Biden’s climate fight is just beginning
Joe Biden has developed the most aggressive climate plan ever for a presidential nominee. Now he just has to sell it to the public and, if he wins, to Congress.
After initially getting modest reviews from environmental groups, Biden’s commitments on the environment have evolved over the course of his campaign following a steady push from green groups and progressives — some of whom still want more.
But through extensive outreach to left-leaning environmental groups — and with Green New Deal author Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) heading the Biden-Sanders unity task force — the former vice president has earned broad backing for his climate proposal.
New divisions could arise, however, as a potential Biden administration is tasked with getting its policies implemented.
“There absolutely is that challenge of continuing to make the case for a bold plan and an investment-led recovery. That will be the fight and we need to anticipate that, but it’s the winning argument,” said Bracken Hendricks with Evergreen Action, which was founded by advisers to Washington Gov. Jay Inlsee (D) and helped Biden further develop his plan.
Biden’s proposal lagged behind more ambitious ones from former 2020 primary rivals Inslee and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who both earned “A” ratings from Greenpeace. But Biden’s “B-plus” plan still makes history as Democrats stress the urgency of addressing climate change like never before.
“If Biden had just run with his original climate plan, it still would have been more ambitious than any nominee ever,” said Hendricks, crediting the Biden team with strong outreach that expanded his plan and his coalition.
“He didn’t get public accolades for that. What he got was a better policy and an important champion for how this policy is going to hit the ground.”
In the plan’s top lines, Biden calls for decarbonizing the economy by 2050, though he advanced that deadline to 2035 for utilities following outside recommendations. It includes a strong environmental justice component to hold polluters accountable and route funding to communities overburdened by them, and it envisions creating jobs by investing in clean energy, clean transit and the manufacturing sector behind them.
But there’s already been some grumbling from environmental organizations that he hasn’t done enough to address fracking or hit the fossil fuel industry, though one of President Trump’s favorite lines of attack on Biden is that he wants to ban fracking and would be horrible for the oil and gas industry.
If Biden wins, groups such as Greenpeace have called on him to exclude oil and gas executives from his transition team.
Some of Biden’s climate moves, including reentering the Paris climate accord, could be done by executive action on day one.
But many would require buy-in from Congress. That prospect that could be dead in the water if Republicans hold the Senate, while Biden’s plan might not go far enough for many in a Democratic-majority House.
Basil Smikle, a political strategist and lecturer at Columbia University, called Biden’s climate plan “a hat tip to progressives — a group that had not just been feeling unenthusiastic about his nomination but more specifically his plans with respect to climate change.”
“You’re going to have a House that has a lot more younger, more progressive members,” he said, pointing to races in Missouri and New York, where Democratic incumbents have been unseated in primaries. Those races might leave moderates thinking twice about opposing a big climate bill.
“I think the House will pull him to the left on many of these issues,” Smikle said.
Beyond contending with differences within the party and with the other side of the aisle, any climate legislation will be coming up against powerful lobbies.
“The incentives to delay or dilute are powerful,” Hendricks told The Hill.
Some may have sticker shock over the investments needed to transition to clean energy and transform America’s transportation system, something Hendricks sees as part of a broader economic vision to help America recover from the economic effects of the coronavirus.
“I think smart economists will tell you it needs to happen and this is needed long-term investment,” he said. “This is not about appeasing a special interest constituency. It’s about the future direction of the entire U.S. economy.”
Josh Freed, senior vice president of Third Way’s climate and energy program, said he doesn’t think competing plans or even competing viewpoints will be an issue.
“Democrats represent a diverse set of views, but lots of Democrats with lots of different views are all pointed in the same direction of, how do we tackle climate change? How do we get to 100 percent clean?” he said.
Unlike with the Affordable Care Act in the Obama administration, Freed said, there’s little chance of getting Republicans on board and thus little incentive to move the plan toward the center.
“The orientation in 2009 was if you built a plan that incorporated Republican ideas, that Republicans were being genuine that they would negotiate and work with Democrats and support a bill that incorporated their ideas. The last 12 years have made it very hard to conceive of that happening now.”
But he also doesn’t think Democrats will be on the hook for trying to pass one giant climate bill. The magnitude of the issue and its cross-cutting nature will call for multiple pieces of legislation, and some of them are likely to be part of future stimulus packages geared toward economic recovery as well as infrastructure packages.
“Think of it more like it’s going to be much more of a show that is streaming different episodes rather than one blockbuster movie being dropped. There’s going to be a lot of episodes and a lot to choose from,” Freed said.
Biden should sign executive orders on the climate to set the tone, he said, and then personally make the case for action in fossil fuel-driven districts and rural areas that might be led by more moderate Democrats, as well as in “environmental justice” communities plagued by pollution that stand to benefit significantly from the legislation.
That type of on-the-ground campaigning for ideas will also be key for engaging a public that wants to see action on climate change, said Charlie Jiang, a climate campaigner with Greenpeace.
“I’d say that our current political leaders have certainly seemed to learn from our fights a decade ago by recognizing that movements have power and movements need to be excited to fight for an agenda that will ensure a just recovery from the crisis that we face,” Jiang said.
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