November 5, 2020

How Much Does the President Matter for the Climate?

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

When it comes to climate change, it can feel like our future hangs in the balance of this presidential election in the U.S. But how much does the president really matter? And how can climate action move forward regardless of who wins? This week, Alex and Ayana talk with Abigail Dillen of Earthjustice about fighting for climate in the courts. Then, we speak with Benji Backer of the American Conservation Coalition about changing the climate conversation among conservatives.  

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Where to Listen


Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex Blumberg: And I'm Alex Blumberg. And this is the podcast where we talk about what we need to do to address the climate crisis and how we make those things happen.

Alex: Ayana, we're recording this podcast two days after the US presidential election.

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: It is Thursday morning. It happened on Tuesday. We're still waiting for the outcome to be decided. It's leaning Biden's way, but there is still not a call yet. And this is likely going to drag on for a little while still.

Ayana: And as we wait, we thought it might be helpful to put all this in perspective. When it comes to climate, in what ways does it really matter who is president? And in what ways does it maybe not matter quite so much?

Alex: Yeah. We know this is important. How important is it? And yesterday, we spent most of the day talking to various experts about this question, which was a little bit weird because we were both completely sleep deprived. It was the day after the election. But it was also nice to just have something to focus on besides election return numbers on the websites. And so today we're going to bring you two different interviews on what the outcome of this election means for the climate.

Ayana: But first, we wanted to offer a little bit of the big picture. So Donald Trump's presidency has been horrific for the environment.

Alex: Just dive right in. Call it like you see it.

Ayana: Just to make it clear, as of just yesterday, his administration completed removing the US from the UN climate agreement, that's often referred to as the Paris agreement, which is the one global mechanism for coordinating efforts of all nations to reduce carbon emissions and prevent a true climate disaster.

Alex: This is a big deal. Not only is the US now saying we're not going to commit to reduce our emissions like the rest of the vast majority of the world is committing to do, our decision also has all these ripple effects. It's now making it easier for other countries like Saudi Arabia and Brazil to slow walk their efforts in cutting carbon emissions.

Ayana: And another big way the Trump administration has been disastrous on climate is everything they've done to actually increase fossil fuel extraction. They have, on one hand, heavily subsidized fossil fuels, and on the other they're promising to cut the tax credits for renewable energies if they get a second term.

Alex: They've rolled back heaps of regulations, many of them passed under the Obama administration designed to help curb greenhouse gas emissions and protect the environment.

Ayana: Exactly. And based on that, some researchers have calculated that a second Trump term would make reaching the goals set out in the Paris climate agreement physically impossible. And so here we are, faced with a divergence of Trump doubling down on fossil fuels and stoking climate denial, compared with Biden committing to rejoin the Paris agreement on day one, and to lead a green recovery from COVID and the recession.

Alex: So clearly different priorities and aims when it comes to the climate.

Ayana: [laughs] Wild understatement, but yes.

Alex: But our question is: How much does that matter? We know it matters, right? It clearly matters. But how much? How deeply does a president's agenda determine US climate policy, which is another way of saying: What exactly is at stake in this election when it comes to the climate? Yesterday morning, early in the morning after election day, we had a conversation about this with someone who knows probably better than anyone exactly how important the president is. Her name is Abbie Dillen, and she's the president of an organization called Earthjustice.

Ayana: I love their tagline: "Because the Earth needs a good lawyer."

Alex: [laughs] Exactly.

Ayana: That's perfect. And sadly, very true. And a lot of what they do is file lawsuits to protect the environment. And that often means suing the government no matter who is president.

Abbie Dillen: Well, in any administration, political will always runs short to even enforce the laws that are on the books, much less legislate the new ones that are responsive to the new challenges we have. So a huge part, the core of our work is always suing the federal government. And just to give you an idea of the difference between the Trump administration and any other, we're suing the federal government over a hundred percent of the time more.

Alex: Wow!

Ayana: Hmm.

Abbie Dillen: So we basically doubled in size to be able to mount a strong defense against this administration. And we're still ...

Ayana: Like you hired a bunch more lawyers?

Abbie Dillen: Yeah. And, you know, Earthjustice went from an organization of around 200 people to an organization of around 400 people to deal with the last four years. And we're still, you know, stretched really thin.

Ayana: Yeah.

