Environment

How Joe Biden Could Become an Unlikely Climate Savior

A step-by-step guide that activists hope the presumptive Democratic nominee will follow.
May 6, 2020, 3:57pm
Joe Biden touches the nose of a person in a polar bear costume as photographers surround them.
Joe Biden gives a "boop" to a person in a polar bear costume at a February campaign event. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty

When Joe Biden effectively won the Democratic primary last month, it was widely seen as a setback for the climate movement. Other candidates, including his main challenger Bernie Sanders, had much more aggressive plans to address global warming, and Biden isn't viewed positively by many on the left. “FUCK JOE BIDEN” wrote one activist in a Sunrise Movement Zoom chat, summing up the mood. But climate advocates are now shifting strategy, and some think there is still potential for progress.

Daniel Aldana Cohen is one of them. He helped research and write climate legislation introduced by Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He is co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, which calls for “profound, radical change” to “defeat big oil, big business and the super-rich.” The University of Pennsylvania sociologist has spoken numerous times at socialist events. With a résumé like that, he is clearly no moderate on climate.

Cohen said a Biden administration doesn’t have to be as disastrous for the planet as many assume. It’s not totally unthinkable, he argues, that if Biden wins the election, the federal government would invest heavily in a less damaging economic model and the world moves closer to the temperature reductions that the United Nations calculates are needed to avoid a civilizational breakdown.

“There’s a world where Biden becomes president and we get a very good [coronavirus] stimulus that moves us towards a Green New Deal,” Cohen said. “You would be taking the steps where the U.S. could do its share of decarbonization to get us towards 2 degrees or even less warming.”

Biden was few progressives’ first choice for a climate candidate. His $1.7 trillion climate plan has received decent to failing grades from activist groups, his advisors have ties to the natural gas industry and his former staffer Tara Reade has accused him of sexually assaulting her (Biden has said that the assault "never happened"). But with Biden the presumptive nominee, it's worth closely examining what his administration might do about climate, particularly with the prospect of four more years of Donald Trump locking the planet into out-of-control warming that results in hundreds of millions of deaths and the collapse of ecosystems like the Amazon rainforest.

VICE spoke with a range of experts, including people formerly associated with the campaigns of Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg, as well as outside critics and observers, most of whom agreed a Biden presidency contains the chance to avoid the horrific worst-case scenario on climate change. And some, like Cohen, said that with massive pressure on Biden from activists and a progressive Congress, the climate fight could enter an uncharted new phase. (Biden's campaign was not available for comment.)

Here’s one version of how a Biden administration could play out.

The climate movement throws down hard this election

Biden won the Democratic nomination mostly with the support of older and establishment-favoring voters. He is now reaching out to younger voters, saying he is “listening” to their concerns on climate change and promising “greater ambition and impact” from his climate plan during the coming months. “That’s one way the presumptive Democratic nominee is trying to woo environmentalists who backed his 2020 rivals in the primary,” wrote Dino Grandoni in the Washington Post.

Cohen sees evidence the climate movement is growing in political influence. “Progressive forces in the Democratic Party and around the country are a lot stronger than they’ve been in a very long time,” Cohen said. “I think we see Biden as someone we basically can persuade through mobilization to adapt a more progressive and greener agenda.”

For that to happen, climate groups such as the Sunrise Movement, Food & Water Watch and 350 need to use this election to prove their electoral strength. “[The movement] will have to turn out in numbers and make a difference in electing candidates who support it or punishing those who don’t,” wrote David Roberts in Vox. The ideal outcome in November is a Biden administration that feels indebted to young climate voters, as well as a wave of new Congress members for whom transformative climate action is a major priority.

Biden fills his administration with climate hawks

From that position of strength, the movement could throw its weight into influencing who Biden appoints to fill out his administration. Expect major conflicts if he tries to bring on officials with ties to the fossil fuels industry or who are skeptical of major changes. Groups like Sunrise and Justice Democrats are already demanding Biden remove Larry Summers as an economic advisor. Those groups argue that when Summers served under Barack Obama he helped weaken clean energy and infrastructure spending in the 2009 stimulus, “policies that contributed to the skyrocketing inequality and climate crisis we’re living with today,” as the Justice Democrats' Twitter account put it last month.

