with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Nonviolent protests have always been a staple of climate activism on Capitol Hill. Now the attack on Congress by a pro-Trump mob is forcing environmental activists to reconsider what tactics they will continue to use.

The days of hounding lawmakers by disrupting their committee hearings and staging peaceful sit-ins at theirs offices are on pause, at least for the moment, as security tightens in Washington after Trump supporters violently assaulted the Capitol Building on the day Congress was set to certify President-elect Joe Biden's election win. 

What exactly climate advocacy at the Capitol will look like in 2021 remains to be seen.

“That's a good question. We're definitely reflecting right now on what that looks like,” Garrett Blad, a spokesman for the Sunrise Movement.

The youth-led climate advocacy organization made a name for itself by peacefully occupying the offices of Democratic leaders Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) in 2018 after the midterm election, demanding an ambitious climate agenda from the new Democratic majority in the House. 

The riot a week ago is darkening what is otherwise a bright time for environmentalists. The prospects of more ambitious climate legislation have gone up after Democrats secured a razor-thin majority in the Senate with the Georgia runoff election on Jan. 5.

Climate activists, though, say they are not deterred. They note the need to stop global warming is as urgent as ever, insisting they still will find a way of making their voices heard. 

Ahead of Biden's victory in the November election, the Sunrise Movement was gearing up for similar protests if Democrats won big, though more socially distanced with the coronavirus pandemic in mind. Now they're reconsidering what that looks like. 

“We're planning to still push our elected officials,” Blad added. “Sometimes, if that looks like going to their offices, that's what we are still prepared to do. I do not have a clear answer on what we're prepared to do in D.C. specifically, but elsewhere, we are moving forward with mobilizations to get this agenda passed.” 

Members of Friends of the Earth Action, another environmental lobbying group, have made a habit over the past four years of interrupting congressional testimony from President Trump's two Environmental Protection Agency chiefs, Scott Pruitt and Andrew Wheeler, by chanting and holding up signs. Those actions often resulted in Capitol Police escorting them out of hearing rooms and, in some cases, being arrested.

But Drew Hudson, a senior national organizer for the group, said they are careful not to push things too far. 

Their members make protest signs out of paper and without sticks so that they will not be construed as weapons. And after talking to U.S. Capitol Police, Friends of the Earth Action decided not to try to bring a large paper-Mache head of Pruitt into any of the buildings of the Capitol complex. 

“When we do these kind of things, we think carefully through, what are the things that are safe and that are legal? What are the things that may break a rule … but that will still make our point? And then we want to make sure that when we're doing that, it's not in a threatening way."

What they and other activists will be able to do in the future will depend on how tight security at the Capitol remains after inauguration. “We hope that it won't change much about our ability to interact with Congress,” Hudson said.

Some environmental protesters see a double standard. 

During Trump's four years of regulatory rollbacks, climate activists have had their fair share of confrontations with police on Capitol Hill to draw attention to climate change.

Dozens of Sunrise Movement members have been arrested during the occupations of Capitol Hill offices. The actress and activist Jane Fonda was also arrested five times as part of a series of “Fire Drill Fridays” protests that began last year.

Now some of those environmental advocates are wondering why there were so few arrests among pro-Trump rioters on the day of the attack.  

“We've had people taken out of line because they have milk in their backpacks,” said Dominique Browning, co-founder and head of the Moms Clean Air Force, whose members often show up at committee hearings in signature red T-shirts. “That's the kind of security [used] against mothers with their children.” 

“I am furious,” she added, reflecting on the ease with which the pro-Trump crowd breached the barricades around the Capitol. “This has put everybody in a much more dangerous place.”

Outside Washington, environmental activists endured greater government crackdowns on protests in recent years. A growing number of U.S. states have passed laws levying hefty penalties against anti-pipeline protesters in the wake of the demonstrations against the Dakota Access pipeline through North Dakota. 

Sunrise, like other green groups, emphasizes that nonviolence is in “the founding DNA of our movement,” according to Blad — in contrast to the pro-Trump rioters, some of whom broke into lawmakers' offices and assaulted officers. 

