Biden tweaks his environmental campaign message amid coronavirus pandemic

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Thursday, April 30, 2020

Joe Biden is honing his campaign message on the environment in the age of the coronavirus.

The former vice president and his team are saying air pollution being left unchecked by President Trump’s administration is making the covid-19 pandemic more deadly — and that the impact is falling disproportionately on African Americans, who are a pillar of Biden’s support in the presidential contest.

Former vice president Joe Biden speaks with Hillary Clinton during a virtual town hall Tuesday. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)
In a rhetorical shift, Biden is linking what he sees as one of Trump’s biggest weaknesses — his environmental record — to the viral outbreak.

“Covid is shining a bright light on the structural racism that plagues our laws, our institutions and our culture,” Biden told donors at an online fundraiser last week on Earth Day. “And it’s a wake-up call, a wake-up call to action to climate change overall and to climate justice.”

More broadly, Biden said, meeting the challenges of both climate change and covid-19, which has already killed more than 60,000 in the United States, requires following the sort of expert advice Trump often ignores.

“This is a non science president,” Biden said of Trump, who often dismisses the scientific consensus that human activity is warming the planet. “He doesn’t believe in science. Sadly, our recent response to climate change has been a lot like our response to the pandemic.”

To make its case, the Biden campaign is pointing to early research linking air pollution with a higher risk of dying from covid-19.

Fine soot particles — emitted by everything from the large factory smokestacks to home chimneys — can embed in the lungs and have been linked with asthma and other breathing problems.

Now preliminary data from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health is showing that even a small increase in soot — 1 microgram per cubic meter — is associated with an 8 percent increase in the covid-19 death rate.

The news is especially troubling for poor and minority communities, which tend to be exposed to greater levels of soot and other air pollutants.

Those higher pollution levels, said Rep. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.), a physician and Biden backer, “provide for a toxic environment that puts people’s health at a disadvantage to confront the covid-19.”

Citing the Harvard study, which has not been peer reviewed, Ruiz told reporters Wednesday in a call set up by the Biden campaign he was especially troubled by the Environmental Protection Agency’s decision to reject stricter national standards for soot levels and to overhaul a mercury pollution rule for power plants.

“That will only lead to more pollution in communities that already have vulnerabilities to covid-19,” Ruiz said.

Surrogates for Biden, whose candidacy was boosted by a surge of African American support in the South Carolina primary, say the Trump administration is not doing enough to address the disease’s racial disparity. The disease is infecting and killing black Americans, who often live near highways and industrial facilities, at an alarmingly high rate, according to a Washington Post analysis of early covid-19 data.

Rep. Donald McEachin (D-Va.). (Julia Rendleman for The Washington Post)

“We need the leadership in the White House that leads with science to address the underlying causes of the covid-19 crisis, and to prioritize the needs of all communities disproportionately impacted,” Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), another Biden supporter on the call, told reporters.

The Biden camp is tweaking his anti-pollution talking points as the candidate tries to remain visible and court environmentalists.

Though Biden is the presumptive Democratic nominee with Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-Vt.) exit from the race, Trump is still sucking up much of the media oxygen with his frequent media briefings on the federal government’s coronavirus response.

At the same time, Biden is also trying to shore up support among the young, left-leaning voters that went for Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in the primary.

Though Biden racked up endorsements from former vice president Al Gore and the League of Conservation Voters during Earth Day week, other green groups, such as the youth-led Sunrise Movement, still want to see Biden promise to take stronger steps to reduce climate-warming emissions.

“There’s a lot of political upside” for Biden on climate, said Evan Weber, political director and co-founder of Sunrise. The activist group, which had backed Sanders, has been talking to the Biden campaign since Super Tuesday about “what they could do to be aligned with the movement,” Weber added.

The Biden campaign said it is working on building out its environmental agenda, including ideas for addressing “environmental justice,” which posits that poor and minority communities are disproportionately exposed to environmental hazards.

“We are in the midst of that process now and look forward to announcing at a later date some additional policies,” said Stef Feldman, Biden’s policy director.

Meanwhile, Trump officials say too much is being made of the connection between pollution and the virus.

Trump’s EPA chief, Andrew Wheeler, told my colleague Jacqueline Alemany last week it is “premature to put too much weight on a study that hasn’t been finalized or peer reviewed yet.”

And the Trump campaign sees Biden’s efforts to link covid-19 to his environmental agenda as a chance to paint Biden as out-of-touch with voters who both candidates are courting.

“This is the kind of nonsense you hear in the halls of Berkeley, not the grocery stores of Scranton,” the Trump campaign wrote in a news release last week. “Only a Washington politician would view a deadly global pandemic and millions of Americans artificially out of work as a ‘wake up call’ for climate change justice.”