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Let's Keep Organizing: An Inside Look at the Biden-Sanders Task Force on Climate

We've moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's overall ambition. But there's still more work to do to push Democrats to understand and embrace the scale of the climate crisis, and towards the promise of a truly just society we envision through a Green New Deal. Let's keep building.

Climate change protesters disrupt Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign event on October 9, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

Climate change protesters disrupt Democratic presidential candidate, former Vice President Joe Biden during a campaign event on October 9, 2019 in Manchester, New Hampshire. (Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

The following is a letter sent by Varshini Prakash, executive director of the climate justice group Sunrise Movement, to supporters of her organization after the release Wednesday (July 8, 2020) of recommendations drafted by the Sanders-Biden Unity Task Force, a panel on which she served.

You may remember that a couple of months ago, I was nominated by Bernie Sanders, alongside Represenative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and environmental justice leader Catherine Flowers, to serve on a Sanders-Biden Unity Task Force that would help advise the Democratic Platform and Joe Biden's campaign on climate change. I spent the last six weeks in policy discussions fighting for the vision that young people need—for the future we deserve, free from climate chaos. Today, the recommendations of the task force were released, and I wanted to share with you my thougths and experience.

"I never anticipated we would walk out of this process with all the commitments we needed to ensure a livable future for my generation, and I know that there are still influences in the Democratic Party establishment that hold us back."

Here’s the topline: we’ve moved the needle a lot, especially on environmental justice and upping Biden's overall ambition. But there’s still more work to do to push Democrats to understand and embrace the scale of the climate crisis, and towards the promise of a truly just society we envision through a Green New Deal. Let's keep building.

I knew that no matter what happened on this task force we would have to keep bringing more people into our movement and use our growing power to continue pushing the Democratic Party and defeat corporate Democrats and Republicans at the ballot box. I never anticipated we would walk out of this process with all the commitments we needed to ensure a livable future for my generation, and I know that there are still influences in the Democratic Party establishment that hold us back. But I also hoped that by participating, I would be able to bring the power our movement has built to deliver progress and commitments we could hold a future Biden administration accountable to, while continuing to push for more of what is necessary. I am pleased to say we did just that. We are now leaving these policy discussions with recommendations that, if fully implemented, will make Joe Biden’s climate plan considerably more ambitious, equitable, and urgent than what was on the table just a few weeks ago. The results of the climate task force—combined with the results of the other task forces on the economy, education, healthcare, criminal justice, and immigration—are pushing Biden’s platform in a significantly more progressive direction that is much more in line with our ultimate vision for a Green New Deal.

Going into the taskforce meetings I had two specific goals:

  1. Push the Biden team to increase their ambition considerably (timelines, benchmarks etc.) and
  2. Insist environmental justice is at the core of everything we do when combating the climate crisis.

Here are some highlights of policies and programs we pushed Biden on, and which were ultimately included in the final product.

  • Climate Ambition
    • Achieve 100% clean electricity no later than 2035, 100% clean new buildings by 2030, and standards for 100% clean new vehicles as soon as possible
    • Historic investments in mass transit, green public housing, and other 21st century sustainable infrastructure projects
  • Green Jobs
    • Champion a “Climate Corps” that supports a new generation of young workers to tackle the climate crisis through good-paying jobs that meet labor standards.
    • Ensure all workers are guaranteed the right to join a union, collectively bargain and are guaranteed labor and health standards in any climate or Green New Deal related jobs and projects
  • Environmental Justice
    • Create an Environmental Justice Fund to make historic investments in environmental justice projects (e.g. eliminating legacy pollution from toxic waste sites, remediating lead in paint and pipelines, ensuring safe wastewater and water systems in low income communities and communities of color)
    • Respect indigenous sovereignty: Commit to upholding regulations in a way that strengthens tribal sovereignty and ensures tribal consent on projects involving land in which tribes own even a fractional interest. Commit to early and ongoing consultation with tribes to identify and work to appropriately mitigate or address concerns regarding major infrastructure projects.
    • Implement Equity Screen on all major federal spending, policymaking and infrastructure investments, including climate, energy, environmental, housing, and transportation and map disadvantaged communities where funding should be prioritized
  • Hold polluters accountable
    • Hold corporate executives personally accountable for affecting the health and safety of workers and communities, such as intentionally hiding or distorting material information, including jail time where merited.
    • Implement a “climate test” on all new infrastructure to stop fossil fuel expansion
  • Sustainable Environment
    • Plant over 16 billion trees by 2050, including in urban areas and prioritizing communities of color and low income communities
    • Rebuild regional food infrastructure to ensure that local market infrastructure is in place for family farmers to sell a wider range of products and protect small and medium-sized farmers and producers by strengthening enforcement of antitrust laws.
    • Implement components of a “Blue New Deal”

