Joe Biden seeks to win over climate crisis activists after earlier failing to support Green New Deal

Presidential hopeful now faces choice over raft of environmental policies drawn-up by his party

Lisa Friedman,Katie Glueck
Tuesday 07 July 2020 14:49
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From the earliest days of his presidential campaign, progressive climate advocates viewed Joe Biden with deep scepticism. He declined to fully endorse the Green New Deal. He opposed a total ban on fracking. Young activists were scathing in their criticism of him, and he was at times openly dismissive of their concerns.

But now, less than four months before Election Day, Mr Biden is moving urgently to unite and energise the Democratic Party around his candidacy, aware of the need to engage younger, more liberal voters — and to ensure that they turn out in November. On climate issues, there are signs that Mr Biden’s allies and some of the party’s leading progressives have quietly started to forge new common ground.

In recent weeks, supporters of Mr Biden and of Bernie Sanders, his chief rival in the Democratic presidential primary race, have met privately over Zoom, part of several joint task forces that the two contenders established to generate policy recommendations on core domestic priorities and to facilitate party unity. After two months of those conversations, task force members representing both camps say they have finalised a set of ambitious, near-term climate targets that they hope Mr Biden, the presumptive Democratic nominee, will incorporate in his platform.

“I do believe we were able to make meaningful progress,” Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who headed the climate panel with former Secretary of State John Kerry, said last week. Representative Donald McEachin, a Biden ally who was also on the task force, called it a “collaborative process” that developed wide-ranging policies.

Still, Ms Ocasio-Cortez, who has previously clashed with Mr Biden over his approach to combating climate change, struck a note of caution.

“Now, what he does with those recommendations, ultimately, is up to him,” she said. “And we will see what that commitment looks like.”

Those goals, according to three people familiar with the task force’s decisions, include committing to seeing the United States’ electricity sector powered fully by renewable energy by 2035 and a rapid transition to energy-efficient buildings. They also seek a day one promise to begin developing new vehicle efficiency standards — and to include labour unions in the discussions — to replace and improve upon the Obama administration measures that Donald Trump has weakened.

The group, which convened amid economic collapse during the coronavirus pandemic and protests against racism and police brutality, was especially attuned to linking the climate crisis to jobs as well as to the struggle to help low-income communities that already face outsize health consequences from pollution, task force members said.

“I think where we have really made a lot of progress is in areas with respect to environmental justice and addressing front-line communities,” Ms Ocasio-Cortez said.

Mr Biden, the former vice president, last year proposed a $1.7 trillion (£1.36 trillion) plan aimed at achieving 100 per cent clean energy and eliminating the country’s net carbon emissions by 2050.

But how he responds to the task force’s recommendations — and whether progressives in the group walk away feeling heard — will test his campaign’s ability to navigate an issue of great importance to ascendant forces in the Democratic Party.

“The work of the task forces has been collaborative and productive, and vice president Biden looks forward to reviewing their full recommendations,” a campaign spokesperson, Jamal Brown, said in a statement. As for Mr Biden’s approach to the issue, Mr Brown said, “As president, Biden will take immediate action to address the urgency of the climate emergency and create good-paying jobs that provide a chance to join a union, which is especially important now as tens of millions of Americans are out of work.”

In recent weeks Mr Biden has made a number of overtures to climate activists. He has increasingly linked environmental issues to racial justice, and he said at a recent climate-focused fundraiser that, if elected, in his first 100 days as president, he would send Congress “a transformational plan for a clean energy revolution”. Last week he announced the formation of an advisory council focused on mobilising climate-focused voters.

Former vice president Al Gore said that Mr Biden had asked shortly before Earth Day for his endorsement, which Mr Gore gave, and that since then the two men have had multiple conversations about climate change. Mr Gore said Mr Biden had asked for advice and suggestions in climate policy areas, though he declined to offer specifics.

“I think he’s got the science pretty well down and he understands the rich potential for creating millions of jobs,” Mr Gore said, adding, “I get the impression that he has made a decision to lean forward on climate.”

Some of Mr Biden’s allies have suggested he is committed to fighting climate change but also understands the challenge of enacting far-reaching deals in a partisan climate.

“I’m certainly willing, and I know the vice president is, to push it as hard as possible,” said former senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

But, he added: “Three-quarters of a loaf is better than not having any loaf at all.”

From the start of his presidential run, Mr Biden has walked a fine line between championing climate change action and trying to engage union members who still rely on jobs in fossil fuel industries, as well as moderate Republicans who may dislike Mr Trump yet oppose aggressive action on curbing greenhouse gases.

But some public opinion polling seems to indicate that building a big tent on climate change may be easier than previously thought.

Recent surveys by the Pew Research Centre have found that, despite a lingering partisan divide over the scientific fact that human activity is the main driver behind global warming, 60 per cent of Americans view climate change as a “major threat”. More than half of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents also favour stricter measures like restrictions on power plant emissions and tougher automobile emissions standards.

The League of Conservation Voters, an environmental group, and the Centre for American Progress Action Fund, which is affiliated with a liberal think tank, recently tested messaging that might persuade voters to support Mr Biden. They found that the voters who were still “up for grabs” leaned centre-right but were also in favour of prioritising action to tackle climate change.

Yet Mr Biden was still facing challenges with young people, according to a report issued by the groups, which was based on internet surveys in May of voters in 11 potentially competitive states.

“It is not enough to just have a bunch of good policy and the strong and right goal,” said John Podesta, founder of the Centre for American Progress and an adviser to former president Barack Obama on climate change. “You have to show that this is going to be a priority, and that you really, passionately understand the risk associated with it.”

He said Mr Biden needed to dovetail his “Middle-Class Joe” brand with tackling climate issues. “He’s never going to imitate Al Gore at the PowerPoint on science,” Mr Podesta said, “but what he can do is express passion at creating an economy that’s going to work for everyone.”

The future of natural gas, and its implications for jobs, is a major fault line that separates the Obama-era climate policy leaders from the new generation of activists.

Natural gas produces about half the emissions of coal. Much of the Obama administration’s energy strategy centred on promoting it as a “bridge fuel” to wean the country off dirtier fossil fuels until the price of renewables dropped.

These days, the average cost of new wind or solar power is cheaper than the costs to keep running most coal-fired plants, according to an analysis last year by two energy research groups. And renewable energy generation in the United States has now surpassed coal, according to the federal Energy Information Agency.

Yet in places like Pennsylvania, a state Mr Trump won by less than 1 percentage point in 2016, the natural gas industry is responsible for thousands of high-paying union jobs. So when Mr Biden, during a pointed exchange with Mr Sanders on the debate stage in March, declared “no new fracking”, some allies were alarmed, including former governor Edward G Rendell, who said he called the campaign to voice concern.

Mr Biden has proposed ending new fracking leases on federal lands, but not a national ban, something his campaign quickly clarified.

Andrew Baumann, a Democratic strategist and pollster, said that there were limits to how far Mr Biden could push on climate matters without encountering political risk — but that he was “pretty far away from that”.

“It is possible to go too far,” he said. “But the amount that is there to go bolder before you reach that level is really a lot bigger than people think.”

The New York Times

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