As a cofounder of the sunrise movement, I am committed to making the Biden-Harris administration the turning point in our fight to stop climate change and rebuild a just economy. Joe Biden ran on the most aggressive climate plan in history, but since control of the Senate remains uncertain as we go to press, how can his administration stop climate change in the first 100 days without a Democratic majority in Congress?
Let’s be very clear: Biden had the largest popular-vote percentage for a presidential challenger since Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932. This victory happened because young voters—especially young Black, Latino, Asian, and Native voters—turned out at the highest rates in history. Biden won over these voters because he listened to our concerns, invited young people like me to help form his policy on such key issues as climate change, and championed his bold new plans on the campaign trail. Biden said in the final weeks of the campaign that climate change is “the No. 1 issue facing humanity, and it’s the No. 1 issue for me.” And now, millions of voters are pressing him to bring that urgency into his presidency, as the window for saving our civilization closes by the day. Democrats need to deliver for the millions of young people and every other voter who felt this urgency and took a chance on Joe. That means Biden must use every tool in his toolbox to address the crisis, starting on Day 1.
Biden should immediately establish an Office of Climate Mobilization, similar to the Office of War Mobilization created by Roosevelt during World War II. The director of this office should report to Biden personally and have the authority to coordinate across executive agencies and offices to drive climate efforts, as well as to use the power of the federal government to engage industry and civil society. This office should possess authority in cabinet-level decision-making, budget-setting, and program implementation, and it should have formalized engagement with state and local governments in order to advance environmental justice, good jobs, labor rights, and economic development for underserved communities as a part of climate action.
Executive authority also gives Biden significant power to tackle the climate emergency. He shouldn’t hesitate for a moment to use that power against our collective foe, starting on Day 1. One of the biggest mistakes of the Obama administration was in failing to use the full scope of the executive office until after his policies languished and eventually died in the Senate. What’s even more astonishing is that President Obama didn’t introduce a national Climate Action Plan until his second term, in 2013.
The 13 presidents since FDR have issued only about 700 more executive orders than the 3,721 that he did—99 in his first 100 days alone. It wasn’t just the number of executive orders that was important; it was also their scope. Through executive actions, Roosevelt created what we know as modern America, establishing agencies like the Rural Electrification Administration and the Civil Works Administration, which brought electricity to rural areas and created millions of jobs in an era of massive suffering caused by the Great Depression. Not only did these executive actions save people in dire straits, they helped FDR launch an era of progressive politics, during which it became common sense that our government would protect the well-being of people over wealthy interests.
But executive actions alone will not stop climate breakdown. We need the power of the federal government’s purse—investments—to address the crisis at scale. Regardless of who controls the Senate, Biden should propose legislation that will reinforce those policies and add these critical promises from his Build Back Better plan: creating at least 10 million clean energy jobs; spending $2 trillion or more on clean energy infrastructure over his first term; directing 40 percent of that investment to frontline communities; investing in sustainability in agriculture, buildings, and transit; and instituting the largest labor reform in generations through the Protecting the Right to Organize Act.
There is no time now for preemptive compromises or half measures. Biden should unequivocally champion his Build Back Better climate agenda, which has support from a supermajority of the public, and challenge GOP senators to oppose it. If Republican leaders use obstructionist tactics to oppose one of the largest job creation programs since the New Deal, Sunrise and other movements will mobilize and fight alongside Biden to pass this agenda.
Biden’s plan is a road map to victory in the court of public opinion and, if necessary, at the ballot box in 2022. No one should count on Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell to change his obstructionist ways, but putting forth the best possible legislation and building popular support for it increases the likelihood that Democrats will be able to negotiate key priorities in must-pass legislation with Republicans.
Building back better could help Senator Marco Rubio’s Florida recover from massive job losses from the pandemic and start creating resilient infrastructure to protect the state from rising seas. It could help Senator Joe Manchin’s West Virginia invest in new green industries and deliver clean air and water for coal communities. And it could spur the largest investment in US manufacturing into clean energy and electric vehicles in states losing good union jobs, such as Senator Rob Portman’s Ohio.
If our representatives vote to deny relief, investment, and jobs to communities in this dire moment, it’s our job to kick them out in 2022. If Biden keeps the bold promises in his Build Back Better plan, he will be seen as a heroic outlier: a politician who kept his promises even when it meant taking on powerful interests. And Sunrise will be ready to mobilize to make it happen.
Two years ago, when we staged a sit-in at Nancy Pelosi’s office, we had just 15 active chapters. Now we have hundreds. Tens of thousands of young people have joined our ranks in 2020, and we’re ready to march and wake up leaders—outside their homes, if necessary—to move this agenda. We must bring the moral urgency of this crisis to the forefront and demand massive investments to recover from the pandemic.
But here’s the brutal reality of the climate crisis: Implementing a Green New Deal cannot possibly be accomplished in 100 days. Biden’s plan is only the start. Building a sustainable and just society will require many major reform bills at every level of government, and like the original New Deal, it will take years to fully enact. We will keep pushing Biden over the course of his presidency to embrace the full scope of the Green New Deal, because our lives depend on it.
Biden should act with the urgency of a mother in Louisiana, made homeless by two hurricanes this summer. He should act with the strength of a farmworker in California, laboring beneath soot-filled skies for low pay to feed the country. He should act with the dedication of a middle schooler who spent dozens of hours phone-banking to turn out voters, just for a chance at a survivable future. If Biden acts with urgency, strength, and dedication, our generation will never forget him.
The fact is, if we’re successful, the first 100 days of Biden’s administration will merely help us launch the Decade of the Green New Deal. To make this happen, we need tens of thousands more young people to join our ranks, take action, and gain skills for the long road ahead. I hope you’ll join me.