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Former Vice President Joe Biden’s long political career spans the early days of hope for U.S. climate action, and the present days of alarm.
He sponsored one of the first pieces of climate legislation in Congress, a benign proposal to study the greenhouse effect that met enough resistance to signal the hard fight ahead.
More than 30 years later, as the Democratic nominee for president, Biden is seeking to seize what many see as the last opportunity for the U.S. to stave off catastrophe.
Biden’s instinct, as embodied in the climate plan he unveiled early in this presidential run, is for moderation. He’d rather regulate than ban. He favors incentives, not force.
But as fire scorched the West and tropical storms doused the East in what science says is only a harbinger of things to come, amid passionate pleas of young activists who fear for their future, and in the face of President Donald Trump’s abandonment of U.S. responsibility to act, Biden has jettisoned half-measures.
“We’re not just going to tinker around the edges,” Biden said in announcing his expanded $2 trillion clean energy transformation plan in July.
If elected, Biden would take office in January amid what most likely will remain an historic economic downturn related to the coronavirus pandemic that threatens to push aside all other priorities, including climate change.
The moment could resemble that which faced President Barack Obama—whom Biden served for eight years as vice president—when he took office in 2009 in the throes of the great recession, the response to which Biden helped oversee.
But Biden, keenly aware of the forces that conspired to forestall Obama’s climate agenda, has made climate action integral to his plan for addressing the immediate woes he will inherit.
Biden has framed climate change as one of four historic crises that the nation is confronting at once—a perfect storm that has delivered “one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced.” In his pledge to “Build Back Better,” Biden is seeking to propel his climate plan, rather than allowing it to be trampled by the imperative to address the pandemic, the economic collapse and racial injustice.
“We can, and we will, deal with climate change,” Biden said. “It’s not only a crisis, it’s an enormous opportunity. An opportunity for America to lead the world in clean energy and create millions of new good-paying jobs in the process.”
Previous Democratic presidential candidates have voiced such sentiments, but none have offered an investment or set goals as ambitious as those in Biden’s plan, which reflects lessons learned from his 36 years in the Senate and eight in the Obama White House.
An Early Proponent for Climate Action
Biden, known in the Senate for his work on foreign relations, focused on climate change early as a matter for international diplomacy. In 1986, after testimony by NASA scientist James Hansen on the greenhouse effect, Biden introduced his Global Climate Protection Act.
The bill sought to compel President Ronald Reagan to set up a task force to study the issue, and the Delaware Senator urged Reagan to include climate in the summit talks then underway with then-Soviet Secretary General Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Senate, then in Republican hands, didn’t act on Biden’s proposal. But the following year, after Democrats took control, they included the measure in the State Department’s funding bill. And Reagan and Gorbachev did talk climate.
In December 1987, the leaders of the two superpowers committed to “broad international and bilateral cooperation in the increasingly important area of global climate and environmental change.”
International cooperation would not yield a climate measure for the U.S. Senate to vote on for five years. And before casting his vote to ratify the United Nations Framework Convention Treaty on Climate Change in October 1992, Biden assailed then-President George H.W. Bush for pressuring nations into a deal with no targets or timetables for greenhouse gas reductions.
“An obligation merely to assess emissions and report on efforts to reduce them does not create the depth of commitment that many of us envisioned,” Biden said.
The Bush White House “was shown to be a truly powerful influence in international environmental affairs, although in exactly the opposite manner that the President promised,” he said. “The true judges of the success or failure of these efforts will be future generations.”
Biden expressed hope that the treaty would nevertheless serve as a foundation that the U.S. could build on in the years ahead, but those years would bring more disappointment.
Kyoto’s Failure Informed Biden’s Approach to the Paris Accord
Biden watched lobbyists swarm Washington in 1993 to fight President Bill Clinton’s proposal to tax fuel sources on their heat content as measured in British thermal units, or BTUs, a novel plan vehemently opposed by the fossil fuel industry. Clinton failed to win over conservatives by trying to sell the tax as a deficit-reduction measure, and Senate Democrats never even brought the proposal to a vote.
Since then, all U.S. climate action advocates—including Biden—have had to grapple with the dilemma of how to level the playing field for clean energy when taxes are a political non-starter. Biden voted in 2003 in favor of the cap-and-trade approach sponsored in the Senate by his friend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), but it never garnered sufficient support.
Cap-and-trade is a market-based approach for setting limits on carbon emissions and selling permits to polluting companies, but foes killed Obama’s effort at cap-and-trade too, labeling it “cap-and-tax.”
As a presidential candidate, Biden is stressing spending, not taxing. He has promised an historic investment in a clean energy transition: $2 trillion over four years, a dramatic increase over the $1.7 trillion over 10 years included in his original plan. Biden has not spelled out how he would pay for it, other than using “all the levers of the federal government, from purchasing power, R&D, tax, trade, and investment policies.”
