Joe Biden’s climate action plan goes well beyond Obama’s goals

Proposal shows influence of Green New Deal and importance of climate for Democratic voters

Former US vice-president Joe Biden campaigning  in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, as he unveiled a climate plan. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times

Former US vice-president Joe Biden campaigning in Berlin, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, as he unveiled a climate plan. Photograph: Elizabeth Frantz/The New York Times


When Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice-president, their administration brokered the landmark Paris climate accord and imposed the nation’s first federal regulations for cutting carbon dioxide emissions. Now, as Biden runs for president, he has laid out an ambitious climate plan of his own that goes well beyond what Obama achieved, proposing $1.7 trillion in spending and a tax or fee on planet-warming pollution with the aim of eliminating the US’s net carbon emissions by 2050.

The sweeping proposal from the typically moderate Biden demonstrates just how far the Democratic field has moved on climate change. His environmental targets are similar to the goals of the Green New Deal put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, which even House Democratic speaker Nancy Pelosi has been unwilling to embrace.

Biden’s proposals came just hours before a rival candidate, senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, released her own climate proposal as part of a $2 trillion green manufacturing plan. Her plan would create a National Institutes of Clean Energy and push federal spending toward American-made renewable energy technology.

As the Democratic base increasingly demands action on climate change, other candidates have unfurled major environmental policies. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington is focusing his entire campaign on climate change, and Beto O’Rourke has also released a proposal.

“Climate change is an incredibly important issue for the Democratic base right now,” said Nick Gourevitch, a Democratic pollster who said he is neutral in the race. “It’s about the future, and it’s something that this president has made worse in the minds of the Democratic base,” he added, referring to President Donald Trump.

Biden faces deep scepticism from the liberal wing of his party, even as he leads most early polls. How far he would go on climate change seemed to be a daily question in his first month as a candidate. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is also running for president, and Ocasio-Cortez took swipes at him over that issue.

On Tuesday, however, environmental activists largely lauded Biden’s plan and credited the influence of the Green New Deal. “He put out a comprehensive climate plan that cites the Green New Deal and names climate change as the greatest challenge facing America and the world,” said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, an environmental activist group that has championed Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal. “The pressure worked.”

Targeting youth

Biden’s base tilts toward older and more centrist voters, rather than the younger progressives who are traditionally more closely associated with environmental concerns. But Biden has said that he has “never been middle of the road on the environment”, stressing on the campaign trail that he was an early advocate for combating climate change and frequently referring to work he did on that issue dating to the 1980s, when he was a Delaware senator.

Democratic pollsters say that in surveys and focus groups, climate change often emerges as the second most important issue to the party’s primary voters, after healthcare – a departure from previous presidential campaign cycles when the environment was sometimes an afterthought.

“We’ve seen the ground shift, certainly in the Democratic Party and with Democratic voters, around the importance of climate change,” said Anna Greenberg, a Democratic pollster who is working for former governor John Hickenlooper of Colorado, another presidential candidate.

In some ways, Biden’s plan goes even further than the Green New Deal, which offers aspirational targets but few concrete policy steps to achieve them. Biden proposes that Congress pass a law by 2025 to establish some form of price or tax on carbon dioxide pollution, a policy championed by most economists as the most effective way to fight climate change. Obama tried but failed to pass such a bill in 2010 after Republicans successfully attacked the idea of a carbon price as a national energy tax – and that was when Democrats controlled both the House and Senate.

Obama later drew criticism from Republicans for bypassing Congress and using his executive authority to instate the nation’s first major federal climate change policies, including regulations to curb planet-warming pollution from tailpipes and smokestacks.

But he never came close to a plan like Biden’s, intended to eliminate the nation’s carbon emissions by midcentury, pledging instead that the United States would lower its emissions 26 per cent to 28 per cent below 2005 levels by 2025. Biden’s plan calls for a federal investment of $1.7 trillion over 10 years into clean energy and other initiatives, which the campaign said would be paid for by rolling back Trump’s tax breaks for corporations. It also proposes leveraging state, private and local funds for a total expenditure of $5 trillion over a decade.

