“Trump, are you for ordinary people or are you for oil millionaires? Why are you letting my generation’s future burn? Why aren’t you fighting for people like me? You are taking millions and millions from the fossil fuel industry,” 17-year-old Sunrise Movement activist Adah Crandall shouted at former President Donald Trump during a campaign rally in Laconia, New Hampshire, Monday night.
Six other protesters soon followed, disrupting Trump one by one, with some unfurling yellow banners reading, “Oil Sellout” before police escorted them out of the resort where the event was being hosted.
The night before, Sunrise activists disrupted former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley during a campaign event at a Courtyard Hotel ballroom in Nashua, New Hampshire. “My community is suffering through asthma and cancer from the fossil fuel money that you are taking,” one activist shouted. “How can you look at me in the eye? How can you look at my generation in the eyes?”
Haley offered only broad platitudes about the environment before pivoting to her support for a more robust exploitation of the country’s fossil fuels. All told, Marriott security removed six protesters from the Nashua ballroom, some with yellow banners reading, “Haley: Climate Criminal.”
As Sunrise Communications Director Stevie O’Hanlon puts it, the activists wanted to know how either candidate could claim to be fighting for the people while taking millions from the oil and gas industry. O’Hanlon, who was present during the actions, tells Truthout the interruptions are part of a larger primary-focused strategy targeting both Republicans and Democrats as election season ramps up.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’s recent dropout, O’Hanlon says, only further cements Trump’s position as the GOP front-runner. “I think it really puts the pressure on Joe Biden, honestly. Because the general election is about to kick off. It could kick off this week,” O’Hanlon tells Truthout. “Biden needs to start showing that he cares about the lives of young people and the lives of Palestinians if he actually wants to win the votes of young people and people of color in this country. He can’t win without us.”
Sunrise is challenging Biden to end the United States’ support for Israel’s continued genocidal assault on Gaza and to formally declare a climate emergency in order to shore up his position against Trump in a general election. Nothing short of that, O’Hanlon says, can motivate enough youth voters to turn out for him. “Biden has made a lot of young people angry with him in the last few months. And that’s because of his foreign policy in Gaza and also, because he’s approved fossil fuel projects like the Willow project in Alaska, that are putting us on track to produce more fossil fuels than ever before.”
Sunrise launched a more intensive campaign in December to pressure Biden to formally declare a climate emergency, which would unlock new executive powers to address the climate crisis, including ensuring increased grid reliability and reining in runaway methane emissions from oil and gas infrastructure, among other powers. The group, O’Hanlon says, is ramping up pressure amid the 2024 primary season, planning multiple election-focused actions, including a February 19 President’s Day action in which hundreds plan to show up at local Democratic Party offices to conduct actions pressuring President Biden to declare a climate emergency and protect Palestinian lives.
Other climate-focused direct action groups are also keeping Democrats at the top of their priority list for disruptive action. The youth-led direct action group Climate Defiance recently interrupted West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin as he was giving a speech at a local diner last week in Derry, New Hampshire. Youth activists cut off Manchin as he was delivering a line about his support for intensified border security with chants of “Off fossil fuels, Manchin, off fossil fuels!” before police escorted the activists out. The outgoing West Virginia senator is considering a third party run on a “No Labels” ticket and has said he’ll make a final decision after Super Tuesday.
“We confronted Manchin because he is a climate criminal who is cooking the planet for profit,” Climate Defiance Executive Director Michael Greenberg told Truthout. Greenberg pointed to Manchin’s ownership of the Grant Town Power Plant, from which he earns more money annually than his Senate salary, raking in about $500,000 each year from his family business Enersystems, Inc., which sells coal gob to the West Virginia plant. Greenberg also pointed to Manchin’s almost single-handed responsibility for the approval of the Mountain Valley Pipeline in the state, which is expected to have a climate impact equivalent to 25 new coal plants. “Manchin deserves to be disrupted, wherever he goes, regardless of whether he’s running [for president],” Greenberg says.
The group is likewise pressuring the Biden administration to take bolder action on climate issues ahead of November. Specifically, the group wants to see an end to U.S. exports of fracked gas, so-called liquefied natural gas (LNG), from the Gulf Coast and a halt on construction of new LNG export terminals. “It’s a no-brainer, stopping LNG exports. Export terminals are bad for [Biden’s] reelection chances, bad for the climate, and honestly would raise energy prices because they take energy out of the U.S.,” Greenberg tells Truthout. Climate Defiance likewise wants to see Biden declare a formal climate emergency and use that authority to halt exports of crude oil.
“[Biden’s] base is revolting. I mean, his own White House staff is revolting,” Greenberg says, citing several anonymous letters from younger staffers within the White House, State Department and the Biden campaign pleading for the administration to correct course on Gaza and other issues. Similarly pointing to Biden’s collapsing support among youth and voters of color, Greenberg says bold action on Gaza and climate could turn out a number of environmental voters currently struggling with their choices come November.
