Young climate activists arrested at Biden’s Wilmington campaign headquarters: ‘We want a future’

Members of the Sunrise Movement were urging President Biden to declare a climate emergency.

protesters inside the office

Sunrise Movement activists protesting inside the building that houses the Biden Campaign headquarters. (Sophia Schmidt WHYY)

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Twenty-one climate activists with the youth-led Sunrise Movement were arrested at President Joe Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington Monday, as they pushed him to declare a climate emergency ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

“Young people are fed up and are calling on him to lead, right now — or lose,” said 28-year-old Dejah Powell, a volunteer with Sunrise. “It’s silly to assume that the young people are going to vote for you. Politicians work for us. We don’t work for them.”

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Dejah Powell posing for a photo
28-year-old Dejah Powell, a volunteer with Sunrise. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

The protest comes as polls appear to show support for Biden lagging among young people — and as the toll of climate-driven disasters mounts.

The world hit a key warming threshold last year, and saw record storms and devastating wildfires exacerbated by human-caused climate change. In the Philly area, heavy rain — which is becoming more common in the northeastern U.S. as the world warms — killed at least six people in 2023. 

About two dozen Sunrise activists took their protest inside the building that houses Biden campaign headquarters in downtown Wilmington, chanting, “Biden, Biden, can’t you see? This is an emergency!”

“Our homes are burning. Our cities are flooding. Our people are dying,” said Sunrise member Laela Zaidi. “We want a future.”

Wilmington police confirmed around noon Monday they had detained 21 people and were in the process of charging them with criminal trespass and disorderly conduct.

protesters inside the office
Young climate activists protesting at the Biden Campaign headquarters. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

In a statement, Biden campaign officials said the president secured the “single largest climate investment in history.”

“President Biden is working hard to finish the job, while Donald Trump has promised to undo all the progress we’ve made,” campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt wrote in an email.

Many expect Biden’s likely GOP opponent would ramp up his attacks on the EPA should he be elected. Trump’s allies and advisors have said during a second Trump term, the EPA would foster relationships with the fossil fuel industry and cut environmental justice programs. A transition guide for an incoming Republican president written by a coalition of conservative groups provides a guide to “dismantling the administrative state,” including terminating new EPA hires, replacing the White House climate adviser with an advisor that would cater to the fossil fuel industry, and cutting the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Department of Energy, E&E News reported.

Sunrise has been pushing Biden to declare a climate emergency and launch an “all-out mobilization” of the government to stop the climate crisis.

Proponents of the idea, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), say an emergency declaration could help the president go beyond recent climate legislation and stop new fossil fuel projects. 

Organizers with Sunrise want to see executive action to create green, union jobs, help communities better prepare for climate disasters, and end the production and use of fossil fuels.

“[Preparing] for climate disasters includes things like an eviction moratorium during climate disasters, guaranteeing health care for people during climate disasters,” Powell said.

19-year-old Shiva Rajbhandari, who traveled from North Carolina to take part in Monday’s protest, wants Biden to further use the Defense Production Act to lower the cost of renewable energy and build high-speed rail, ensure FEMA has adequate funding to help displaced families recover from disasters, and “go after” oil and gas executives for misinformation.

“All we’re asking is that he uses the tools at his disposable,” Rajbhandari said.

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Shiva Rajbhandari posing for a photo
19-year-old Shiva Rajbhandari traveled from North Carolina to take part in Monday’s protest. (Sophia Schmidt/WHYY)

While Biden has not declared a formal national climate emergency, he said in August that “practically speaking,” he had.

A former special assistant to the president for climate policy during a time when Biden’s team was mulling a climate emergency declaration told E&E News that Biden treats climate change like an emergency even without a formal declaration — and that it’s important to “get beyond symbolism.”

Sunrise has celebrated some wins during Biden’s presidency, including the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act — considered the largest investment in climate action in U.S. history — and his creation of the American Climate Corps, a green jobs program that Sunrise pushed for.

But the group has criticized him for approving new fossil fuel projects, including the Willow oil drilling project in Alaska, estimated to produce enough oil in a year to release planet-warming emissions equal to that of 2 million gas-powered cars. The U.S. has also produced record amounts of oil under Biden.

“We need to see Biden step up and pick a side,” Rajbhandari said.

A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll found that just 30% of respondents aged 18 to 29 approve of the job Biden is doing as president — a much smaller percentage than the portion of young people who voted for him in 2020. For some, Biden’s handling of Israel’s months-long bombing of Gaza is a defining issue. 

Sunrise members at Monday’s protest held signs reading, “Fund climate, not genocide.”

Biden has twice bypassed Congress to approve weapons sales to Israel during the country’s bombing and siege of Gaza. But as Israel begins airstrikes on Rafah and the death toll in Gaza nears 28,000, the president has begun to speak more critically of Israel’s actions — calling the country’s conduct in Gaza “over the top.” Last week, the president issued an order putting human rights conditions on U.S. military aid. 

Powell, the 28-year-old Sunrise volunteer from New York, said she hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll vote for Biden in the fall.

“I believe in democracy, and I believe in voting,” Powell said. “Right now, Biden has not done enough to convince me to get out and support him, and that’s why I’m out here.”

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