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Longtime Head of EPA’s Environmental Justice Program: Biden’s Climate Picks Show Power of Movements

StoryDecember 21, 2020
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As President-elect Joe Biden unveils key members of his team who will tackle what he called the “existential” threat of the climate crisis, we speak to former Environmental Protection Agency official Mustafa Ali, who led the agency’s environmental justice program until resigning in 2017 in protest of the Trump administration’s policies. Biden’s picks for the Climate Cabinet are the result of “a transformational set of movements,” says Ali, who is currently vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. “It also speaks to all the hard, incredible work that environmental justice leaders have been doing to ensure that our president-elect is giving serious thought to vulnerable communities, to the impacts that are happening from the climate crisis.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman.

We get a response now to President-elect Joe Biden’s announcement Saturday of the members of his climate team, who will tackle what he called the, quote, “existential” threat of the climate crisis. His picks include Democratic Congresswoman Deb Haaland of New Mexico to lead the Interior Department, making her the first Native American Cabinet secretary in history, if confirmed, and Michael Regan, head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, who would be the first Black man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. Biden also picked longtime environmental attorney Brenda Mallory to chair Biden’s Council on Environmental Quality; Gina McCarthy, head of the EPA under Obama, will lead a new White House Office of Climate Policy; and former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm to be energy secretary. Last month, Biden named former Secretary of State John Kerry as international presidential envoy on climate change.

For more, we go to Washington, D.C., to speak with Mustafa Santiago Ali, former head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency. In 2017, he resigned in protest of the Trump administration’s efforts to severely scale back the size and work of the EPA. He first helped launch the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice in 1992 and served under both Republican and Democratic administrations. He’s now vice president of the National Wildlife Federation.

Mustafa, welcome back to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. As we watched and listened to, in our last segment, people standing up one by one, talking about the climate crisis and specifically referring to the issue of environmental justice, we see the power of movements, people chosen that President-elect Biden hadn’t planned to originally choose, like the head of the EPA, going with Michael Regan, coming from heading up the environmental agency in North Carolina. Can you talk about those movements and what they have accomplished?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, I think it’s a transformational set of movements that are actually happening. For us to see individuals saying the words and being tied to environmental justice, understanding the impacts of climate change, is something that we’ve never seen before. And it also speaks to all the hard, incredible work that environmental justice leaders across the country have been doing to ensure that our president-elect is giving serious thought to vulnerable communities, to the impacts that are happening from the climate crisis, and really working through with his team and making these decisions — you know, not snap decisions, but actually deep thought going into the individuals and also hearing and listening to the voices of communities.

AMY GOODMAN: So, can you talk about Michael Regan heading up the Environmental Protection Agency, if he’s confirmed? And, of course, you’ve known him for many, many years. He once interned at the EPA, as he said. He’ll be the first Black man to head up the agency. If you can talk about the original reported pick of President-elect Biden being Mary Nichols from California and what happened, the movement that said she did not deal with climate justice in the way that environmental justice movements felt needed to be represented as head of the EPA?

MUSTAFA ALI: Yeah. Well, let me start off by saying that environmental justice is now our North Star for our country, and the president has made significant commitments there, that environmental justice is one of his priority areas, so, therefore, it has to be a part of the evaluation and a set of criteria, you know, when you’re choosing individuals.

Mary has been an expert and a champion on, you know, clean air-related actions. So, we want to make sure that we honor that. But you also have to make sure that you’re honoring the voices of communities as you’re moving in the development of policies and regulations and a set of actions. And a number of stakeholders from California, and then across the country, called out the fact that they felt that Mary had not honored that, that she had not fully listened to their voices and included them in the processes that were happening there in California. And that became, you know, a drag, I think, on her being nominated as the Environmental Protection Agency’s administrator.

