Kamala Harris and Joe Biden holding hands in the air and a sign that says "This is the only home we have."

Hot House

U.S. Climate Action Depends on Democracy

Substantive climate policy and action will require a unified effort—a process that could address, even repair, deep fractures in how the American democracy serves its citizens.

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How the hell can we talk about climate change at a time like this?

This was my initial thought as I watched rabid Trump supporters break through barriers and mount the steps of the U.S. Capitol. I shook my head in stunned silence. Just a few moments earlier, I was gleefully recounting how Georgia “came through with the blue” and thinking through all the progress we were poised to make on climate justice, equity, and environmental policy in the United States. With the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives all securely in the hands of leaders who believe in science and are committed to taking bold action on climate, change has finally come. Here we are on the cusp of returning to the global stage as climate leaders, and all of a sudden my screen was filled with images of angry white people grappling up the side of the Capitol, members of Congress fleeing their chambers, and the old, dusty Confederate flag parading through the sacred halls of the Capitol.

What in the entire hell?


There’s no doubt in my mind that the events of January 6 will go down in world history as one of the greatest domestic travesties to take place on American soil. And it’s not over. We are still hearing and experiencing the real-time threat of domestic terrorism, and those responsible must be held accountable—even those in the highest office. At the same time, the clock is ticking on our ability to take transformational action on climate and have a real impact on not only Americans but also the entire world. The Biden administration presents a new day and a chance to get our country to 100% clean energy, reduce carbon emissions, create jobs and sustainable investment into communities, with an emphasis on creating equity with communities of color, and correcting four years of regulatory rollbacks that only benefited polluters and created more harm for poor people in America.

But in a country built on a foundation of democracy, these actions can only be effectuated and sustained when the democracy works. Climate action cannot exist in a vacuum: It requires the participation of all us. Citizens, businesses, and government all have a role to play, and inaction of any one segment hands the responsibility of both policy development and implementation to the other parties. How the hell do we talk about climate action at a time like this? We talk about it as a way to fix our democracy.

President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris campaigned with one of the most ambitious climate plans in history and on the promise of seriously seeking solutions to the climate crisis while dealing with the past inequities of environmental injustice. And it worked. Even under the cloud of the coronavirus, a crippled economy, and racial injustice, two-thirds of voters said that the climate was a serious problem and over 65% of that group voted Biden/Harris. Even more telling was the interest of young voters. Powerful youth-focused climate groups such as Zero Hour and Sunrise Movement did a phenomenal job of turning out voters under 30. According to a Tufts University study, an overwhelming majority, particularly people of color, voted for the Biden/Harris ticket and listed climate action as one of their top priorities. The new administration has a clear mandate on climate action, and nothing, including a failed insurrection, will stop it.

But this same level of engagement must be maintained in the election process as well as steps for action. If young people don’t see their vote as counting, how will they trust that their ideas and solutions are given voice? Make no mistake about it; we need young voters to continue to mobilize and keep climate as top of mind priority for 2022 and 2024. We should also encourage them to take deeper dives into the electoral process: run for office, seek appointed positions within the administration, counsel, and advise businesses on green innovations and technology. There’s a saying that I love: I am someone’s ancestor. We can talk about climate action now as a way to secure the legacy of democracy that our young people are creating through their actions today and be the ancestors they refer to in the future.

In that same frame of mind, there’s another saying: I am my ancestor’s wildest dreams. I take that personally to mean that I am the living embodiment of all their prayers, tears, blood, and sweat poured into one magnificent, deep, cocoa soul. If my personality is any reflection, my ancestors didn’t pray foolishly. Thus, I have a responsibility to fulfill the mission of justice and demand the equity they were not afforded. In simpler terms, we’ve all got work to do and there will be no slacking when it comes to climate justice.

The Biden administration has assembled a Marvel Avengers-level climate cabinet with no shortage of experience, intelligence, and political savvy to get the work done. From day one, the climate cabinet will be tasked with cleaning up the mess of the previous administration, prioritizing regulations that must be reversed, restoring the science and integrity of federal agencies, shoring up staff, and focusing on promises such as infrastructure investments into underserved communities and communities of color. Underlying everything is the promise to keep equity and justice as the foundation for all action. It’s doable and long overdue. Fixing our democracy means ensuring that underrepresented groups are no longer categorized as “underrepresented” because we are making an intentional effort to be inclusive. That’s how we talk about climate equity as a way to fix what is broken in our democracy.

We cannot dump all of the climate action into the lap of one agency or even the federal government. While the new administration is showing a force of strength and unity, they need our help. They have promised us bold action on climate and equitable solutions for our future; still, they need the American public to continue to talk, prioritize, and fight for climate action and fixing our democracy at the same time.

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