The resignations of two key architects of President Joe Biden’s climate and environmental justice agenda in the last two weeks are raising concerns among activists, who have urged the administration to fulfill its promises to rapidly reduce carbon emissions and protect vulnerable communities.
Cecilia Martinez, senior director for environment justice at the White House Council for Environmental Quality (or CEQ), resigned on January 7. David Kieve, CEQ’s public engagement director, resigned on Monday.
The departures come just a year into Biden’s first term and ahead of what analysts say will be a historically consequential midterm election. Some activists have expressed alarm about the Biden administration’s ability going forward to pass meaningful climate policy and reduce the nation’s long-standing environmental and economic disparities.
For months, environmental justice leaders and some top Democrats in the party’s progressive wing have become frustrated with what they say is the administration’s slow and inadequate movement on several central environmental and economic ambitions, including failing so far to pass Biden’s signature Build Back Better Act, which includes some $555 billion in climate spending.
Further underscoring what’s at stake are Biden’s recent approval ratings, which have fallen steadily since last summer and now sit around 41.8 percent, according to a Quinnipiac poll released Wednesday. A September Pew Research poll showed that Biden’s support has dropped among core constituents. It also revealed that there was a double-digit drop among Black and Latino voters.
“It’s a huge loss at a critical moment where you need really talented folks to help us move the environmental justice agenda forward and address the climate crisis,” Mustafa Ali, the vice president of environmental justice, climate and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, and a former career staffer at the Environmental Protection Agency, said about the resignations.
Both Martinez and Kieve have been widely credited by environmentalists and colleagues at the White House and in Congress as crucial players in the direction and scope of some of Biden’s more ambitious environmental goals. Martinez and Kieve, in particular, have been crucial liaisons for Biden. They have brought together diverse stakeholders and served as glue during years marked by growing schisms within Democratic Party.
Martinez was pivotal in establishing the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and spearheading Biden’s Justice40 initiative, which aims to deliver 40 percent of the “overall benefits” of the government’s clean energy investments to disadvantaged communities.
“Cecilia has been the heart, soul, and mind of the most ambitious environmental justice agenda ever adopted by a President,” CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory said in a statement. “Cecilia has poured her wisdom, leadership, and energy into this work—true public service. She is an unwavering and effective champion for the communities that, for far too long, have been overburdened by pollution and left out of government decisions that affect them.”
Rumors continue to swirl about the reason for the departures of staff members. Inside Climate News has not been in a position to reach Kieve for comment. ICN’s requests for comment from Martinez have not gotten a response, but she told The Associated Press that she was leaving her post because she “needed time to rest and be with her family.”
Some prominent environmental activists fear that the resignations reflect a larger frustration over what they call a lack in progress on climate and environmental justice since January 2021 when Biden promised that these issues would be a central tenet. They’ve also expressed concern that CEQ, a small department within the White House with limited staff and resources, is ill-equipped to handle the “huge mission” of coordinating and executing Biden’s environmental and economic agendas.
“Just as this demand for action is the greatest, and the pace of change needs to pick up, we lose two of the people who know how best to chart a path forward quickly,” said Jane Williams, executive director of California Communities Against Toxics and a longtime leader in the environmental justice movement. “I would hope the administration would take this as a wake-up call that they need to better support change-makers who are in the administration.”
Vernice Miller Travis, executive vice-president for environmental and social at Metropolitan Group, is a prominent figure in environmental justice. She said that she believes the administration has been working hard to achieve its environmental agenda. However, she said, she also wouldn’t be surprised if burnout played a role too, given that CEQ has historically been a small agency.
“You have people who have huge missions, but not a lot of staff resources dedicated to helping to execute those missions,” Miller-Travis said. “So that can create a lot of burnout.”
Whatever the reasons that led to the departures, many activists—including leaders in the Indigenous rights movement—have expressed disappointment in the Biden administration, and even with top White House staffers like Kieve.
Biden’s decision not to interfere with a series of high-profile pipeline fights last year, most notably Line 3 in Minnesota, drew the ire of Indigenous leaders, who said the projects violated their tribal rights, endangered their livelihoods and threatened to escalate the climate crisis. Many of those activists also criticised the Biden administration’s failure to fulfill its promise to stop drilling in public lands.
“Promises aren’t substance,” said Rain Bear Stands Last, executive director of the Global Indigenous Council.
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POLITICO reported that members of the environmental justice movement sent a scripted message to more than 5,600 times in August to top Biden administration officials. This included Kieve. The emails blocked communications between high-ranking Biden officials for two days. Leaders of Stop the Money Pipeline, an anti-fossil fuel group, claimed that the emails were sent to vent frustration at the administration’s failure to keep its promises.
Tensions also began appearing as the White House missed deadlines related to its Justice40 initiative, such as one for developing a screening tool to help identify which communities are most in need of investments, and another for explicitly determining how the federal government defines “disadvantaged communities.”
National climate policy has been a problem for the Biden administration. It has not received the support of Democratic moderates like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin. This has led to proponents losing some of the most powerful leverage they have.
The progressives initially pledged not to pass bipartisan infrastructure bills until Congress had passed the Build back Better Act. They wanted to use that leverage to push the more costly climate and social spending packages through the narrowly divided Senate.
The infrastructure bill was passed by the Democrats in November. This victory was widely regarded as a necessary victory by the Biden administration as it entered a potentially disastrous midterm election. The deal was based on vague promises that negotiations would eventually lead to Build Back Better and its $550 billion for climate justice spending.
Shortly after the infrastructure bill was signed into law, however, Manchin announced that he still wouldn’t support the budget deal, citing concerns over what the climate provisions would mean for the natural gas and coal industries and fears that the bill’s massive cost would worsen inflation.
Ali stated that the only people who can tell for certain why Martinez or Kieve left the White House is the staff. But what is clear, he said, is that their absence will make Biden’s goals of tackling global warming and environmental justice far more difficult, and that filling those roles should be paramount to the administration.
“The silver lining is the fact that there are a number of talented folks all across the country” that could take those spots, Ali said. “The beauty of the environmental justice movement is that it has been preparing lots of folks of all ages to be able to continue to engage at the local, the county, the state or the federal level.”
Source: Inside Climate News