It’s hard to bend your mind around how much is at stake in the climate crisis, much less what to do about it. But this much is clear: It’s time — way past time — to go fast, and go big. Joe Biden’s $2 trillion climate proposal, despite its shortcomings and campaign hype, gets that essential point.
If Biden is elected, there will be a lot of tough questions asked about how to make his plan a reality, especially at a time when the economy appears to be headed for the worst collapse since the Great Depression. But for now, it’s enough to say that Biden’s proposal, released in July, is by far the most ambitious climate agenda ever put forward by a presidential nominee. To experienced climate warriors the plan might look like a grab bag of old and new ideas, but its subtext is apparent: Dealing with the climate crisis is not just about eliminating carbon pollution, but reimagining every aspect of our world, including designing ways to protect the most vulnerable from the brutal impacts of heat, disease, fire, and rising waters.
Biden’s willingness to make climate a central issue in his campaign is no surprise to anyone who has followed his career. “Biden is no Johnny-come-lately to climate,” says Dan Dudek, a vice president at the Environmental Defense Fund, who has been part of climate negotiations for more than 30 years. But during the primaries, Biden’s climate plan was weak sauce, overshadowed by the far more aggressive proposals of Jay Inslee, Elizabeth Warren, and Bernie Sanders. To Biden’s credit, he retooled his plan after becoming the presumptive nominee to include more ambitious goals and to emphasize racial- and environmental-justice issues. “Biden’s agenda is a tribute to the rising political power of climate activists like the Sunrise Movement and other progressive activists championing the Green New Deal,” says Maria Urbina, national political director at Indivisible, a grassroots advocacy group.
Some highlights of the plan include:
- a carbon-free electric power grid by 2035
- providing cities with a population of 100,000 or more with zero-emissions public transportation like light rail, electric buses, and infrastructure for bicyclists
- creating 1 million new jobs in the U.S. auto industry by incentivizing the switch from internal-combustion engines to electric-powered vehicles
- upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes for energy efficiency
- pledging that disadvantaged communities would receive 40 percent of the overall benefits of spending on clean-energy and infrastructure upgrades
- Creating a Civilian Climate Corp, similar to the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s, that would employ legions of people on public-works projects, such as restoring wetlands
- Funding a new Advanced Research Projects Agency on climate, to be called ARPA-C, to develop transformative clean energy tech
“The importance of Biden’s commitment that 40 percent of the investments — more than $500 billion — will be going directly to environmental-justice communities can’t be overstated,” says Varshini Prakash, the co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, who was part of a task force that helped the Biden campaign revise his climate plan. Other clear signs of the influence of progressive activists are the inclusion of a number of issues that aren’t traditionally part of the climate-crisis conversation, such as expanding access to wireless 5G broadband for every American, cleaning up old power plants and industrial sites, and modernizing decrepit schools in low-income neighborhoods. “These plans are a Green New Deal in all but name,” wrote Julian Brave NoiseCat, a fellow with Data for Progress, which has helped develop Green New Deal policy ideas.
Still, ghosts of the past haunt Biden’s plan, especially the focus on technology over political power. “I like many aspects of the Biden plan, but I feel like we’re still sidestepping important questions of power and its allocation,” says Rhiana Gunn-Wright, director of climate policy at Roosevelt Forward and one of the main architects of the Green New Deal. “The key to mitigating environmental racism — and the climate crisis more broadly — is redistributing power to communities of color. Technical details are important, but they are not enough. We need to always ask how climate plans are returning power to people of color, and that means opportunities for ownership, wealth creation, and decision-making — and that has a lot to do with not only how climate policies are designed but also how they’re implemented and enforced.”
Biden’s plan obviously owes a big debt to proposals launched in the Democratic presidential primaries (Biden’s Civilian Climate Corps proposal is a rebranding of Inslee’s Climate Conservation Corps). Not surprisingly, Biden’s plan plays it safe on the most politically fraught issues, offering support for next-gen nuclear power but staying silent on fracking.
