Ask climate experts and faith leaders what they think of President-elect Joe Biden’s climate agenda and you’ll get praise: This is the most ambitious climate agenda ever proposed by a presidential candidate — and a dramatic change from the Trump administration.
“Biden acknowledges the climate crisis and climate science. That is like a breath of fresh air,” said Rev. Kelvin Sauls, former senior pastor at Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles and member of Californians Against Fracking. “Just the fact that the acknowledgement is there, it paves the way for some strategic action.”
But as these same leaders will also tell you, Biden’s plan — while a step in the right direction — doesn't go far enough.
“Just because we’ve had the worst possible administration when it comes to environmental issues and deregulating environmental protections ... doesn’t mean that we should settle for anything but the absolute highest protections for environment and communities and endangered species,” said Rev. Dr. Leah Schade, author of Creation-Crisis Preaching: Ecology, Theology, and the Pulpit and assistant professor of preaching and worship at Lexington Theological Seminary in Kentucky.
Like Sauls, Schade is pleased with Biden’s attention to coal mining, to breaking down the “false dichotomy between jobs and the environment,” to revitalizing infrastructure, and to creating links between climate, racial, and economic justice.
However, Schade and every leader interviewed for this piece aren't satisfied. While Biden’s proposal addresses clean energy, revitalizing infrastructure, and reentering the Paris Climate Agreement, Schade believes there’s a lot missing. For instance, Biden's plan doesn’t abolish fracking or protect endangered species; Schade doesn't think the plan does enough to curb pollution, address waste management or farmer support, or hold the plastics industry or big agriculture accountable for pollution, emissions, pesticides, herbicides, and waste.
This is a moment of climate emergency, said Rev. Fletcher Harper, executive director of GreenFaith, an international interfaith climate and environmental justice organization. “We need the new administration to live up to the ambitious plan that it released and to go further.”
And for faith leaders and climate activists, their mission to pressure Biden to work toward a more expansive vision of climate justice starts now.
During the election cycle, Biden contradicted himself on whether he opposes fracking. For faith leaders, many of whom are also seasoned anti-fracking activists, fracking is an especially pressing concern.
In May, 42 faith institutions from 14 countries announced their divestment from fossil fuels. Now, they’re asking Biden to do the same.
“We have to end fracking. Biden knows it,” Harper told Sojourners. “We need an alternative development strategy ... as a country, we need to start to remove subsidies in the U.S. tax code for oil and gas exploration … federal land has to be off-limits for new oil and gas leasing.”
“We should not be spending public money to support things that are destroying life,” Harper continued.
For Denali Nalamalapu, spokesperson for 350.org and 350Action, ending fracking and creating renewable energy sources is not only the morally right thing for Biden to do, it’s the call of Biden's constituents.
“We want to make sure that Biden and Harris stand up for the folks who put them in office, mainly Black and Indigenous communities,” Nalamalapu said. “We definitely want to see polluters and fossil fuel billionaires held accountable for the power they’ve wrought. We’re talking about Exxon, Chevron, the biggest fossil fuel companies. We’re talking about the executives and also the banks and insurers that have backed fossil fuels for so long.”
Paris Climate Agreement
Reentering the Paris Climate Agreement is another priority for faith leaders and climate activists. Yet, some suggest that the United States’ commitment to the Paris Climate Agreement is similar to Biden’s proposed agenda: Better than nothing but not nearly expansive enough.
For Sauls, reentering the agreement is an opportunity to demonstrate true leadership by challenging other countries into compliance.
“A lot of us are not just excited that the U.S. will now show up on the global scene,” Sauls said. “The question is ‘What are you coming with?' It’s not just enough to just show up on the playground again. It’s what you’re bringing.”
Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt, minister for environmental justice with the United Church of Christ, suggested that Biden show leadership by declaring a national emergency over climate change.
The executive action would allow Biden to unilaterally divert military spending to renewable energy and climate-related construction projects, block domestic oil drilling, enact stricter car emissions standards, and overhaul trade with countries that buy and sell fossil fuels, such as coal, Berndt said.
“It’s a bully pulpit to say that we’re in a climate emergency and that requires that we act accordingly,” Berndt said. “I think it’s a promising strategy that is definitely worth considering.”
Holding Biden accountable
Now that Biden has been elected, the next step is to ensure that the incoming administration fulfills what they’ve promised in terms of climate justice.
“Our task for the next four years is to hold the Biden-Harris administration accountable,” Nalamalapu said. “We’re not going to become complacent now.”
Brenna Davis, director of Education for Justice and Environmental Initiatives at Ignatian Solidarity Network, is already organizing actions to make the Catholic community’s climate concerns heard by the incoming administration, including a month-long training in March to teach constituents to speak with their representatives about a variety of justice issues, including climate.
GreenFaith is also launching into action. On March 11, 2021, GreenFaith is organizing religious and spiritual communities around the world for “a mass mobilization in the name of climate justice” around 10 Sacred People, Sacred Earth demands, which include ending climate pollution, creating 100 percent renewable energy for all, and increasing financing for renewable energy and sustainable food systems.
John Paul Mejia, a spokesperson at Sunrise Movement, pointed out that “people power” is responsible for Biden’s climate agenda thus far, and that the effort is far from over. Sunrise Movement plans to continue using the same tactics that yielded success during Biden’s campaign, including interrogating him on camera and inviting him to partner with climate experts and activists.
“At the beginning of the primary season, we rated Biden’s climate plan F-minus,” Mejia told Sojourners. “We had a grading scale and he negatively failed it. By staging actions with leaders, we really started making it clear that people weren’t going to become comfortable and accept the consequences of [Biden’s lacking agenda]. We were able to galvanize Biden to really enact a vision of the Green New Deal as much as he could in the climate policy that he then created.”
Rev. Dr. Ambrose F. Carroll, Sr., senior pastor of the Church by the Side of the Road in Berkeley, Calif., and founder and CEO of Green the Church, a coalition of Black churches committed to climate justice, echoed Mejia’s claim, saying that holding Biden accountable begins in church pews.
“Oftentimes, these conversations [about climate justice] don’t get to our vacation Bible schools, to our Sunday schools, or our Christian education curriculum,” Carroll said. “Green the Church is formulated in such a way to work with all of our congregations, big and small, to make sure that green theology is a part of the course, is a part of our culture. We want to aggregate and bring African American communities together and then move those congregations toward public policy in their local environments and also in the national conversation.”
As Biden transitions into office, faith leaders across the country will be waiting for him to uphold his promises and to achieve climate justice beyond them.
“We’re watching and we won’t be silent,” Schade said. Sauls agreed.
“Don’t expect us to just come and bless whatever you’ve already decided on, to sign on and take a picture,” Sauls said. “I'm done with taking pictures with elected officials.”