Biden’s Climate Change Window of Opportunity

Politicians hope for windows of opportunity, activists try to create them, and sometimes, just sometimes, a global crisis can open one. In April, Joe Biden announced that he was going to “commence a process to meaningfully engage with more voices from the climate movement,” and on May 13, he unveiled the members of his six Unity Task Forces with the Bernie Sanders campaign, including on climate change. In taking this step, the Biden campaign apparently recognizes that a post-Covid-19 world may provide a rare window of opportunity to unify his party and galvanize support around a green recovery plan that emphasizes urgent climate action and support for disaffected workers.

Co-chaired by former Secretary of State John Kerry, and U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the climate task force symbolizes and reflects the competing views on climate policy: incremental and transformative, moderate and progressive, market-based and interventionist, and environmentalist and justice-oriented. The inclusion of Representative Kathy Castor, the chair of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, and former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy alongside prominent activists such as Catherine Flowers and Varshini Prakash also demonstrates an acknowledgment of the roles of both lawmakers and activists.

Even before they began collaborating, there were arguably more similarities than differences between Biden’s Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice and that of his former progressive rivals, such as Bernie Sanders. Biden’s plan would be the most ambitious set of climate policies taken to any U.S. election and conforms to many climate experts’ recommendations. Of the 12 issues tracked by Resources for the Future, Biden and Bernie substantively agree on 8. These include opposing fossil fuel leasing on public lands, imposing stricter regulations of methane emissions, setting bolder fuel economy standards, re-signing the Paris Agreement, supporting fossil fuel workers and their communities, and reaching full decarbonization by 2050.

Yet there is clearly a vocal and enthusiastic portion of climate voters who are unhappy with his climate plan and whom Biden wishes to win over. During the campaign, several environmental and climate organizations created scorecards to compare plans against various metrics, largely finding Biden’s plan wanting (see chart below). However, these differences did not seem to affect Biden much electorally. One exit poll of voters on Super Tuesday, for example, estimated that Biden won a plurality of voters who considered climate change to be their number one policy priority.

Table 1: Biden’s Climate Plan Was Consistently Rated Well below Sanders’ by Climate Groups

  Sanders Biden
Data for Progress
44/48 26/48
Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund
A C+
Vote Climate U.S. PAC
93.75 81.25
Sunrise Movement
183/200 75/200
94 72
350 Action
4/4 1/4
Build a Movement 2020
C+ C
100% <50%
Source: CSIS compilation

What is often more notable about these scorecards than the scores themselves is what they say about their organizations’ priorities and the priorities of the movements they represent. The Sunrise Movement, for example, which aims to “[build] an army of young people,” not only rates whether a Green New Deal policy idea is present in Biden’s plan but how he talks about it and how much he talks about it. By and large, these organizations place a greater priority than Biden’s current plan on a larger and more active role for the federal government, commitments to more urgent climate action, and a worker-centric view of the climate crisis.

The Covid-19 crisis may provide the opening to bridge some of those gaps. A historic economic crisis has shifted the norms of public spending and vividly illustrated the size, scope, and significance of the federal government. Meanwhile, there is now more attention than ever paid to the urgency of crisis mitigation and management. These upheavals are all taking place in the context of the worst jobs crisis since the Great Depression and perhaps the largest ever fall in global oil demand, dealing dual blows to many communities across the country. Not every progressive policy idea is suited to these times, nor should every piece of Biden’s platform be scrapped, but the policy platforms of just a few months ago should adapt to a changed world and a new set of political opportunities.

The Green New Deal and a Covid-19 Recovery Plan

As governments scramble to deal with a possible “Greater Depression” while maintaining their climate promises, the need for “win-win” solutions is more urgent than ever. Climate activists and policymakers recognize that this could be a “once in a generation” opportunity to deliver ambitious climate plans or risk government’s exhausting their fiscal and political capacity for future large spending programs. A recent survey of 231 central bank officials, finance ministry officials, and other economic experts from G20 countries identified a range of such “win-win” economic recovery policies, including clean physical infrastructure, building efficiency retrofits, investment in education and training, natural capital investment, and clean R&D. That these ideas were the majority choices of economists and public officials, rather than Green New Deal activists and advocates, shows how far and how fast the conversation has come since the onset of the Covid-19 crisis.

These green stimulus ideas are in keeping with the political strategy of tying climate policies to social and economic reform. There is some evidence that linking climate policy to social and economic reforms increases the popularity of climate reform, and recent polling suggests that green industrial strategy ideas are popular. Importantly, two-thirds of Republicans also support “major public investment” in efforts such as expanding renewable energy and smart grids. Economic reforms are less polarizing than the social reforms, however, such as affordable housing or free college. The Green New Deal’s social components are often portrayed as a “Trojan Horse for socialism” and have featured prominently in Right-wing critiques, including Republican opposition to pro-climate measures in recent stimulus talks.

After a campaign spent calling for the prudent return to the policies of the Obama era, Biden is clearly considering running on a more ambitious platform, including some version of a Green Stimulus proposal. He is well positioned to do so, given his experience overseeing Obama’s 2009 stimulus, and there seems to be the rumblings of renewed support from the Left for such a strategy.

