportionately keep them from the polls.

This group holds little traditional power, with few elected representatives advocating for their interests. Yet at the same time they have a generational interest in averting catastrophic climate change and assuring themselves a dignified economic future. If groups such as the Sunrise Movement want to influence politics, they have to think creatively about how they can exert leverage from a position of weakness—and, whenever possible, replace incumbents with politicians more accountable to social movements.


In keeping with their outsider position, the Sunrise Movement, as well as other youth-led movements such as Zero Hour and the Dream Defenders, use a wide range of tactics to empower their constituencies, from public rallies to social media campaigns, from phone-banking members of Congress to internal political education and organizing trainings.

But when their specific goal is to ensure that the politicians that often ignore them hear their message, they deploy more disruptive tactics: bird-dogging candidates at town halls, fundraisers, and other events, and disseminating the videos that can go viral and attract mainstream media attention, thus amplifying their effect and forcing politicians to respond. Sunrise has also brought critical attention to candidates’ climate record with their deeply-researched scorecard.


Since their disruptive tactics have proven successful in the past, there is no reason they should change the playbook now. This is the time to influence Biden’s transition team, a key pressure point for activists, in terms of both its personnel and its policy goals. After Reuters revealed that Larry Summers—who has an atrocious record on climate— serves as an economic advisor, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats immediately called for Summers to be removed from his position.


Zooming out to the broader context provides additional reasons for the climate justice movement to stay laser-focused on pressuring the political system, from the Biden campaign to Democrats in Congress. Recovery from the coronavirus pandemic will be a defining feature of politics in the coming months and even years. It has created a critical juncture where we can either implement policies that exacerbate the unequal, fossil-fueled, and economically precarious status quo, or lay the groundwork for a fairer and lower carbon economy for all.

Activists should aim to both expand the bench of Green New Deal advocates at all levels of public office and be prepared to hold Democrats accountable as part of a dynamic, multifaceted political strategy. Specifically, in regards to Biden, they should demand that he cut all financial and advising relationships with the fossil fuel industry; increase his proposed public investment on climate by a factor of ten; center job-creation for working class and racialized communities; and populate his transition team with policymakers committed to these goals.


And there’s reason to be cautiously hopeful about the impact of such a strategy. The fossil fuel sector is in free fall, with demand and prices plummeting. That means a key opponent to climate action is in a weaker position, economically and politically. In addition, the public is deeply concerned about their economic security now and in the future, which would likely increase political support for job-centric public investment. And, there are ideas lying around, such as the Green Stimulus approach that I and 10 other policy experts co-authored.

In other words, the moment is ripe for a Green New Deal. It would behoove activists to keep the pressure on.


Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College and co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. She serves on the steering committee of DSA’s Ecosocialist Working Group.