“The Biden administration’s performance on climate change has been defined more by setting empty goals and promises than putting plans into action.”
Laela Zaidi, a youth organizer with the Sunrise Movement
Photo provided by Laela Zaidi
When it comes to climate change, the United States is far from a role model. You might think that Hurricane Harvey, or Hurricane Maria, or last year’s catastrophic wildfire season, or this year’s deadly freezes, would inspire change. But decades of leaders largely ignored the signs of impending climate disaster, and they’ve refused to meaningfully acknowledge the communities of color most threatened by this crisis. In fact, the U.S. has actually historically terrorized those who take environmental action — just look at how the government has responded to Indigenous communities at Standing Rock and elsewhere.
As part of his presidential campaign, however, Joe Biden made climate change a major component of his platform. With his initial $1.7 trillion proposal, put forth in 2019 when he was a presidential candidate, Biden incorporated aspects of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (N.Y.) Green New Deal and vowed to not take fossil fuel money for his campaign. He also acknowledged the young people who have been leading the movement: During a virtual fundraiser in July 2020, he said, “I want young climate activists, young people everywhere, to know: I see you. I hear you. I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done.”
Biden did attract youth voters during the presidential election (once he was the only Democratic option left ... but I digress), with as much as a 10% increase in youth voter turnout. As Ellen Sciales, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate coalition, told The New Republic earlier this month, “We mobilized record youth turnout in 2020 for Joe Biden and Democrats on the promise that Biden would deliver on a bold climate agenda.”
Sciales went on to warn that Biden’s failure to fulfill his climate promises “risks disillusioning young voters.” But a year into Biden’s presidency, it seems that prophecy has already come true. Rather than risk more broken promises from Biden or another administration, youth of color told Mic that it’s time to refocus the climate fight away from politicians — and onto the people.
During his campaign, Biden positioned himself as the antithesis of former President Donald Trump, who regularly attacked the Environmental Protection Agency and rolled back environmental regulations. Maryam Ghanem, an illustrator based in Houston, Texas, told Mic by email, “Before Biden took office, I was incredibly embarrassed with [the] U.S. government’s approach to climate change, especially with the increased frequency of natural disasters that should have been a reminder of the severity of our issue.”
Laela Zaidi, an organizer in Kansas City, Missouri, who joined her local Sunrise Movement chapter last year, also shared her experiences with climate disaster. In 2011, Zaidi told Mic, she lost both her home and high school in an EF-5 tornado — the highest designation. The federal government was critical in getting her community through the aftermath. But, Zaidi says, “In the Trump era, my perspective began to shift. I began to look into the deeper system and realized that, regardless of the president in power, the response to climate change has been minimal and superficial.”
Although Biden’s early climate plan received praise from the media — Gizmodo said at the time it “actually has teeth” — youth weren’t easily won over. In December 2019, the Sunrise Movement gave Biden an F when it rated the presidential candidates’ climate plans. Biden came back with his revised Clean Energy Revolution, a $2 trillion plan that would cut carbon emissions, invest in clean energy, and take action against polluters specifically harming communities of color and low-income communities.
Even then, many youth of color had reservations. While Biden’s goal of achieving net-zero emissions sounds great in a proposal, Ghanem says, “These promises are so far in the future [that it] will be hard to hold them accountable. And with Congress in a tug of war for any policy, even if he does decide to fulfill his promises, it will be very difficult.”
He has come through on some of his promises. As soon as Biden took office, he re-enrolled the U.S. into the Paris Agreement. But the Paris accords haven’t done much. In 2019, the National Geographic reported that most of the countries involved won’t hit their 2030 goals, and the major countries have consistently underperformed the agreement. Even if the participants do follow through on their pledges, it may not be enough to hit the target goal of keeping warming under 2 degrees Celsius.
Ultimately, the Paris Agreement is more of a public relations campaign than anything else. Regardless of whether a country is actually doing much to address climate change, it looks good to be onboard. It offers the illusion of action. And if you want to get really real, Biden tends to operate in that same realm.
“The Biden administration’s performance on climate change has been defined more by setting empty goals and promises than putting plans into action,” Zaidi told Mic. “Things like rejoining the Paris climate accords and setting a goal for the federal government to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050 are largely symbolic and display an unwillingness to take necessary action on the corporations that profit off the destruction of our planet and communities.”
Consider how Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill was celebrated as a climate victory by some, with provisions including $7.5 billion to build a network of electric vehicle chargers. That’s objectively good — but it still relies on individual people making the choice to purchase an electric vehicle to have an impact. Meanwhile, there’s nothing in the bill that takes big polluters to task. In fact, it actually ensures money for pipelines, weakens the National Environmental Policy Act, and funds fossil fuel projects, making it a climate net negative.
