Biden & Harris’ Climate Policy Positions Represent Progress, But Activists Must Maintain Pressure

Interview with Jenny Marienau Zimmer, campaign manager for 350 Action, conducted by Melinda Tuhus

After Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden picked California Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate, climate activists have been sizing up both candidates to see where they stand on crucial climate issues. Activists are scrutinizing their strategies on issues such as converting the fossil-fueled electricity grid to clean energy; their stand on keeping all fossil fuels, including coal, oil and fracked gas, in the ground, and their approach to environmental and climate justice, to name a few.

Social justice activist groups have expressed concern about some of Harris’s actions when she served as district attorney for San Francisco and California’s attorney general regarding criminal justice policies that disproportionately impacted people of color, although she has moved to the left on that issue after being elected to the Senate.

Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Jenny Marienau Zimmer, campaign manager for 350 Action, the political action arm of the international climate group, 350.org. Here she assesses Biden and Harris’ known policy positions on several key climate issues.  While the group has concluded that an election victory by the Biden-Harris ticket would represent progress for the environment, they also recognize that pressure on the new president to support substantive climate solutions must begin in earnest the day after the election.

JENNY MARIENAU ZIMMER: We recognize that any candidate for office, any politician, can make bold statements, can release great plans, and the only way that those plans are going to be passed is with the support and pressure of a movement of people. So we knew that whoever the vice presidential pick was we’d have our work cut out for us to ensure that really bold policies like a Green New Deal get passed. That said, it’s really heartening to see the strength of the climate plans that both Biden and Harris are bringing to the table. Harris was an early advocate for holding the fossil fuel industry accountable; she has put herself out there as an advocate for environmental justice. And so, we think we have good reason to believe she will push Biden to be even stronger on pollution, environmental justice and climate.

MELINDA TUHUS: Can you speak to similarities or differences in the two plans?

JENNY MARIENAU ZIMMER: All of the candidates have come out with different iterations of their plans over time. They would release a plan, see how it landed, get some pressure and release another plan. I think that’s progress, that there’s progress over time and it’s clear that the candidates were listening to the climate movement calling for stronger timelines, larger programs, etc. Biden’s original plan called for a 100 percent clean energy system by 2050. Harris’s initial plan called for a clean energy economy by 2045, and then Biden’s most recent plan has moved that timeline up to 2035, so I think we’re seeing progress.

Harris was one of the first candidates who called for holding the fossil fuel industry, and specifically fossil fuel executives, accountable for misleading the public about climate change, and we’ve seen Biden follow suit after she sort of paved the way for that position. And we believe that if executives who’ve been able to hide their work to mislead the public about the climate action, their work to stymie climate action, if they can hide behind their corporations’ misinformation campaigns, there’s no disincentive for them to continue doing that, so we think this is a really positive move.

I would also say that Harris’ was one of the earlier plans to really center environmental justice, and we’ve seen her double down on that with her latest bill that she’s been working on with Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, so I think we’ll also see her pulling Biden toward sharper environmental justice plans as well.

MELINDA TUHUS: But neither Biden’s nor Harris’s plan calls for keeping fossil fuels in the ground, right?

JENNY MARIENAU ZIMMER: So, neither plan has a 100 percent fossil fuel drawdown, which we think is a problem. We think if there’s going to be a real honest effort to halt the climate crisis, we need to stop drilling, processing, exporting, burning fossil fuels. We know they are the largest contributor to the climate crisis. That said, Harris has been public, on record, that she supports an end to fracking. That was something she lifted up at one of the primary debates. Biden has not been public on that, and so we hope that Harris will pull him to make a stronger commitment to ending fracking. And both candidates have both ascribed to this new baseline of ending fossil fuel extraction on public lands, so ending any new leasing for the oil and gas industry.

MELINDA TUHUS: Jenny Marienau Zimmer, I know in the primaries that 350 co-endorsed Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as having the strongest climate platforms, but now that Biden is the candidate and Harris is his pick, what does 350 plan to do to impact the election?

JENNY MARIENAU ZIMMER: I think we’ve seen with progressive or Democratic candidates in the past, that you can fun on really bold climate messaging, you can run on really bold climate platforms, and then when push comes to shove, those plans don’t get prioritized. I think we understand that when we’re getting out the vote for candidates for office – Biden and Harris included — that we’re getting out the vote for the people we’re going to be pushing. So we know that the fight for the Green New Deal, the fight for really bold climate action doesn’t end with getting a Democrat in the White House. Day One we’re going to be pushing them to end drilling on public lands, to call on Congress to start the process of writing a Green New Deal and passing it. So, our work to elect Biden and Harris is going to be the first step in a longer campaign to really advocate for the climate policies we need.

MELINDA TUHUS: You’ve mentioned the Green New Deal, but haven’t really defined it. How does 350 see it?

JENNY MARIENAU ZIMMER: We think of the Green New Deal as a program that channels federal funding to shift our economy to a clean energy economy, that puts millions of Americans back to work building that clean energy economy, and really prioritizing communities most impacted by environmental injustice, environmental racism and climate impacts in the solutions. I think for a long time, folks have seen the climate issue as a standalone issue, as a science issue, but in fact, the climate crisis and things like racism, economic injustice, are all deeply intertwined, and so the Green New Deal is an attempt to really intertwine the solutions to those crises also.

For more information, visit 350action.org. For The 2020 Climate Test, visit 350action.org/2020-tracker. For the Climate Congress 2020 at 350action.org/climate-congress.

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