Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden unveiled a $2 trillion clean economy jobs program Tuesday that marked a significant expansion in his plan for tackling climate change, with jobs-creation and environmental justice as its pillars.
With a blue “Build Back Better” placard on his lectern, the former vice president sought to signal that the coronavirus crisis will not displace the imperative to act on climate. Instead, he framed the immediate and long-term crises as linked, requiring the same sort of government intervention: a massive program to ramp up electric vehicles, carbon-free power and energy efficiency throughout the economy.
“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long-term health and vitality of the American economy and the safety of the American people,” Biden said in a speech from Wilmington, Delaware, his hometown.
“Here we are now with the economy in crisis, but with an incredible opportunity not just to build back to where we were before, but better, stronger, more resilient, and more prepared for the challenges that lie ahead,” he said. “And there is no more consequential challenge that we must meet in this next decade than the onrushing climate crisis.”
The planned $2 trillion federal investment marks a step up from the $1.7 trillion plan Biden unveiled during the Democratic primary battle. He also is accelerating his timetable for action, seeking to put the United States on track to achieve net zero emissions four years earlier than his original goal of 2050.
Those changes come after a concerted effort by his campaign to craft a unity platform with supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, who was his final challenger in the Democractic primaries and a revered figure among the party’s progressive wing.
Given the electoral map advantages for Republicans, most political observers agree that Biden will need to inspire both the left and moderates in his effort to unseat President Donald Trump, despite his current lead in most national polls.
Rolling out a more aggressive plan on climate is seen by many as a way that Biden can win over young and progressive voters. At the same time, Biden sought to reach out to blue-collar workers with an emphasis on union wages and benefits and manufacturing jobs in a new green economy.
“When Donald Trump thinks about renewable energy, he sees windmills somehow causing cancer,” said Biden, expanding on a riff that was a favorite of climate champion Jay Inslee, the Democratic governor of Washington, early in the primary season. “When I think about those wind-farms, I see American manufacturing—and American workers—racing to dominate the global market.”
Inslee quickly offered his endorsement of Biden’s plan, calling it “visionary.”
For Summer Dean, 23, a climate and energy justice activist, writer, and model who works with the Sunrise Movement in Los Angeles, the new Biden plan represents a powerful testament to the mass mobilization of youth climate activists from around the country. After Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal from the Democratic presidential primary in April, many of them fiercely devoted their time to pressuring Biden to ramp up his ambition on climate.
“This new plan is the most aggressive and intersectional climate plan from any Democratic nominee in history,” said Dean. “Any adequate plan to address the climate crisis must also be a plan to recover our broken economy, and center those who have been disenfranchised in the solutions. Biden’s new plan shows that his campaign gets it, and it will resonate with voters.”
Alexandria Villaseñor, 15, co-founder of the U.S. Youth Climate Strike and founder of Earth Uprising, is equally inspired. “It’s no secret the youth climate justice movement has not been a fan of Joe Biden,” she said. “However, with the announcement of this plan, which acts on science and centers on environmental justice and communities of color, he’s saying that he’s listening and willing to act on some of the most critical issues of our generation.”
Biden’s plan would establish for the first time a separate office of environmental and climate justice at the Justice Department. A goal would be addressing how “environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color.”
Disadvantaged communities would receive 40 percent of the clean energy and infrastructure benefits. New monitoring of pollution would be mandated in communities at the fenceline of refineries and other facilities that have borne the brunt of the nation’s pollution burdens.
The Biden plan is consistent with a recent call for a massive reinvestment in coal communities across the nation, written by members of those communities, said Thom Kay, the senior legislative representative of Appalachian Voices, a nonprofit that works for healthy ecosystems and resilient local economies in coal country.
That coal transition platform from the Just Transition Fund was endorsed by 80 groups, from environmental to business to labor, based in part on the premise that the nation has a moral obligation to help coal-dependent communities transition to new economies because of the sacrifices they have made.
With its provisions for worker health in coal communities, the importance of broadband in rural communities, and major investments in reclaiming damaged mining sites, there’s a lot to like in the Biden plan, Kay said.
“We love the idea of 250,000 good jobs on various types of reclamation,” Kay said. “We love to see that out there.”
Coal community residents for years have been saying that cleaning up messes left behind by the industry can put former miners to work while boosting economic development.
“I do hope that we continue to have good unity of labor and environmental groups trying to have a brighter future for these coal communities,” he said.
Biden emphasized that his plan would support “good paying union jobs” and said the auto industry would benefit from a transition to electric vehicles.