Getting Biden to appoint climate hawks instead is crucial, because “the people who you choose to serve in each role have a huge impact on the outcome of policy,” explained Maggie Thomas, who worked on Warren’s campaign. In April, she and several former Jay Inslee campaign staffers released the “Evergreen Action Plan,” a suggested roadmap for Democratic climate action that calls for the creation of a “White House Office of Climate Mobilization.” The office’s staff “should work across the President’s Cabinet agencies to convene, coordinate, drive, and ultimately hold accountable every federal department” to the goal of making climate central to major decisions.

“We are no longer in a place where the only agencies that have to deal with this issue are the EPA or the Department of the Interior,” Thomas said. “We will have much faster movement and much more success decarbonizing our economy if we are working across a host of different positions and different agencies.”

Pressure builds for a gigantic green recovery bill

If Biden becomes president he’ll have to deal with an economy in crisis: a lingering recession from coronavirus, the unemployment rate potentially in the double digits, a soaring federal deficit. He recently told Politico he’s open to speeding up the recovery by spending trillions of dollars expanding light rail, electric vehicles, clean drinking water and other “environmental things that create good-paying jobs.” That’s not so far off from the idea of a $2 trillion green stimulus recommended by Cohen and dozens of other climate advocates.

Expect activists to hold Biden to his word and push him to go further—more green jobs for communities of color, higher funding for renewables, better support for laid-off fossil fuel workers.

“It would be the largest jobs creation program in nearly a century and young people are the generation being hit hardest by this economic collapse,” said Aracely Jimenez-Hudis, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Sanders during the primary. The group’s efforts would likely focus as much on targeting Congress as the White House, pressuring establishment Democrats along with some Republicans for the greenest possible stimulus.

There would also be pressure from progressive lawmakers and any climate hawks Biden appoints to his administration. “The motor of green stimulus probably comes from Congress and from movements more than it does necessarily from the Oval Office, but unlike Trump’s administration, I think you see the Oval Office being open and potentially supportive of that agenda” if Biden wins the election, Cohen said.

Green stimulus spending wins over some Republicans

It seems crazy to think Republicans would embrace any part of this agenda. During previous rounds of stimulus negotiations Mitch McConnell refused to consider modest support for renewables: “Tax credits for solar energy and wind energy… Are you kidding me?” the Republican leader said in a March Senate speech. Even Republicans who advocate some kind of action on climate change, like Congressman Kevin McCarthy, oppose further stimulus spending because it might include elements of the Green New Deal.

This is why it’s critical for the climate movement to help elect the most progressive Congress possible. But the movement may be aided by the fact that government spending on job-creating green solutions is popular even with right-leaning Americans. Nearly two-thirds of Republican voters support “major public investment” in things like expanding renewable energy and smart grids, even when it’s described to them in explicitly partisan terms as a Democratic priority, recent polling from Data for Progress suggests. “There is broad support for massive investment in green technology,” the left-leaning think tank concludes.

If a Biden administration could pass even a partial green stimulus, people across red and blue states might see tangible benefits: an army of well-paid energy retrofit workers removing lead from old homes, factories pumping out electric pick-up trucks, healthier air and cleaner water. “You begin to broaden the coalition for stronger climate policy and shrink the coalition that’s currently standing against strong climate policy,” said Nina Kelsey, an assistant professor of environmental policy at George Washington University.

Oil and gas expansion remain a wildcard

Though Biden has vowed “to hold corporate executives personally accountable” for their company’s carbon pollution, “including jail time when merited,” one of his informal advisors is Heather Zichal, who has served on the board of the natural gas producer Cheniere Energy. Biden also famously told a young anti-fracking protester who confronted him late last year to vote for “someone else.”

