On Wednesday, the Biden administration delivered a second surge of orders responding to activist demands to address the climate emergency head-on at every level of the federal government. Like no mandate a U.S. president has signed off on before, the Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad lays out a plan to measure and mitigate pollution that has disproportionately harmed low-income, Black, Indigenous and other communities of color living on the fence lines of industry for decades. It is a government-wide attempt to avert the most catastrophic impacts of the climate crisis and build a more vibrant and equitable society that acknowledges the legacy of harm over a century of burning fossil fuels and overlooking industry has caused communities of color and other vulnerable communities that are now the most prone to the floods, fires, disease and displacement of climate chaos.
The directive establishes the first-ever National Climate Task Force and a jobs program committed to spurring clean energy jobs in communities historically employed by the coal, oil and gas industries. In this way it aims to counteract negative effects on employment caused by the winding down of the entire fossil fuel sector, which scientists and activists have named as the most essential task in limiting warming to 1.5°C or lower. Biden’s order pulls from the visions of community organizers, mentioning plans to remediate former brownfields (previously developed and often contaminated lands that are not currently in use) and turn them into clean energy hubs. It also seeks to restore coastal ecosystems like oyster reefs, mangroves and kelp forests that buffer the built environment from extreme weather and rising seas. In following the directive to “listen to science and meet the moment,” the commitment sets out to channel 40 percent of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy, transit, housing and clean water infrastructure, among other overhauls, to marginalized communities specifically.
“It’s almost as if we helped shape the platform,” New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez joked, echoing a momentary sigh of relief on the part of progressive organizers for whom the announcement signals they may see some demands for racial and environmental justice realized after a grueling season of campaigning for Democrats, who now control the White House and both houses of Congress. In combination with Biden’s initial actions last week, including canceling the Keystone XL pipeline and rejoining the Paris agreement, the Biden administration’s climate orders address at least some elements in 15 of the 25 orders put forward in an action blueprint advocated by the coalition of progressive organizations, Build Back Fossil Free.
“Many of the things we have been fighting for became a reality,” the Sunrise Movement posted on Twitter, listing Biden’s newly stated commitment to launching a Civilian Climate Corps Initiative modeled after the Civilian Conservation Corps of the New Deal and a directive to the secretary of agriculture to work with farmers and ranchers to create new sources of wealth. Those sources include rebuilding healthy soils depleted by expensive and ecologically devastating industrial agriculture practices and storing carbon in the process.
Whether Biden’s full $2 trillion climate plan can be realized largely depends on abolishing the filibuster, as Grist has reported. In the meantime, activists will be watching for Biden to deliver on executive promises he can make with the stroke of a pen. “We need Biden to take action on this entire platform, not just pieces of it,” Erika Thi Patterson, environment campaign director for the Action Center on Race and the Economy, told Truthout. “It’s time to cease allowing corporations from treating our communities as sacrifice zones for profit.”
Biden’s plans were also met with a solemn recognition that many lives have already been lost to environmental injustice. During a panel discussion following the day’s announcements on the social media app Clubhouse, president and founder of Hip Hop Caucus, Rev. Lennox Yearwood, took a moment to honor family members and friends whose lives were cut short by the kind of pollution the new climate plan is intended to stop. “There are many of us who should have seen and did not get to see this day … who have literally died in this battle,” he said, mentioning the impact of freeways the National Highway Program has sited through the heart of Black communities — children who developed lifelong asthma and family cancer clusters linked to legacy pollution. Yearwood specifically honored his friend, the former deputy director of WE ACT for Environmental Justice, Harlem resident and organizer Cecil Corbin-Mark, who passed away in October 2020 after suffering from a stroke.
“So this is more than an executive order, this is a moment when we see … those who have profited from the fossil fuel industry literally being overturned,” Yearwood said. The executive order takes steps to end federal subsidy payments to fossil fuel companies in the budget for the upcoming Fiscal Year 2022. It also refers to the need to hold polluters accountable but falls short of developing a mechanism or process for doing so.
The historic announcement also raised some confusion and red flags, particularly with regard to the moratorium on new oil and gas leasing on federal land. Alice Madden is the executive director of Getches-Wilkinson Center for Natural Resources, Energy, and the Environment at the University of Colorado Law School. She says in spite of fossil fuel dependent states’ outcry in response to the suspension of new drilling, in reality only 25 percent of all oil production and 12 percent of gas drilling takes place on land the government controls. “Most of where the industry works isn’t even on federal land,” she said, which leaves a massive amount of fossil fuel operations untouched by the order. “For the industry to say ‘this is going to end humanity as we know’ is false, and they know it’s false.”
Thomas Meyer, national organizing manager for Food and Water Watch told Truthout that the Biden administration’s renewed commitment to science through an additional executive order that establishes an advisory council on science and technology is at odds with the administration’s decision not to ban fracking outright, as activist groups have pushed for the administration to do in its first 10 days. According to Meyer, an estimated 1,200 peer-reviewed studies demonstrate a link between fracking and human and environmental health impacts. “It pollutes drinking water, it pollutes air quality and it makes climate change worse every day,” Meyer said. “So to have [Biden] say in one breath ‘we’re going to listen to science’ and then to say ‘we are not banning fracking’ is really just unacceptable,” he said. “You can’t have it both ways.”
Julia Bernal, a Sandia Pueblo member and organizer for the Pueblo Action Alliance, says she’s worried about how the executive order parrots a Clinton-era order loosely committing the federal government to “consult” and “coordinate” with tribal officials. Instead, Indigenous groups want Biden’s administration to commit to a formal consent process, she said, as a sovereign nation. “We’ve seen the loopholes and the gaps and the overall disrespect for tribal sovereignty under executive orders that only talk about tribal consultation,” she said, a change which will be necessary to ensure build outs of future solar fields and wind farms are not corporate endeavors that further displace Indigenous communities. “Consultation hasn’t been working,” Bernal said.
At a Build Back Fossil Free rally ahead of Biden’s big climate announcement, member of the Mdewakanton Dakota and Diné nations and Keep It In the Ground campaign organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, Dallas Goldtooth, also called attention to the need to ramp up pressure on Biden to reject all fossil fuel projects, including, most urgently, the Line 3 and Dakota Access pipelines, the latter of which is now operating illegally without a permit, after a federal appeals court upheld a district judge’s order for a full environmental review on Tuesday. “We are done with playing the game of whack-a-mole where we are fighting one project and winning on that project meanwhile three other projects get approved,” he said. “We’re tired of this middle ground approach to addressing climate change when our communities are on the lines.”
Iñupiaq activist Siqiniq Maupin also spoke at the rally. Maupin, whose family is from Nuiqsut, Alaska, described her village as “500 people engulfed in oil and gas.” The town, which is located on the Nechelik Channel and is typically only accessible by an ice road during the winter, is now cloaked in a constant yellow haze, Maupin said, and dotted with gas flares associated with oil and gas production. The number of people being treated for respiratory illnesses in Nuiqsut rose from one to 75 over a period when the fossil fuel industry accelerated leasing from 1986 to 2000. Recent studies show sea ice levels melting in line with the worst-case climate scenarios. The caribou have begun to develop blackened bone marrow, and the fish contain mold, Maupin continued.
“We do not know what our future holds right now. But we do know that any further fossil fuel extraction will only further perpetuate this,” Maupin said, inviting the new president to come visit her community as his administration considers the need for a permanent, economy-wide ban on fossil fuel production, which climate scientists are hopeful could end global warming relatively quickly once emissions hit zero. “Biden needs to come personally and see what’s happening.”
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