It pledges support for environmental justice programmes, designed to help minorities and poor people disproportionately harmed by pollution, and urges an end to new permits for oil and gas exploration on public lands. Biden, who is seeking to appeal to blue-collar workers who helped deliver states in the industrial Midwest to Trump in 2016, promised retraining programmes and new economic opportunities for coal workers and others displaced by the decline of the fossil fuel economy.

“We’re not going to forget the workers, either,” Biden said in a video promoting the plan. Biden’s proposal “would be an effective climate change policy,” said Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan Washington research organisation focused on energy and environment issues. “But for the kinds of shifts envisioned in this plan and the other Democratic plans, there needs to be a sea change in Congress.”

‘Socialist policy ideals’

A spokeswoman for Trump’s re-election campaign reiterated on Tuesday the president’s frequent criticism of climate plans like the Green New Deal. “If they want to win the nomination, all of the Democrats will ultimately have no choice but embrace the Green New Deal, which is just a wish list of unrealistic, socialist policy ideals,” the spokeswoman, Erin Perrine, said in a statement.

Hours after the Biden campaign rolled out the proposal, an official with a progressive group and an article in the conservative Daily Caller flagged a handful of sentences in the document that appeared to borrow language from other organisations.

It resurrected a sensitive issue for the Biden campaign: Accusations of plagiarism forced Biden out of the presidential race in 1988. “Several citations, some from sources cited in other parts of the plan, were inadvertently left out of the final version of the 22-page document,” the campaign said in a statement on Tuesday. “As soon as we were made aware of it, we updated to include the proper citations.”

Other candidates have set out their own far-reaching goals. Warren said on Tuesday she would spend $2 trillion over 10 years for environmentally sustainable research, manufacturing and exports, intended to help “achieve the ambitious targets of the Green New Deal”. She also favours a moratorium on new federal fossil fuel leases on public lands.

Warren pitched her plan as part of a broad programme of economic intervention to support US manufacturing and promote job creation. She, too, said she would prioritise investments in historically marginalised communities and provide benefits for fossil fuel workers.

Inslee has called for the nation to eliminate its net carbon emissions by 2045 and has proposed $3 trillion in federal spending to create eight million green energy jobs. And O’Rourke would spend $1.5 trillion over a decade on climate and clean energy programmes, with plans to leverage an additional $3.5 trillion in state, local and other funding.

Several other candidates, including Sanders and senators Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand and Cory Booker, have formally backed the Green New Deal legislation but have not put forth their own major climate change policies.

Targeting China

Biden’s most aggressive initiatives call for flexing the United States’ trade and foreign policy muscles to compel other countries, particularly China, the world’s largest carbon dioxide polluter, to reduce emissions. Combining climate change policy with trade policy, the plan calls for the imposition of “carbon tariffs” on goods imported from heavily polluting economies, a move that would directly affect Chinese imports. It also gives Biden, a former chairman of the Senate foreign relations committee, a chance to highlight his credentials in the international arena.

“We can no longer separate trade policy from our climate objectives,” the Biden campaign wrote. “Biden will not allow other nations, including China, to game the system by becoming destination economies for polluters, undermining our climate efforts and exploiting American workers and businesses.”

While the idea of placing tariffs or quotas based on pollution associated with specific imported goods has long been discussed in Washington, it has never been enacted, in part out of fear of sparking a trade war. But Trump has already started the process to tax nearly everything China sends to the United States.

The president also has pledged to withdraw the country from the Paris climate agreement. Biden’s plan calls for the United States to rejoin the agreement and to take the lead in pushing members of the pact to regularly strengthen their pledges to reduce planet-warming pollution, although such a mechanism is already built into the original text of the accord.

A Biden administration would convene a world summit of the most heavily polluting economies, the campaign said, and Biden would urge those nations to commit to even more ambitious pollution reduction plans. – New York Times

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