In May 2020, as COVID-19 subsumed the Democratic primaries and Bernie Sanders suspended his presidential campaign, Joe Biden moved to shore up party support by setting up “Unity Task Teams”. These included an all-star climate team co-chaired by Democratic rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and former Secretary of State John Kerry. The goal was to prevent a repeat of 2016 when the party remained divided through the Democratic National Convention and then the election.
There was uncertainty about whether moderates and progressives in the climate taskforce could find common ground and preserve party unity. Similarly, observers wondered if consensus would require a progressive back down or moderates being forced to accept politically risky policies?
Now that the climate team has published its final report, Democrats should be happy with its pragmatic tone with more contentious issues being kicked down the road. Progressive taskforce member and co-founder of youth climate organisation Sunrise Movement Varshini Prakash announced that the climate team “made far more progress than I …… anticipated” and praised moderates on the team for their level of climate ambition. It seems the Biden campaign’s decision to bring potential climate critics inside the policy tent has worked.
There is a predictable call for the United States to re-engage with the Paris agreement. The expectation of aggressive US carbon reduction targets is raised but not proscribed. This is a theme throughout the report — ambitious rhetoric defining key elements of the debate while providing Biden with the flexibility to establish his own targets, enforcement settings and funding levels. A clear move to coalesce around the rhetoric ahead of the election and fight about the details after it.
The report does have specific targets, notably that the electricity sector is “free of carbon pollution by 2035”. Despite growing wind and solar generation, this is an ambitious target giving progressives something tangible to point to. Significantly, the language creates scope for both the existing nuclear fleet and potential future use of carbon capture and storage, both of which also get increased R&D expenditure. Technocrats worried about an over-reliance on wind and solar should be happy with this as well as with support for a negative emissions “moon shot” program.
The other firm targets are for new electric school buses, increased electric vehicle charging stations, energy efficiency building retrofits and planting billions of native trees — these are initiatives that even climate sceptics would struggle to be offended by. Potentially more controversial is a target for new buildings to be net zero emissions by 2030 — an effective mandate for rooftop solar and battery storage, opening up freedom of choice criticism. Collectively, these recommendations set important benchmarks and broaden the debate beyond the electricity generation sector.
The most obvious omission from the report and an example of progressive compromise is an apparent silence on fracking. There are implied threats in a recommendation to “significantly reduce methane pollution through robust federal standards” and a call to end fossil fuel subsidies. Perhaps the importance of voters in Pennsylvania and Ohio has been recognised, with a fight over fracking temporarily deferred. Alternatively, progressives may have chosen to ignore fracking in return for repeatedly hammering home messages about climate justice, community engagement and empowerment, union jobs, use of locally produced materials and holding polluters accountable.
The climate team also wants to ensure its work is not forgotten after the election. It calls for new and elevated Climate Action, Climate Mobilisation and especially Environmental Justice councils with cabinet-level authority, interagency responsibilities and lines of accountability to the president, the White House and within the Department of Justice. Climate progressives will want their share of these influential positions filled by Green New Deal supporters tasked with turning climate rhetoric into real action.