“Nonviolent action is the best way to win over the hearts and minds of the American people," Blad said, "and the best way to advance the movement for climate justice in this country.”

Power plays

The Biden administration will nominate Gary Gensler to head the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Gensler is expected to push companies to disclose more information related to climate change risks, Reuters reports. Regulatory institutions have become increasingly concerned that climate change poses a serious threat to long-term financial stability.

Advocates say that a more aggressive disclosure policy could have a ripple effect through the financial system, encouraging climate mitigation and more sustainable practices. A former chair of the Commodity Futures Trading Commission under President Barack Obama, Gensler has a reputation for being tough on Wall Street.

A pair of economists push Biden to set a higher cost on carbon.

A new working paper published Thursday in the Social Science Research Network suggests the Biden administration should place a far higher price on the cost of climate impacts than the government did under Barack Obama, a move that could have sweeping implications for regulations affecting nearly every facet of society.

The “social cost of carbon” – the dollar value the U.S. government ascribes to the damage stemming from one ton of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere – informs decisions ranging from whether to permit a new oil well to what sort of mileage goals U.S. autos should meet. The Trump administration has minimized this accounting tool and estimates global warming damages amount to between $1 and $7 for every ton of CO2 produced. The new administration is likely to put the price tag much higher.

Under the Obama administration formula, the cost would have reached $52 a ton last year. But University of California, Santa Barbara Economics Professor Tamma Carleton and University of Chicago Professor Michael Greenstone write a more accurate price at this point would be $125 a ton, and new analysis is needed to determine if it should be considerably higher. Unlike under Obama, the current administration does not take into account climate impacts overseas. And it uses a much higher “discount rate” – the rate of return used to figure out what future cash flows are worth today.

Greenstone, who helped develop Obama’s social cost of carbon while serving as the White House Council of Economic Advisers’ chief economist, said in an interview that advances in climate science and economics mean the incoming administration needs to reassess the price of climate inaction. Adopting a more realistic price also means acknowledging the benefits of other countries cutting their greenhouse gas emissions.

“Every time a ton of carbon gets abated in Moscow, or Mumbai, or Beijing, that is raining down benefits on the United States,” he said.

-Juliet Eilperin

Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall will join the National Security Council.

The former deputy secretary at the Energy Department was floated as a potential nominee to run that department, but that position ultimately went to former Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm. Sherwood-Randall will instead enter the Biden administration as homeland security adviser and deputy national security adviser. She has a long track record in government, including as a coordinator for defense and weapons of mass destruction policy during the Obama administration and as deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine, and Eurasia under President Bill Clinton. 

The Trump administration's last-minute push to roll back environmental protections continues.
  • With only a week left in office, the Trump administration removed protections for the northern spotted owl on more than 3 million acres of land in Oregon, Washington state and Northern California, the New York Times reports. The move by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service comes as the result of a settlement with the timber industry in which the agency agreed to reevaluate the spotted owls' protected territory. But the agency slashed far more protected territory than environmentalists expected.
  • Meanwhile, the Interior Department recommended weakening protections for millions of acres of land in the California desert. “The move is the latest in a string of last-minute proposals from the outgoing administration to accelerate development on public lands,” Reuters reports. The new proposal would reduce the size of specially protected habitats and conservation areas to clear the way for more wind and solar projects, mining and broadband infrastructure.
  • Emails obtained by the Hill suggest that there was internal pushback to a rollback on habitat protections that was finalized last month. Emails show that the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency in charge of marine fisheries, objected to an early draft of the proposed rule to narrow the definition of critically protected habitats. Although the agency ultimately came on board and the rule was finalized last month, environmental advocates say that it reveals internal dissent, possibly because the marine fisheries agency saw the rollback as a step too far.

Extra mileage

Bugs are on the menu in Europe.

The European Union’s food safety watchdog ruled that the larval form of the mealworm beetle is safe for human consumption, paving the way for the potential inclusion of the insects, either whole or in powdered form, in snacks, protein bars and other foods, Bloomberg News reports. The decision is expected to supercharge the growth of the insect-farming business, which has gained a reputation for producing more sustainable protein.