Abbie Dillen: You know, the narrative during the Obama administration became like, what can a president really do? President Obama got so hamstrung by the Senate and the House, and I think we kind of forgot in some ways how important the presidency is.

Alex: So what you're doing often is suing the federal government to sort of get them to enforce existing legislation a lot of the time, or to not break the rules that Congress has set?

Abbie Dillen: We have laws that sketch out big ideas about protecting our air, protecting our water, controlling waste.

Ayana: Right. So Congress will pass, like, the Clean Water Act, and then it's up to the EPA or other organizations to write the regulations that actually give the detail to what that act actually requires.

Abbie Dillen: Exactly.

Alex: And then those regulations become the law, then?

Abbie Dillen: They do. So they had the full force of law. If we think the regulations do not fully comport with the statute, then we sue over the regulations. So right now, some of the biggest fights are about efforts to gut the implementing regulations of, like, the National Environmental Policy Act, NEPA, or the Endangered Species Act.

Alex: Gotcha. And so a lot of what you're doing is you're saying sort of, no, no, no, you can't take away those regulations because the law that was passed in the '70s requires that these regulations be this strong. And if you tip it away, you're breaking the law.

Abbie Dillen: In law school, administrative law, I had this really entertaining professor and he said everything in administrative law turns on whether an action by the president or an agency is so-called "arbitrary and capricious." He's like, "This is a crazy test. The government should never fail it." But in fact, the government—and this government fails it all the time. Like, unprecedented failing.

Ayana: So what you’re telling me is, like, of the lawsuits that you brought against the Trump administration for harming our environment in a myriad of ways, when you win those cases, it's because the judges have determined the Trump administration is just arbitrary and capricious.

Abbie Dillen: Yes. Yes!

Ayana: I buy that.

Abbie Dillen: That's what I mean by like, it's wild to be winning so many cases. The government should be winning. It just gives you a sense of the overreach. So when you have an 82 percent win rate against the government, you know that across the board, they're doing pretty lawless things, especially when you're winning in front of new Trump-appointed judges.

Alex: In a certain way, this gives me comfort. Because in the courts, no matter who the judges are or who appointed them or whatever, there is—you at least have to have a reason that is backed by law to do what you're doing. And it sounds like what you're saying is, like, you've been suing and you're just like, tell us your reasons. And your reasons don't make sense.

Ayana: And, like, where's your science that backs this decision up? And they're like, oh, we don't have any.

Abbie Dillen: Yeah. Well, and by the way, the thing that you're dislodging was based on, like, piles and piles of science. What about that? And they're like, we just ignored that.

Alex: And can you give me a sense of the kind of—you know, you've brought 166 cases against the Trump administration, I think to date. Does one stand out as, like particularly emblematic of the kind of case that you're bringing that is as a result of this particular president?

Abbie Dillen: Trying to reverse for instance, the mercury air toxics rule. This was a big deal. It took 20 years to finally get regulation of mercury and other toxics from power plants, which were the biggest emitters all along. They'd been given a free pass by Congress in the 1990s. It took us literally 17 years to get the EPA to do the right thing. So you can imagine, that’s 17 years of science. It’s some of the most robust science there is in the world. And by the time Trump came into office, most power plants had installed 20th century—not even 21st century, just 20th century pollution controls and already had them running. But we're still fighting over this rule because this administration kind of took every single gain that had been made in the Obama administration and targeted it.

Alex: Right.

Ayana: So Gina McCarthy, who's now head of NRDC, who was the head of the EPA under Obama, when I've expressed concern to her, I'm like, oh my gosh, a hundred environmental rollbacks and counting, and you're saying it's closer to actually to 200, she was like, "Yeah, that's how many they've tried to roll back. But they're really bad at it, Ayana." Like, they're not doing it right. They're not following the procedure. They're not backing it up with anything. So, like, a lot of it's not going to stick, which is not comforting per se, but yeah, I mean, it's something.

Abbie Dillen: Yeah, Gina's a hundred percent right. They just have done a bad job. And they've been so greedy. You know, they could have done really damaging things more subtly, but they’ve swung for the fences and it's not serving them well. As the norms have blown up, we've been forced to go to court on everything just to, like, guarantee clean water instead of pushing forward the transformative kind of action that's called for in the next decade.

