The incoming administration’s record signals they’d take a moderate approach to the climate crisis. Advocates had hoped for more, but the incoming Biden-Harris White House is already disappointing. Welcome to The Frontline, where we’re learning about the team’s new senior staff members.

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I first caught wind that President-elect Joe Biden had released a list of names for his senior staff scrolling down my Instagram feed. As many of us do, I was posted up in bed, doom scrolling for the evening when my absolute favorite restaurant in the world shared this image:

 

 

Those who know me know I love Mamasushi. I obsess over its multiple Instagram accounts, drooling over when I’ll be able to have some Latin-fusion rolls again. In all the hours I’ve spent staring at images of Mamasushi’s extraordinary dishes, I’ve never seen the restaurant post anything so political. Then, I grew curious: Who is this Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, and why is Mamasushi posting about them? 

 

Welcome to The Frontline, where no Biden senior staffer is off the table. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate editor of Atmos. Since Monday, we’ve been assessing what comes next for this incoming administration, focusing on rest and activism. However, we now know whom Biden will look to for advice and guidance. His team claims it wants a “climate administration,” but some of these picks make me doubtful. Then again, no one should expect less.

 

 

I imagine most of y’all already know this, but here’s who we’ve got advising the incoming president and the incoming First Lady Jill Biden. I can already tell you there are fewer old white dudes, which is an absolutely positive first step:

 

– Anthony Bernal, Senior Adviser to Dr. Jill Biden

– Mike Donilon, Senior Adviser to the President

– Ron Klain, Chief of Staff

– Jen O’Malley Dillon, Deputy Chief of Staff

– Dana Remus, White House Counsel

– Julissa Reynoso Pantaleon, Chief of Staff to Dr. Jill Biden

– Steve Ricchetti, Counselor to the President

– Cedric Richmond, Senior Adviser to the President and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement

– Julie Rodriguez, Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs

– Annie Tomasini, Director of Oval Office Operations

 

While I’d love to dive deep into every single one of these individuals, that would take me far longer than I have to put together this newsletter. Sorry, y’all. I’ll focus on two for now: Reynoso and Richmond.

 

Let’s start with Reynoso, whose photo threw me down this rabbit hole. Her position is historic: She was born in the Dominican Republic, migrated to the U.S. when she was seven, and grew up in the Bronx. As a Latina from New York who’s a daughter of immigrants, it’s powerful to see myself reflected in the White House. Still, that won’t give her a free pass from my skepticism. With Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris coming from more centrist, moderate backgrounds, I fully expect their staffers to reflect that, too—and that’s not what the climate movement needs. (Sorry, not sorry.)

Those standing alongside the incoming president and the First Lady will help determine whether we maintain the status quo or dismantle it, whether we evolve beyond a world where markets and money dictate the decisions leaders make. The cost is now painstakingly clear.

I’ve struggled to find many details on Reynoso, but here’s what we do know. She comes from the private sector. She’s a partner at the law firm of Winston & Strawn, which has represented the interests of the oil and gas industry. The sectors she covers there include electric power and utilities, according to her bio on the firm’s website. However, her expertise doesn’t appear to include “oil and gas” or “energy and environmental,” two options the firm’s index provides when browsing through the team members. (I’ve reached out to her via email to learn more about her background. I’ll let y’all know if I hear back.)

 

Her expertise appears to lie, instead, in the international sector—”government relations,” to be more specific. That makes sense: She’s served as a U.S. ambassador to Uruguay and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere in the U.S. Department of State, focusing on Central America and the Caribbean (areas that will face dire consequences if we don’t sort out the climate crisis). 

 

Reynoso has also done work around the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which has caused industrial pollution along the U.S. border in Mexico and reduced wages for workers. For those in the climate world, NAFTA is bad, bad, bad. It’s not entirely clear to me whether Reynoso supports it. She did sign a letter in 2018 in support of modernizing the agreement to improve environmental standards and workers’ rights. However, the letter largely focused on the economic consequences of withdrawing, such as GDP losses, and less so on the human rights issues with the agreement.

 

The idealization of neoliberalism helped get us into this environmental mess. The privatization and deregulation that comes with neoliberalism often comes at the expense of the environment and the communities that depend on it. It’s not a good sign that Reynoso’s sympathetic to NAFTA and is a partner in a firm that defends oil and gas companies. 

 

She’s not alone with these fossil fuel ties, either. As Earther reported, Richmond—who’s supposed to serve as a liaison with climate activists and the White House—has taken $340,000 in fossil fuel money. Louisiana-based advocates who have a history of working with the congressman are not at all pleased to see him entering this role.

 

“We’ve seen Richmond do things like vote for the repeal of crude oil export ban in 2015, which has led to this explosion in development along that corridor,” Jane Patton, senior environmental health campaigner with the Center for International Environmental Law, told Earther. “When that crude oil export ban was repealed, all this new development was suddenly planned along the corridor … a lot of that growth we’ve seen is being driven by this whole new market for crude oil exports.”

 

Biden’s senior staff team may be diverse—and that’s certainly something to celebrate—but let’s not let identity politics fool us. The planet is in crisis. As are frontline communities around the globe. What we need is radical change to transform not only the U.S. economy but the global economy away from fossil fuels and free trade agreements that put profit over people. 

 

Those standing alongside the incoming president and the First Lady will help determine whether we maintain the status quo or dismantle it, whether we evolve beyond a world where markets and money dictate the decisions leaders make. The cost is now painstakingly clear.

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