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Biden Isn’t a Lost Cause for the Left

The selection of Deb Haaland for secretary of the interior is a hard-earned and jubilant win for progressives, who have otherwise been disappointed by the Biden transition team.

Representative Deb Haaland speaks in September 2020.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images

New Mexico Congresswoman Deb Haaland—a citizen of the Laguna Pueblo nation, and among the first class of Native women elected to Congress in 2018—will reportedly be nominated by the Biden administration to lead the Department of Interior. The agency tasked with overseeing the country’s public lands and natural resources has long contained the Bureau of Indian Affairs but has never been headed by a Native person. Nor, for that matter, has it ever been led by an open critic of fossil fuels.

More than 131 organizations—including the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Center for Biological Diversity, the NDN Collective, the Native Organizers Alliance, and the Sunrise Movement—sent a letter earlier this month to the Biden team urging Haaland’s selection, which even earned support in recent days from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Several celebrities and Haaland’s colleagues in the House joined in, as well. Julian Brave Noisecat, vice president of policy and strategy at the think tank and polling shop Data for Progress, had pushed for Haaland’s nomination for months, both in the press and behind the scenes, well before Biden clinched the White House.

The Biden transition team has bucked progressive suggestions in many other picks. But in this case, it appears, progressive energies were well directed.

The Interior Department is massively important for the climate fight. Drilling on public lands is responsible for roughly a quarter of domestic fossil fuel emissions. The Interior Department could also oversee the siting of massive amounts of renewable energy in the coming years. Accordingly, interior secretary is a job that’s traditionally been handed to shameless boosters of oil and gas interests, from Obama appointee Ken Salazar—who went on to lobby for the fossil fuel industry post–White House—to David Bernhardt, the Trump administration appointee who has spent most of his career as an attorney and lobbyist for the oil and gas industry.

Haaland, however, has been critical of endless fossil fuel expansion since she first ran for Congress, and was one of the first congressional co-sponsors of the Green New Deal resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. (She still, to note, faces what’s likely to be a brutal confirmation process should Republicans retain control of the Senate in Georgia’s runoff elections early next year.) Interior secretaries have also traditionally had tense relationships with tribal nations. As NDN Collective President and CEO Nick Tilsen wrote in a statement about today’s news, “Haaland’s appointment gives us a voice in a Department that has long been responsible for our exploitation.”

That there would be alignment on a Department of Interior pick between green and Native groups might seem self-evident at this point, but was hardly inevitable. U.S. conservation groups have a long and ugly history on the subject of indigenous rights. “Protecting” nature—including for national parks—often came at the exclusion of tribes that had managed the same land for generations. The solidarity between indigenous organizers and more mainstream green groups that bore fruit in the Interior Department selection was forged in large part through years of struggles against fossil fuel pipelines, led by tribes whose land those projects threatened. Haaland herself, as Noisecat pointed out in a recent Politico piece, cooked food for those who joined the encampment at Standing Rock when she traveled there in 2016, while she was running the New Mexico Democratic Party.

Standing Rock was a pivotal moment in what turned into a convergence of indigenous and environmental interests. It drew veterans from the American Indian Movement, and who had waged fights for sovereignty at Pine Ridge and on Alcatraz Island. Since then, calls to give back stolen land have crossed into the mainstream. Likewise, Standing Rock drew attention to the vast network of fossil fuel infrastructure crisscrossing North America. Climate advocates were in many ways newcomers to demands to halt extraction and restore sovereignty voiced in battles against the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Those fights then brought a fresh generation of young people into a climate movement newly willing—after years of difficult, ongoing conversations—to put issues of justice and corporate excess front and center.

Haaland’s selection comes weeks into a largely uninspiring month of transition news. Though it’s a far cry from Obama’s transition-period embrace of longtime deficit hawks and Wall Street faithfuls, it’d be hard to argue that Biden’s is a broadly progressive Cabinet. His foreign policy team is flanked by people who have cashed checks from defense contractors and egged on conflicts abroad. Tom Vilsack—the former agriculture secretary Biden picked to take his old job, after years as a lobbyist for Big Ag—won out over Marcia Fudge, to whom Biden bizarrely handed the Department of Housing and Urban Development. South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg wasn’t any progressive’s first choice to head the Department of Transportation. Blackrock executives will take top spots, too.

Yet the administration’s top posts for climate and environmental concerns seem to show a clear if uneven acknowledgment that the climate movement—from its rowdy activists to well-connected think tankers—is a force to be reckoned with. Biden’s team created two Cabinet-level climate positions from scratch, handing international and domestic climate posts to John Kerry and Gina McCarthy, respectively. Michael Regan, touting a relatively uncontroversial record running North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, will become the first Black man to run the Environmental Protection Agency, after California Air Resources Board head Mary Nichols’s potential nomination was called out by her state’s climate and environmental justice groups. Brenda Mallory is slated to head the White House Council on Environmental Quality. And while former Department of Energy head and current fossil fuel ally Ernest Moniz was long thought to be a front-runner for his old job, Biden will reportedly hand it to former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm.

In the past months, the American left has faced criticism from the center over being too critical of the incoming administration. The message that seems to be emerging from this week, however, is that lots of organized people loudly and consistently pushing for what they want from a Democratic administration can yield results, if not always the ones said people might hope for. Haaland—judging from reactions to the news today—seems to be the first appointment climate progressives are unambiguously excited about. The fact that she was selected at all seems to be an endorsement for the Democratic Party’s progressive wing to continue holding the Biden team’s feet to the fire as the world warms.