Decarbonization Timelines and Injecting a Sense of Urgency

In an open letter to Joe Biden signed by eight youth-led progressive groups, activists demanded that his campaign adopt a 100 percent clean electricity by 2030 target, as outlined in Bernie Sanders’ campaign. Biden, on the other hand, has adopted a net-zero by 2050 target.

At the time of writing, no deep decarbonization or scientific report could be found that recommends such a rapid transition. Climate activist recommendations stem from a moral argument that advanced economies are most responsible for historic emissions and should, therefore, decarbonize faster than the global average, but this runs up against very practical obstacles. Not only would a 10-year transformation be unprecedented and disruptive, but there is debate over whether it needs to be 100 percent renewable—that is, entirely without fossil fuels or nuclear power. Multiple studies have shown that “[w]hile it is theoretically possible to rely primarily (or even entirely) on variable renewable energy resources such as wind and solar, it would be significantly more challenging and costly.”

In the wake of the Covid-19 crisis, however, there will be increased concern that the urgency of climate change mitigation pales in comparison to the catastrophe of the here and now. To address this concern, Biden could take two concrete steps. The first is to install a new White House Office of Climate Mobilization, modeled after FDR’s Office of War Mobilization, as well as a National Climate Council to serve a similar function as that of the National Security Council. The Biden campaign is thinking along similar lines, reportedly floating the idea of a cabinet-level climate change position, a first for a presidential administration. The second is to set a series of interim targets for emissions reduction deployment in each sector, showing climate-concerned voters that the issue is a top priority while offering clear signals to the investors and entrepreneurs that will turn targets into technologies. This idea has some bipartisan appeal as well, as seen in the various technology “grand challenges” and “moonshot” proposals in Congress. It would also be an essential monitoring and accountability feature of any large-scale investment in energy infrastructure or innovation.

Just Transitions and an Energy Jobs Program

In the era of Covid-19, when over 33 million workers have filed for unemployment, there is clearly a need for increased federal government support for working Americans. Whatever the scope of a jobs program, Biden has an opportunity to make direct federal support for workers in the energy transition a major plank of his platform.

A robust jobs program provides an opportunity for the Biden campaign to not only make headway on the energy and climate challenges at the core of his policy platform but also to productively address one of the most thorny disagreements among his campaign and the broader climate movement. Though Biden and his more left-leaning critics disagree on the role of fossil fuels in the energy transition, they appear to agree on a fundamental idea: as we transition to a clean energy economy, we must ensure that the workers in fossil fuel industries are not left behind. Where they differ is on how much support is necessary for workers and from whom.

On this topic, Biden’s campaign platform includes a promise to secure healthcare and retirement benefits for coal miners and to form a federal task force on coal and power plant communities. This task force would help them access public and private investments, job training, and some form of support for public employees, although there is not substantial detail on how this would occur. He also pledges to create new jobs to build climate-resilient infrastructure, restore coastal erosion, and evaluate climate risk and impacts.

The progressive wing of the party, for which Senator Sanders may be considered a de facto leader, is looking for a more active role for the government. Sanders’ platform promises displaced fossil fuel workers a five-year wage guarantee, job placement and relocation assistance, pension support, housing assistance, a four-year college education or job training, and health insurance through single-payer healthcare. He also promises investments in communities through the Appalachian Regional Commission, Economic Development Assistance Programs, and the Abandoned Mine Lands fund.

The common theme here in both platforms is some kind of federal promotion of climate-related jobs. In public polling, there appears to be relatively strong support for a federal jobs program. In 2018, Data for Progress found 54 percent support for “federal funding for community job creation for any person who can’t find a job.” In October 2019, a poll commissioned by The Hill found over 70 percent support among registered voters for “a federal jobs program that created jobs for the unemployed.”

This is a clear opportunity for Biden to clarify the specifics of his jobs proposal—most importantly, will the program create jobs for everyone who wants one? Would such a program have federal or state oversight? Will displaced workers be prioritized for jobs? Will these jobs necessarily be in the energy sector? While all of these issues are hotly debated on the Right and the Left, with unemployment rivaling Great Depression-era levels, the Biden campaign (and Congress) has a great deal more running room to discuss and adopt more forward-looking measures on this front.

Leadership in the Face of Crisis

Clearly, the Covid-19 crisis has created an opportunity for Biden to close the gap with his detractors among more Left-leaning voters while not alienating his moderate supporters. Fundamentally, it comes down to placing more faith in the power of government, and there is evidence that doing so is less controversial than it used to be. In championing a green stimulus, he would be leveraging public investment to drive down emissions while stabilizing the American economy. In setting interim emissions targets in economic sectors, he would use the authority of the executive branch to create certainty and a sense of forward momentum. In providing clarity to his jobs program, he would harness public resources to ensure better conditions for workers displaced in the energy transition. More importantly, in putting forward a platform built on these foundations, he would demonstrate the leadership and ambition commensurate with the office he seeks and the twin crises that would be his responsibility and legacy if elected in the fall.

Lachlan Carey is an associate fellow with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Stephen J. Naimoli is a research associate with the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at CSIS.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2020 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Lachlan Carey

Stephen J. Naimoli