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Sunrise Movement’s Varshini Prakash: Biden’s Climate Agenda Must Go Beyond Undoing Trump’s Damage

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President Joe Biden is expected to issue executive orders to suspend new oil and gas leasing on federal property, reestablish a White House council of science advisers, and set a goal to protect 30% of federal land and water by 2030. He is also predicted to announce a number of initiatives prioritizing environmental justice by creating a White House interagency council on environmental justice and directing federal agencies to invest more in communities of color heavily impacted by pollution and the climate crisis. These actions, as well as executive orders to cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and put a moratorium on oil and gas permits in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, come after Biden used his inaugural address to declare the climate crisis to be one of the core issues facing the nation. Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, says Biden is “off to a good start,” but says he needs to go beyond simply undoing the damage of the Trump administration. “We’re going to need to see a lot more from Joe Biden at the executive level and directing every branch of the federal government to action. But we’re also going to need to see him working actively to organize his congressional colleagues to pass what we need to be the greatest green jobs and infrastructure recovery plan that this country has seen,” says Prakash.

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

AMY GOODMAN: This is democacynow.org, Democracy Now! The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Today is Climate Day at the White House. President Biden is signing new executive orders to suspend new oil and gas leasing on federal property, reestablish a White House council of science advisers, and set a goal to protect 30% of federal land and water by 2030. Biden is also signing initiatives to prioritize environmental justice by creating a White House interagency council on environmental justice and directing federal agencies to invest more in communities of color heavily impacted by pollution and the climate crisis. This all comes a week after Biden used his inaugural address to declare the climate crisis to be one of the core issues facing the nation.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is a time of testing. We face an attack on our democracy and on truth, a raging virus, growing inequity, the sting of systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways, but the fact is, we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the gravest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up?

AMY GOODMAN: On his first day in office, President Biden signed executive orders to have the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. He also canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, put a moratorium on oil and gas permits in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and ordered a review of Trump’s actions undermining public health and the environment. Biden’s new climate envoy, John Kerry, says every agency in the government will be tasked with addressing the climate crisis.

JOHN KERRY: And it is our firm conviction, throughout all of our administration. Every agency is now part of our climate team, and only together are we going to be able to build the resilience to climate change that is critical to save lives and meet our moral obligation to future generations and to those currently living in very difficult circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, newly sworn-in Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen wrote a letter to Treasury employees, saying, quote, “I believe economic policy can be a potent tool to improve society. We can — and should — use it to address inequality, racism, and climate change.”

To talk more about the Biden agenda and the response to the climate crisis, we’re joined by Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, also the co-author of the new anthology, The New Possible: Visions of Our World Beyond Crisis.

Varshini, you’ve already — leading a movement, pressuring the Biden-Harris administration from the first day, from before. I mean, hundreds of Sunrise Movement members were arrested two years ago — more than have been arrested at the Capitol now for the insurrection — demanding a Green New Deal. Do you think these executive orders meet that threshold?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Well, it’s great to be here. Thank you so much for having me on again.

And, you know, I’d say I think Joe Biden is off to a good start. I think a number of the executive orders that he has put into motion and that he has been — the narrative that he has been sharing over the last week has been in line with his campaign promises. He has — you know, stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, and I believe he should go further and stop the Dakota Access pipeline and the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota, which has — both were sites of great Indigenous resistance. I think, you know, the plan of creating a civilian climate corps, which would essentially employ young people and people in disadvantaged communities to do the critical work of stopping the climate crisis, is something that Sunrise and many other organizations championed for and pushed for. So I think this is a great start.

And what I would say is the issue of the climate crisis is such that, in large part, most of what Biden has done is set into motion the policies and programs that would need to reverse the damage that has been done over the last four years of Trump being in office. But the truth is, we created Sunrise in the aftermath of the Obama administration, when we perceived a climate in crisis and that we were hurtling towards catastrophe. And so, I think this is just the beginning.

We’re going to need to see a lot more from Joe Biden at the executive level and directing every branch of the federal government to action, but we’re also going to need to see him working actively to organize his congressional colleagues to pass what we need to be the greatest sort of green jobs and infrastructure recovery plan that this country has seen, to reboot this country, to invest in environmental and climate justice, to bring racial equity to this country. And unless he is able to deliver on his “Build Back Better” plan, that myself and AOC and others contributed to and that he ran on, in large part because the movement pressured him to, I don’t think we’re going to be nearly as close to combating the climate crisis as we need to be.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Varshini, what is the significance of the president elevating the climate crisis to a national security priority? And what about the issue of him declaring — outright declaring a climate emergency, as many other countries around the world have done, and as even Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer recently urged him to explore?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Right. Well, I mean, we are in an emergency. We are under threat. We are at a life-changing, civilization-altering moment in humanity’s history. And we have faced grave existential threats before as a nation, whether it was combating the Great Depression, whether it was World War II. Whatever it was, we have risen to those moments. But it has taken both organized people and organized politicians and power working in concert to make it happen.

And so, I think for the president to convey to the nation that this is a serious threat — even though we are seeing rising disasters and even though we are seeing a rising movement, a number of Americans still don’t perceive the climate crisis to be a top threat in the United States. And to have the president declare that we are in a climate emergency, I think, would say a lot. And it also opens him up to being able to use greater executive authority, with the risk that Congress cannot pass the level of policy that we ultimately need. But, you know, I don’t think that that negates the need to pressure Congress.

