After Manchin nixes clean energy budget provision, youth climate change activists go on hunger strike in front of White House

·Senior Climate Editor
·3 min read

Five young activists began a hunger strike in front of the White House on Wednesday in a last-ditch effort to preserve the most important measures to combat climate change in President Biden’s Build Back Better infrastructure investment proposal.

The protest arose in response to recent news that Democrats are reluctantly scrapping a plan that would have set a national standard for utilities transitioning to clean energy sources, in order to win the support of Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a centrist Democrat from a coal- and gas-heavy state whose vote is key to passing the budget bill in the evenly divided Senate.

The strikers, who are working with the youth-led Sunrise Movement, are demanding that Biden’s full climate agenda be included in the forthcoming budget reconciliation package. They gathered Wednesday morning across the street from the White House on the sidewalk next to Lafayette Park, and they intend to sit there in folding chairs, holding placards, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day until their demands are met.

The only flaw in their plan? It isn’t the White House’s occupant who needs to be persuaded.

Five young activists began a hunger strike in front of the White House on Wednesday. (Hunger Strike for Climate Justice)
Five young activists began a hunger strike in front of the White House on Wednesday. (Hunger Strike for Climate Justice)

“Joe Biden made these campaign promises, and we worked really hard on his campaign and to get him elected so that he could stop the climate crisis on these promises that he made,” Ema Govea, an 18-year-old high school student from Santa Rosa, Calif., told the Guardian. “I won’t let Joe Biden send a message to the world that he’s willing to give up on climate because I know that the American people, and young people across the country and across the world, are terrified but they’re ready to fight.”

Biden and his allies in Congress would dispute the notion that removing the Clean Electricity Performance Program from their legislation is to “give up on climate.” Congressional Democrats and environmental experts are currently trying to devise alternative paths, such as investing in reducing industrial greenhouse gas emissions, that could help reach the president’s goal of reducing emissions by 50 percent by 2030.

But they wouldn’t deny that losing the single biggest portion of their climate action plan was a devastating blow, one that could undermine Biden’s ability to coax more ambitious climate-change-fighting commitments out of other nations at the upcoming U.N. Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland.

The question isn’t whether the president and leading Democrats in Congress such as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi want the bill to meet the youth activists’ demands, it’s whether they have the votes to pass it.

President Joe Biden walks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., on Capitol Hill in Washington, Friday, Oct. 1, 2021, after attending a meeting with the House Democratic caucus to try to resolve an impasse around the bipartisan infrastructure bill. (Susan Walsh/AP)
President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Capitol Hill earlier this month. (Susan Walsh/AP)

“Our hope is that by putting our bodies on the line, we can demonstrate the seriousness of the stakes of this moment and make Joe Biden and Democrats choose between Joe Manchin and his coal empire or the lives of us and everyone we know and love,” Govea told Teen Vogue.

If the president refuses to appease Manchin, it’s not clear how the bill would pass. And passing no bill at all, when the package also includes subsidies for solar panels and electric vehicles and other climate provisions, would lead to the U.S. missing its emissions target by an even wider margin.

But the activists seem convinced that Biden can somehow simply control a senator from a state that former President Donald Trump carried by 40 percentage points last November through sheer force of will. “We demand Joe Biden stand up to Joe Manchin to deliver on his agenda,” Kidus Girma, one of the strikers, said in a statement.

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