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These are just some of the topline victories. Overall, we moved Biden’s benchmarks around decarbonization to be far more ambitious. Now our metrics will be gauged on timelines of today and tomorrow, of what we will achieve in the next 5, 10, 15 years, not 30 or 50. This is a huge victory.

"Overall, we moved Biden’s benchmarks around decarbonization to be far more ambitious."

We vocally advocated for, and were joined by all of the other appointees in shoring up the environmental justice components of Biden’s climate plan. While Biden previously, got a 3/20 on the environmental justice section of our Green New Deal scorecard, this platform is far more responsive to the unequal world we live in, and to addressing the effects of environmental racism, classism and injustice.

I want to be very clear: there are some specifics and commitments we didn’t get, where I wish the platform had gone further, or where I was at odds with what ended up in the document. These are the areas we need to keep pushing.

I wish we’d been able to clarify the scale of investment, jobs, etc. that Joe Biden will achieve regarding proposals like a Climate Corps, or the level of investment we plan to leverage over the next 4-5 years towards building a renewable energy economy. We have a historic opportunity in front of us with tens of millions who need employment in better jobs than they had previously in our broken economy. We have to keep making that opportunity clear. I also really wished we had gone further on the discussion of how we are going to specifically phase out all fossil fuels, and stop promoting false solutions like carbon capture and storage. We needed to stop burning fossil fuels yesterday if staying below 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming will be more than a pipe dream.

We've got more work to do, and I remain clear-eyed about the road ahead. But given where we started, I’m feeling encouraged by where we’ve landed. I think this process shows that Joe Biden and the people around him are willing to listen and can be moved. That's very different than our current President. Now we must continue to make our voices heard, push him on this plan, hold him accountable to even greater ambition, and ensure that Joe Biden refuses to kowtow to pressures from corporate and GOP influences that are still trying to have his ear.

"I feel genuinely hopeful. Not because of the task force, or because of what I expect Biden to do or not do, but because of what our movement has already shifted and made possible."

I don’t have all the answers for where we’ll go moving forward, but at this moment, I feel genuinely hopeful. Not because of the task force, or because of what I expect Biden to do or not do, but because of what our movement has already shifted and made possible. I think it's safe to say, as is, that our movement would have some power and influence in a Biden administration. And I know that we are going to keep growing bigger, and bigger, and bigger, and more unstopabble, until we have the power to win the world that we deserve.

How do I know that? In the last 6 weeks, as I've sat in these Zoom rooms with Congresspeople and former Administrative officials, I've seen teenagers topple a 31 year incumbent Congressman in New York, I've seen young people in Kentucky help a Black man running on a Green New Deal come within inches of toppling the Democratic establishment to take on Mitch McConnell, I've seen our number of hubs continue to grow during a global pandemic, and I've seen us rise powerfully to stand beside other young people in the streets demanding justice for Black Lives.

We've got a ways to go still, but we've also come so far. Let's keep organizing. Let’s keep calling out for the world we deserve. Let’s defeat Trump and his white nationalist fossil fuel buddies this November. Together, I know that one day soon, we will take the first steps towards a Green New Deal for America, sure as the sun rises each morning.

If you'd like, you can read the full platform recommendations here (pdf). The DNC platform draft starts on the first page, and the full list of climate recommendations begins on page 42. 

It's an honor to be a part of this movement with you all,

Varshini

Varshini Prakash

Varshini Prakash is the executive director and co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led organization working to stop climate change and take back democracy from Big Oil.

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