How Joe Biden decided to go big on climate change

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, August 3, 2020

Biden’s $2 trillion proposal, released last month, comes as part of an effort to lock down support from a diverse group of climate activists, labor leaders, advocates against pollution that disproportionately hurts people of color, and young voters once energized by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Brady Dennis and I reported this weekend.

An unusual turn to the left for a lifelong moderate, Biden’s proposal marks the first time global warming has emerged as a central plank in the Democratic Party’s push for the White House — even as the coronavirus pandemic and the struggling economy overshadow all other concerns.

“I want young climate activists, young people everywhere, to know: I see you. I hear you. I understand the urgency, and together we can get this done,” said the 77-year-old Democrat during a recent virtual fundraiser focused on climate action.

The moment marks a shift months in the making meant to appease many parts of the Democratic base.

Biden had rolled out a proposal during the primaries — a $1.7 trillion plan aimed at making the nation carbon neutral by 2050 — that failed to impress many young activists who view climate change as an existential crisis.

The youth-led Sunrise Movement gave Biden an “F” rating, saying his plan lacked detail and paled in comparison to the aggressive action proposed by rivals such as Sanders and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who had embraced the far-reaching Green New Deal.

So the Biden campaign set out demonstrate to the liberal wing of the party — including skeptical environmental activists — he was their guy, that he understood the urgency of the problem and would craft a transformative plan to meet the moment.

The result was a more aggressive and extensive plan that called for the elimination of carbon pollution from the electric sector by 2035, for the U.S. to rejoin the international Paris climate accord and spend $2 trillion over four years to boost renewables and create incentives for more energy-efficient cars, homes and commercial buildings.

“We’ve seen a pretty huge transformation in Biden’s climate plan,” said Varshini Prakash, co-founder and executive director of the Sunrise Movement, which claims more than 10,000 members. While stopping short of a formal endorsement, Sunrise will now campaign for Biden, Prakash said.

“What I’ve seen in the last six to eight weeks is a pretty big transition in upping his ambition and centering environmental justice,” she said.

In crafting his plan, Biden wanted to win over younger and more liberal voters but also avoid alienating voters in swing states.

As the coronavirus pandemic raged this spring, Biden asked longtime policy aide Stef Feldman and others to craft a more detailed set of climate proposals.

“That was right around the moment when we were starting to recognize the full depth of the coronavirus, both its health impact and economic impact,” Feldman said in an interview. “And so that required us to scale up with the plans we had since the beginning of the campaign to recognize that we were in a new moment, which really demanded a jobs agenda.”

The plan notably does not ban hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, known as fracking, or rule out nuclear power and other technologies that have divided environmental advocates.

“The campaign is trying to reconcile a combination of demands that no political candidate for president to date has been able to successfully navigate,” said Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center. “All [Biden] needs to do is blend the ambition of progressives and scientists with the pragmatism of organized labor, the energy industry and moderate Republicans. That’s no easy task.”

Biden’s campaign reached out to several key factions: mainstream green groups, labor unions and environmental justice advocates.

Harold Mitchell, Jr., a former South Carolina lawmaker who has spent decades fighting pollution in communities of color, had toured his native Spartanburg with Inslee and had campaigned for Tom Steyer. But in early April, he got a surprise email from the Biden campaign.

“They asked, ‘What matters?’ I told them, ‘What matters is getting it right,’ ” said Mitchell, who is now part of a group advising Biden on environmental issues.

Lonnie Stephenson, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, started talking to Biden about energy policy in August. “I said, ‘Truly, nuclear needs to be in the mix,’ ” said Stephenson, whose union representing about 775,000 current and retired power-sector workers endorsed Biden. Stephenson cautioned against the Green New Deal, which he considers “not achievable or realistic.”

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (D), who made saving the planet a centerpiece of his failed primary campaigns, also consulted with Biden, and a small group of Inslee’s former advisers helped to persuade both Biden and congressional Democrats to adopt pieces of Inslee’s far-reaching climate plan.

In an interview, Inslee called Biden’s recent proposal “ambitious enough for the moment,” but also realistic enough to win votes in Congress. “This is a real plan that can be executed,” Inslee said. “It’s not a pipe dream or a wish list or a fantasy.”

The campaign also convened a climate task force led by two very different Democratic archetypes.

The panel was led by John F. Kerry, the patrician 76-year-old former secretary of state and 2004 presidential nominee, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 30-year-old first-term congresswoman from a working-class Bronx district who endorsed Sanders and helped craft the Green New Deal.

Logging on to Zoom each Wednesday for about six weeks, the nine-person group hammered out an outline of a climate plan designed for broad appeal. The group debated difficult choices, such as whether to support nuclear power or to call for a ban on fracking.

Despite being the nation’s biggest source of carbon-free electricity, nuclear energy has long drawn concerns about the storage of radioactive waste and the risk of accidents. And more recently, a boom in fracking has fed concerns about how the practice can pollute drinking water while also emitting methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

“There were some people on our side that would have wanted to get rid of all fossil fuels ASAP,” said Catherine Coleman Flowers, a Sanders surrogate on the panel.

Toward the end of the panel’s work, the Biden campaign added Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat from a ruby-red stretch of western Pennsylvania, to represent oil and gas workers in the crucial swing state. The task force eventually recommended a clean-energy standard that included both nuclear and gas-fired generation, as long as the latter captures the carbon it emits.

The Sanders camp did secure one big win: A recommendation to eliminate carbon emissions from power plants on an accelerated 15-year timeline.

The ex-vice president’s approach also is largely in line with a package from Democrats on the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis steering the economy toward net-zero emissions by the middle of the century. Two select committee members, Reps. Kathy Castor (D-Fla.) and A. Donald McEachin (D-Va.), served on Biden’s task force.

“It is not coincidental that there are similarities in those plans,” McEachin said.

Even after rolling out his new plan, Biden has continued to face pressure from the left.

Last week, more than 100 liberal groups, including Greenpeace, called for the next president to commit to executive actions “to address the systemic inequalities of pollution and the climate crisis.”

Prakash, the Sunrise Movement leader who served as a Sanders surrogate on Biden’s task force, said her group still wants Biden do more to wean the country off fossil fuels.

In response to the plan, President Trump’s campaign has called Biden a “puppet” of activists.

“If these far-left politicians ever get into power, they will demolish not only your industry but the entire U.S. economy,” Trump said Wednesday during a speech in Texas oil country.

Climate change presents Biden with one of the most dramatic ways to distinguish himself from Trump, who has dismissed the science behind climate change, rolled back scores of Obama-era environmental protections, announced U.S. withdrawal from the Paris accord and heavily promoted the fossil fuels linked to rising temperatures.