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At State of the Union, guests will signal growing ‘Green New Deal’ and climate momentum

Climate science gets a seat for the big speech.

Members of the Sunrise Movement and proponents of climate science. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images
Members of the Sunrise Movement and proponents of climate science. CREDIT: Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

The threat of climate change is not expected to factor heavily into President Donald Trump’s annual State of the Union speech on Tuesday night, when issues like funding for a border wall and abortion rights are more likely to rise to the surface.

But support for action on global warming will have a presence nonetheless, with lawmakers inviting activists and scientists as their guests to the event. Traditionally, lawmakers have used guests to send political messages and to signal policy priorities.

At least six Democratic politicians have invited either people suffering from climate impacts or activists and experts known for their climate work to this year’s event, in a notable an uptick from prior years. That trend highlights climate’s continued importance as Democratic lawmakers eye policy reforms this year.

Maine Rep. Chellie Pingree (D), vice chair of the House Appropriations Committee on Interior & Environment, announced last Friday that she had invited Joel Clement. The whistleblower spoke out about the Trump administration’s climate change policies while he was working at the Interior Department (DOI).

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After elevating concerns about the dangers climate change poses to Alaska Native communities, Clement has long said he was reassigned to an “unrelated job” within the department, something the scientist argues was intentional.

“As an Interior Department official, [Clement] stood up for science and spoke out against the Trump admin’s climate change denials,” wrote Pingree in a tweet announcing her State of the Union guest. Clement, a Maine native, tweeted in response that he was “honored and delighted” to accept.

Clement’s presence will also draw attention to growing efforts calling for a “Green New Deal” — a proposal to rapidly decarbonize the economy while growing jobs that has been popularized by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and the nonprofit Sunrise Movement.

Pingree has pledged her commitment to the idea, and Clement expressed his support for her stance on Twitter, praising her for “leaning in on climate change” on behalf of Mainers.

Clement won’t be alone. Other Democratic lawmakers have also opted to bring guests notable either because of their work on climate and environmental issues, or because of how climate impacts have changed their lives.

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Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a contender for the 2020 presidential nomination, will be bringing Trisha Pesiri-Dybvik, an air traffic controller who was furloughed during the partial government shutdown. Pesiri-Dybvik notably lost her home during the Thomas Fire last year, one of several wildfires that decimated parts of California. Climate scientists have connected the state’s uptick in deadly wildfires to climate change, as the state becomes drier and warmer.

Rep. Paul Tonko (D-NY), the chairman of the House subcommittee on the environment, is bringing Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters (LCV). This comes after Tonko announced a February 6 hearing on climate change, a move advocates hope will set the tone for the legislative session going forward.

Meanwhile, Green New Deal backers are making their voices heard. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is setting a climate-centric tone with her State of the Union guest: Lisa Graumlich, a paleoclimatologist and dean of the University of Washington’s College of the Environment. Sen. Ed Markey (D-MA), a long-time proponent of climate activism, also said Monday in a press release that his guest will be Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-MD), another Green New Deal supporter, moreover announced last week that his guest will be Bill McKibben, an environmental activist who leads the progressive group 350.org.

“I’ve understood that climate change is not an issue, but the whole context in which we need to decide every other issue, whether it is infrastructure, trade policy, transportation, or agriculture,” said Raskin in a press release. The congressman argued that “it is an imperative to overcome our political divisions” and mobilize around “pragmatic renewable energy policies” in an effort to mitigate the impacts of climate change.

Inviting activists and experts invested in climate science isn’t a new phenomenon. Last year, then-Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) invited scientist Bill Nye as his guest to the State of the Union.

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Activists were critical of Nye’s decision to attend, given Bridenstine’s history of denying climate change. But Nye, who has actively spoken about climate science, argued at the time that Bridenstine, now the administrator of NASA, has changed his mind about climate change. The scientist argued he wanted to encourage such shifts in perspective in others.

This year’s guests carry some additional weight in the midst of growing Green New Deal momentum, along with an uptick in conversations around global warming. Recent polls have shown that the majority of Americans believe in climate change and consider the issue a serious threat.

Some activists plan to set the tone hours prior to the State of the Union. The Sunrise Movement announced on Monday that the group would hold livestream parties across the country in support of a Green New Deal just before the major speech. Ocasio-Cortez and Markey reportedly plan to unveil a blueprint of the policy later this week.

Those who will be in the audience during Trump’s speech have indicated they don’t believe addressing climate change will be a core part of the evening. Instead, they hope their guests will signal the issue’s importance.

“Climate change is the most pressing social issue of our generation and Trump isn’t going to say a word about it in his [State of the Union] speech,” Jayapal wrote on Twitter, explaining her choice of Graumlich, the paleoclimatologist.

“We have a moral responsibility to ensure we have clean air, clean water and healthy communities for all,” Jayapal continued. “As this administration continues to push our planet toward a path of destruction, we need to find real solutions. That starts with accepting science, not ignoring it.”