This piece is part of “Reclaiming Democracy,” a project of The Objective taking a critical look at how democracy and journalism co-exist in the U.S.
On two separate occasions in a matter of three weeks, protestors have shut down speeches by Ali Zaidi, the National Climate Advisor to President Joe Biden. Chanting “keep your promise, no new drilling,” demonstrators aligned with a new youth-led climate activism group Climate Defiance temporarily prevented the White House’s so-called “climate czar” from speaking until they were forcibly removed from the premises by security.
During protestors’ March 20 sit-in at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS), Zaidi’s remarks were canceled altogether. CSIS officials later wrote that Zaidi was “unable to participate due to unforeseen circumstances.”
But according to organizers involved with the protest planning, these demonstrations were just the beginning. At the White House Correspondents’ Dinner later this month, they plan to take their message directly to the president — and, uniquely, to the national press, who they’ll blast as failing to adequately prioritize coverage of climate change issues.
“We know that media doesn’t seem to want to talk about climate justice unless the public forces their hand and it’s simply something that [they] can’t ignore,” 23-year-old Rylee Haught, a student recruitment lead and spokesperson for the group, told The Objective.
“It really does take people power to even get a news story about what’s happening,” Haught added.
The new group was cofounded by D.C.-based climate organizer Michael Greenberg, who previously helped organize a protest of the 2022 Congressional Baseball Game which resulted in the arrest of three demonstrators. Appealing to an audience of roughly 100 individuals seated in a back room of the Busboys and Poets cafe in D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, Greenberg explained his reasoning for selecting the White House Correspondents’ Dinner as the location for his group’s first major action.
“The press will be there. The political elite will be there. The President will be there. And we must be there,” he said to cheers.
Organizers say they’ve raised over $15,000 and anticipate the participation of at least 50 individuals in the blockade.
Representatives for the White House did not respond to multiple inquiries about the groups’ demands nor the planned protest. The White House Correspondents’ Association declined to comment.
Correspondents’ Dinner protest spotlights journalists’ role in climate emergency
According to NASA climate scientist Peter Kalmus, who’s developed a substantial following on social media speaking out against the fossil fuel industry and is working with the new group, the decision on location was made to “get as much leverage as they possibly can.” Arguing the press were “part of the problem,” he told The Objective, that media still fail to cover climate change like the “emergency” it is.
“They’re certainly doing a little better than in past years,” Kalmus added, noting he was speaking in his personal capacity and not on behalf of his employer. “But they still cover, like, celebrity news and all that way more.”
Edward Maibach, an expert on climate journalism who is also the director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University, agreed. Climate reporting “has gotten considerably better,” he said in a phone interview, “but it’s actually still a relatively underreported issue, especially considering the magnitude.”
Of the group’s decision to target the Correspondents’ Dinner, Maibach said he thought it was “brilliant.”
“I think it is helpful to hold, to incur, to — I won’t say shame — to press the point in the most clear manner possible that news outlets have to do a better job,” Maibach said. “Because even if they are doing a better job, they’re still not doing a good enough job.”
At a fundraiser event announcing the launch of the new collective last month, Greenberg laid out his group’s demands in plain terms:
“We are calling on President Biden to end fossil fuel extraction on federal lands,” he said. “We don’t need [Sen. Joe] Manchin. We don’t need [Sen. Kyrsten] Sinema. We don’t need [House Speaker Rep.] Kevin McCarthy. We need a president with a backbone.”
“And if he doesn’t have a backbone of his own,” Greenberg added, “we will be his backbone.”
Appearing at the event as the keynote speaker, Bill McKibben, the prominent environmentalist, journalist, and founder of the climate group 350.org, praised the group’s use of nonviolent demonstration to protest ongoing fossil fuel development, something he dubbed the “single worst thing that we’ve ever managed to do as a species.”
But McKibben was less keen on laying the blame at journalists’ feet.
“I used to have a ton of complaints with climate reporting,” McKibben told The Objective as he was leaving the fundraiser to head off to another talk. “But you see places like The Times and The Post, I think they’re doing a fantastic job.”
Why then hold a major demonstration at one of Washington’s glitziest media parties?
“I have a feeling they’re aimed more at all the other people who come to the Correspondents’ Dinner, which is basically a sort of frat party for Washington politics,” McKibben mused.
Protestors to highlight Biden’s broken promises
Though the White House claims Biden has “delivered” on his campaign promises to prioritize climate initiatives — pointing to the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and various executive actions — activists in the climate justice space see things differently.
At a campaign stop in New Hampshire in 2020, then-candidate Biden was clear about his thoughts on fossil fuel drilling: “No more drilling on federal lands, period,” he said, specifically pointing to concerns about fuel extraction in the Arctic Circle.
Within a week of taking office, Biden issued an executive order pausing all new oil and gas leasing on federal lands, pending a review by federal administrators. That policy was temporarily put on hold by a federal judge in Louisiana, but ultimately reinstated in 2022 by a federal appeals court.
Yet by that time, the White House had already reversed course, opening up 144,000 acres of public lands for drilling and backing a law which mandated the sale of fossil fuel leases in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska — a compromise with Manchin to earn his support for other climate measures in the package. Just last month, Biden further enraged climate advocates by approving the ConocoPhillips Willow Project, a controversial oil pipeline which faced steep opposition from Indigenous groups in Alaska’s North Slope.
“Civil disobedience is one tool in an activist’s toolkit,” McKibben noted, rallying demonstrators for the upcoming blockade. He called on attendees at the launch event to “stand up in a peaceful but resolute way to people who want to keep the status quo — which clearly, clearly is doing us in.”
“Civil disobedience, risking arrest is basically a communications technology,” Kalmus echoed. “When you get arrested, when you’re willing to take that risk, people pay attention … they think ‘oh, wow. If they’re acting like this is an emergency, maybe it really is.’”
Asked about the decision to confront media specifically, Haught, the spokesperson of Climate Defiance, said the targets of the action were less individual journalists themselves than their corporate owners.
“What I want corporate media outlets to get out of this is that we’re not going to shut up,” she said. Her problem is not with “good, honest reporting,” but when it’s “filtered out by the people who make the big bucks, who have a vested interest in continuing to expand fossil fuels.”
The West Virginia native — who’s already been arrested three times for climate demonstrations — will turn 24 a day before her latest action.
“I hope they’re not too mad,” she said of the reporters set to attend the event, “but it’s for the greater good of all of us, I think.”
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