Alex: One of the things that struck me as you were talking is, like, yeah, you've held a bunch of things at bay, and while you were doing that solar power became the cheapest energy source available, And our mix of renewables became, you know, sort of like greater than our mix of coal for the power grid. And so there's certain things that are also underway, and I'm just wondering what continues? What's sort of independent of presidential power, and what are there for people to do?

Abbie Dillen: No matter what a president of the United States says, clean energy is just on—not on fire, California's on fire. But clean energy is out-competing fossil fuels. We're at this point. The states are making the decisions and, you know, lawyers have a huge role to play. We litigate energy policy state by state, municipality by municipality. And the wonderful story of the last four years is that we're—you know, we're making the economic argument for clean energy and winning. Even in red states, even in—you know, look at Indiana going so solidly for Trump. We're having some of the best wins in the country on clean energy.

Ayana: Yeah. I mean, we're seeing that in the polling too, right? Even Republicans are for clean, renewable energy. We know that, you know, Iowa and Texas are leading the US in wind energy, right? These are the jobs. This is sort of the writing on the wall. And so I think there isn't—there's certainly some amount of inevitability in this renewable shift. It's a question of speed.

Alex: Mm-hmm. Tell me about the wins in Indiana. What were—you said you've had some of the best wins in Indiana. What were those?

Abbie Dillen: We're in the middle of a gas rush. You know, this glut of cheap gas which has made the United States the biggest oil and gas producer in the world. I mean, I think we still kind of can't—anyone who grew up in the '70s, it's like blows your mind that this is the case, right?

Alex: Yeah. No, I remember gas lines in the '70s. And, like, OPEC.

Abbie Dillen: And so gas is looking for a way to be in everything. And so as we see some big nukes retiring and as we see the coal plants going down—long overdue—gas is rushing to fill that space. And so we're in a contest between gas versus solar, wind and storage. And in Indiana, we were able first to say, don't just approve, you know, two essentially billion-dollar gas plants.

Alex: Right.

Abbie Dillen: Actually do a request for proposals and see what the cheapest source of energy is. And it came back not as wind, but as solar-plus storage. It's just, you know, in Indiana. And so we were able to convince an Indiana commission who, you know, it's not like they are Earthjustice donors, they said, we're not going to approve this big gas plant. We're rejecting this proposal.

Ayana: The numbers just don't even make sense.

Abbie Dillen: The numbers don't make sense. Even five years ago, they would have been a kind of sleepy place where the utility comes in with a whole stack of documents saying, "We’re the monopoly, we’re the people who keep the lights on, here's our witnesses, and we basically want you to pay us X more money to do exactly what we want to do." And the regulators are like, "Okay." You never expected us to come and show the regulators that you're lying and cooking the books. And this is a pocketbook issue that's now in the editorial pages of the local paper.

Ayana: Yeah, we're overpaying for our dirty electricity that's polluting our air. Sounds like a terrible deal.

Abbie Dillen: Exactly. Well, and the people are like, "What?" You know, and the regulators their job is to make sure the utility company isn't bilking it's captive customers. And so when you can say, you know what? Like, this happened in Indiana. The Indiana commission said these filings are so shoddy—the utility's—based on our testimony, they said, we're fining you $10 million. The whole dynamic completely shifts in that moment. So the industry lawyers who I think just felt that they ran the show and didn't have to really litigate this stuff are catching up to the fact that now these proceedings are contested. They're really contested. But it's been a kind of golden age of surprising everyone by showing up.

Alex: Again, at this juncture, we still don't know what the outcome's going to be.

Abbie Dillen: I don't think I've ever stood at so stark a crossroads. We have been doing what we call scenario A and B planning: A being a Biden and B being a second four years of Trump.

Ayana: So I want to talk a little bit about your plan for Biden winning. And in fact, it's quite likely. So in that scenario, what are your priorities? Like, you don't have to play as much defense, but you've still got this whole big team of people who want to make sure that the government is doing the right thing for nature, for climate, for public health. What's on the top of your list of things to push forward in that scenario?

Abbie Dillen: Well let me just say, putting the pieces back together again, cleaning up this mess, will be a huge project. So a lot of folks at Earthjustice will still be trying to resolve all the damage that's been done.

Ayana: Step one, undo the damage. I'm sure there's some parts that are easier, right? That a President Biden could just, like, reverse quickly.

Abbie Dillen: Yes. Sign a new executive order.

