Joe Biden and climate change: A chance to make history in the 2020 election

Two seemingly contradictory developments have unfolded on the left over the past few years.

On the one hand, the broad left-of-center coalition, from climate activists to environmental justice advocates to unions to party leaders in Congress, has come into alignment around an ambitious climate policy platform, focused on sector-specific standards, large-scale public investments, and a commitment to justice for vulnerable workers and communities. (I dubbed this standards, investments, and justice alignment “SIJ” for short, in my previous post.)

On the other hand, former Vice President Joe Biden effectively won the Democratic primary. He might not have been the climate left’s least favorite candidate — does Howard Schultz still count? — but he was pretty far down their list. He just won without them.

But he will need their help to win in November. Much like Hillary Clinton in 2016, he is polling low with youth voters in key swing states. Especially in a largely online election, in which he is denied the hand-shaking retail politics at which he excels, he will need youth enthusiasm and creativity to break through in a crowded media environment. And nowhere are they more organized, enthusiastic, and creative than around climate.

Youth voters need Biden, too, to gain power and get anything done in 2021. He must overcome their longstanding mistrust of him, and they will have to learn to love a flawed vehicle. Can this star-crossed romance ever work?

Biden needs the left and climate is the best way to get it

Biden won the primary because of strong support from African Americans and older voters, and he has a good chance of peeling some older voters off of the Trump coalition. But he needs turnout and enthusiasm from younger voters and the party’s base, too.

There’s no better way to get it than with bold climate policy. “There continues to be a consensus that young people are necessary to winning this election,” said Maggie Thomas, political director at Evergreen Action, “and this is among the issues that they care most about.”

Climate consistently polls as one of the top two or three priority issues among young people and committed Democrats. Polling from Data for Progress found that among the Sanders voters most likely to be skeptical of Biden — most likely to stay home or vote for a third party — climate change is a top concern. “Those who hold the ‘most left’ position on the environment are the most skeptical of Biden among current Sanders supporters,” the organization found.

And Biden has freedom to move on climate. Unlike on, say, health care, where divisions are deep and entrenched, climate policy is an area where there is a rough policy alignment forming across the left that Biden could embrace without unduly spooking Congress’s easily startled moderates.

Climate change protesters disrupt a Joe Biden rally in Manchester, New Hampshire, on October 9, 2019.
Scott Eisen/Getty Images

There is enormous civic energy around climate. The climate movement has been building grassroots momentum over the past decade. The global youth climate strikes and the Green New Deal have brought that momentum to a head in the US. The past few weeks alone have seen the launch by the US Climate Action Network of Arm in Arm, a Sunrise-style mobilization movement for (ahem) people who no longer qualify as “youth,” and Climate Power 2020, “a team of seasoned political strategists, content creators, digital organizers, activists, and communications operatives” that will seek to shift climate politics.

Climate has become a unifying, enthusiasm-generating issue across the left. “I don’t think there are many major issues discussed on the presidential level right now that have the opportunity to reach across such a wide swath of the Democratic Party as climate does,” said Thomas.

Will embracing climate change as a top priority issue alienate independents and wavering Trump voters, as the stale conventional wisdom has it? Evidence indicates otherwise. A recent large-scale survey found that roughly 10 percent of 2016 Trump voters are wavering, those who are wavering are disproportionately young, and the issue that best predicts wavering is climate change. Another poll found that “critiquing Trump’s record on climate results in real movement away from Trump among persuadable voters and increases motivation to vote for Hispanic and younger voters.”

Climate is not a liability with swing voters; it’s an advantage. If Biden pushes a strong climate message based on investments, jobs, and help for struggling communities, he might just be able to peel off a few Trump voters and bring in more youth voters at the same time.

Climate change may not yet be the top priority of the US public at large, but among precisely the voters Biden needs — young people and persuadable Trump voters — it is a top priority and a perfect opportunity for outreach.

In short, it’s a political sweet spot for Biden. He has every incentive to boost his climate policy credentials. And that is what he appears to be trying to do.

Biden is reaching out to the left, especially on climate

The minute it was clear that Biden had bested Sen. Bernie Sanders in the primary, he began reaching out to the left, saying in one appeal, “especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders: I hear you. I know what is at stake. And I know what we have to do.”

In a deft bit of diplomacy, the two campaigns timed Sanders’s endorsement of Biden with the creation of a series of policy task forces involving representatives from both campaigns that will make recommendations to the Democratic National Committee for the party platform. (What further influence they might have is, at least for now, unclear.)