Then you transition to Michael. Michael, I’ve known him since he was a student. He, as you heard, as the listeners heard earlier, you know, has a real tie to the land, has a tie to communities and has been a strong regulator on environmental impacts, also understanding how the climate crisis is playing out and the fact that we also have to be focused, when you can, to also be focused on a clean economy. So, he has a number of challenges that are in front of him, but, you know, being there in North Carolina, he had a Democratic governor, but he had a Republican set of lawmakers who were continually trying to slow down the process. He did some great work around coal ash. There are others, probably, who wished there was even more in that space, but, you know, he pushed Duke Energy to address some of those issues. And he also worked on PFOA and PFAS issues and began to make some progress in that area.

You know, he’s going to just have to be surrounded by a number of folks who will help him to achieve the goals that the president is going to set out. He’s going to need those who have environmental justice competencies and also experience, because the set of challenges are huge, but the set of opportunities are even larger. I think Michael is up to the task, and folks will hold him accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: Also, to have Deb Haaland, if approved, to be the interior secretary, the first Native American in history to be named to the Cabinet, your response?

MUSTAFA ALI: Oh, Congressman Haaland has my — Congresswoman Haaland has my heart. She is a true progressive. She is someone who is anchored, anchored in culture, anchored in the changes that can and will happen inside of our country. I’ve been blessed to do a number of events with Deb. And she’s the real deal. So, you know, the beauty of the diversity of this administration is not just in the color of people’s skins, but also their commitment to folks back home and folks across our country. So I think it was an excellent, excellent selection in having Congresswoman Deb Haaland to lead the Department of Interior.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you have a number of people, overall, in the Biden-elect administration who come from the time of Obama. And I guess the question is: How do you ensure that the movements that, for example, you’re a part of are going to continue to be heard? I think of the first African American who was named head of the EPA — that was Lisa Jackson — and she ultimately quit under President Obama because she felt undermined and didn’t have support, not by the Republicans, yes, of course, who were opposing her, but by the Democrats and the Obama administration, when she tried to propose tougher regulations on smog pollution, that she had negotiated for over a year. And she felt undercut when the president, at that time Obama, did not support her. How do you avoid a situation like this?

MUSTAFA ALI: Well, Amy, that’s what I appreciate about Democracy Now!, is that it’s all about real talk. And we have to understand that we have power in this process. And that’s why I’ve often said it doesn’t matter if it’s a Democrat, a Republican or an independent who’s leading, that we have to stay engaged in the process, we have to push, and we have to hold people accountable.

The reality of the situation is, is that 2022 is not that far away, and 2024 is not that far away. So, folks are going to have to listen to the voices of communities, progressive voices, moderate voices and others, if they want to be able to win on these issues. And that means also that there are a number of other positions that are going to be filled and that those individuals who are coming from other parts of the party have to fill some of those positions to make sure this moves forward.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa, let me ask you very quickly about what’s happening today in Arizona. Members of the San Carlos Apache Nation have called a day of action in opposition to a proposed copper mine in a sacred portion of the Tonto National Forest, the tribe saying the planned mine would raze an ancient forest known as Oak Flat and contaminate a large swath of southern Arizona, the Trump administration racing to approve the mine as part of a massive transfer of federal land to oil, gas and mining companies in the final days of the Trump presidency. What about these final days and what Trump is attempting to do?

MUSTAFA ALI: We have to stay focused. They have continued to impact our federal lands, just so folks can do additional mining. These are traditional lands. There is a cultural connection there. People have to continue to engage, to fight back. You know, folks have been also going through legal challenges on many of these actions. We just have to continue to put a spotlight on it. And when the new administration comes in, they’re going to have to use every tool that they have to reverse many of these decisions that will have long-term, historical impacts in vulnerable communities across our country.

AMY GOODMAN: Mustafa Ali, I want to thank you so much for being with us, former longtime head of the environmental justice program at the Environmental Protection Agency, now vice president of the National Wildlife Federation. Thank you so much for joining us today.

Democracy Now! produced with Renée Feltz, Mike Burke, Deena Guzder, Libby Rainey, Nermeen Shaikh, María Taracena. I’m Amy Goodman. Wear a mask.

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