Ayana: Okay.

Abbie Dillen: Change position in litigation. Settle the lawsuit. Don't go forward with awful rule-making that's currently underway. So there's a lot of that. But beyond that, what would we do to really flip the switch? And the conditions for that pretty exciting. I mean, I think you've seen a groundswell of climate ambition.

Ayana: For sure. I mean, the evolution of his climate plan which we've covered in detail on this show is one amazing piece of evidence for it that.

Abbie Dillen: It's an incredible piece of evidence, what an administration who would attract the best and brightest people to come back and rebuild the agencies could do. And so, you know, we could settle a hundred lawsuits, and on terms that required the agency to not just restore protections, but to go above and beyond. We could be really thinking about what it looks like to build back better. I will say that in that world of new possibilities, we will be dealing with the reshaping of the federal courts that has happened over the last four years. So it's one thing for Trump-appointed judges to recognize that a Trump rule can't pass the crazy test. It's another thing for those judges to weigh in on creative, positive use of existing law.

Abbie Dillen: There's another crisis that is deeply intertwined with the crisis climate crisis, but we don't talk about it enough, and it's the biodiversity crisis. And we are still over-exploiting our systems to the point where our food security, the web of life on earth is threatened. And North America is critical to addressing the global problem. The United States has vast ecosystems that we could put into protective management and be a part of the solution. And that's something the president has enormous control over: our federal lands and our—and tribal lands, where reforming how consultation with tribes goes could be really, really, really powerful.

Ayana: And I think one of the most remarkable pieces of Biden's climate and environment platform has been this commitment to the idea of 30 by 30: protecting 30 percent of nature by 2030. It's something that scientists have been talking about for a decade, right? Like, we have to protect at least a third of nature if we are to maintain a stable environment and climate system. And I was like, yeah, I know the science supports this but, like, politicians never will. And to see how quickly that has evolved from, like, scientific papers that seemed robust but wistful, to that being just part of Joe Biden's presidential platform. It's like, yeah, we're going to protect 30 percent of nature. We're going to get there in 10 years. It's exciting because then we're at the discussion where we need to be, which is how are we going to protect our ecosystems? How are we going to heal our climate? How are we going to protect public health? Which is a very different discussion than, like, should we even do those things?

Abbie Dillen: Yes, yes.

Ayana: And "how" instead of "whether." Yeah.

Abbie Dillen: Yeah. And by setting those goals, you suddenly realize it's plausible.

Ayana: Totally.

Abbie Dillen: I mean, we're seeing the path forward to these transformative goals. And if the discourse is there, you know, then we can stop squabbling around about the crumbs and get to what's necessary in the next 10 years.

Ayana: So one of the things a lot of us are thinking is like, what can we do, right? Like, we have a community with this podcast of doers, people who want to be part of the solution. And obviously not everyone can, you know, take the administration to court. And you sort of write about and talk about the need for us all to be engaged. So what does that look like in this moment, and what would you ask of us? You know, how can we—how can we hold the line? How can we move it forward as just regular people?

Abbie Dillen: Well, the beauty of caring about climate is that you don't have to choose between acting local and pushing for systems change. The system change happens locally. That stays the same no matter who our president is. And when I look at taking back your city council, taking back your state, activating in the place that you know, because we can change the politics. It takes time.

Ayana: I'm projecting slightly, but it sounds like one takeaway from the way that you see the world, the sort of perspective that you have because of the depth to which you're not just involved, but leading and shaping the way climate and environmental policy progresses in the US, it's almost like just pick something. Like, if it's your public utility commission, like, pick that, right? If it's flipping your State House, pick that. If it's advocating for a deadline in your state for a hundred percent clean energy, throw your weight behind that. Because those things really start to add up when we're talking about how do we shift the inertia, the momentum, as well as the sort of direction of this work. Does that seem like a reasonable takeaway?

Abbie Dillen: A hundred percent, yes. You've said it so beautifully now and in other places too, I couldn't agree more. Just pick your thing. And even if it's, I'm worried about my mom in this assisted living home, the next time the power goes out because the elevators don't work, and that climate change is making this worse, that's a way to engage. You know, the more that we recognize how this is impacting us most closely and advocate for a solution, all of those things cumulatively require the change.

Ayana: I'm so grateful that we had the chance to speak with you this morning after Election Day, while we're sort of sitting here in limbo to just think about what's possible, what's going to be hard, and what we can lean into.

