Climate will define Biden’s legacy
When future generations look back at Joe Biden’s presidency, they will likely judge him by one metric above any other: his legacy on climate action. The climate crisis is upon us, and its impacts are already devastating and deadly, but what happens in the next few years will determine whether our future is one of resilience and recovery or one of unmitigated climate catastrophe. With unified Democratic control of government and Congress considering a historic package of climate investments, Biden has a once-in-a-generation opportunity to turn the tide in the fight against climate change. But if he can’t deliver, his chief legacy will be failure on this defining issue of our time.
When it comes to climate, Biden has proven that he can talk the talk. On the campaign trail in 2020, he committed to ambitious and necessary climate progress, like driving America’s power grid to 100 percent clean electricity by 2035. And since taking office he’s pledged to the global community that the U.S. will cut our global emissions 50 percent from 2005 levels by 2030, in line with what the science demands. These commitments are strong — and the Biden administration has taken important steps to follow through on its climate goals through executive action; from new regulations to drive down emissions from super pollutants to an executive order directing federal agencies to leverage their purchasing power to drive the clean energy transition. But if these commitments aren’t backed up by bold legislative action, and paired with more aggressive executive action in 2022, then it won’t be possible to meet the goals that the president has laid out.
Fortunately, bold legislative action is in the works. The climate investments in the proposed Build Back Better (BBB) Act currently up for debate in Congress would constitute the most consequential piece of climate legislation in U.S. history, with more than $550 billion spread over 10 years that will fund a robust package of clean energy tax credits, a national Clean Energy Accelerator, as well as a new Civilian Climate Corps that will put hundreds of thousands of Americans to work tackling the climate crisis in their own communities. These investments would make historic progress to drive down climate pollution, as well as deliver huge public health and economic benefits by way of cleaner air, cheaper electricity bills, and millions of new good-paying jobs in the clean energy economy. Despite the current stalemate over the larger Build Back Better Act, there is broad consensus among 50 Democratic senators in support of the bill’s climate provisions, and these investments simply must make it over the finish line.
We’ve seen this film before: In 2010, Democrats tried to pass a comprehensive climate bill, only to let it stall out in the Senate. That can’t be allowed to happen again. As Biden said last month, there is support in the Senate to pass the historic climate investments in the Build Back Better Act. That’s because those investments are already fully paid for and funded for 10 years — as Sen. Joe Manchin (W.Va.) has requested for other portions of the bill — and the Senate Democratic caucus is committed to delivering bold climate action with these investments. Even Manchin has said the Senate can find agreement on the climate provisions of the bill. This is a make-or-break moment for climate — and it’s time to get it done.
With BBB stalled in the Senate, Biden faces a defining moment for his legacy. The final deal on the Build Back Better package will not be 100 percent of what any Democrat wanted, but leadership is about making tough choices. Congressional progressives and moderates alike are aligned in calling on the president to deliver the climate investments in BBB as quickly as possible. Biden must use his platform — in fact, the most powerful and influential position in the world — to forge a path forward with congressional leadership to deliver historic climate investments. Anything less would be a catastrophic failure.
Failing to pass these bold climate investments would not only have far-reaching consequences for Biden’s legacy, it could also spell electoral doom for Democrats in 2022 and beyond. In 2020, Biden and his fellow Democrats rode a wave of youth support to victory. Voters under 30 favored Biden by a 24 point margin, but since taking office his support among young people has plummeted — and survey respondents have cited climate as a top concern. To have a shot at regaining the trust and support of the youth vote going into the midterm elections, Democrats must prove that they can deliver on their popular climate commitments, through both bold legislation and aggressive executive action.
Biden has a choice: He can lean in and lead to deliver transformational climate action, or he can give in to detractors and shirk responsibility for the most important issue of his lifetime. Either way, this moment will define his legacy — and when he addresses the nation in his State of The Union Address in March, the American people will be watching to see what path he chose. For the sake of all our futures, he must deliver bold climate action. Failure is not an option.
Jamal Raad is a co-founder and executive director for Evergreen Action, a climate action policy and advocacy organization that has played a key role in shaping the policies in the Build Back Better Act. Jamal previously served as an aide to Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D) and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.).