The climate change task force is shaping up to be impressive. It will be co-chaired by longtime climate advocate John Kerry from Biden’s side and Green New Deal champion Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez from Sanders’s side.

Rounding out the Sanders side are rising activist star Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, and Catherine Flowers, an environmental justice advocate and founder of the Alabama-based Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. (If you’re counting, that’s three out of three spots on the Sanders side occupied by women of color.)

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduces Sen. Bernie Sanders during a rally in Sioux City, Iowa, on January 26.
Salwan Georges/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Biden got five spots. In addition to Kerry, there is Gina McCarthy, who headed Obama’s EPA and is now running the Natural Resources Defense Council; Rep. Kathy Castor of Florida, who chairs the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis; Rep. Donald McEachin of Virginia, an environmental justice champion who has sponsored a bill to target 100 percent net carbon neutrality by 2050; and Kerry Duggan, a policy aide to Biden who served in several energy-related positions in the Obama administration.

That is, out of eight seats, six women and four people of color, remarkable on its own. But even more remarkable is that every one is highly qualified, with political experience and a demonstrated record of commitment. It’s like a climate all-star team.

“I have felt encouraged by our first few conversations,” said Prakash. “We are collectively clear that the urgency of the crisis mandates we take swift action over the next decade, not by 2050.”

It remains to be seen what will come of these task forces. It is possible they could end up being largely symbolic, or that more conservative Democrats will throw a fit and scare Biden off from their recommendations. But the people Biden’s campaign chose for the climate task force are, at the very least, an indication of good faith.

When the League of Conservation Voters became the first big green group to endorse Biden last month, he released a statement saying, “I want to campaign on climate change and win on climate change so that I can govern with climate change as a top priority for legislative and executive action in the White House.”

In service of that goal, Biden asked his campaign “to commence a process to meaningfully engage with more voices from the climate movement, including environmental justice leaders and worker organizations, and collaborate on additional policies in areas ranging from environmental justice to new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade, to more investments in a clean energy economy.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders endorses Joe Biden during a livestreamed broadcast on April 13.
JoeBiden.com via Getty Images

If you squint, you can see it right there in his statement: standards (“new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade”), investments, and justice, the core of the new Democratic alignment.

As for how that process of consultation is going, unsurprisingly, no one wants to talk on the record. Suffice it to say, the Biden campaign is being exposed to the new policy alignment, urged to visibly put climate at the top of his priority list, and promised that, if he does, he will be rewarded with youth enthusiasm.

And the campaign is listening. “It seems clear that the Biden campaign is committed to rallying Democrats around a climate agenda,” one source familiar with the discussions told me.

The politics, however, are far from straightforward.

The delicate politics of climate change in 2020

The best-case scenario for Democrats goes something like this:

Biden replaces his current, mediocre climate platform with something genuinely bold, centered on standards, investments, and justice. He makes clear that climate change will be a day-one priority, he will elevate the issue across the federal government, and he will appoint people in key positions who are knowledgeable about and committed to addressing climate change. He assembles a team of advocates for his new vision.

The green left sees this as a good-faith overture, is pleased with the new policy platform, and commits to supporting Biden’s climate platform in earnest.

Moderate Democrats are grateful that Biden didn’t go full Green New Deal — he won’t ban fracking or nationalize the energy industry or implement a job guarantee. He just took the sensible, directly climate-related stuff out of the Green New Deal, the same stuff Democrats in the House and Senate have been proposing. They like his focus on jobs and investments. They commit to supporting his climate platform in earnest.

Wealthy Democratic donors, many of whom fashion themselves as climate policy experts and have their own ideas about what it should look like, wisely elect to get on board the new alignment train.

Biden himself, thanks to his long ties with African American leaders and his record of support for the middle class, turns out to be an authentic and effective spokesperson for SIJ policy. When he talks about investing in American communities to create good jobs and expand the middle class, he is taken seriously.

The Democratic Party goes into the 2020 elections unified on climate change. They win and, taking advantage of the momentum, immediately begin an aggressive program of executive and legislative efforts.

To say the very least, this utopian scenario could go wrong at every juncture.

Biden might not move far enough to make an impression, either rhetorically or on policy.