While Democrats are likely to be more responsive to direct action in the form of disruptions and protests, groups like Sunrise and Climate Defiance want to make it clear that no politician running for office, including Republican politicians like Trump and Haley, “can go a day without thinking about the climate crisis and thinking about the young people whose lives, livelihoods and futures are at stake,” as O’Hanlon puts it.
They are also thinking through the worst-case climate scenario of a second Trump term and the draconian measures that would come with it if the former president prevails over Biden in November, as a number of current swing state polls currently predict.
O’Hanlon points out that Sunrise got its start under Trump’s first term in 2017, so the group would take some pages from its early playbook in a second Trump term. Greenberg says Climate Defiance is still working through how its strategy will change in the event of a second Trump term, whether that means pivoting their actions to focus on the state level or on banks that fund fossil fuel development.
The Climate Perils of Trump 2.0
Transition plans and policy proposals put forward by the Heritage Foundation and former Trump administration officials, as well as Trump’s own stump speeches, provide a terrifying glimpse into what a second term for the former president would mean in terms of climate and the environment. On the campaign trail, Trump has strengthened his denialist rhetoric and has said that, if elected, he’d become a “dictator for one day” in part to “drill, drill, drill.”
While Trump pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate agreement and staffed his environmental agencies with fossil fuel lobbyists during his first term, he still showed some restraint when it came to cooking U.S. climate assessment books. Now, former Trump staffers are crafting a plan that would far outpace even his first-term environmental rollbacks, plotting to fully decimate both climate policy and regulations on fossil fuels.
The Heritage Foundation-led Project 2025 effort, as well as Trump’s own plan to reimpose his October 2020 Schedule F executive order making it easier to purge federal employees not aligned with his political vision, would turn government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency into rubber stamps for fossil fuel production and fill Trump’s next administration with officials even more hostile to efforts to mitigate the climate crisis.
During his first term, Trump occasionally wobbled on climate-denialist comments, even backpedaling on his claims that climate change was a “hoax.” Trump’s White House even blocked a plan to conduct a “red team” review of the National Climate Assessment in 2018 with the aim of meddling with its findings. Now, former officials hope to directly shape the report’s next version by infusing it with scientists who deny the severity of climate change. This time, they wouldn’t hold back on installing climate science deniers to top positions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and other key agencies.
Basav Sen, director of the Climate Policy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies, tells Truthout that a second Trump administration would likely keep intact problematic fossil fuels giveaways of President Biden’s signature Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) climate package, including subsidies for carbon capture technologies and offshore leasing.
But a second Trump term, Sen says, wouldn’t need to go as far as repealing the IRA in order to undermine its other, more genuine energy transition provisions, such as subsidies for heat pumps and electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Instead, he says, all it would need to do is use the appropriations process to chip away at those provisions’ funding. “That, of course, does hinge on [Republicans] being able to control at least the House because you can see a scenario where, even if the Republicans don’t control the Senate, government funding as a whole becomes hostage to cutting funding for those particular provisions.”
He emphasizes that Heritage’s Project 2025 goes much farther than simply climate and energy policy: It’s a blueprint for a longtime archconservative dream of fully dismantling the administrative state as articulated by anti-tax activist Grover Norquist in 2001 when he said he wanted to shrink the government down to the size where conservatives can “drown it in the bathtub.”
Project 2025, Sen tells Truthout, would eviscerate the very concept of environmental justice, the idea of remedying disproportionate environmental harms to low-income and communities of color. “Getting rid of any federal government role in environmental justice will just ensure that industry will keep doing what it does by building its dirtiest facilities in those communities who have the least capacity to fight back,” he says.
While Sen points out that the Biden administration itself has allowed fossil fuel leases on federal lands and waters, the difference under a Project 2025 scenario would be that such leases and federal permitting for fossil fuel infrastructure would become the explicit, stated goal of the government. The Supreme Court is already getting a head start on dismantling the regulatory state, with conservative justices poised to strike down the so-called “Chevron deference,” which gives agencies latitude to interpret regulatory policy when federal law is vague, he notes.
Sen likewise called for supply-side policies that Biden has unilateral authority to enact, such as halting offshore leases, new fossil fuel infrastructure permits, and LNG and crude oil exports. In fact, the White House is reportedly reevaluating the climate criteria it uses to approve new LNG export facilities, threatening to stall pending projects as the 2024 election nears. Still, Biden’s national climate adviser has declined to detail how any reassessment would proceed, or whether it would result in a slowing of permits from the Energy Department.
Sen pressed the Biden administration to follow through. “In terms of the election … these are actually popular steps,” he tells Truthout. “It would win a lot of support among people who live in frontline communities and sacrifice zones. It will generate some opposition, yes, but a lot of that opposition is not necessarily a make-or-break issue for [the Biden administration]. Politically, it’s actually a fairly safe thing to do.”
Sunrise’s O’Hanlon puts it differently. Not taking such steps, would be dangerous. “When I talk to my friends … people are very skeptical of Joe Biden right now, and for good reason. We’ve seen him fund genocide even though majorities of Americans don’t support it. We are seeing him approve fossil fuel projects that are locking our generation in to catastrophic climate change. And yes, he’s making some progress, doing some good things too. But young people are really pissed at him.”
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