Former Exxon CEO and current Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson barely batted an eye when the shouting began.
“My home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy!”
Sitting in front of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week, Tillerson paused his opening statement, which, despite his more than 40 years working for the world’s largest oil company, mentioned neither Exxon nor climate change. From the back of the chamber, the shouting continued.
“Senators, be brave! Protect my community! Protect America! Rex Tillerson, I reject you! I reject you! My home was destroyed by Hurricane Sandy!”
Thirty seconds later, the woman had been escorted out of the room, and Tillerson resumed his opening statement. But his confirmation hearing would be interrupted three more times by protesters shouting from the back of the chamber. By the end of the nine-hour hearing, the four protesters, all affiliated with Greenpeace, had been arrested, booked, charged with misdemeanor disruption of Congress, and released.
Joan Flynn — the 68-year old from the Rockaways in Queens, New York, who first stood and called on senators to reject Tillerson — had no regrets.
“The American people have to stop being lied to,” she told ThinkProgress after being released. “We have to face the fact that the environment that is necessary to support our lives, and the lives of our children and grandchildren, is in extreme danger. And, to me, that’s the carrying call. We have to stop this now.”
Greenpeace is far from the only environmental organization to mobilize protests in the face of Trump’s cabinet appointees, nearly all of whom deny the science on climate change and boast cozy relationships to the fossil fuel industry.
Across the country — over television airwaves, in local congressional offices, and even in the halls of Congress — environmental groups have been actively pressuring lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to oppose nominees like Tillerson, Oklahoma Attorney General and EPA administrator nominee Scott Pruitt, former Texas governor and nominee for Secretary of Energy Rick Perry, Alabama senator and Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions (R), and Montana representative and Secretary of Interior nominee Ryan Zinke.
“Donald Trump is entering office as the least popular president-elect in modern history, so his ability to wield power will depend on all of us and, as President Obama put it, how we choose to participate from day one,” Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, said in a statement to ThinkProgress. “That’s why it’s critically important to keep building the movement we need to resist Trump from the start, working across movements, organizing, and raising our voices to stop these dangerous cabinet nominees now while growing stronger for the fights ahead.”
The groups mobilizing to oppose the nominations represent a wide coalition of environmental groups across the political spectrum, from the traditionally moderate Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to the activist-leaning Greenpeace. EDF recently broke with decades of bipartisan support for presidential EPA nominees to forcefully oppose the nomination of Pruitt.
“Trump’s most unsettling action to date… has been his nomination for the top job at the EPA,” the EDF wrote in a statement outlining its position on Trump’s cabinet nominations. “Since becoming Oklahoma’s top lawyer in 2011, Pruitt has repeatedly sued the agency to block important public health standards for mercury, ozone and climate pollution.”
The League of Conservation Voters, also in a departure from the organization’s standard operating procedure, sent senators a letter last week warning that their vote on Pruitt’s confirmation would be included in their National Environmental Scorecard, which keeps track of how lawmakers vote with regards to the environment.
In a potential cabinet full of picks that deny the scientific consensus on climate change and question the dangers climate change poses to U.S. national security, Pruitt and Tillerson have garnered the majority of activist’s attention.
On January 9 — two days before Tillerson had his confirmation hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations committee — 350.org and Greenpeace mobilized rallies around the country calling on Senators to reject Trump’s climate denying picks, especially Pruitt and Tillerson. Dubbed the #DayAgainstDenial, rallies took place in nearly every state in the country, with demonstrations held outside of U.S. Senators’ in-state office.
According to Greenpeace, nearly 200 protesters showed up outside of Sen. Susan Collins’ (R-ME) district office in Maine, urging the Senator to vote against Tillerson and Pruitt. Collins, who voted against party lines to confirm Gina McCarthy as EPA administrator, is often viewed as one of the key Republican swing vote necessary in either approving or derailing Trump’s nominees.
