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Sunrise Movement: Dems Must Address Climate Crisis as DNC Drops Pledge to End Fossil Fuel Subsidies

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The Democratic National Committee has dropped a pledge to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry from its party platform, after a DNC spokesperson said the amendment was originally included in “error,” despite both Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris supporting it on the campaign trail. Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, says it is “disappointing to see” Democrats back away from the pledge, but adds that as long as social movements sustain pressure, “it will be a priority for the Biden administration, should they win in November.” Prakash also discusses hopes for a Green New Deal, the importance of Kamala Harris’s place on the ticket and the lack of young voices at the DNC.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! We are breaking with convention. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

The Democratic National Committee has dropped a pledge to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies for the fossil fuel industry from its party platform. The change was announced on Tuesday, saying a DNC spokesperson claimed the amendment was originally included in “error,” despite both presidential nominee Joe Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris supporting it on the campaign trail. It wasn’t announced, but it was reported in the media, among the places, HuffPo. This comes as a historic heat wave and more than 30 wildfires roil the state of California, and Iowa struggles to recover from a hurricane-strength windstorm last week.

For more on how the DNC is tackling the climate crisis, we go to Boston, where we’re joined by Varshini Prakash. Ahead of the DNC, she was on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, and she’s the co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement. She’s also co-editor of the forthcoming book, Winning the Green New Deal. During the Democratic primary campaign, the Sunrise Movement endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, gave Joe Biden’s climate plan an F rating.

We welcome you back, Varshini, to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. Can you assess the Democratic National Convention so far? And talk about where the Green New Deal fits in here. But first, this breaking news yesterday that they were dropping this issue of the fossil fuel subsidies, explain what happened.

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah, no, it’s certainly disappointing to see. I mean, the U.S. spends roughly tens of billions of dollars each year essentially propping up the fossil fuel industry so it can continue its dangerous burning of the coal, oil and gas that is threatening our future. And during this pandemic, you know, Donald Trump has poured a lot of dollars into continuing to support the fossil fuel industry at the expense of renewable energy companies.

And what’s interesting is also that a provision to eliminate tax breaks and subsidies was included in the 2016 platform, in fact, and so it would just be essentially a continuation of an agreement that was reached about four years ago when Clinton was the nominee. So I’m not sure entirely what happened. Perhaps there was internal pushback or something.

I think, as you mentioned before, the hopeful side of all of this is that there has been vocal frustration and disappointment from a number of climate and environmental organizations, and also that the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies is heavily supported by Biden and Harris in their climate plans. So I think as long as it continues to be a priority for movements, it will be a priority for the Biden administration, should they win in November.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Varshini Prakash, what is your sense, after spending several weeks in negotiations between the Sanders and Biden camps in terms of programmatic efforts, that key sections of the Green New Deal will be implemented? How much do you fear of Biden’s opening to the progressive movement is more a reflection of his attempt to assure the support of that movement for his reelection, and how much of it do you sense is genuine?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: No, it’s a great question. I mean, I think we pushed them a lot during the process of the task force. I had a couple specific goals. One, we had to improve and increase the ambition that Joe Biden was putting forward on his climate plan. Getting to 100% renewable energy by 2050 is absolutely impermissible for island nations, for young people who are growing up at a true crossroads between chaos and destruction and a livable planet right now. And so, we pushed, and we won some pretty significant victories. We were able to move up the timeline on decarbonizing the electricity sector by 15 years, so now the Biden administration is committing to 100% clean electricity by 2035. We have a provision to move to 100% new zero-emission buildings by 2030 and a commitment to sit down with labor leaders as soon as the Biden — within months of the inauguration, to set standards for zero-emission vehicles.

And also, a big priority was ensuring that climate and environmental justice was a central piece of everything related to the climate plan. So, this isn’t particularly — or, specifically named in the DNC plan, but in Joe Biden’s recovery effort plan for the pandemic, he does talk about how he’s moving from a $1.7 trillion green jobs and infrastructure plan over 10 years to a $2 trillion plan over four years, which is significant, and has also committed that 40% of the investment towards green jobs and infrastructure will specifically go towards frontline and environmental justice communities, which is huge. So, these are some of the things that I think we won. I feel very excited about those. I think that the plan is really pro-labor, as well.