Recent reports say Biden is not likely to propose a carbon tax, although he has talked about repeal of at least some of Trump’s 2017 tax cuts, which the Congressional Budget Office estimated would add more than $2 trillion to the federal deficit over 10 years.
Implementing Biden’s plan would require a large workforce to deploy the infrastructure for electric vehicles, including 500,000 charging stations; to redesign and modify office buildings and other commercial structures for greater energy efficiency; to rebuild transmission lines and energy storage facilities to support wind, solar and other renewable energy sources, and to retrofit existing power plants to reduce and capture carbon emissions.
“Even if we weren’t facing a pandemic and an economic crisis, we should be making these investments,” Biden said.
Biden has some experience in a federal rescue and rebuilding effort because of his role in helping to administer the Obama administration’s economic recovery package in 2009, which included a $90 billion investment in clean energy—the largest ever made.
Biden’s plan would incentivize businesses to adopt strong labor protections and allow unionization—a bid to build constituencies of supporters, like the United Auto Workers. That’s important not only for bolstering Biden’s candidacy, but for helping to push the ambitious program through Congress in spite of the inevitable lobbying by the same corporate foes who helped sink the proposals of Clinton and Obama.
Another Clinton administration misstep Biden absorbed was in how it negotiated the Kyoto protocol on climate, which called for developed nations like the United States and Europe to take the first steps to cut carbon emissions.
In 1997, Biden joined in a 95-0 vote for a Senate resolution voicing opposition to any protocol that exempted fast-developing nations like China from cutting greenhouse gases. Clinton never brought the Kyoto accord before the Republican-controlled Senate, where it faced certain defeat, and President George W. Bush abandoned the deal.
Biden has said that, when the Obama administration began its effort to forge a new international climate treaty, he played a key role in the strategy of laying the groundwork for the global accord with a bilateral agreement between the U.S. and China. “Because, guess what? They need to be involved,” Biden said at Democratic presidential debate in February.
According to E&E News, Biden met several times with Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2012 when both were vice presidents, and in December 2013, after Xi had ascended to the presidency, Biden raised the idea of a bilateral accord. Secretary of State John Kerry’s team did the actual negotiating.
When Obama and Xi appeared together in Beijing in 2014 to jointly announce their carbon emissions goals, it was seen as a breakthrough that helped catalyze support for an international deal. The Paris accord, which included commitments from all signatories, was reached the following year.
Biden has pledged not only to rejoin the Paris accord, but to work to obtain commitments from every major country to increase the ambition of their climate targets. In Biden’s climate plan, China—the only foreign country mentioned by name—is described as a rival in the battle to dominate the clean energy industries of the future, particularly autos. Academics and environmental advocates believe Biden’s ambitious domestic goals would help spur renewed engagement between the world’s two largest carbon polluters.
Closer to home, Biden’s goals—a 100 percent clean energy economy with net-zero emissions by 2050, and an interim target of carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035—are meant not only to inspire other countries, but to win over U.S. climate voters.
Not the Green New Deal, but Environmental Justice is Key
Biden’s climate plan was forged by a unity task force appointed by his campaign and that of his chief rival for the Democratic nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who had won the support of youth-driven climate activist groups like the Sunrise Movement.
But Biden has not adopted Sanders’ plan wholesale. Although he has called the Green New Deal a “crucial framework,” Biden has shunned guaranteed jobs and Medicare-for-all. Biden has, however, included a New Deal-style Civilian Climate Corps for environmental restoration and climate resilience projects.
Biden would not ban fracking, as Sanders proposed, but he would reverse Trump’s decisions opening sensitive public lands to drilling, including the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Biden would ban new oil and gas permitting on both public lands and waters.
The most ambitious aspect of Biden’s climate proposal is its environmental justice plan. As Black and Latino communities cope with the country’s highest rates of Covid-19, and unrest erupts in cities across the nation in response to police shootings, Biden would make sure historically disenfranchised communities receive 40 percent of the investment in housing, pollution reduction, workforce development and transportation.
“We have to make sure that the first people who benefit from this are the people who were most hurt … in the last century by the structural disparities that exist,” he said.
Biden would establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice, seeking to hold corporate executives personally accountable for illegal pollution.
Biden’s selection of former prosecutor Kamala Harris as his running mate, the first woman of color on a major party’s presidential ticket, emphasizes a commitment both to accountability for the fossil fuel industry and his focus on the minority communities who face the worst risks of a changing climate.
Even while Black and white communities alike are now engulfed in other crises, Biden argues the U.S. can no longer wait to address the crisis he has seen escalate over five presidencies. “Climate change is a challenge,” he said, “that’s going to define our American future.”
Staff writer James Bruggers contributed to this report.