Zaidi additionally pointed to Biden’s decision to abandon his Citizenship Act, which would have provided a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented people. While immigration may not immediately register as climate related, “immigration is a fundamentally human phenomena,” Zaidi says, “and connected to climate because as resources become scarce ... and the effects of colonialism and neo-colonialism (such as oil wars) continue to be felt, humans will migrate to protect themselves and their loved ones.”
Biden’s defenders might argue that Trump left Biden such a mess, or that it’s only been a year and he needs more time. But there isn’t enough time in the world if the Biden administration doesn’t reconsider its approach to climate change as a whole. Ghanem says it’s time for the Biden administration to act much more decisively on climate.
“I’m talking executive orders, incorporating a section within [the] government that would be responsible for the move towards sustainability and green energy, and plan to counteract climate change,” Ghanem told Mic. With Biden’s promise to confront environmental racism, specifically, in mind, Ghanem says, “We need legislation that would punish companies for the [toxins] and rubbish they dump back into the earth.”
Similarly, Zaidi called for Biden to take action by stopping Line 3, a proposed pipeline expansion, and half all fossil fuel leasing and drilling. “Respecting Indigenous self-determination is critical to the climate justice movement,” Zaidi says. “Indigenous leaders have been systematically oppressed by the systems of exploitation that have caused this crisis. Their communities hold the knowledge and praxis needed to enact relational and resilient systems rather than extractive ones.”
In addition, Zaidi says, “We must transform the economic and labor systems as part of our efforts to combat climate change. We must create social safety nets and develop economics that are truly reinvesting in the people and the planet.”
2021 should have been a remarkable year for Democrats. With Biden in the White House and Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, the party should have been able to pass comprehensive social legislation, like Biden’s Build Back Better agenda, which included $555 billion for climate change and clean energy. There was, in particular, the Clean Energy Performance Program, which would have been perhaps the most meaningful climate law passed in recent memory.
But in November, The New York Times reported that Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) “strongly oppose[d]” Biden’s clean electricity plan. His opposition didn’t come as much of a surprise. As Zaidi told Mic, “The fact is, the biggest polluters have dictated the conversation and legislation around the topic for as long as the companies have identified climate change as a threat to their business models.” Manchin infamously made his fortune in the coal business.
Manchin’s stance lead to the elimination of the clean energy plan from Biden’s climate agenda. Leah Stokes, an expert on climate policy who has been advising Senate Democrats, told the Times, “We fundamentally need [this plan] to meet our climate goals. That’s just the reality. And now we can’t. So this is pretty sad.”
To make matters worse, Manchin rejected Biden’s Build Back Better plan altogether last week, effectively killing it after months of negotiations that had been conducted in part to get his moderate sensibilities on board. In response, Zero Hour, an international youth climate justice movement, tweeted, “Conservative Democrats have sold out the backbone of the party for years. This is just another example. It’s time for [Biden] to declare a climate emergency and mobilize the nation to transition off fossil fuels.”
For youth of color, watching Democrats — the party that consistently frames itself as social saviors — fail time and time again is exhausting. “I just want to have hope for the future,” Ghanem says. “Climate change affects us all, and I don’t want to move to Mars to escape it. We have one beautiful planet and we must do our best for it.”
But, Zaidi pointed out, “People are powerful because when we band together, we can win.” While both Republicans and Democrats are trying to make demands for universal health care, additional stimulus checks, student loan cancelation, and other forms of social care seem unreasonable, Zaidi says, “the fact is that the things we are asking for are popular and common sense. Democrats are going to have to reckon with the way they have governed with control of the White House and Congress.”
Rather than waiting on politicians to draft bills and pass laws, people can bring the climate fight back to each other, Zaidi says. For her, that means turning back to cultural practices. “What we now call mutual aid,” she says, “is to me a return to our ancestral practice of being in relation with each other and the Earth.”
The fight against climate change can feel impossible to win. Having the president and Congress on board is helpful, but it’s not the end-all-be-all. Maybe Biden will never follow through on his promises. It doesn’t mean the movement is over.
By breaking the climate fight down into smaller, tangible pieces, and basing those pieces in community and care, it all gets a lot easier to tackle, Zaidi says. “Climate change is happening right here, right now,” she says. “The path forward requires solidarity. People, social movements, and the solutions we champion need to be relational and connective. Modeling the world that we are trying to create brings us one step closer to liberation.”