Abbie Dillen: Well, I didn't know how I was going to get through the day, but this has helped me see how. It's wonderful to be with you both.

Alex: Abbie, thank you so much.

Ayana: Thank you, Abbie.

Abbie Dillen: Thank you so much.

Alex: Coming up after the break, we talk with a Republican climate activist who just got back from a 50-day road trip around the country, where he says he talked to lots of people who care about the environment and climate change, and also voted for Donald Trump. Is there a secret Donald Trump-environmentalist crossover voter? That’s coming up after the break.


Ayana: Welcome back. In the second half of the show today, we’re talking to Benji Backer, president and founder of the American Conservation Coalition. We’ve had him on the show once before, and his group, ACC, is all about organizing conservative young people who care about the environment and climate. And their goal is to push Republican politicians to take these issues seriously.

Alex: And we started our conversation by talking to Benji about this big road trip that he had just finished. He'd traveled to over 30 states all around the country talking to folks about climate change. He called this tour the Electric Election Road Trip—because he was doing it in an electric car, of course.

Benji Backer: Yesterday, I finished a 50-day tour of the United States, where we visited 34 States in 50 days, and we were doing it all in a Tesla X. We conducted about 40, 45 interviews with important leaders across the country on climate change reform, from mostly business leaders to elected officials, to activists, to non-profit leaders. And not only meet with the people in the clean energy industry, but also meet with people in the agricultural industry, in the sportsmen community, in the forestry community, in even the coal community. We visited a coal community, and it was pretty eye-opening what we saw over the course of the trip, which I think really plays into what happened in the election, which is that Americans A) want hope and unity, which is what they're hoping to have through what is seen as likely now a Biden presidency. But you saw conservatives turn out in really high numbers to keep—probably keep the Senate, and win over some House seats in specific districts that weren't expected. And the election itself was a lot closer.

Benji Backer: And I think what it comes down to is that right now, there is this massive rural-urban divide. And urban folks—which I'm one of—get a lot of time, a lot of attention, a lot of media. And it is really, really difficult for people in urban areas to understand what people in rural areas go through. And it's not the same to say, oh, well, rural areas don't understand what urban areas go through. Well, they have to hear about it all the time. They literally—like that's all they hear every day. And they're being told what to do by urban places every single day.

Benji Backer: And so when we toured this country, it was very obvious that, you know, the cities of New York and Boston and Seattle and San Francisco—and I live in Seattle—they all totally misunderstand and don't know what these communities are going through. And on climate, they don't even try to make these communities part of the solution.

Ayana: So this is interesting to hear from you because I do live this dual life.

Benji Backer: Yeah.

Ayana: Like, I do spend somewhere between 25 percent, and this year more like 80 percent of my time in rural, upstate New York, which is deeply conservative. So I've watched over the course of the last six to eight months all the Trump flags go up, the Confederate flags go up, and seeing the writing on on the wall, right? And having had, over the last 20 years, umpteen conversations with our neighbors who are farmers. I'm so glad Benji that you brought up agriculture as something that we really need to be thinking about, especially in the context of climate. I'm the rare Brooklynite who is having these conversations on a regular basis with people over the course of many years, to start to have some insights into the challenges rural areas are facing. Indeed, how they feel neglected in terms of policy, how they feel sort of like mis-characterized by the media. And I do think my understanding of this election is very different because I'm spending so much more time in rural areas now than I was four years ago.

Benji Backer: Well first of all, I'm really glad you brought up that example of upstate New York, because I think it's really important that more of us start as much as we can trying to understand where those people in rural communities are coming from, because they have so often been told what to do and how to do it, and with no resources given, and then no wonder they don't feel warmed up to the climate movement.

Alex: Benji, tell me about a conversation that struck you, like what was said, who were you talking to, that this was epitomized, this idea?

Benji Backer: I think the perfect conversation to encapsulate what we saw in the different rural communities was actually on our last stop, which was in Emery County, Utah. A county of 10,000 people, a very coal-heavy county, two coal power plants in a county of 10,000 people. And we met with three county commissioners in charge of kind of managing the coal plant. And I guess I was just blown away at how emotional they were about being part of the solution. And how for the sake of their community and the sake of the beautiful environment that surrounds those two coal plants—I mean, it is beautiful. That they have always wanted to be a part of the solution, but no one's ever tried to reach out. Like basically, they know that they're going to be transitioned out and they're open to that. And they're like, "We're so open to that." But they want to be a part of the solution. And they said I was the first environmental activist that had ever visited them. And that John Curtis, the Republican that toured that with us, was the only elected official, you know, on the national level that had ever given them the time of day that focused on climate change.

