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Climate activists pivot to local action, frustrated by Washington gridlock

Young climate activists participate in Youth Climate Strike LA outside City Hall on March 25, 2022.Mario Tama/Getty

In the aftermath of Senator Joe Manchin ruling out quick action on a landmark federal climate law, a legislator and activists are moving to expand state and local efforts in the fight against global warming.

Ed Markey, a Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, suggested there would be a “higher ambition” for states and municipalities across the country—and suggested that action would even be possible within red states. “We should encourage those blue mayors to take the highest possible standard,” he said.

The strategic pivot comes after supporters of President Joe Biden’s climate bill tried again and again to rework it to pass the muster of Manchin, a West Virginia Democrat whose vote is critical to passage. But Manchin has now decided to hold back support for climate and tax provisions in a broad spending bill. For many, it brought to mind Peanuts’ Lucy lifting the football from Charlie Brown.


On Friday, Manchin said he’d reconsider a climate bill again in September after he had seen August’s inflation numbers. But this time climate activists and their allies in Washington didn’t seem interested in playing the role of a battered Charlie Brown.

RL Miller, political director of Climate Hawks Vote, expressed frustration over the last year-and-a-half, worrying she and others pushing for legislation “frittered away our best chance to do something substantive on climate.”

There are still federal actions Biden can implement without Senate approval, like declaring a “climate emergency” and compelling strict regulations around coal- and gas-fired plants. But it probably won’t be enough to fulfill the US Paris Agreement pledge to at least halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Many climate groups that had been focused on Washington since the 2020 election are now reassessing strategy. Jamal Raad, executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate lobbying group, said his organization is pushing for executive orders but is also expanding their state-focused approach. “We now have a state policy director and a state campaigns director that is working directly with governors and groups like US Climate Alliance,” he said. “I think that investment will be more important now.”


Rob Schuwerk, executive director of Carbon Tracker, a think tank looking to align investors’ strategies to climate change action, said that at the state level, commissions that oversee utilities have the ability to influence policy by helping companies implement climate targets. Actions like that, he said, “have significant benefit if they’re implemented everywhere.”

The youth-led Sunrise Movement is thinking even more locally. “We have to make the intentional decision to start building powerhouses locally across communities in this country,” said John Paul Mejia, national spokesperson for the group.

One idea they are planning is called the Green New Deal for schools, which would involve getting middle school, high school and college students involved in local climate action, as well as trying to elect pro-climate supporters into school boards. The group has faced criticism from within for not supporting its local hubs more in the past.

Other groups see untapped opportunities to appeal to a broader base of voters on climate issues. “We know that black and brown folks care about the environment, but we also know that they have not been reached out to,” said Julio López Varona, co-chief of Campaigns at the Center for Popular Democracy Action, a collective of community groups.

But as there is no real substitute for comprehensive federal law, the lure of the Manchin football game has not been entirely dispelled. “If Senator Manchin is still interested in climate,” Markey added, “he should open the door that he closed. He knows where to find us.”


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