We know that climate change isn’t necessarily a priority for President Trump, but we’ve been learning more lately about how much of a priority it would be for Joe Biden if he wins in November. Though he was given poor marks by climate groups during the Democratic primary, he’s emerged in the general election with a much bolder plan to curb planet-warming carbon emissions.
This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Reid Frazier: When we last spoke this spring, we talked about whether Joe Biden could convince climate activists that he was one of them, that he understood the threat climate change poses. And he was promising to spend just a tenth of what Bernie Sanders was promising during the primaries. But since then, his policy has undergone a type of transformation. What happened to Joe Biden?
Marianne Lavelle: Well, Joe Biden saw that he really needs to energize every part of the Democratic electorate in order to win in November. He really realized that climate was going to be a key part of that. He got together with Bernie Sanders, not only on climate, but on several issues, to come up with unity platforms. These teams – folks appointed both by Biden and Bernie Sanders – met every week and came up with a new plan that really ratchets up Biden’s ambition substantially.
Before Biden’s climate plan was like $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Now he’s talking about $2 trillion over four years, really accelerating the government’s spending on climate and clean energy and transition to electric vehicles and electricity that’s clean. One of the key things that Bernie Sanders folks got out of this was that Biden set a goal of 2035 to have 100 percent clean electricity in the U.S. That’s a goal that’s within striking distance of the timeline that people are saying is just so urgent.
“Before Biden’s climate plan was like $1.7 trillion over 10 years. Now he’s talking about $2 trillion over four years.”
The other thing about his climate plan is that he talks about having measurable goals within four years, which would be, of course, within his first term. That also is very important to the activists who are focused on this. They don’t like everything about Biden’s plan. But he definitely has moved in their direction.
Frazier: So what are some things that they didn’t like about his plan?
Lavelle: Number one was that he doesn’t do anything like banning fracking. That has become this fault line among progressives and moderates. Biden has a very difficult job in negotiating this issue because he also cannot lose the support of blue collar labor moderates. What happened during this whole process is he brought in Connor Lamb from western Pennsylvania to be one of the folks putting together this plan. They didn’t do anything like ban fracking.
But first of all, there’s a lot of economic incentives in this plan to reduce the demand for natural gas and oil. I think the argument is going to be that if we work on it from that angle, that you’re not going to have to take a stand like banning fracking. You’re going to move the market in that direction. That’s the argument.
Frazier: So if I’m to understand this correctly, Biden didn’t want to ban fracking because, if you need to win in Pennsylvania, you’re going to need some people who might not hate fracking so much or might even like it.
But his argument is, if we make the incentive structure a certain way, you won’t really need fracking in so many years because renewable energy will actually be cheaper. Fracking has proliferated because it’s been able to produce energy BTUs so much cheaper than other means, like coal mining.
Lavelle: Yes, natural gas has driven out a lot of coal. The other thing that Biden says in his plan is that he wants to take steps to really regulate fracking in a way that it hasn’t been regulated before. If you regulate things like the methane leakage from fracking and the impact on water, you begin to have these costs of fracking that make it not economical when renewable energy prices are just headed downward.
“Build Back Better…That is how he has framed action on climate change, as part of the response to rebuilding the economy.”
Another really interesting thing about his plan is I think everyone sees that there is a risk for climate change to fall off the map when we’re all just so consumed with the coronavirus crisis. He has called this Build Back Better. That is how he has framed action on climate change, as part of the response to rebuilding the economy.
Frazier: I’m wondering if you think this says anything, not just about Joe Biden or climate activists, but about the mood of the electorate on climate change, that Biden has adopted some of these more aggressive targets and not just a generic plan to put in a couple hundred charging stations and some solar panels and otherwise everything’s kind of going to be the same.
Some of these changes, if they’re enacted, could be pretty significant. I’m presuming that the Biden people look at polls and understand public opinion a little bit. Does this mean they feel safer going out on this ledge on climate?
Lavelle: Absolutely. You can guarantee that they have been polling on this. You can see from the plan that they’ve put forward that they feel that this is a winner of an issue. The Trump campaign has been calling it a socialist plan and has been saying he’s the puppet of the far left.
Some of the polling I heard about was it definitely is great for Biden for getting the progressives energized, but he doesn’t lose moderates by showing concern about climate change as long as it is framed as being about jobs and economic renewal, which is exactly how he has put it. It’s almost like a Green New Deal, although he doesn’t use that term at all.
Frazier: This all came out during the whole month of George Floyd protests. And obviously these issues – systemic racism, environmental justice – are top of mind. How integral is the concept of justice in his plan?
Lavelle: Right. He would create a new office in the Department of Justice just to prosecute environmental justice cases, elevating it along with things like antitrust and civil rights. He has not rolled out fully the financing of this, although definitely raising taxes on the wealthy would definitely be a part of it.
He hasn’t talked in detail about carbon pricing yet, but any revenue would be directed, at least 40 percent of it, to environmental justice communities. So that would be a recognition that there are some communities that are dealing with a much worse burden of pollution.
“We really have not seen an investment in the communities where people would lose their jobs if there’s less mining. Instead, we have bankruptcies and disruption without any sort of attention to the economic transition.”
Frazier: I’ve seen the Trump campaign throwing out attacks based on this plan, saying Biden’s plan will kill jobs. They don’t mention that it could also create clean energy jobs, that it takes away from the fossil fuel industry. But, you know, it’s politics.
Could this hurt him in a general election? Is he now vulnerable to being seen as sort of too eager to get rid of the oil industry or the coal industry?
Lavelle: Definitely. The Trump campaign is counting on that and they are going to do everything they can to frame it that way. One thing that is definitely true is the coal industry has not flourished under Trump even before coronavirus. The argument could be made that they would have benefited from more investment in a transition to cleaner energy. We really have not seen an investment in the communities where people would lose their jobs if there’s less mining. Instead, we have bankruptcies and disruption without any sort of attention to the economic transition.
Frazier: Biden’s plan seems sort of calibrated to meet American politics right now? How calibrated is it to meet the physics and chemistry of the Earth’s atmosphere? In other words, not to be too cute about it, but is it enough to limit the worst outcomes of runaway climate change?
Lavelle: I can say unequivocally, no. The science is clear that we have to decarbonize really fast. Even the slow down in the economy that we saw in response to the coronavirus, that gives you a sense of how fast we need to decarbonize, because even that will not bring down the levels of carbon to the level they need to be at.
Of course, we can’t slow down the economy to that level. We have to decarbonize the economy. We have to have clean energy replace fossil fuel energy. This is going to be true whoever is elected. It’s almost eternal vigilance. Those who care about climate change have to be in a permanent campaign for stronger action.