And in particular, I think we’ve got to focus on a couple things. One, I think Joe Biden needs to champion his issue, the issue of climate crisis and his Build Back Better plan, in the American public and not sort of behind — in closed-door conversations with Republican obstructionists like Mitch McConnell or Democratic ones like Joe Manchin. I think this is a time for him to bring the vision of his Build Back Better plan, of a Green New Deal, of a recovery agenda that promotes racial and economic justice to the American people and build popular support around it and challenge these obstructionists to stand in the way of tens of millions of good, high-paying, unionized jobs, of guaranteeing every American in this country the right to clean air and clean water. So I think that’s step one.

And I think step two is ensuring that he’s also championing the ability to get rid of some of these things like the filibuster, which has essentially allowed for minority rule in this country and completely impeded America’s capacity to govern and legislate and pass the policies that a majority of Americans, and, frankly, frequently, a majority of senators, have also supported. So, you know, we need democracy reform. We need to ensure that the Americans who support a pro-climate agenda have the ability to elect representatives that represent their views and their positions on these issues. And those are all part and parcel — they’re not separate from the issue of addressing the climate crisis, because, in essence, we will need to pass dozens of pieces of policy over the decades to come to combat this huge, huge issue.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And what’s your concern in terms of the current makeup of Congress? I’m thinking specifically of Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who clearly has voiced repeatedly his opposition to lots of attempts to go away from fossil fuels, and he, obviously, in an almost evenly divided Senate, has extraordinary power now.

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What do you think of the hopes for the movement to be able to pressure the Senate on these issues?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah, I mean, we have to go for broke in this moment. I think now is the time to pressure Democrats and Republicans alike, also senators who are up for reelection in 2022. I think we need to be in the streets, to the extent that that is safe and possible. We need to be making calls to these congresspeople. We need to be writing op-eds and letters to the editor.

The only reason that Joe Biden and Chuck Schumer are prioritizing climate in this moment is because the movement made them do so. And, you know, two or three years ago, the climate crisis and climate justice was thought of as a political loser. Nobody wanted to touch it with an 100-foot pole, and it was sort of like a shameful secret to tuck climate policy into the corners of various other policies. That isn’t true anymore. And it’s because we agitated and we organized and we bird-dogged these politicians every place that they were.

And that, I’m seeing a lot of people, seeing in this moment, attempting to make, actually, the same mistake that we made when Obama got into office, of saying “We’ve got a Democrat back in. Now we can sit back.” And that is a huge danger. So we’ve got to keep up the pressure on people like Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and a number of others. And in addition to that, I think it’s time for Joe Biden to show that — you know, to cash in on the relationships that he claims to have made over the last decades in office, and to bring the caucus fully along, because, ultimately, if we can abolish the filibuster, we can pass a lot of policy with just a simple majority.

AMY GOODMAN: So, the comparisons, Varshini, between how you all have been dealt with, these peaceful protests you’ve had at the Capitol — what, some hundreds of you were arrested in 2018 — to what happened at the Capitol? Now, interestingly, the first woman, first African American chief of Capitol Police did admit — she’s now the head of it because the one who was there during the insurrection, Chief Sund, had to resign — that, you know, they knew that this protest on January 6 would be nothing like what they had seen in the past, that people had guns, that they were white supremacists. They understood that they would be violent. And yet it’s peaceful protesters like you who are the ones who’ve gotten arrested in the Capitol.

VARSHINI PRAKASH: Yeah. Yeah, no, absolutely. I mean, I couldn’t — it was just incredible to also be reminded of the uprisings from last summer and the images, just frankly traumatic images, I saw of women being beat or groped in the streets or being arrested, or members of my own movement and organization who were trapped on bridges in New York, hundreds of people trapped on bridges and tear-gassed. You know, I’m not saying that people deserve that kind of treatment. I think what I’m saying is, you know, there was clearly a double standard in the seriousness.

And I think that what we’ve got to be prepared for as a movement is to understand that white supremacy, that nationalism, that rising fascism, that hate and division existed long, long before Donald Trump and will continue to exist after Donald Trump. We cannot make the mistake of believing that white supremacy is bookended by the Trump administration. And I’m seeing a lot of people with that sort of false hope. And so, I think — as we know, we’ve just come off of Martin Luther King Day. The only thing that can contest with rising, escalated violence is rising, escalated, peaceful, loving nonviolence and community action. And so, I think we’ve got to join with our movements — the Movement for Black Lives, immigrant justice movements, movements against gun violence, etc. — alongside the climate movement, to put a stop to it.

AMY GOODMAN: We just have 30 seconds, but Biden has issued an executive order against the Keystone XL pipeline, but not against the Dakota Access pipeline, which was one of those epic struggles that took place to shut it down, led by the Standing Rock Sioux. They are demanding that it be shut down now. Your thoughts?

VARSHINI PRAKASH: I mean, he has to. He absolutely has to. And there’s precedent for doing so. Obama stopped it. And, I mean, it was an unparalleled, global, Indigenous resistance. The water protectors — I mean, it was one of the most incredible, inspiring things that I have ever seen in my life. And I’d also put in that category pipelines like the Line 3 pipeline, which has been facing enormous Indigenous and rural resistance in Minnesota.

AMY GOODMAN: Varshini Prakash, we thank you so much for being with us, co-founder, executive director of the Sunrise Movement.

When we come back, where have all the vaccines gone? Stay with us.

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