Faced with a disgruntled climate voter during the primary season who wanted him to be tougher on the oil and gas industry, Joe Biden shot him one of his infamous “why don’t you go vote for someone else” responses.
But that was six months ago.
Now, as the presumptive Democratic nominee, Biden’s environmental credentials are on the upswing, and not just because his presidential opponent is a risk to the global climate fight.
Major environmental groups were delighted by Biden’s recent announcement of pledges, unimaginable in US politics just a few years ago, including to clean up electricity by 2035 and spend $2tn on clean energy as quickly as possible within four years.
Some campaigners remain unconvinced that he could be as aggressive as necessary with the fossil fuel industry, but his campaign believes they are on the winning path by connecting the environment with jobs.
“We really do see these as interlinked,” Biden’s campaign policy director, Stef Feldman, told the Guardian. “The climate plan is a jobs plan. Our jobs plan is, in part, a climate plan.”
As the coronavirus pandemic has devastated the US economy and forced millions into unemployment, it has also cleared the way for the next president to rebuild greener.
The Biden message: vote to put Americans back to work installing millions of solar panels and tens of thousands of wind turbines, making the steel for those projects, manufacturing electric vehicles for the world and shipping them from US ports.
But Biden’s plan, while significant and historic, would be just the beginning of a brutal slog to transform the way the nation operates. That’s even without calling for an end to fossil fuels, which science demands but Biden has been careful to avoid overtly doing.
Climate plans need Democrats to win big
Democrats would need to gain control of the Senate and put more progressives into Congress if they expect to pass Biden’s climate measures. In a nod to the party’s left flank, and as a salve to the pandemic’s crushing economic blows, Biden has revised his proposal in order to spend more money, faster. He wants to essentially eliminate US climate emissions by 2050.
“What’s going to be possible for President Biden is going to be partially determined by what happens in the other races,” said Tom Steyer, the Democrat philanthropist who ran against Biden in the primary and is now on his climate advisory council. “We’re working as hard as possible to push climate champions up and down the ballot.”
Andrew Light, an Obama climate negotiator and fellow at the World Resources Institute, said the world will be closely observing Biden’s congressional support, including how Republicans react if he wins. “Is it like Obama in 2009, where the Republicans were just absolutely uniformly saying no to the new president? Or is it something where people kind of look at what Trump has done to the Republican party and then go, ‘right, well, we’ve now got to really take this seriously,’” Light said.
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Trump’s exit from the Paris climate agreement will happen automatically on 4 November, the day after the election. It will be the second time the US has led the way on negotiations and then pulled out or declined to join. The US also pushed for the Kyoto protocol, an international treaty in 1997, but it never ratified its commitments. To believe the US for a third time, the world will need evidence that Congress is engaged, Light said.
The Biden campaign says that’s where he will excel.
“The vice-president has tremendous experience getting big legislative packages done,” said Feldman, pointing to Biden’s support from both major environmental groups and big labor unions.
He has had to walk a fine line to maintain that backing, political observers note.
“I think it is probably near unprecedented to have a climate and infrastructure plan that receives rave reviews from the League of Conservation Voters and the Sierra Club and the electrical workers union and the auto workers union at the same time,” she said. “That’s really the coalition that is needed in order to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and create good jobs at the same time.”
Biden’s campaign has said his first priority with Congress will be economic recovery, which will include large-scale spending on clean energy jobs.
Climate investments will probably be easier to pass as lawmakers hear from constituents about high unemployment because of the coronavirus. Polling from the group Data for Progress finds 49% of voters support a green stimulus. The idea is less popular with Republicans, with 52% in opposition.
Jamal Raad, the co-founder of Evergreen Action who worked for Governor Jay Inslee of Washington in his presidential run, said “a successful package will have jobs in every community and will have something for every senator to tell a story back home about”.
Biden may be hoping that moderate Democrats whose support he will need will be encouraged by his support from major unions.
Lonnie Stephenson, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, said he expects to lose some members over endorsing Biden, but the world is changing and workers are already losing jobs as coal plants close around the country.
“We’re not climate deniers. We know that climate change is real and there needs to be some progressive action taken to try to address it,” Stephenson said. “At the same time while we’re making this transition to new renewables, we’ve got thousands of members that work in [fossil fuel] generation.”
Stephenson said his group can support Biden because he doesn’t want to ban fracking for natural gas or to quickly shut down coal and nuclear plants. Instead he wants to create jobs in clean energy, including in manufacturing – where Stephenson’s members could be employed. Not all organized labor is as positive about Biden, however.
The measures that draw electrical workers to Biden’s plan are the same ones that push more vocal climate activists away. Biden doesn’t set a date to phase out drilling for oil and gas – although he would prohibit new drilling on public lands. He doesn’t lay out a timeline for shifting away from gasoline-reliant cars. And he is mum on limiting fossil fuel exports, which would still cause climate damage, even if they are being burned outside the US.
“This is good, it just needs some improvements,” said RL Miller, the founder of Climate Hawks Vote who has a seat on the Democratic National Committee. “But the places where it needs improvements are, to me, really important.”
Collin Rees, a senior campaigner at Oil Change International, said the environmental community hasn’t pressured Biden hard enough on the future of fossil fuels.
“Biden has made large strides on environmental justice, made large strides on clean energy and said absolutely nothing more on fossil fuels recently,” Rees said. “There’s a political decision here in which people are afraid of a very small portion of the white working class in Pennsylvania, for instance. They’re using outdated information.”
Miller said that to achieve it, Biden needs to call for even faster growth in solar and wind power, set specific goals for when new vehicles can no longer emit climate pollution, and move to ban exports of oil and gas.
Those absent elements will be key if Biden wins and the US seeks to reshape how the world perceives the country on climate.
Just re-entering the Paris agreement won’t be enough to spur the strong global action that is needed, not now that so many nations have been snubbed by the US repeatedly.
Al Gore, the former Democratic vice-president who founded the Climate Reality Project, said the US must “re-establish its historic role as a leader in the international community”.
“It’s still true we’re in a period of history when the US is the only nation that can play that kind of leadership role,” Gore said.