The American Prospect is a nonprofit, independent magazine covering public policy and politics. Sludge is re-publishing this article.
Last week’s announcement of Brian Deese as the next director of the National Economic Council marked one of the first major setbacks for progressives in the battle over the composition of Joe Biden’s new administration. As far back as July, progressive and environmental groups launched a concerted campaign to keep high-ranking BlackRock officials like Deese, who ran the firm’s global sustainability desk, out of the Biden administration. In recent weeks, those same groups trained their focus on Deese specifically, who was being floated as a likely pick for NEC director throughout November. Opponents staged protests and pushed to keep him out of that role, to no avail.
They had good reason to oppose his appointment. During his time in the Obama administration, Deese lobbied on behalf of financial deregulation and austerian policies, for cutting social services and against raising corporate taxes. On climate, he co-signed the fracking boom that led to the massive expansion in oil and gas production under Obama, going so far as to support controversial oil drilling in Alaska and fracking on public land, something even Biden, who’s been vocal in his support of fracking, won’t touch. In his time at BlackRock, Deese oversaw what has been widely pilloried as a greenwashing campaign, running BlackRock’s environmental, social, and governance investment strategy, which puts out a lot of nice press releases about environmental commitments, but has proven to be a formidable enemy of divestment and hasn’t even offloaded all investments in coal or made commitments not to fund new fossil fuel infrastructure that have become standard for large American banks.
Yet, upon Thursday’s announcement, legacy environmental organizations were circulating messaging points to member groups and allies defending Deese’s record, and whipping support for him. According to talking points obtained by the Prospect, one such group, the Climate Action Campaign, encouraged members to play up Deese’s climate bona fides. “President-elect Joe Biden named Brian Deese as Director of the National Economic Council inside the White House, further making it the most climate-focused cabinet in history,” the guidance asserts, followed by a scripted tweet suggestion: “In order to combat the #ClimateCrisis, we must prioritize climate when working to rebuild the economy. Luckily @JoeBiden has nominated @BrianCDeese, a climate champion, to lead the National Economic Council. #ConfirmClimate”
The Climate Action Campaign, the group from which that direction came, is a D.C.-based coalition of environmental and climate groups. According to its website, the CAC represents an array of the largest and most recognizable national environmental and political names—the League of Conservation Voters, Earthjustice, Sierra Club, the Center for American Progress, and the Environmental Defense Fund. It also includes a number of local groups—Environment Ohio, Conservation Colorado, the Wisconsin Farmers Union, and more. It counts more than 50 groups in total.
Deese’s appointment has exposed a rift in the environmental movement. Younger groups, especially the Sunrise Movement, have remained critical. Sunrise did not heed the CAC’s messaging encouragement, releasing a statement saying that “it’ll be [Deese’s] job to prove he understands the urgency of the climate threat every day in his position, and our movement will be there to remind him of what’s at stake.” The group is also pushing for progressive appointments to still-vacant seats in the Departments of the Interior and Agriculture. (That took a negative turn upon the news that former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, currently a dairy industry lobbyist, is Biden’s top choice to return to the Cabinet.)
Meanwhile, larger, older, and better-funded enviro groups have signaled broad support for Deese and bent the knee, projecting that Deese will be a strong advocate on climate in contravention of his actual record. A day after the CAC circulated its talking points, BlueGreen Alliance executive director Jason Walsh issued a statement saying, “There is no better choice to lead the NEC than Brian Deese. He knows that the solutions to the climate crisis and economic and racial injustice are inextricably linked, and he will be a strong advocate for building a clean, thriving, and equitable economy.” And while that statement doesn’t use the exact language in the official memo, it shows that D.C. environmental groups have received and abided by the direction to get in line. Other groups were more literal: The League of Conservation Voters published the recommended tweet almost verbatim.
Meanwhile, writer Bill McKibben, founder of the climate change group 350.org, embarked on a charm offensive of his own on Deese’s behalf, not on the basis of Deese’s record on climate but on his own personal experience with Deese, whose wedding he just so happened to officiate. In a lengthy tweet thread published a week before Deese was officially announced, McKibben went on about Deese’s exceptional character. “I know Brian to be both able and decent, and … I know he in fact does care about climate,” he averred.
McKibben wasn’t the only climate wonk to personally endorse Deese. Christy Goldfuss, senior vice president for energy and environment policy at the Center for American Progress, recently vocalized her support for Deese, as did Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund. But the Climate Action Campaign’s talking points prove that this support isn’t just a handful of individuals backing an old friend or acquaintance; it’s a coordinated effort to shore up an appointee whose reputation has rightfully brought skepticism among younger progressives. (Both CAP and the EDF are member groups of the CAC; 350.org is not.)
The result has been a surprising outpouring of support for someone with a record of being a thorn in the side of these very same environmental groups, for a position that has historically been an enemy of progressive goals broadly. While environmental groups are talking nice about Deese, Deese leaves BlackRock as the world’s largest financial backer for fossil fuel projects, including new coal development, and one of the largest investors in agribusiness projects that are currently involved in deforesting the Amazon. As David Dayen wrote here, all of those things were within Deese’s power to act or at least speak on. He didn’t. That it is environmental groups being deployed to make the case for him makes that even more troubling.
Joe Biden has pledged to take the most decisive action on climate of any president in American history; environmental groups have cheered that, and pledged to hold him to it. In the case of Brian Deese, they’re both failing to hold up their end of the bargain.
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