They care so deeply about the planet, they huddled in front of U.S. Rep. Eliot Engel’s office Feb. 6, under a gray sky as ominous as their message, to deliver what they see as nothing less than a radical, urgent charge to their local congressman.
As part of a national wave of actions calling on congressional leadership to tackle what activists describe as a global climate crisis, some 30 members of grassroots environmental groups — including Jennifer Scarlott, coordinator at Bronx Climate Justice North, as well as others from North Bronx Racial Justice, Northwest Bronx Indivisible, NYCD16-Indivisible, Bronx Progressives, and even Bronx/Upper Manhattan Democratic Socialists of America — descended upon Engel’s Johnson Avenue office demanding he throw his political clout behind what’s been dubbed a “Green New Deal.”
“This is the single-most urgent thing, and we don’t have much time to take care of this,” said Kathy Solomon of Northwest Bronx Indivisible. “And if we don’t take care of this, almost nothing else matters.”
The ramifications actually are vastly far-reaching, Solomon added.
“What happened in Syria is a direct cause of global warming causing the droughts,” she said, referring to the prolonged period of devastating production-crippling water shortage, which — along with war — produced the country’s smallest wheat crop in three decades. “The fires we’ve had in California, the super storms — people are dying. And more are going to die. It’s going to destroy our economy. We’d better wake up.”
In fact, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change warned last year there are, at most, 12 years to stave off catastrophic, civilization-imperiling warming — which also could wage major damage on the biosphere — according to the almost apocalyptic-sounding letter she and her fellow activists had brought to Engel.
“For too long, fossil fuel executives, and the politicians they bankroll, have actively sowed doubt among the public about climate change to protect their power and profits,” the letter read. “Meanwhile, indigenous peoples, communities of color and low-income families around the world suffer the worst impacts of pollution and the climate crisis.”
The deal calls for an end to new fossil fuel extraction, infrastructure and subsidies, instead shifting power generation to purely renewable energy by 2030. It further demands rapidly de-carbonizing agriculture and transportation sectors, and expanding access to public transportation. And it stresses making sure the changes are implemented in a way that’s fair and just, led by low-income workers and people of color.
But it’s also focused — crucially — on upholding indigenous rights, and creating good jobs with collective bargaining and wages families can actually live on.
The part about upholding indigenous rights is so important to Scarlott, in fact, she acknowledged last week the very ground on which she stood was land that had belonged to the indigenous Lenape people — the ancient root of many other American Indian nations — whose homeland included all of New Jersey, as well as northern Delaware, eastern Pennsylvania and southeastern New York, according to Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape Tribal Nation’s official government website.
All told, Scarlott and the Green New Deal backers delivered 220 petition signatures plus a copy of a letter addressed to every member of Congress, signed by more than 620 environmental groups from across the country clamoring for the deal.
Bronx Climate Justice North believes, “first and foremost, in people power, and building movement,” Scarlott said. “But we know that political power is essential also.”
Engel, however — chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — wasn’t there to personally greet the activists because he was in Washington for a hearing about the ongoing Yemen war, Scarlott said. But that wouldn’t stop her and fellow activists from marching up to the congressman’s office and presenting his staff with a bulky box of Green New Deal petitions.
And their message appeared to be starting to sink in.
“There’s been a flurry of activity on (Engel’s) part in the last 24 hours,” Scarlott said, after he announced Feb. 5 he’d signed on as an original co-sponsor of environmental legislation dubbed a “Green New Deal” championed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Democratic Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts that already had drawn widespread attention.
In fact, Engel’s been actively engaged in environmental causes since at least 2014, spokesman Bryant Daniels said. He’s certainly “not new to the party.”
“Tackling climate change has been a huge priority of mine for many, many years,” Engel said in a statement. “I have long been a staunch advocate for renewable fuels, and have always said that we need to invest in clean, green energy to break our dependence on fossil fuels, transform our economy, and move us into a more hospitable 21st century.”
But Engel also counts himself a member of the Safe Climate Caucus who’s authored and passed “numerous” amendments to appropriations bills that require all new federal vehicles to run on alternative fuel. And he’s co-sponsored bills that would end new fossil fuel projects and move electricity and most transportation to fully renewable energy by 2035.
Yet, the environmentalists wanted more — they also demanded Engel take a “no fossil fuel money” pledge. But Engel doesn’t do pledges, staffer Lisa Tannenbaum said. Regardless, actions speak louder than pledges, she added, since the congressman doesn’t take fossil fuel money in the first place.
And yet, amidst all the fervor for the purportedly radical — and in the eyes of its supporters, awesome — proposal, details of what it is, exactly, remained decidedly sketchy.
“There’s a heck of a lot of work that needs to be done to figure out what a strong, comprehensive ‘Green New Deal’ should have in it,” Scarlott said. “There’s many different ideas for what (it) should look like. There’s probably a lot of confusion, even in this group, about what a ‘Green New Deal’ is.”
But regardless of what it may turn into, Scarlott considers the deal a massive step in the right direction — one that “matches the scale of the crisis.”
Or as longtime environmental activist Michael Gary put it in even starker terms.
“Climate change is probably the leading cause that we all have to be involved in,” he said. “Of all the individual voodoos that plague our society, if we don’t have a planet, everything else falls by the wayside.”