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A conversation with Rep. Ilhan Omar about climate justice and the future

On September 23, I moderated a panel of Minnesota elected officials and environmental justice organizers. On the call was Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, a champion of the Green New Deal and a member of “The Squad”.

The event was organized by Minnesota Clean Energy for Biden, and the other speakers were equally fantastic. But I was struck by something that Rep. Omar said, so I wanted to share it here, in context, to emphasize how important it is that climate justice is now the centerpiece of Democratic politics.

Rep. Omar led off our conversation by talking about the climate anxiety she feels personally. I’d never heard a sitting member of Congress talk like this before, and to me it signalled an important shift for young voters that could shift this election. Imagining a world that prioritizes climate justice – that prioritizes our generation’s right to simply exist and to imagine our own future – is transformative.

You can watch the entire conversation here, and read a selected transcript of my conversation with Rep. Omar below:

Eric Holthaus: I want to pretend that we are living in the year 2025. We are just finishing up the first term of the Biden Administration. We have passed transformative legislation on climate justice. We are seeing that money, those resources, the people beginning to have a say and beginning to transform the world around them. Beginning to transform our communities. Beginning to make a real difference and turn the tide of history towards climate justice. What does it mean for you, personally, to have that world be a reality? If you could give us a picture of that world five years from now, what would that world look like for you?

Rep. Ilhan Omar: I feel like you could have probably seen it on my face as I just dramatically shifted. I think that being able to breathe without anxiety, without worries – not just for our democracy, for the future of our children, worries over whether we would sustain our planet, the idea of having four years of what could be possible if we got our wish list of what climate justice looks like for us – is very exciting.

EH: How are you working personally to talk about climate in this election? Maybe you could share a story of what it took to bring up climate personally? The conversation has started to shift from something that’s historically been scary and difficult to talking about justice – about racial justice, economic justice and basic human rights that we have as people. That’s what the climate movement is about, and that is what I see when I look at the Biden-Harris climate plan, that everyone gets a chance to thrive. How do you talk about climate with your friends and neighbors and people you work with here in Minnesota?

IO: I think for me it’s about making the conversation tangible and have it connect to some of the real issues people are experiencing in their communities right now. Often times when we talk about climate justice, when we talk about climate change, when we talk about the climate crisis, it goes over people’s heads. It’s easy when you talk about clean water, clean air, clean soil, what it means to live in a neighborhood that’s not being polluted, what it means to have access to a more walkable and liveable environment, what it means to have healthier foods and soil you can grow on. I think there’s a health aspect to that conversation where you can talk about sustainability and what access to health care means for folks. I represent all of Minneapolis and 14 of the surrounding suburban cities. In Minneapolis, just in one neighborhood, we have the sixth highest asthma rate in the country for children. I talk to women about the infant maternal mortality rate and what it means for the Black community, for Black women who are four times more likely to die from giving birth. All of these things are connected to the environmental injustices that they have experienced for so long. What a real investment in climate justice would look like for themselves, for their neighbors, for people they are connected to is the way in which we can easily have these conversations.

Joe Biden – climate justice champion?

The numbers don’t lie: Joe Biden’s $2 trillion proposed investment in renewable energy and environmental justice for communities hardest hit by the intersections of systemic racism and climate change are the boldest climate agenda of any presidential nominee in US history – even bolder than Bernie Sanders’ 2016 climate platform.

Biden’s plan is no Green New Deal – he’s been very clear about that – but it is a path towards a Green New Deal that will transform millions of people’s lives in the short term. Activists from the Sunrise Movement are convinced they can keep the pressure on a President Biden to enact an even more progressive climate agenda, and so far the data bear that out.

Yesterday’s post from my Substack colleague Dan Pfeiffer’s The Message Box newsletter gave a tantalizing window into why this is all so important: A new poll from Change Research of voters age 18-40 in battleground states showed that enthusiasm is much higher this year than in 2016, and climate change is a huge reason why.

According to Pfeiffer: “Informing young voters about Biden’s Climate Change plan is the single best way to increase enthusiasm for him.” Young voters, particularly voters of color, said they were much more excited to vote for Joe Biden after hearing the following message:

Joe Biden plans to make a historic investment to fight climate change and secure environmental justice by investing $2 trillion in clean energy infrastructure and jobs, paid for by rolling back the Trump tax cuts.

If there’s one thing you can do to help advance the cause of climate justice between now and the election on November 3rd, it’s talking about climate change and climate justice as much as you can with anyone who will listen – but especially with young voters in swing states. I’ve signed up to help text bank and phone bank swing state voters with the Sunrise Movement, and you can too.

When they take office, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will advance climate justice at the most critical moment in history. It won’t be enough, but we won’t stop fighting either.