Biden's Surprisingly Strong Climate Plan Is Giving People Hope

Not even Joe Biden can afford to be a moderate on climate change.
June 4, 2019, 8:48pm
A split of Joe Biden and and a melting iceberg.
Photo of Joe Biden by Drew Angerer/Getty; photo of an iceberg by Costfoto / Barcroft Images / Barcroft Media via Getty

Less than a month after climate change activists called the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency a "death sentence," some of those same agitators are singing the praises of the former vice president’s new climate plan—and taking credit for it.

The Sunrise Movement, a two-year-old left-wing group that fiercely backs the Green New Deal, responded to a report last month that Biden would look to pursue a "middle ground" climate policy by condemning the 2020 candidate. They were joined by a chorus of advocates. Progressives worried that Biden—already disliked by many leftists for his moderate record—wouldn’t endorse the aggressive carbon-cutting policies needed to slash emissions to net zero by 2050, a target United Nations scientists say is needed to avert truly catastrophic temperature increases.

But on Tuesday morning, Biden released a plan that embraced that target. Though it didn’t go as far as the Green New Deal—a framework that includes left-wing goals like a jobs guarantee—it contained some of the GND’s elements, like an emphasis on building energy-efficient infrastructure that will resist the effects of a warming climate. Also like the GND, Biden's plan called for a focus on poor communities and communities of color who have been disproportionately harmed by pollution. The candidate pledged not to take money from fossil fuel executives or companies, a promise many other Democratic candidates have already made.

Biden’s announcement suggested that even as the Democratic Party is undergoing a major internal struggle about its priorities, it has already shifted definitively to the left when it comes to the warming planet.

The Sunrise Movement framed this as a victory for activists, saying in a statement that their "pressure" on the Biden campaign "forced them to backtrack," and calling the new plan "a major victory for the tens of thousands of people who have raised their voices," and Biden’s pledge of $1.7 trillion in government spending on climate-related issues a "good start." Other environmental groups also praised Biden, with the League of Conservation Voters labeling his a "strong plan" and a spokesperson for Greenpeace—a group that gave Biden a D- on climate just days ago—saying, "This plan marks a critical step forward for Biden on the climate crisis."

"It's different than the signals we originally heard from his campaign," said Jenny Marienau, the political campaign manager at the climate advocacy group 350 Action. "We can definitely see a through line between the organizing and bird-dogging and actions that climate activists have been taking and the stronger plans that we're seeing from Biden and many candidates."

This doesn’t mean that Biden has suddenly become the climate-change candidate. "This plan seems cribbed," said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, who specializes in climate policy. "It's like he copied off of his competitors, using all the same keywords they were using but with less substance." (After Stokes said this, it turned out that this charge was literally true: Lines in the plan were copied from various environmental groups, which Biden’s campaign told Business Insider was the result of mistakenly leaving out citations.)

Advocates were also wary of some details, like Biden’s inclusion of nuclear power and "carbon capture," which can be a code word for coal. "He says he wants to double offshore wind in the US by 2030," Stokes noted. "That would mean there would be 60 Megawatts of wind total. That's the least-ambitious thing I've ever heard."

Still, it appears Biden has chosen climate as the one issue on which he might align himself with the left. He’s declined to embrace Medicare for all, instead backing a more moderate healthcare policy called the public option. He’s sold himself as a dealmaker who can reach across the aisle, and even praised a Republican congressman during the 2018 midterms. For this, he’s been harpooned by vocal leftists, especially online, but he’s also at the top of the polls thanks to a solid chunk of Democratic voters who are open to the language of unity and moderation.

On climate, though, Biden has been doing his best to sound like a rose emoji–equipped AOC fan, calling for a "green revolution" in a recent speech. That may be because he has a genuine interest in the subject: His campaign has emphasized that, as a senator in 1986, he introduced the first-ever congressional bill focused on climate change, though the measure was largely symbolic. Or it might be a case of a veteran politician knowing his constituency; polls have found Democrats to be intensely interested in climate change, and Americans as a whole are growing more alarmed about it. Which makes sense given that the changing climate is fueling more extreme weather and more wildfires.

It remains to be seen how much action a Democratic president would really be able to take on climate in 2021. Some of Biden’s policies would likely require approval from Congress, which may not be under Democratic control, and might also be blocked by a Supreme Court dominated by conservatives. But the surprisingly ambitious, if "cribbed," plan makes it clear that while climate was largely ignored in 2016, it’s going to be on the forefront of the 2020 campaign. And activists want to hold the next president to whatever promises are made now.

"We're not organizing up to an election, we're organizing through an election," Marienau said. "We really expect to see strong executive actions on day one in office and we'll be very disappointed if we don't see that. Candidates can expect to see a reaction to that if they aren't prioritizing climate on day one."

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