Even if he does embrace sweeping policy changes, it’s possible that many people on the left simply can’t be won over — they have defined their political identities in opposition to the party establishment and are too invested in those identities to support Biden no matter what he says about climate change. No one is quite sure how much of the youth climate movement fits that description. Even the leaders of those groups don’t know for sure. They can promise the Biden campaign enthusiasm, but no one will know until the time comes whether they can deliver it.

Even if the green left comes along, environmental justice groups may still have objections. Industrial unions may decide, and convince congressional moderates, that Biden’s policy is “left” and thus they must define themselves against it.

Even if the entire left comes along, the establishment political press in Washington may be unable to process the idea of the Democratic Party in alignment. The right will hammer any Biden plan as socialism, and headlines like “Biden lurch left on climate risks alienating moderates” are likely to be ubiquitous, regardless of what the evidence says. It may just be the story that DC outlets are determined to tell, and Democrats in Washington are known for being overly preoccupied with DC conventional wisdom.

Navigating these challenges will fall mostly, but not entirely, on the shoulders of Biden’s campaign. It will need to be smart and bold on policy, but that won’t be enough — it will also need to be smart and bold in the way it communicates and markets the policy. Young climate activists are looking for authentic passion and commitment above all else, and communicating that through Zoom videos is not Biden’s forte. The campaign will need to think about recruiting surrogates who are better at using the communications tools now available.

But it’s not all Biden. All quarters of the left will have to unclench a little and figure out how, if Biden offers them a win, to gracefully accept it.

Unity, if the left can get its act together

Democratic unity is an unfamiliar phenomenon in US politics and it may be difficult for people to recognize it even when it is at hand. But in this case, the raw materials are there. Concern over climate change has reached record levels. It is a top priority among key electoral groups and a growing number of big businesses and financial institutions.

An intense period of consultation and cooperation across traditionally hostile factional lines on the left has yielded something like a broad alignment around a core set of policy priorities. Unlike an economy-wide cap-and-trade bill, many of those policies do not require the cooperation of Congress — a presidential candidate can be held accountable for them.

Also unlike an economy-wide cap-and-trade program, every element of the SIJ policy package is popular on its own, and they are popular together. Data for Progress recently ran a poll that put the choice to voters directly. It explained three policy options in neutral language:

First was a “cap and trade” plan that would place a limit on the amount of carbon that companies could produce each year and then allow companies to trade allowances for carbon dioxide. The second was a “polluter fee” plan that would place a price on carbon emissions and other forms of pollution. The third was a “standards and investment” plan where the government would set timelines for reducing carbon emissions and other toxic pollutants informed by scientists and experts. The government would then invest trillions of dollars in clean energy jobs and infrastructure to meet these goals.

A plurality of voters from both parties — 50 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of Republicans — preferred standards and investment.

voters prefer SIJ DFP

Tough standards, big investments, and a serious commitment to good jobs and equity are all popular positions. They all find allies outside the environmental left. They are good politics.

Finally, a robust SIJ policy approach is potentially up to the task. It can be as ambitious as the problem is dangerous. It is something that climate hawks could support without apology.

Obviously, the devil is in the details. It matters immensely how SIJ policies are designed, implemented, and enforced. They could be stringent or they could be weak. But the left has been building trust across intramural lines precisely so it could be prepared to push for this as a unified front.

Joe Biden will have to make a case for climate action that resonates with a broad swath of Americans.
John Locher/AP

“I’m not foolish,” said Michele Roberts of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, who has been involved in consultations with national green groups. “If I thought the process was not working, I would have been gone a long time ago. But equally, I know that for a process to work, you have to invest sweat equity and you have to build on relationships.”

If the climate coalition can overcome its longstanding internal suspicions and rivalries and keep its momentum going, there is a core of ambitious climate policy around which it can unite. And several people I talked to confessed that they had begun to feel a strange sort of hope that Biden just might be the guy who can sell it, in a Nixon-goes-to-China kind of way.

“Joe Biden isn’t the climate champion that the movement wanted, but he may be the champion they need,” said Jason Walsh, executive director of the environmental and labor group BlueGreen Alliance. “The next president has to make a case for climate action that resonates with Steelworkers in Pennsylvania just as much as it does with urban, coastal lefties.”

After a great deal of patient work and trust-building, the left has built that case for him, an ambitious, aspirational climate platform that foregrounds jobs, investment, and rejuvenation. It fits with Biden’s natural strengths and addresses some of his greatest political liabilities. All he has to do is pick it up.

“If the brother wants to go down with a legacy,” said Roberts, “he’d be a damn fool not to embrace what we’re doing.”

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