Youth climate group Sunrise Movement is urging President Joe Biden to formally declare a climate emergency and unleash his executive powers to cut back on fossil fuel projects and dramatically accelerate US buildout of clean energy.
The group – which has 7,000 members and 120 organizing hubs nationwide, and is gearing up ahead of the presidential election – wants Biden to stop fossil fuel drilling on federal lands and in federal waters, significantly expand the president’s use of the Defense Production Act to build more renewable energy and direct the US Department of Justice to investigate and prosecute fossil fuel companies for their role in climate disinformation, among other things.
Unlike some other climate groups, they are so far holding off on endorsing Biden, instead asking the president to commit to their goals, which they shared first with CNN.
“Joe Biden can’t both try and win the votes of young people who care about the climate crisis and stand beside fossil fuel companies who are trying to violate our futures,” Aru Shiney-Ajay, Sunrise’s executive director, told CNN. “The reality is, he needs to make a choice.”
While Biden has arguably accomplished more than any president on climate and clean energy in his first term by signing the Inflation Reduction Act, Sunrise is pressuring the president to more aggressively come out against fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal, whose pollution is rapidly warming the planet. While US emissions are decreasing, a recent major federal report said it’s not happening fast enough to keep global temperatures from crossing key thresholds.
Biden in 2020 vowed to end fossil fuel drilling on public lands and paused it early in his campaign. But after several legal challenges and IRA provisions requiring new oil and gas lease sales, the administration has resumed auctioning off public lands for drilling and has approved some major new oil and gas projects. Under Biden, US oil exports reached a new record this year, even surpassing exports under former President Donald Trump. Sunrise is calling on Biden to end US fossil fuel exports and is rallying against a massive proposed liquified natural gas export terminal based in Louisiana.
The new Sunrise demands highlight the tightrope the president will have to navigate going into the general election – needing to persuade young people who care about the climate crisis to vote for him again, while also parrying Republican attacks on energy and gas prices.
“Unambiguously, the president has done big things on climate and continues to,” White House National Climate Adviser Ali Zaidi told CNN. “What’s clear to me is the progress he’s made makes him more hopeful and more hungry to take bigger and bolder steps in the years ahead.”
Several of Sunrise’s demands are greatly expanded versions of steps Biden has already taken. For instance, Biden used the Defense Production Act to ramp up manufacturing of energy-efficient heat pumps. The Inflation Reduction Act has also directed billions of private investment into renewables, electric vehicle and battery manufacturing around the country, resulting in new factories and jobs in many states. And Biden has also used other levers of the federal government to address the health and equity impacts of climate, directing the Department of Labor to ensure employers are protecting construction and farm workers from brutal heat.
“I hear the calls for accelerated action on climate and clean energy,” Zaidi said, adding, “I think there could not be a better leader to translate that into action” than Biden.
Even so, recent polls have shown majorities of voters and young voters disapproving of Biden’s climate agenda.
A July Washington Post-University of Maryland poll found that 57% of Americans disapprove of the way Biden has handled climate policy, including 59% of voters 18-29 years old. Seventy-four percent of Democrats said they approved of how Biden had addressed the issue, but just 40% of independents and 8% of Republicans agreed. Most Americans – 71% – said they had read or heard very little about the Inflation Reduction Act, the major climate policy legislation Biden signed into law last year.
Biden campaign spokesperson Kevin Munoz drew a contrast between Biden’s agenda and Republicans.
“Instead of ignoring the very real threat climate change poses on Americans’ lives like MAGA Republicans do, President Biden and Democrats are tackling the crisis head on with action, including by passing the most significant climate legislation in the history of our country,” Munoz said in a statement, adding that a second Biden term would “help our country finish the job.”
Sunrise leaders told CNN that while they believe there will be lots of pressure on Biden to carve out a moderate path on fossil fuels during the election, they want to see the president offer bold vision offered by the president.
“This is a really clear signal to the president that you absolutely cannot win this election by appealing to the fossil fuel industry and moderates, who will never choose him over a Republican,” Michele Weindling, Sunrise political director, told CNN. “It isn’t enough to just tell us to vote because you are not a Republican – you have to give us something to fight for.”
Since its founding in 2017, the Sunrise Movement has become an influential youth-led climate group. During the 2020 campaign, the group’s co-founder and former executive director Varshini Prakash helped formulate key points of Biden’s climate change policy alongside John Kerry and Gina McCarthy – who became Biden’s special presidential envoy for climate and first national climate adviser, respectively.
The group also was successful in pushing the Biden administration to create the first-of-its-kind American Climate Corps, a workforce training program to prepare American youth for jobs in clean energy and climate resilience and restoration.
Ahead of 2024, Sunrise’s leaders say their members are more focused on pressuring Biden to significantly slash fossil fuels.
“We have a plan to organize young people in a number of swing states, particularly around the climate crisis,” Weindling said. “We have a significant amount of pressure to put onto the administration to show what we need to see from the president in order to feel mobilized to vote in this election.”
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