In the world of climate advocacy groups, the Sierra Club is perhaps best known as a grassroots, progressive heavyweight. For years, it has fought to close coal plants, one by one, and more recently the group has called on the Biden administration to do more to address climate change.
So it may come as a surprise that Ben Jealous—the former NAACP head who was recently appointed as the Sierra Club’s executive director—says he wants to revamp the organization to expand its presence in red states. As part of his agenda, the organization is opening up shop in conservative parts of the country—even as it goes through a round of layoffs. And Jealous has spent many of his early days in the new job on the road in rural and conservative places. “I’m focused on building an uncomfortably large coalition,” he tells me. “If you’re comfortable in your coalition, your coalition is too small.”
To understand the move, look no further than the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the landmark climate law enacted last year. The IRA has catalyzed billions of dollars in clean energy investment, much of which will go towards building clean energy infrastructure and manufacturing facilities in red states. To ensure that the money is well spent—and that the organization stays relevant—the Sierra Club needs to be on the ground everywhere. “Having a 50-state strategy is critical for us,” says Jealous. “In this moment, when the power grid will be changed in all 50 states, when we are building green industry in all 50 states, the Sierra Club must be as effective and impactful as possible in all 50 states.”
The strategy is a reflection of just how much the IRA has changed the dynamics of climate action in the U.S. Conservative estimates suggest the law will pump out nearly $370 billion in climate funding—and other estimates suggest the total could be much more. This money will catalyze clean-energy projects in states that have traditionally been skeptical of policies to address climate change and that are home to fewer traditional environmental watch dogs. Focusing on all 50 states will get the Sierra Club in the game on how that money is spent and who benefits from it.
In the close to a year since the IRA was unveiled, many climate and clean energy supporters have shifted strategies. Some of the most aggressive campaigners have criticized the Biden administration for doing too little. Select clean energy advocates have embraced once anathema proposals to streamline environmental laws, in hopes that it will allow for a faster build out of clean energy. And the American Clean Power Association (ACP), the leading trade group for clean energy, replaced senior leadership with ties to the Democratic Party with officials connected in Republican circles. “We have to make sure that the awful politics of [the IRA’s] passage don’t actually get in the way of it being implemented effectively,” says Jason Grumet, the former president of the Bipartisan Policy Center who now leads ACP.
Jealous does not mince words about how the IRA is shaping his strategy at the Sierra Club. The organization has a state director in every blue state, he says, but only in a third of red states. Building up a network of local activists helps create grassroots pressure on state and local energy and climate decisions, he says. And local Sierra Club offices on the ground in states will help identify the most important cases for the organization’s legal team to pursue as they seek to ensure that states are spending IRA money effectively. “Almost 90% of large scale renewable projects will be placed in red states,” says Jealous. “There is a need for us to really train and lead and support our activists in wielding those carrots and making sure that all the money gets out the door.”
On the surface, Jealous may seem like an unusual person to lead the Sierra Club through reforms that bring the organization further into red America. Jealous worked as a civil rights activist for decades before turning to politics. In 2016, he gave Bernie Sanders a full-throated endorsement, and, in 2018, he ran to serve as governor of Maryland with an unabashedly progressive agenda.
But his record—and importantly his civil rights work—may actually situate him well to reform the Sierra Club. In 2020, the group publicly denounced the racist beliefs of its founder John Muir. After an internal review the following year, the organization acknowledged that the legacy of that racism still persisted–and promised to do better. Nonetheless, Jealous’ predecessor resigned in the wake of the review, which also depicted sexism within the group.
Jealous, whose resume aligns well with the organization’s progressive base, offers the opportunity to turn over a new leaf. He told me a story of an older white woman in California who approached him after a Sierra Club event and told him that white activists should “just follow Black people.” (Jealous told her to “please, never give up your power.”)
The IRA and related Biden administration policies are also forcing green groups to reckon with related issues in their advocacy. A Biden-signed executive order mandates that 40% of the benefits from the IRA benefit historically disadvantaged communities and communities of color. Jealous sees the Sierra Club helping advance the environmental justice conversation with its cross-country network of on-the-ground activists that can support environmental justice fights. And he says he’s pushing for better engagement between project developers and communities. “We will also be working with environmental activists, convening environmental activists to have real brass tacks conversations about what it is going to mean to build a new power grid for the entire country,” he says.
I asked Jealous why he would take on the climate fight with so many years working on civil rights issues under his belt. Jealous described joining the Sierra Club as a coming home of sorts. Early in his career, he worked as a reporter in Mississippi covering environmental justice issues and later worked as an environmental organizer. “I had a need in my soul to focus on the most critical fight for humanity,” he says.
But, whatever his history working on environmental issues, it’s also fair to say that the IRA made the job more appealing. “One of the hardest things about being an American these last 50 years has been watching our nation go from a nation that prided itself on manufacturing to one defined by consumption,” he says. “The passage of the IRA is the greatest investment in American cities and American manufacturing that I’ve seen in my entire lifetime.” At the Sierra Club, Jealous says, he can help shape it.