A Seat at the Table

At IU conference, climate activists discussed their hopes for future climate change policy during the Biden administration and beyond.
December 4, 2020

A diverse panel of climate activists agreed bold action and bilateral collaboration are necessary as the United States takes its first steps in reclaiming climate change leadership amid the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.

The pandemic has highlighted the severity of the climate change crisis, said representatives from three climate activist organizations during the virtual America’s Role in the World conference held by Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies Dec. 1-2.

They agreed the Biden administration should take more ambitious action with regards to the fossil fuel industry, the root of the climate change problem, to avoid a “climate catastrophe,” but differed on what steps to take next.

“I think that there is a greater understanding of how dire this issue is, and we’ve all gotten a little taste this year of what it looks like to experience a full-scale societal existential emergency,” said Katie Eder, co-founder and executive director of Future Coalition. “I think as a society we need to look around, and it’s not just about the government. It’s about every bad actor who’s continuing to enable the fossil fuel industry and calling them out for what they are, as villains of this story that are funding and are continuing to enable the destruction of our future.”

Eder discussed the future of climate activism during the Biden administration and beyond with co-panelists Catherine Coleman Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, and Kiera O’Brien, founding president of Young Conservatives for Carbon Dividends,. The discussion was moderated by Janet McCabe, professor of practice at the IU McKinney School of Law and director of the IU Environmental Resilience Institute.

Climate change is driven by human activity. Massive amounts of greenhouse gases produced by industrial sources, passenger vehicle exhaust and other sources trap heat in the atmosphere, causing serious changes in the Earth’s climate.

Those changes, like rising global average temperatures, rising sea levels and increased extreme weather events like hurricanes have changed the way people live and work around the world.

Here in Indiana, the average annual temperature has risen 1.2 degrees Fahrenheit since 1895, and the average annual precipitation has increased by 5.6 inches, falling in shorter but heavier rain events that increase the likelihood of flooding.

The changes are already affecting the health of Hoosiers and people around the world. In the past two decades, heat-related deaths for older people has almost doubled in the U.S. Extreme heat has also caused the loss of 2 billion potential hours of labor in the service, manufacturing, agricultural and construction sectors.

“In my experience, climate change is very much a generational issue. There’s a lot of consensus among young people about the science, at least what’s happening. I find the more difficult and interesting conversations come when we start to talk about solutions,” said O’Brien, a self-proclaimed conservative.

O’Brien favors pragmatic action that she said can realistically unite various interests, albeit on a smaller scale than “moonshot” national legislation.

Her organization fully supports the Baker-Schultz carbon dividends plan, a plan authored by former Secretaries of State and Secretary of Treasury James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz.

Conservatives and moderate Democrats favor incremental climate change policies like the Baker-Shultz carbon dividends plan.

The plan calls for a gradually rising fee on carbon emissions, the elimination of much of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory authority over carbon dioxide emissions and the end of federal and state tort liabilities for emitters.

“The plan that I support is authored by the Climate Leadership Council. It has the backing of a whole host of industry leaders both on the energy side of things, but also in the innovations sphere as well as organizations that are in conservation, specifically,” O’Brien said. “I think that that sort of weird ‘odd bedfellows’ model of getting everyone to the table to actually talk about solutions that can be supported even if they’re not these moonshot dream solutions.”

Eder and other activists want the Biden administration to act immediately to cut off the source of greenhouse gas emissions powering climate change. They want Biden to declare a national climate emergency, reinstate the crude oil export ban, halt fossil fuel lease sales and permits, ban fracking on federal lands, issue stringent pollution prevention rules for oil and gas and many other fossil fuel-limiting executive actions.

Flowers, a former teacher, author and environmental activist who served on the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, said she believes addressing the environmental justice issues posed by the fossil fuel industry is a crucial first step to dealing with climate change.

“We cannot have climate justice without dealing with environmental justice,” Flowers said.

She called areas like Louisiana’s Cancer Alley a “Disney World of petrochemical plants” that produces gases and chemicals that harm the environment and people living near the plants.

Limiting emissions from plants in environmental justice communities could improve the health of those residents while also reducing the plants’ contributions to climate change.

Flowers said Americans are seeing what government inaction and unambitious half-step measures do during a crisis.

“COVID has shown us what not doing anything leads to. It leads to more deaths,” she said. “The people that have died have been those individuals that have lived next to these dirty plants that are also causing climate change. But in terms of what this president can do, is use all the executive powers that he has to be able to move the needle as it relates to climate change and reach out to those communities that need to be cleaned up.”

Eder said the COVID-19 crisis has shown that Americans, from the president to individuals in society, are not prepared to handle existential threats like the virus or climate change.

“I think a really key challenge is how do we recover from COVID in a way, both from a cultural standpoint and from an economic standpoint, that is going to set us on a path to avoid the worst effects of climate catastrophe and to be prepared and ready to be resilient and build resiliency so that we can adapt when we eventually are going to need to,” Eder said.

President-elect Biden has released a plan that outlines his proposals for combatting climate change.

“The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” sets a 2050 goal for a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions. The plan also sets a goal to “stand up to the abuse of power” by polluters in minority and low-income communities.

It’s unclear how much Biden will be able to accomplish. Two runoff elections for U.S. Senate seats in Georgia may be the deciding factor. A Republican-controlled Senate could be hostile to any attempts at legislation attempting to take actions against the fossil fuel industry.

O’Brien said whatever action the President-elect takes once he takes office will have to be bipartisan in order to cause lasting change.

“Having a coalition to put all of their lobbying power behind a legislative plan that can’t just be repealed by the next administration is crucial. My big fear is that if we have a president that takes executive action on issues like this, that could just be repealed by the next administration,” said O’Brien. “There is nothing stopping the next Republican president from saying, ‘You know what? I don’t like that.’ And that’s why a bipartisan buy-in is so crucial and a legislative solution is the way to go on this problem.”

A Seat at the Table