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Some Duke environmental activists hopeful, others cautious about Biden's policies

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President Joe Biden ran on what has been described by some as “the most aggressive climate platform ever advanced by a U.S. presidential nominee in the general election.” But since taking office in January, environmental activists have been watching closely to see if he can fulfill his promises. 

Sophomore Grace Jennings, who monitors state and national environmental policy for the Duke Climate Coalition, noted how common it is for politicians to use “greenwashed jargon,” empty campaign trail promises about sustainability and environmental justice that don’t get translated into policy.

“Everyone loves to talk about it,” she said. “People aren't really willing to put in the effort.”

But this time, Jennings thinks things might be different—she can’t shrug off $2 trillion of spending Biden proposed, most of which will go to green infrastructure.

“Given the amount of money that's actually going into this plan, I actually am very hopeful,” Jennings said.

Duke environmental activists share this new hope as the Biden administration pledges environmental action, appoints major movement leaders to government positions and lays out plans to fight climate change and pursue environmental justice.  

It’s not just the spending that makes Jennings optimistic. She believes Biden’s plan is politically savvy, too: both feasible and serious because it targets economic sectors that impact many lives.  

“Infrastructure is not necessarily something that's like land protection. It's not necessarily stopping people from developing. It's actually just sort of skewing development into a more sustainable way, and I think that is more unifying in terms of the values between Republicans and Democrats than some other aspects of environmental policy, which are often much more polarizing,” she explained.

Biden’s goal of net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 impressed her too. 

“I see that as a very hopeful aspect of this plan, especially because it's sort of the first thing a lot of people see,” Jennings said. She thinks that the government may end up setting an example for the private industry to follow in terms of energy goals. 

Junior Robby Phillips, political team director of Sunrise Movement Durham, said the ambitions of the new administration are stronger than “anything that would have even seemed possible, frankly, two years ago.” 

Still, Phillips sees significant limitations to Biden’s emissions target.

“Net zero by 2050 isn't sufficient, especially because part of what net zero means is that you have an immense amounts of carbon offsets,” he said. He worries such offsets, which capture already produced carbon emissions, could encourage businesses to continue to produce such dangerous emissions. 

Additionally, for Phillips, 2050 is “just too far out.” He cited models from the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which say that the world needs to reduce human-caused CO2 emissions by 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 to avoid a climate disaster. 

Phillips sees issues with the scope of Biden’s policy too.

“It's watered down, it's really just like, not enough yet,” he said of the American Jobs Plan. “They're proposing to retrofit and enhance something like 20 million homes or something like that. And we really need to be doing 100 million homes or something like that, in a package like this, and so it's a good start but we need more of an investment behind it.”

The current plan is to “build, preserve and retrofit” more than two million homes and commercial buildings, according to a White House fact sheet.

Environmental Justice 

One bright spot for Phillips, however, is Biden’s focus on environmental justice. It’s incredible to see a United States president give real recognition to environmental justice issues, he said.

Phillips highlighted the new Environmental Justice Advisory Council and the Justice40 initiative, which directs 40% of “overall benefits” from federal investments to disadvantaged communities.

“Forty percent is probably the minimum that we need to see, but I think that level of commitment shows that they are taking a commitment to environmental justice seriously,” Phillips said.

Cameron Oglesby, Trinity ‘21, environmental journalist and former president of the Duke Undergraduate Environmental Union, shared that she was also excited when she learned that the Biden administration will make climate justice a government staple. 

Oglesby said current news coverage of environmental racism and justice didn’t become as comprehensive as it is now until about two years ago. Now issues are garnering attention, in part because the pandemic has highlighted inequitable “green space access, and the disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color.” The new notoriety has also emerged “because Biden brought it up,” she said.  

But Oglesby is not wholly optimistic. America’s history of racial justice issues being reduced to lip service makes her skeptical that the newly created environmental justice advisory council will lead to anything concrete. 

“I don't know that I personally trust that the creation of these entities, which are nice, but they're also sort of symbolic, are going to lead to any concrete action, just because we haven't seen it yet,” Oglesby said.

This is even despite the appointments of Robert Bullard, distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, and environmental activist Catherine Coleman Flowers, who Oglesby described as “fantastic” and “passionate,” to the council. Oglesby thinks more success will come through the appointments made in key agencies and executive offices that relate to environmental protection and racial justice, like Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and Michael Regan, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Biden’s “appointing of people who are very clearly interested in environmental justice and representative of the communities that are impacted by this stuff is the stuff that will actually make stuff happen,” she said.

However, Oglesby said environmental justice could “fall to the wayside” of efforts to conserve critical environments and curb emissions “unless it is framed as something that is intrinsically linked and connected to climate relief.” 

“If you say, reduce emissions in a particular community, you're also going to improve the air quality for those in that community,” she said. “It's also this idea that a lot of the things that are leading to greenhouse gas emissions, that are leading to pollution, are a result of extractive industries in certain communities that are bad for the people. If we reduce or completely eradicate these industries, we will both be reducing your carbon footprint and reducing the impact to these communities.”

Oglesby linked this connection between environmental justice and fighting climate change to Biden’s proposed American Jobs Plan. The plan makes clear that the infrastructure investment will take place in communities that historically have not seen it, she said.

While there is cause for optimism, there is still the fear that the momentum will not last. 

“We're starting to see that linkage coming into the language,” Oglesby said. “Whether or not it’ll stick around, I don't think he's been in office long enough to tell.”

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