Benji Backer: So that's a problem, because we still have coal plants. And so if we're not trying to work with coal communities on the solution, work with them in tandem, then what are we doing? Like, how are we actually going to solve the problem? And so that was really eye-opening to me. But it was a bigger example of how a community that can be part of the solution, that's open to it, has been open to it for decades, is seen as the enemy just because of its past and not because of its potential for the future.

Ayana: So Benji, you and I have been DM-ing a tiny bit on Instagram as I was inviting you to be interviewed, and just about the election. And one thing you said I'd love to hear more of, which was you just wrote, "I just can't believe how much people see eye to eye on this."

Benji Backer: Mm-hmm.

Ayana: And, you know, a lot of us saw the polling data come in through Fox News last night, you know, how concerned are you about the effects of climate change? And 72 percent of Americans are somewhat concerned or very concerned. And how in favor are you of increasing government spending on green and renewable energy? And 70 percent of Americans are strongly in favor or somewhat in favor. That data sort of backs up what you're saying you saw. So I'd love to hear a little bit more about, like, just what you've seen across the US as far as what does it look like to see eye to eye on this, and sort of what opportunities does that really open up?

Benji Backer: Yeah. And I'm really glad you brought that up because that was the best part of the trip was how hopeful I felt for action after going through and seeing how unified the messaging is. And that the solutions oftentimes start at the local level and then are scaled to the national level. So you can see what happens as a success story in South Dakota, and start to scale that to other Midwestern states as an example. And that is happening. South Dakota is starting to lead on clean energy in a massive way. And now other Midwestern states are taking that clean energy for their grid, and now they're trying to do the same thing. And so that message of kind of hope and unity and markets and innovation and kind of solutions at all levels was the same, no matter if we talked to Democrat Dean Phillips in Minnesota or Democrat Chris Coons in Delaware, which we talked to on the trip, or it was Dan Crenshaw and Greg Abbott, who we talked to in Texas.

Alex: And these were Republicans.

Benji Backer: Exactly. And two Republicans that have a very national platform and haven't necessarily, you know, leaned in as much on this issue as a lot of people would like. And everyone is having that same message. And I think that what it proved to me was that the polling that you were talking about last night is correct, and that 72 percent of people who are taking climate change seriously in this country, most of them don't fall into this dichotomy of Green New Deal or denialism. And we have this kind of far-right and far-left solution that we only hear about day in and day out. And if we can find that center ground to get to these decisions, then that makes climate action a priority, and it makes it actionable right now. And that's where I think the potential is.

Ayana: But I guess I'm concerned, I think a lot of people are concerned. Trump's done such a good job of propping up climate science denial that that's really hard to undo, right? A lot of people have bought into that because of what he said.

Benji Backer: I do believe that a Republican Senate, a Democrat House, and a Democrat presidency could be the first true catalyzing opportunity for climate action in this country, because we need bipartisan action. If we have someone at the helm that's trying to get it done and he has to work with a Republican and a Democratic House and Senate, then I think we have a real chance of starting to make some moves.

Alex: Wait, are you saying you're pulling for a Biden presidency?

Benji Backer: For the sake of the climate, I think it'd be a really good situation if the Republicans held onto the Senate and Biden had the presidency so that they could work together on a bipartisan climate plan. I think that would be a really interesting dynamic.

Ayana: Huh. I would push back on that analysis that that would make it much more likely to pass meaningful climate legislation, because the Republicans that we do have in the Senate have not been interested in this. You know, climate denial has become part of the Republican Party platform, unfortunately, in the last decade as you've personally experienced. Whereas we know that the Democrats have moved to be much more proactive on climate in the last few years, especially. So a Republican-controlled Senate is an enormous hurdle, given that we don't—we are not currently having the debate of like, what do we do? But like, should we do anything? Or should we just sort of ignore it because it's a hoax or whatever. And my question for you is, like, from your perspective, like, how fast can we really get there, knowing how many Republicans in the Senate are not in favor of doing really anything on climate right now? Like, how—because there's an urgency too. It's not just like, could we eventually get enough Republican senators to get on board with doing something? You know, I certainly think that's possible in a few election cycles, but I'm curious what you're seeing as possible sort of like with the people that we have in place now.