“I’m not sure how effective activism could even be in getting him off of that,” Amy Westervelt, editor-in-chief of the investigative media outlet Drilled News, says of Biden’s support for gas. “Because he’s really inflexible in his thinking about it.”

That uncertainty is also felt by oil executives. Biden’s promise to ban all new permits for oil and gas drilling on public lands, combined with conflicting statements on gas expansion, is making some of them uneasy. “It’s unclear, though, where Biden really stands on fracking and what his policies would be if elected,” Dan Eberhart, CEO of the oilfield services company Canary, argued recently on Forbes.

What’s certain is that the fossil fuel industry will enter any negotiations over a green stimulus badly weakened, with fracking companies like Chesapeake Energy bankrupt and potentially a trillion dollars in lost oil company revenues due to demand dropping because of coronavirus. For the climate movement this could present an opportunity to push a “G.I. Bill” guaranteeing healthcare, pensions and retraining for laid-off fossil fuel workers—an idea Biden says he supports—while demanding lawmakers cut off life support to an industry in possible terminal decline.

Investors get a major signal to ditch fossil fuels

Another wildcard is finance. This year, climate activists helped convince the $7.4 trillion asset manager BlackRock to distance from coal and tar sands and more recently succeeded in pushing Wells Fargo and other Wall Street banks to divest from oil drilling in the Arctic. Investors can afford to take these steps because fossil fuels are declining in importance to their portfolios. A Biden administration committed to spending trillions on green alternatives would accelerate this trend. Morgan Stanley has advised investors to sell oil and gas stocks if Trump loses the election.

When it comes to climate change, banks are in a similar position to automakers (which could build way more electric vehicles) or utilities (some of which are switching from coal to renewables). Even though financial institutions have invested more than $2.7 trillion into fossil fuel expansion in recent years, they could redirect massive sums to greener companies without radically reinventing the industry. If even a fraction of this shift took place during Biden’s presidency it could turn finance into a powerful climate policy lobby.

“Industries respond to where they’ve put their sunk capital. So if they’ve put all that into capacity for polluting products, they’re going to lobby for those polluting products and for policy that protects those,” Kelsey said. “But if you can get them to switch where they’re investing, then they’re going to want policy frameworks that drive demand for those new investments. I think that dynamic can switch large industries relatively quickly.”

The odds of a climate nightmare decrease

Even if all this was to occur in the coming years, it wouldn’t be enough to stabilize the damage humankind is inflicting on the atmosphere. To achieve the Paris Agreement goal of limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees or less, the world needs to cut emissions anywhere from 15 to 32 gigatons by 2030.

A Democratic win in November, and the actions that follow from it, could in the best case potentially remove up to 2.7 gigatons from this daunting target, according to calculations from the New York-based research firm Rhodium Group. For any hope of wider success, though, U.S. progress would have to be accompanied by equally massive transformations in China, India, Europe and Brazil and global cooperation that goes well beyond what was agreed to at the Paris climate talks five years ago.

“The reality we have to grapple with is there is an urgent need to act, if we act decisively we can bend down the curve and avoid truly horrible scenarios in the coming century, but the ability to stop global warming at 1.5 or 2 degrees is extremely low if not zero,” argued David Victor, a University of California, San Diego professor and former Buttigieg campaign advisor.

There are some signs for hope, however. The European Union is looking to make a Green New Deal central to its coronavirus recovery—and China, despite uncertainty over whether it will build hundreds of new coal plants, last year invested more than $83 billion in renewables. “If you added the U.S. to that, then that’s over half the global economy,” Cohen said. “We’ve never had all three of those blocs—China, the EU and the US aligned on decarbonization.”

The sequence of events leading up to this new phase in the climate fight are clearly difficult to predict and at each stage there is a high likelihood of failure. That would have been true no matter who won the Democratic nomination. But advocates like Thomas see no option other than adjusting to the current political reality: “I think we have no choice but to try.”

Geoff Dembicki is the author of Are We Screwed? How a New Generation Is Fighting to Survive Climate Change_. Follow him on_ Twitter.