Amid Delayed Action and White House Staff Resignations, Activists Wonder What’s Next for Biden’s Environmental Agenda
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, the senior director for environmental justice at the White House Council for Environmental Quality, or CEQ, resigned on Jan. 7. David Kieve, the public engagement director at CEQ, stepped down 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. Biden has also lost favor among some core constituents, according to a September Pew Research poll, which showed a double-digit drop among Black, Latino, female and young 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. In particular, Martinez and Kieve have acted as important liaisons for Biden, bringing together different stakeholders and acting as glue during years that have been marked by growing schisms within the 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.”
The reason for the staff departures remains shrouded in rumor. Kieve has yet to publicly say why he is stepping down, and attempts by Inside Climate News to reach him for comment have not been successful. 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 worry that the resignations reflect a broader frustration over what they call a lack of progress on climate and environmental justice efforts since January 2021, when Biden promised that the issues would be a central tenet of his presidency. 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 justice at Metropolitan Group who is also a prominent figure in the environmental justice movement, said she feels the administration has been working hard on 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 same activists also lambasted the Biden administration for failing to meet its promise to halt drilling on public lands.
“Promises aren’t substance,” said Rain Bear Stands Last, executive director of the Global Indigenous Council.
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In a particularly telling incident in August, members of the environmental justice movement sent a scripted email more than 5,600 times over a 48-hour period to top Biden administration officials, including to Kieve, POLITICO reported. The emails clogged communications for two days among high-ranking Biden officials. Leaders from the anti-fossil fuel group Stop the Money Pipeline said the emails were sent out of frustration with the administration for not following through on 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.”
The Biden administration has also struggled to pass national climate policy. It has failed to garner key support from Democratic moderates like West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, with proponents for the legislation losing some of their most powerful leverage along the way.
Progressives had initially vowed not to pass the bipartisan infrastructure bill until Congress first passed the Build Back Better Act, hoping to use that as leverage to force the more pricey climate and social spending package through the narrowly divided Senate.
But in November, Democrats passed the infrastructure bill anyway. The move was widely seen as a necessary victory for the Biden administration as it headed into a potentially damaging midterm election. And the deal was based on loose promises that negotiations would eventually result in a way to pass Build Back Better, along with its roughly $550 billion for climate and environmental 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 said the only people who know for sure why Martinez and Kieve left the White House are the staffers themselves. 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.”