Benji Backer: I believe that we will see climate action in the Senate right away in January.

Alex: Really? Wow!

Benji Backer: The Republican Party—yeah.

Ayana: This is a bold statement. I look forward to talking to you in February.

Alex: I know. From your lips to God's ears.

Ayana: And what would that climate action look like, though?

Benji Backer: I think it would be getting through the few dozen, the couple dozen bipartisan climate bills that are in Congress right now.

Ayana: Like managing refrigerants, for example, as we've discussed here. Super potent greenhouse gases.

Benji Backer: Doing things like investing in battery storage and nuclear energy, and planting trees. Finding ways to capture carbon, and all the bipartisan bills that are in Congress right now that have been delayed because of partisan politics. I think that that starts to end, and that you start to see things move down the field slowly to start, and pretty quickly by the end of this session.

Ayana: So why would that end? You know, if we still have Mitch McConnell sitting on all these bills.

Benji Backer: Republicans are very much open to acting on climate in the House and the Senate. And they have been at a crossroads where the president hasn't been prioritizing it, and they know they need to. And I do believe that there are enough voices in the Republican Party on the Senate side to make a massive impact on climate, whether that's Mike Braun or Tim Scott or Thom Tillis, if he ends up winning. I think these people are going to step up to the plate in a way that we haven't seen yet.

Alex: I think—there's a lot of skepticism, I think, from people on the left. And you're saying that there's—to expect a thing that we have never seen before. You know what I mean? There was eight years of the Obama administration without any sort of like cooperation, without any sort of action, bipartisan action on climate. There was four years of the Trump presidency without any action on climate. What's different?

Benji Backer: What's different is that you didn't have the House minority leader in the Republican Party saying that climate change is real and putting together his own climate platform. What's different is you didn't have ACC pushing for conservative climate action in 50 states. What's different is that this generation isn't looking at it, Millennials and Gen Z, young Millennials and Gen Z, aren't looking at it from a partisan lens, and they don't care what party people are when it comes to fighting climate change. And what's different is that we're actually organized. We're ready to rumble, and we're not going to let up. We have the resources to do it. And we have the members of Congress who are ready to do it in a way that they weren't years ago. And if you don't believe that, then I don't think that you're seeing the obvious shift that is happening within the conservative movement. And now what’s the next step gonna be? It’s gonna be pretty large.

Ayana: I know that a lot of your work is providing—and you know, ACC's work more generally, is providing in essence, the political cover for a lot of conservatives who would be inclined to push forward climate action, right? To say like, don't worry, we're behind you, right? Like, your constituents want this, this is popular. So what's your plan for what's next? Because we still need to push our politicians, right? The one thing it's not safe to assume is that people will just do the right thing on climate because it's a new Congress.

Benji Backer: Right. They're going to feel the heat from their own side in a way that they've never felt before.

Ayana: Is that a threat or a warning? I’m just quoting Cardi B for fun. [laughs]

Benji Backer: It's a warning. It's a warning. It's a warning. It's going to be positive pressure to start. And it's going to say, you know, we have an opportunity to stake the claim of the future of this country, and so we are going to be there at their door, pushing them to take action as we've done so many times in the past, but we're going to do it even more so. We're going to write more op-eds, we're going to have more members of Congress meet with our activists. We're going to do more rallies. We're going to ramp up our activism in a massive way to make it obvious that the dialogue is shifting, and that conservatives can and should have a voice on climate change. And that it's not anti-conservative to work with a Democrat on climate policy. It's not anti-conservative to work with your Republican counterpart on introducing climate policy. It's actually very much conservative. And if you want to win elections, cement your legacy and help the environment all at the same time, you prioritize climate change. This election’s proving it yet again, and we're going to be at their door, pushing them to do it in a positive way. And then maybe not so much in a positive way, if we're not seeing the change that we want to see.

Ayana: I know you're hearing a lot of feedback from young Republicans. How are they feeling?