I think, you know, none of this is a surety, right? Like right as soon as the task force recommendations came out, we saw the fossil fuel industry spokespeople coming out and saying, “Well, you know, he’s just catering to the left on the route to — because it’s still the election. But as soon he wins the nomination — or, as soon as he wins president, the seat, he will have to cater to the fossil fuel industry, and he will have to water down many of the proposals that he’s talking about.”

So, I think this is — it’s going to move very quickly from a question of policy to power. And I think that is why we’ve got to keep up the pressure both internally, with people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and newly elected folks like Jamaal Bowman and Cori Bush and Mondaire Jones, etc., but also we’ve got to maintain a really, really high level of external pressure, as well, and ensure that we are pushing this president, and not just sort of doing what we did with Obama and leaving it at the door, but actually upping the ante and increasing the level of pressure on this Democratic president to actually push a lot of these policy provisions that he’s agreed to across the finish line.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And could you talk about the reality that we’re coming up against an election in the midst of a pandemic, and also amidst continuing extreme weather situations —


JUAN GONZÁLEZ: — the storms in Iowa and this amazing record heat over the weekend in Death Valley, 130 degrees?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah. I mean, scientists are saying this might be one of the hottest years on record, which I feel like I am hearing virtually every year. We are seeing — we have leaders in Cedar Rapids who are emailing us requesting donations, asking us to match donations to them and other Black Lives Matter organizations that they’re working alongside. There are thousands of people who are still without power one week out, and there’s a lot of reports that show that the governor and — the government in Iowa has not acted with enough urgency following this disaster, which is something we’ve seen in a number of other climate disasters over the last few years, our governments not taking the response seriously enough and acting swiftly.

So I think we’re at a real — many of the crises that we are facing in this nation, we are at a fever pitch, right? We are at a fever pitch with the climate crisis. It is emerging into a full-blown emergency. We have an economic nosedive, with tens of millions of people who are out of work. We are in the midst of an uprising, an ongoing uprising against white supremacy in this nation. And I think it is time for something like a Green New Deal in this country, that is actually putting forward a vision for how we tackle both the injustices of the climate crisis and economic inequality and racial injustice at the same time, and not see these issues as separate.

AMY GOODMAN: Varshini, tonight Kamala Harris will give her acceptance speech. She did endorse a Green New Deal, though Green New Deal and Medicare for All are not being talked about so far at the Democratic convention.


AMY GOODMAN: As a South Asian American yourself, can you talk about the significance of Kamala Harris?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah, no, I mean, it’s fascinating. Her mother is actually from the same town that my dad grew up in in India, Besant Nagar, so it’s kind of incredible to see someone like that on the national stage.

You know, when it comes to the climate crisis, I think Kamala Harris has been fairly responsive to activist and movement pressure to make climate change a top priority. She took the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge and has sworn off of oil and gas donations as part of her campaign. She did, as you mentioned, run on a Green New Deal as part of her platform, and, I think, you know, mentioned it more than almost any other candidate during the presidential debates. She has worked with Representative Ocasio-Cortez to develop legislation that kind of ensures that investments made around a Green New Deal prioritize frontline communities. So, I think we’ve seen a lot of responsiveness from her.

I think we’re also wary and aware of Senator Harris’s very complicated history and record as a prosecutor, which you all have discussed many times on this show, and the ways in which a number of those decisions have really harmed communities of color. So, we’ve spoken out about that in the past and will continue to and, I think, will continue to work alongside racial justice organizations to hold her, as well as Vice President Biden, accountable. But I think it will be a huge, huge deal to have the first Black, the first Indian, the first woman vice president of the United States of America, should she and Vice President Biden win in the next few months.

AMY GOODMAN: Varshini Prakash, we want to thank you for being with us, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, co-editor of the forthcoming book, Winning the Green New Deal.

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