The United Auto Workers, representing 400,000 active workers in one of the nation’s largest manufacturing sectors, praised Biden’s emphasis on union jobs, and the transition to electric vehicles.
The union issued a statement calling Biden’s plan “a win-win for American manufacturing, auto industry jobs, new technology and a cleaner environment.” The union’s support could be important for Biden in Michigan, the No. 1 automaking state, which Trump narrowly won in 2016 but Democrats swept in the 2018 midterms.
“UAW members are looking to Washington, D.C. to invest in future jobs; new technologies; a world race to cleaner air; and to save consumers their hard-earned money,” said the UAW. “This plan checks all those boxes.”
In another key state for the Democrats in November, Colorado Democrats welcomed the Biden climate plan enthusiastically. Eager to see voters replace Republican incumbent Sen. Cory Gardner with former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, and with two tight congressional contests, the state party is also pleased to see the likely Democratic presidential nominee making the environment, public lands and climate change leading issues in the 2020 campaign.
“Climate change is one of our top priorities here in Colorado,” said David Kim Pourshoushtari, spokesman for the Colorado Democratic Party. Clean energy, clean jobs, preserving outdoor recreation and promoting the outdoor products industry—they’re important to voters in a state that’s generally regarded as purple, and fiercely competitive, Pourshoushtari said.
The Biden plan “creates a huge contrast between the two parties,” Pourshoushtari added, noting that Trump chose a former oil and gas lobbyist to lead his Interior Department and a one-time opponent of federal lands programs to lead its Bureau of Land Management.
The Biden campaign made clear its hope that the climate plan would appeal to Coloradans, announcing that the former vice president’s wife, Jill Biden, will take a virtual tour of Pipefitters Local 208 Training Facility in Denver on Friday, followed by a “listening session” on the Biden economic recovery plan.
Not all Westerners were happy with Biden’s plan. Kathleen Sgamma, president of the Western Energy Alliance, an oil and gas industry trade group, linked the Biden plan with the Green New Deal, saying it fueled “alarmism about climate change while envisioning a radical remaking of the energy sector and hence, the economy,” just as the nation is trying to recover from the Covid-19 recession. She called Biden’s net-zero GHG emissions goals “unrealistic” and conveniently timed. Sgamma noted that electricity from natural gas has cut greenhouse gas emissions more than wind and solar combined, and she said Biden’s strategy ought to focus on furthering that success rather than disadvantaging American producers.
“We’ll focus on moderating these policies once Biden moves from appeasing the left during the campaign to potentially governing,” Sgamma said. “His vulnerability in Pennsylvania, which has caused him to tone down the rhetoric on banning fracking, suggests there is room to be reasonable on these issues.”
The Trump campaign, for its part, sought to paint Biden’s climate plan as extreme.
“His plan is more like a socialist manifesto that promises to massively raise taxes, eliminate jobs in the coal, oil or natural gas industries, and crush the middle class,” said Trump campaign spokesman Hogan Gidley in a statement.
The Biden campaign said that details on paying for the plan would be forthcoming and would include increasing the corporate income tax rate from 21 to 28 percent.
Although polls have pointed to the environment as Trump’s biggest vulnerability against Biden, the president’s campaign showed no sign of acknowledging the need to address climate change.
“Now more than ever, it’s clear that Biden is beholden to the radical socialist ideology of Senator Bernie Sanders, and Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez,” Gidley said.
But that’s not how it looks on the Democratic left, where progressives still see more work to do in moving Biden to do more.
“I think it’s a step in the right direction, but that doesn’t mean that it’s enough,” said Jamie Margolin,18, who co-founded the international youth climate justice coalition Zero Hour and served as a surrogate for the Bernie Sanders campaign. In her view, Biden “still needs to be pushed to be even stronger on this issue,” including by doing more to put climate justice at the forefront of his agenda.
She added, “To be honest, there’s still a long way to go.”
Margolin, who plans to cast her first vote in the upcoming presidential election, said she wants to make sure Biden’s plan puts the nation on track to reaching net zero emissions by 2030. “We have to adapt to what the science needs; the science can’t adapt to our political climate.”
Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, who served on the Biden-Sanders climate task force, said activists can take credit for the moves by Biden to increase the scale and urgency of climate investments. But she said their work is not over.
“Our movement made this possible, but there’s more work to do, and the urgency of the crisis demands that we keep pushing,” Prakash said. “Two things are clear: Movements matter, and there’s more work to do.”