But #DayAgainstDenial rallies didn’t just target senators that could be crucial swing votes; some rallies sought to shore up support from progressive senators who hold positions of power on key committees. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD), for instance, is the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee — and the 20 or so Maryland voters who showed up to his D.C. office on January 9 wanted to make sure that he was well aware of his constituents opposition to Trump’s nominees.
“Even if senators like Senator Cardin have been progressive on these issues, having grassroots activists come in and provide support gives them more credibility when talking with other senators,” Michael Delong, a Montgomery County resident, told ThinkProgress. “Every little bit helps.”
Linda Wiley, who lives in North Beach, Maryland, also felt that Trump’s nominees are so egregious that remaining silent was simply not an option.
“It’s one of those things where doing nothing does not work,” Wiley, who is most concerned about Trump’s nomination of Pruitt. “We have to do something. I have children and grandchildren and the country really needs to pull together, as the environment goes.”
And environmental groups aren’t just taking to lawmakers offices — some are putting money into saturating the airwaves with political ads that highlight the anti-environment, pro-fossil fuel record of nominees like Pruitt.
NextGen Climate — a nonprofit environmental organization backed by hedge fund manager turned philanthropist Tom Steyer — is currently running television ads in states like Arizona, Florida, Virginia, and Maine, where lawmakers might be most susceptible to pressure from voters. Last week, timed to coincide with Tillerson’s hearings in the Senate, the group ran an anti-Tillerson ad in states like Florida and Arizona, aimed at targeting Senators like John McCain (R-AZ) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) who have expressed hesitancy about Trump’s choice of Secretary of State, citing Tillerson’s close ties to Russia.
And this week, timed to coincide with Pruitt’s confirmation hearing Wednesday, the group is rolling out an anti-Pruitt ad, aimed at highlighting his deep ties to the fossil fuel industry.
“Scott Pruitt has represented fossil fuel interests in Oklahoma at the expense of the environment,” Steyer said in a statement following the release of the ad. “Pruitt is the most unqualified person to ever be nominated to head the Environmental Protection Agency. If the Senate moves to confirm him, they will be launching a direct attack on the health, safety and prosperity of every American.”
But environmental groups have not been immune to criticism for their approach to opposing Trump’s nominees. In a blog post written last week, climate justice activist Anthony Rogers-Wright argued that mainstream environmental groups had been focusing on nominees like Tillerson and Pruitt while ignoring the vast social and environmental justice implications of Trump’s choice to run the Department of Justice, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-AL).
“Climate denying lawmakers is a troubling enough prospect. And the prospect of a white supremacist sympathising climate denier leading DOJ should be serving as a moment that brings myriad of social justice groups together to stand in resistance and in solidarity,” Rogers-Wright wrote in his post. “The nomination should represent a major opportunity for Big Green to demonstrate that it understands the intersectional issues associated with climate change and environmental protection overall — unfortunately we are mostly hearing crickets.”
It’s possible that as Pruitt begins his confirmation hearings in earnest this week, that might change. The EPA has a great deal of enforcement responsibility when it comes to environmental justice concerns, and environmental justice has been a key component of the agency’s mission during the Obama administration. In advance of Pruitt’s hearing, the presidents and CEOs of eight major environmental organizations are holding a press conference on Tuesday — and environmental justice groups like GreenLatinos, the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice, and EarthJustice will all be represented.
But Rogers-Wright’s criticism reveals the difficulty of mobilizing a movement as large and disparate as the environmental movement. There is no one single environmental group that speaks for the entire country, and while a movement built on many grassroots actions can wield immense power, it can also suffer from a lack of central coordination or central message.
At the same time, the environmental records of many of Trump’s nominees offer environmental organizations with sometimes dissimilar goals and approaches a clear mandate: oppose these nominees at any cost.
“The climate movement should never forget that the American people overwhelmingly support clean energy and climate action, while Trump’s approval ratings are in the gutter,” Jamie Henn, strategy and communications director and co-founder of 350.org told ThinkProgress. “We need to be stopping everything we can, making progress where possible, and preparing for when we can swing the pendulum back in our direction.”