Benji Backer: They want a new movement. What's happening right now, there are a lot of people that I know who are young and care about this issue a lot and felt like they still needed to vote for President Trump. There are really good stewards of conservatism at local levels and in certain members of Congress, really good people. But at the national level, there needs to be a reset.

Alex: What would you say to people who want to be involved in solutions going forward no matter who's president?

Ayana: Yeah. Because clearly voting is not enough, right? So ...

Alex: It's important.

Ayana: Assuming, you know, a lot of people who care about the climate did vote, that's not obviously where the work ends.

Benji Backer: Right.

Ayana: And regardless of who's in office, in Congress and in the White House, there's a lot of work to do. So yeah, what suggestions do you have of ways people can continue to be involved or to deepen their involvement to push forward climate solutions in the US?

Benji Backer: The first thing that I would say to people is prioritize action over activism. Prioritize writing your elected official, being at their doorstep, having productive conversations with them, voting, being active on social media but tagging them, you know, doing all the things that you need to do. Show up and show out. And it's pretty easy to start shifting this conversation if we have more people who are doing the action and being a part of the solution. And that, again, is through direct conversation and outreach to elected officials. That's working with them or for them. That's being a part of a company that's being sustainable. That's demanding it from the staff perspective if you're in a company, from the corporate side of things, I mean, there's so many ways for you to be a part of the system and changing it in the way that you leveraged your voice. And it's not going to always be easy.

Ayana: How are you sort of delineating activism and action?

Benji Backer: Yeah. I mean, I'm a climate activist, but we—what we do so much is just talk about the problem. We talk about it, we talk about it, we talk about it. We say we want answers, then we don't do anything about it. It is incredible how many people, especially young people, are so passionate about this, but then just think that protesting and posting something on their Instagram story is good enough. It's just not.

Ayana: Not even in the main feed, just in the stories. That's clearly not commitment to change.

Alex: [laughs]

Benji Backer: I know! I know! We got to do both and then you're good. No, but seriously, we have to get out there a little bit more. We have to be part of the process. And I think not enough people are willing to be a part of the process. And elected officials want to hear from their constituents. They want to be—they want to have productive conversations with them. They don't want to simply be screamed at. Now if they deserve to be screamed at after numerous attempts of having a productive conversation, then that's a different story. But just to come at them with anger and hate is not very appealing either. It's all about equipping people with the opportunities for action, so that they know what they can and should do to be part of that change. And I think it's more than just being on the field, being a loud voice. It's being on the field and actually running the place.

Ayana: I think this is a really important point, this idea of being part of the process, right? Don't just watch it and comment on it. Find all of the ways that you can directly engage.

Alex: Mm-hmm.

Benji Backer: Exactly.

Alex: And that, of course, is exactly what we are here for on this podcast week after week, to help you find ways to meaningfully, effectively engage in the process of accelerating climate solutions. In other words, we’re at the part of the podcast where we talk to you about, like, here are some concrete steps that you can take to help.

Ayana: And right now, the focus needs to be on making sure that all the votes are counted. One way you can stay tuned and help to safeguard our democratic process is by signing up for updates from a new coalition initiative that's called Protect the Results. Details on that are at

Alex: And of course, no matter what those results ultimately reveal, we need to hold politicians accountable on climate. We need to push them, whoever they are. This is a long game.

Ayana: And when do prioritize supporting politicians who advocate for strong climate policy, good things can happen. So we're going to end on a high note today by sharing a few of the climate wins in this election.

Alex: Let's do it. In Nevada, voters approved a state constitutional amendment that will now require Nevada to target 50 percent clean power by 2030.

Ayana: Columbus, Ohio, voted to be powered by 100 percent clean energy by 2023. And a whole bunch of Green New Deal champions have been elected and re-elected to Congress. And there are lots more examples. There’s a great Twitter thread on this by Professor Leah Stokes, climate policy expert. We’ll post the link to that in the show notes and in our newsletter.

Alex: And the point is, all of our hard work? It does add up. Should we do the credits?

Ayana: Yeah.

Alex: All right. How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and a Gimlet production.

Ayana: You can follow us at @how2saveaplanet—with the number 2—on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at

Alex: How to Save a Planet is hosted by me, Alex Blumberg.

Ayana: And me, Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson.

Alex: Our reporters and producers are Kendra Pierre-Louis, Rachel Waldholz, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger.

Ayana: Stay in the game, y'all. Stay tuned. We’ll see you next week.

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