As someone who’s been organizing since I was a teenager, I can tell you that it’s hard to get people to focus on two things at one time. Pick a real need and work on it in real time—that’s the way to win people over.
We saw this play out when President Biden announced he would seek re-election. Considering the record, Biden’s presidency has been a consequential one. Employment is as high as before COVID. While inflation is higher than in recent memory, it’s basically a third of what it was last June.
He’s made mistakes around supporting fossil fuels drilling, but President Biden has attacked the three things driving the climate crisis: vehicles, methane and power plants. And he has time to finish the job, as he said in his last State of the Union Address by curbing further fossil fuel expansion.
So why was a common response to his announcement handwringing about an ‘enthusiasm gap’ among key voting groups, i.e., Blacks, Hispanics and young people? The White House can’t seem to cut through the clutter to convince people it has solved a ‘real need’ in ‘real time,’ even when it has.
The real need for many continues to be economic stability. I’ve talked to people in every region of the country in the last five months. Many continue to feel the only economic mobility slopes downward. It’s something that President Biden and Congress actually have done something about.
They’ve made unprecedented commitments to spend hundreds of billions to take a giant step toward keeping the Earth cool enough to stay livable. It’s our generation’s equivalent of the Apollo moon missions. The changes will happen over a decade, their benefits may take even longer to see.
But there will be immediate impacts, and that’s what is giving people the solution they need, including: incentives for school systems to buy electric school buses, and families to buy electric SUVs, resulting in jobs; home energy efficiency programs, resulting in jobs; tax credits for private sector investment in clean energy, resulting in jobs.
The one thing we need to bring attention to and to protect are the jobs that come from reshaping the economy from destruction to renewal. They are good-paying jobs that in many cases don’t require a college education, the kind of jobs that have made the American middle class flourish. They employ mechanics, construction workers, electricians, technicians, and people to support their work. And whether it’s the most dollars invested, or most jobs created, the states benefitting are among the ‘reddest’ politically.
It makes sense that flipping the economy in this way would be a growth engine. The biggest subsidy our country ever gave private industry was allowing it to designate certain places and certain people disposable. Poverty is what has always driven people to trade the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the land they love for a paycheck that feeds and houses them and their families. Turning that past on its head will create a lasting prosperity, one that doesn’t count on fuels extracted from under another country.
Opinion research makes clear that Americans care about the environment and will vote to protect it. They care about jobs more. For those of us fighting to reverse the climate crisis and leave a healthier, safer planet to our children, from the White House to a local rally, we must show people that a cleaner economy tomorrow brings jobs they want today.
(Ben Jealous is executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s largest and most influential grassroots environmental organization. He is a professor of practice at the University of Pennsylvania and author of Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, published in January.)