05/14/2019 00:40 EDT | Updated 05/14/2019 10:36 EDT

Green New Dealers Find A New Villain In Joe Biden’s Climate ‘Middle Ground’

The former vice president's fossil fuel-friendly approach drew scorn at Sunrise Movement's latest rally in Washington.

Getty Editorial
2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden reportedly plans to pursue a “middle ground” climate policy that reduces greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining the oil and gas boom that began under President Barack Obama.

WASHINGTON ― The former vice president may call himself by the affectionate nickname “Middle-Class Joe,” but for proponents of the Green New Deal, “Middle-Ground Joe” could become an epithet.

Joe Biden’s name came up only once during the Monday night rally that capped off Sunrise Movement’s nationwide tour to promote the Green New Deal, but the two-word description of the ostensible Democratic presidential front-runner’s forthcoming climate plan became a bitter refrain.

“‘No middle ground’ is right,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), the Green New Deal’s leading champion in the House, repeating what one of the 1,500 attendees at Howard University’s Cramton Auditorium had shouted.

The audience hissed after activist Jeremiah Lowery mentioned “middle ground.” With Alexandra Rojas, executive director of the left-wing Justice Democrats, there was no ambiguity.

“Who here liked when Joe Biden said he was ‘middle of the road’ on climate policy?” she asked. Boos resounded in response.

The rhetorical lightning rod emerged Friday when Reuters reported that Biden planned to pursue a “middle ground” climate policy that reduced greenhouse gas emissions while maintaining the oil and gas boom that began under President Barack Obama.

The report drew heated responses from Biden’s 2020 rivals, activists and scientists. It offered a glimpse of the growing fight over how the Democratic Party should respond to the mounting evidence that, absent unprecedented economic change, humanity faces ecological collapse and climate catastrophe.

The Biden campaign downplayed the report last week. On Monday afternoon, the former vice president defended himself as a “leader on climate change” going back to 1987, when he introduced a bill requiring the White House to set up a task force to study the issue.

But Ocasio-Cortez said the length of Biden’s record is no substitute for substance just days after scientists recorded carbon dioxide concentrations of 415 parts per million for the first time in roughly 800,000 years. 

“I will be damned if the politicians who failed to act then are going to come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives,” she said.

Sunrise Movement co-founder Varshini Prakash vowed to #ChangeTheDebate on climate change in the 2020 election. 

Monday night’s event marked exactly six months since Sunrise Movement protesters charged into Democratic leaders’ offices on Capitol Hill to demand that transformative climate policy take priority in the next Congress.

If the dawn of the Green New Deal justified the first word of Sunrise Movement’s name, the rally Monday validated the second. Following a month-long roadshow that included stops in Kentucky’s coal country and wildfire-scorched California, the youth-led group surpassed 200 local chapters and counted volunteers “in the hundreds of thousands,” executive director Varshini Prakash said.

The group now hopes to wield its enlistees as a force in the Democratic primaries, with a big demonstration planned in Detroit on July 30, when the Democratic National Committee is scheduled to host its second debate. By that point, Democratic candidates must swear off fossil fuel donations, pledge to make the Green New Deal a day one priority and call for another debate focused exclusively on climate change — or face Sunrise Movement’s ire.

It’s no empty threat. Nearly half of likely Democratic primary voters in a dozen districts held by moderate Democrats would disapprove of an incumbent who opposed a Green New Deal, a January survey from the lefty think tank Data for Progress found. In March, 81% of self-described liberals, 77% of Democrats and 53% of independents reported feeling “highly worried” about global warming, according to a Gallup poll. Last month, a CNN poll found climate change was a top issue for 82% of registered Democrats planning to vote in the 2020 presidential primary.

Yet so far, only two presidential candidates have released detailed climate policies. Beto O’Rourke, the former Texas congressman, proposed a $5 trillion plan to make the United States carbon-neutral by 2050. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who is running on the single issue of climate change, detailed a plan to all but eliminate emissions from power plants, cars and new buildings by 2030, putting it the closest in line to the Green New Deal.

I will be damned if the politicians who failed to act then are going to come back today and say we need a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives.Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.)

It’s Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), tailing Biden in most polls, who seems most likely to garner support from the Sunrise Movement set. The senator has made climate change a core focus of his second White House bid. He co-sponsored the Green New Deal resolution introduced in February and he’s expected to unveil some kind of legislation on the issue in the coming months.

On Monday, Sanders was the lone presidential candidate to headline the rally, though Prakash said it wasn’t a campaign event for Sanders. Despite giving a conventional stump speech, Sanders entered and exited the stage to standing ovations and cheers of “Bernie, Bernie.”  

“Sounds like you guys are ready for a political revolution,” Sanders said. “Let me thank the young people of this country for leading the effort against climate change.”

It was the kind of box-checking platitude that normally goes unnoticed. But, here, it resonated. Sitting four rows back from the stage was Ciara Graves, who arrived over an hour early to get a seat with her mother. It’ll be at least four years until the 14-year-old can vote. But as Sunrise Movement digs in for what it’s calling “the decade of the Green New Deal,” the group was seeking recruits to host community events both for this election and future ones. When a number appeared onstage for a sign-up list, Graves took out her phone and texted it immediately.

Photo gallery What Climate Change Just Might Ruin See Gallery