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Sunrise Movement members march to the White House

Hundreds of young climate activists marched to the White House on June 28, 2021 to send a message of "No Climate, No Deal," to U.S. President Joe Biden, who is working out infrastructure legislation with members of Congress. (Photo: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Progressives Decry 'Foolish and Dangerous' Approach of White House Climate Memo

"This is not a bold agenda, it is technocratic market-speak that is decades out of date."

Jessica Corbett

Climate activists and experts responded with alarm Wednesday to some parts of a White House memo, obtained and reported on by Axios, outlining Biden administration plans for climate and energy provisions in evolving budget reconciliation legislation.

"The White House continually praises far-fetched, pro-industry projects like carbon capture as a viable solution to drastically reducing climate emissions. This approach is foolish and dangerous."
—Mitch Jones, Food & Water Watch

The memo (pdf), dated for Tuesday, was addressed to members of President Joe Biden's Cabinet from domestic climate adviser Gina McCarthy and senior adviser Anita Dunn. It comes as Democrats are working on a reconciliation package to pass alongside a bipartisan infrastructure deal announced last week by Biden and centrist federal lawmakers.

The four-page document details key components of the bipartisan infrastructure framework "that advance President Biden's American Jobs Plan and vision to build back better and tackle the climate crisis," including investments in clean water and electric vehicle infrastructure, addressing legacy pollution, modernizing the country's electrical grid, and resilience programs.

"As President Biden has noted, the bipartisan infrastructure framework leaves out critical initiatives on climate change that he proposed as part of his Build Back Better agenda," the memo says. "That is why he intends to work with Congress through the budget process to pass additional legislation that will position the U.S. to combat climate change, create good-paying, union jobs, and win the clean energy future."

According to the memo, components of the American Jobs Plan—which Biden unveiled earlier this year, followed by the American Families Plan—that the president remains committed to advancing include:

  • Providing tax cuts for businesses and consumers who invest in clean energy technologies like renewables, battery storage, and electric vehicles;
  • Sending a market signal that brings additional private investment off the sidelines and into modernizing our electric grid through an Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard (EECES); and
  • Mobilizing the next generation of conservation and resilience workers with a $10 billion investment to conserve and restore our public lands and waters, bolster resilience, and address environmental injustice, all while maximizing the creation of accessible training opportunities to create a pathway for good-paying, union jobs. The concept of a Civilian Climate Corps (CCC) has strong bipartisan support.

"We will also continue to advance the full suite of proposals in the American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan through additional congressional action, including budget reconciliation, to ensure we build back our economy and country better," the memo adds.

Some parts of the memo may please progressive climate activists and policymakers—such as the stated support for creating a CCC—for which Green New Deal leaders Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) proposed legislation earlier this year.

However, progressive green groups raised alarm about the memo's language regarding an EECES, which would require a certain share of electricity to come from "clean" sources.

Axios noted that during a live-streamed interview with Punchbowl News on Wednesday, McCarthy pointed to it as one of the non-negotiable items in the reconciliation legislation, saying: "We need that second package. We need tax credits. We need a clean energy standard. [We'd] love to see a Civilian Climate Corps."

In a statement Wednesday, Food & Water Watch policy director Mitch Jones warned that the memo should concern climate activists.

"The Biden administration has consistently pledged support for a clean energy standard, but only a weak one that would qualify dirty energy sources like fracked gas and nuclear power as clean," said Jones. "Meanwhile, the White House continually praises far-fetched, pro-industry projects like carbon capture as a viable solution to drastically reducing climate emissions. This approach is foolish and dangerous."

"This new memo, ostensibly designed to appease climate activists, should be seen for what it is: little to nothing of substance," he continued. "Instead of explicitly supporting a bonafide standard for clean, renewable energy, McCarthy's memo touts 'market signals' and the leveraging of deeply flawed existing energy systems. This is not a bold agenda, it is technocratic market-speak that is decades out of date."

Jones added that "if the White House wants us to believe it is taking the climate crisis seriously, this memo does the opposite."

"Climate activists aren't fooled by technology neutral gimmicks."
—Lukas Ross, FOE

Food & Water Watch was one of the convening partners of a May letter, backed by hundreds of groups, that urged congressional Democrats to "reject gas and other false climate solutions" and instead pursue a total transition to renewable energy to combat the climate emergency.

Friends of the Earth (FOE) U.S., another initial partner on last month's letter, also expressed concern about the energy standard language in the memo.

"Democrats are once again throwing the climate justice movement under the bus," declared Friends of the Earth program manager Lukas Ross. "Democrats have yet to write a single Clean Energy Standard that excludes fracked gas and other false solutions."

"Climate activists aren't fooled by technology neutral gimmicks," said Ross. "Biden should not encourage proposals that peddle false solutions or that bargain away fossil fuel subsidy repeal."

FOE's statement pointed out that the memo "makes no mention of repealing fossil fuel subsidies, which was a key provision of the American Jobs Plan."

The memo was sent to the Cabinet the same day climate activists and progressives in Congress held a rally on Capitol Hill calling for an end to fossil fuel subsidies—just one of multiple actions in Washington, D.C. this week demanding bold climate provisions in federal infrastructure legislation.

The memo also came as extreme heat hit the Pacific Northwest—a fact that David V. Johnson, a former philosophy professor turned journalist, highlighted in a sarcastic tweet about the White House document: "It's 120 degrees in Portland. What market-based solutions can we bring to bear?"

Daniel Aldana Cohen—an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, where he directs the Socio-Spatial Climate Collaborative, and co-author of the book A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Dealresponded to the memo with a call to action.

"Pure climate denialism is this White House memo on current climate priorities," he said. "Movements need to crank up the pressure, hard."


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