Eliot Engel has been in Congress for 30 years. In that time, there have been profound changes in U.S. politics — changes that are not reflected in Mr. Engel’s environmental record.
The times have changed. Our representative has not changed with them.
In 1989, the environmental movement was a different animal. Back then, environmentalism was the purview of white, moneyed elites who failed to connect saving whales with saving people. They created national non-profits like the League of Conservation Voters that became known as the “Big Greens.”
Replete with foundation and big donor money, they staked out luxurious K Street offices, lobbying for causes that ignored the needs of moderate- and low-income communities of color. In the days when Eliot Engel was cutting his congressional teeth, the terms “environmental justice community” and “environmental racism” were not heard on Capitol Hill, or in Big Green boardrooms. Few had heard of climate change.
Leap forward 30 years. There has been a sea change in the environmental movement. The “non-profit industrial complex” still consumes more than its share of resources in Washington, but activists deep in the grassroots have built power and exploded the old movement. For these activists, environmentalism is about community, health and democratic empowerment.
The climate movement is powered by youth who know that racial and economic injustice underlie environmental racism targeted at marginalized communities, and that we have a few years to avert climate catastrophe.
Mr. Engel touts his 100 percent rating from Big Greens like the conservation league. He ticks the right boxes in voting correctly on environmental bills. He proclaims, accurately, that he was an original co-sponsor of the Green New Deal. The back story, however, is emblematic of why the 16th Congressional District needs better environmental leadership.
Post her election in November 2018, U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez announced her commitment to passage of a Green New Deal, a revolutionary proposal marrying equity and de-carbonization. Joining forces with the youth-led Sunrise movement, Ocasio-Cortez and her young allies occupied Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office weeks before she was sworn in. More than 35 members of Congress endorsed the Green New Deal vision. Eliot Engel did not.
Despite constituent urging, it was not until a coalition of five local groups — Bronx Climate Justice North, Bronx Progressives, North Bronx Racial Justice, Northwest Bronx Indivisible and NYCD-16 Indivisible — announced a rally outside Mr. Engel’s Bronx office last February that he said he would co-sponsor the Green New Deal bill. For me, this was too little too late.
Mr. Engel has introduced very few environmental bills. In 2015 and 2017, he introduced the Open Fuel Act, which his staff claims was a pro-environment initiative. Was it? Lauded by the National Review — the “bible of the American right” — it would have increased domestic fossil fuel consumption, worsening climate change, to decrease “foreign oil” dependence.
The bill, according to the National Review, was designed “to forcefully defend the U.S. from the rapacious, Islamist-led OPEC oil cartel.” Act for America — an Islamophobic, pro-Trump group — loved the bill, saying it would increase U.S. oil drilling. Author Robert Zubrin, a darling of the right who decries “global warming fear-mongerers,” lavished praise.
What about Mr. Engel’s donors? U.S. weapons manufacturers — Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, General Atomics — have supported him for years. Given his jurisdiction over these corporations as chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is this ethical?
These arms dealers produce massive greenhouse gas emissions. Northrop contaminated groundwater in Bethpage, creating massive Superfund sites. Acceptance of money from General Atomics — builder of nuclear power plants — flies in the face of Engel’s opposition to Indian Power nuclear power plant.
Engel took $9,500 from the Teamsters, who fought for the North Dakota Access Pipeline opposed by Standing Rock activists.
It took Mr. Engel more than a month to support legislation introduced in July calling for urgent action on climate. Though more than 1,800 elected officials and candidates have taken the “No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge,” Mr. Engel refuses to do so.
Concerned about these and other issues, constituents rallied again at Mr. Engel’s Bronx office on Aug. 21. This time we were greeted by the New York Police Department and metal barricades. Police and Engel staff demanded we stand on the other side of the street. We have received no response to our seven requests for action, including the return of $7,500 Engel accepted from Northrop Grumman this year.
We need a representative with fire in the belly. This is not the kind of leadership we have gotten or will ever get from Mr. Engel. It is not his style. It is not his politics. It is not his donor base.
The times demand passionate leaders who fight for the climate and those disproportionately burdened by pollution. Public middle school founder and principal Jamaal Bowman is such a leader. Jamaal would have stood with Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise youth in Pelosi’s office. At a mid-August Sunrise rally at a Westchester Democratic National Committee office, he demanded a DNC presidential candidate debate.
He won the endorsement of 350 Action, the global climate organization. He took the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge the day he announced. He accepts no corporate PAC or lobbyist money. He vigorously advocates for environmental justice communities in the district.
I urge residents of the 16th to look to the future and support Jamaal. He’ll give us the environmental leadership we desperately need — what Dr. King described as the “fierce urgency of now.”
The author is coordinator of Bronx Climate Justice North and North Bronx Racial Justice.