“It’s almost like denying gravity now. … The willing suspension of disbelief can only be sustained for so long.”
—Joe Biden on climate denial, March 2015
Among the current candidates, only former Vice President Joseph Biden has debated a Republican opponent during a past contest for the White House—when he was Barack Obama’s running mate and took on Sarah Palin in 2008. It’s a moment that might come back to haunt him, because in a brief discussion of climate change—a chance to trounce her on the question of science denial or fossil fuel favoritism—he instead slipped into a discussion of what he called “clean coal,” which he said he had favored for 25 years. He explained it away as a reference to exporting American energy technology. But his loose language, taken in today’s context, sounds archaic.
Biden likes to say he was among the first to introduce a climate change bill in the Senate, and fact checkers generally agree. It was the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986 that was largely put into a spending bill in 1987. The Reagan administration pretty much ignored it, but the bill did call for an EPA national policy on climate change, and annual reports to Congress.
Biden was in the Senate 36 years, and he had a lifetime environmental voting score of 83 percent from the League of Conservation Voters. In 2007, he supported higher fuel efficiency standards for motor vehicles, which passed, and in 2003, modest caps on greenhouse gas emissions, which didn’t.
But his longevity is a liability, because the longer the voting record, the more contradictions. He missed a key vote in 2008 on the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which was said to be the strongest global warming bill to ever make it to the Senate floor. Biden also opposed tightening fuel efficiency standards earlier in his career.
The Biden-Obama administration was strong on climate change, especially in its second term, notably achieving the landmark Paris climate agreement, asserting climate action and jobs go hand in hand. It pushed through auto fuel economy standards that deeply cut emissions. It also produced regulations on coal-fired power plants, though the rule was stymied by litigation and has been replaced with a weaker rule by the Trump administration.
Often overlooked, the Obama era stimulus package of 2009 included big investments in climate-friendly research and infrastructure. But Biden is also tethered to Obama’s “all-of-the-above” philosophy, which left ample room for the fracking boom that bolstered one fossil fuel, natural gas, over another, coal, and put the U.S. on track to become the world’s leading oil producer.
- Biden surprised some activists and pundits in June when he presented his campaign’s first climate platform. It went further than many of his previous positions, and embraced the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework.”
- Biden foresees $1.7 trillion in spending over the next 10 years, and $3.3 trillion in investments by the private sector and state and local governments.
- He wants Congress to pass emissions limits with “an enforcement mechanism … based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting.” He said it would include “clear, legally-binding emissions reductions,” but did not give details.
- In July, Biden released a policy agenda that aims to boost the rural economy, in part by expanding a program that will pay farmers to use farming techniques that store carbon in the soil.
- His plan also calls for support for economically impacted communities. He was slow to agree with activists’ calls for him to swear off campaign contributions from fossil fuel interests, but did sign the No Fossil Fuel Funding pledge on June 27.
Biden has signaled he will embrace central concepts of the Green New Deal—that the world needs to get net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 and that the environment and economy are connected. He was slower to do so, and for that reason he has faced criticism from young, impatient voters.
That compounds the challenge of explaining Senate votes that took place a long time ago. But Biden is known for his ability to communicate with blue-collar voters who abandoned Democrats for Trump, as well as older voters who have turned out in the past.