Biden Faces First Major Climate Protest As President

Sunrise Movement, the youth campaigners behind the Green New Deal, are set to rally at the White House.
Sunrise protesters gathered outside the White House on June 4 to protest the Biden administration.
Sunrise protesters gathered outside the White House on June 4 to protest the Biden administration.
Phil Lewis/HuffPost

President Joe Biden’s honeymoon with climate activists looks set to end Friday as Green New Deal activists descended on the White House to demand that the administration abandon plans to water down its landmark infrastructure proposal.

On Friday morning, a few dozen Sunrise Movement volunteers and staffers rallied outside the White House to protest the Biden administration’s move to prioritize Republican support for his spending package over funding programs activists say are needed to transition the United States to a safer climate future.

“Now that Biden is in power, that promise of co-governance with progressives and young people has disappeared,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, said in a statement before the protest. “He’s spent more of his time meeting with a Republican Party who to this day contests he is the democratically elected President.”

At one point, they marched over to the entrance to the White House grounds and sat and blocked the area.

Sunrise Movement protesters blocked the entrance to the White House.
Sunrise Movement protesters blocked the entrance to the White House.
Phil Lewis/HuffPost

The demonstration comes nearly three years after Sunrise Movement volunteers occupied then-incoming House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in a bid to persuade Democratic Party leaders to champion major new federal interventions in the economy to curb climate change and boost the working class. Dubbed the Green New Deal, that concept quickly gained traction and reshaped the way Democratic candidates, including Biden, talked about climate policy during the 2020 campaign, shifting away from wonky debates over carbon pricing and toward populist visions of federal job programs and generous green investments.

Sunrise Movement dogged Biden throughout the presidential primary, giving his climate platform a flunking grade in its candidate scorecard and campaigning hard for his left-wing rival Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But once Biden clinched the nomination, the campaign assembled a unity task force with those in Sanders’s camp that significantly ratcheted up the Democratic candidate’s climate ambition.

For the first few months of his presidency, Biden won plaudits from the climate movement that had once doubted him. He elevated the White House science adviser to a Cabinet-level position, named climate czars for both domestic and foreign policy, and, though he passed over progressive favorites for top jobs, he often gave those candidates deputy positions. On his first day in office, he signed a suite of executive orders on climate change, starting the process of reversing the Trump administration’s legacy and canceling the controversial Keystone XL pipeline.

Biden’s climate concerto seemed to crescendo at the end of March, when he unveiled a $2.3 trillion infrastructure package that included billions upon billions of dollars for renewable energy, public transit and electric vehicles. It marked the most significant federal climate investment in history, but the proposal fell far short of the dollar figure that even conservative modelers say would be needed to slash U.S. emissions enough to avert climate disaster.

Things grew worse from there. The administration outraged environmental groups last week when it defended a massive fossil-fuel drilling project in Alaska’s National Petroleum Reserve. The so-called Willow Project, led by ConocoPhillips, is slated to produce 590 million barrels of oil over its 30-year lifespan ― the kind of development that seems wildly misaligned with Biden’s pledge to transition the U.S. away from planet-warming fossil fuels.

Ahead of Friday’s event, Sunrise Movement previewed what seemed to be a scattershot list of demands. Rather than press the administration to up the spending on its climate proposals overall, the group zeroed in on Biden’s plan to establish a Civilian Climate Corps modeled on a similarly named New Deal-era conservation program. The White House’s initial pitch included $10 billion for a job program to revive wetlands, bolster renewables and restore America’s public lands. Sunrise Movement wants the program to have a much larger budget.

The nonprofit is also demanding Biden prioritize meeting one-on-one with its leaders over Republican lawmakers whose counterproposal to the infrastructure package sought to strip out most of the climate provisions.

“It’s time to meet with us, the young organizers that elected him, instead,” Prakash said in the press release. “This moment demands an infrastructure package that will stop climate change and create millions of good jobs in the process, and we won’t stop until he delivers.”

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