“Ignoring fracking might be politically viable right now, but it’s not viable in any other real way — especially for communities of color,” says Gunn-Wright. “Fossil-fuel pollution is a racial-justice issue.” But Biden has clearly decided that the political risks of a ban on fracking — especially in big gas-rich states like Texas and Pennsylvania — are too high to bear during an economic meltdown.
Biden’s plan is carefully crafted to play well during hard times. That is to say, it’s being pitched as much as a jobs plan as a climate plan. “When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax,’ ” Biden said in July. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’ ” Indeed, the word “jobs” is mentioned 53 times in the 15-page text of the plan. The word “climate” is mentioned only 28 times. Biden obviously understands that America is likely to be in a deep Covid-19-driven economic funk next year, and that if he wins, his first priority will be to get us out of that economic funk. Otherwise, the chances of building any meaningful political momentum to address climate change during his first term will likely be shot. As Columbia University economist Noah Kaufman wrote recently: “Prosperity and climate action are inextricably linked.”
But it is also true that the legacy of the Trump nightmare and the Covid-driven economic collapse present a rare opportunity to rebuild our world in an entirely new way. And that means not just replacing gas-guzzlers with electric cars, but rethinking how cities are built, how political power is distributed, and rebalancing the relationship between labor and capital through unions. (The word “union” appears 32 times in Biden’s plan.) After all, if elected, Biden will surely be overseeing an economic stimulus package that dwarfs Barack Obama’s $800 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (which included some $90 billion for clean tech and the creation of “green jobs”). Climate economist Nicholas Stern and Nobel Prize–winning economist Joseph Stiglitz argued in a recent paper that a Biden stimulus package represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity for climate action, and that failing to seize this moment would destroy any hopes to avoid catastrophic warming. “The recovery packages,” they wrote, “can either kill these two birds with one stone — setting the global economy on a pathway towards net-zero emissions — or lock us into a fossil-fuel system from which it will be nearly impossible to escape.”
But even a $2 trillion climate-smart stimulus package is just the beginning of what’s necessary to avoid cooking the planet. “Measures that promote clean energy belong in economy-recovery packages, but do not expect them to knock the United States off its dangerous emissions pathway,” Kaufman has written. Meaningful carbon reductions require legislation.
Most economists agree that dealing with the climate crisis in a serious and transformative way requires legislation that puts a price on carbon, whether it be through a straight-up emissions-trading scheme, like those used in California and Europe, or an escalating tax on carbon pollution that is paired with a clean-energy standard. Biden’s plan, for obvious political reasons, is silent on what kind of carbon price he might support, or, more important, how much political muscle he will be willing to exert to get one. In 2009, President Obama famously punted on climate legislation to pursue health care. Biden could very well face the same decision with any number of issues — will he prioritize, say, voting rights or health care reform over climate legislation? Some argue this is a false choice, that you can’t address the climate crisis without addressing voting rights and health care, but it’s also true that even if Democrats win big in 2020, they will face tough choices about where to flex their political muscle (it goes without saying that all hope of dramatic climate action is pinned not just on Biden winning the election, but also Democrats taking control of the Senate). And God knows the fossil-fuel mafia will not go down without a vicious fight.
But 2020 may be the year when the politics of climate change is fundamentally transformed. “I think it’s clearer to more people how climate action can be part of the solution to many of the crises that we’re facing,” says Gunn-Wright. “Climate is moving from being seen as a raceless, ‘scientific’ issue to being recognized as another place where outcomes are shaped by legacies and systems of oppression, and it’s finally being seen that way by folks beyond those in the environmental-justice movement. They’ve been saying these things for decades, but it seems like people are finally starting to listen.”
Biden’s climate plan is a clear sign that he understands how much is at stake in this election. But we’re still in the early days of a long fight to repair the ravages of the past and to maintain a habitable planet. “We don’t know how hard solving climate change is going to be, and we will never know until we take the first real steps to decarbonize our economy,” says Andrew Dessler, a climate scientist at Texas A&M. “Thus, the most important thing we can do now is take that first step. This plan certainly does that.”