This is the first in Jim Orchard's three-part series on the formulation of Joe Biden’s climate change agenda. Part two and part three are also available.
Joe Biden struggled to raise campaign funds or create much excitement during the primary campaign. At best, he is seen as a reasonably safe pair of hands who will appeal to the older, blue-collar voters who didn’t vote for Hilary Clinton in the 2016 election. At worst he is too old, too white and too moderate, especially for younger progressives, most of whom wanted either Sanders or Warren to be the presidential candidate.
With the unexpectedly swift end to the primary campaign, Biden has an opportunity for a policy reset. Are there areas where he can shift to the left in areas that appeal to progressives but won’t alienate moderates? Climate is one area where he might find room for compromise. Unlike healthcare and immigration, where entrenched positions leave little room for policy nuance, climate is a complex, multi-faceted topic with broad alignment on headline issues like the United States re-joining the Paris Agreement and making sharp reductions in carbon emissions. One area of lingering dissatisfaction for progressives, however, is Biden’s perceived lack of commitment for the Green New Deal (GND).
The Green New Deal
The Green New Deal (GND) is a non-binding resolution co-authored in early 2019 by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) and Senator Ed Markey (D-MA). In addition to meeting the Paris target of net zero carbon emissions 2050, the GND seeks to expand this goal to include actions that reduce wealth inequality and ensure the benefits of a new low carbon economy are more equally shared. The GND appeals to activists whose vision goes beyond achieving net zero carbon emissions. This includes a retrospective that both recognises and makes whole communities they believe were penalised under the carbon economy as well as punishing the companies that pushed the earth to the edge of climate obliteration. It also includes a post-net zero thinking that seeks to prevent the sins of the past being repeated and ensures the profits of a post-fossil fuel economy are shared more equally.
While the GND was rejected as admirable but unrealistic by moderate Democrats such as former presidential candidates Governor Bullock and Senator Bennet, the GND is in fact generously cited on the Biden campaign website. It is described as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face” and referenced in promises to both “take action against fossil fuel companies and other polluters who put profit over people and knowingly harm our environment” and to avoid leaving “workers or communities behind” as the economy transitions to a new energy future. This prose has clearly not been enough for some activist groups. The Sunrise Movement, which came to prominence in 2017 with climate demonstrations inside the offices of establishment Democrats like Speaker Pelosi and Senator Feinstein, only rates Biden a 35 out of 100 when it comes to his commitment to the GND vision.
Needless to say, Sanders and Warren both achieved much higher vision scores, setting the Biden team the same challenge Hillary Clinton had in 2016: winning the young progressive vote.
Climate unity task team
In an attempt to reconcile the differences on climate and other hot button topics, the Biden campaign has set up a number of unity task teams notionally comprised of roughly equal numbers of moderate Biden nominees and more progressive figures affiliated with the Sanders/Warren campaigns. These teams are charged with making recommendations to the Democratic Party Platform Committee in the lead up to the August Democratic Convention.
The climate unity task team (CUTT) is co-chaired by former Secretary of State John Kerry and GND co-author Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and includes two members of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, chair Kathy Castor (FL 14th District) and Donald McEachin (VA 4th District). Ocasio–Cortez has an interesting history with this committee. She was a key player in protests outside Speaker Pelosi’s office while new committee assignments were being formulated and subsequently turned down an opportunity to be part of the climate crisis committee when it became clear that it didn’t have authority to launch the GND legislation. Others with a strong progressive climate resume are co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, Varshini Prakash and Catherine Flowers, who also founded the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice and the Alabama Center for Rural Enterprise Community Development Corporation. Rounding out the eight-person team is Kerry Duggan, who was part of Biden’s vice-presidential staff before her current role with the Michigan League of Conservation Voters and CEO of the Natural Resources Defence Fund, Gina McCarthy, who is better known for her role heading up the Environmental Protection Agency in the second term of the Obama administration.
The CUTT has passed an initial credibility test — not only is it an admirably diverse group but fair-minded observers will regard it as being experienced, passionate and familiar with the technical, political and diplomatic challenges that the country, and the world as a whole, faces in eliminating carbon emissions. While there will be disagreement within the team, the CUTT has the horsepower and standing to find a compromise if differences have not solidified into entrenched factional positions.
While the progressive CUTT members have been openly critical of Biden’s perceived lack of vision and full-throated support for the GND, the CUTT is likely to have others, more representative of team Biden (and perhaps the Democratic Party more broadly), who don’t share the full panorama of the GND vision. The pushback to accusations of lukewarm support for the GND is that getting to net zero carbon by 2050 and averting a global climate catastrophe is an enormous technical and political challenge on its own. Adding additional requirements to solve wealth inequality and destroy the power and influence of corporate America risks making the task almost impossible. This GND lite approach wants to focus the debate on practical issues like improved battery storage technologies, more energy-efficient buildings, investment in carbon capture and storage, accelerating the deployment of electric vehicles, green hydrogen and potentially small-scale modular nuclear. All of these are textbook decarbonisation strategies and all feature in the Biden campaign literature as examples of where federal investment is needed for the country to decarbonise.
Federal investment in decarbonisation
During the initial stages of the Democratic presidential primary campaign, all the prospective candidates presented, in broad strokes, their plans for the United States to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050. The simplest measure of climate ambition was how much they were promising to spend. Biden promised a direct federal investment of $1.7 trillion over 10 years which would be leveraged to raise “additional private sector and state and local investments to total more than $5 trillion.” While a federal government investment of $1.7 trillion with an additional $3.3 trillion from other sources is far from insignificant, it was modest in comparison with other promises, particularly from Bernie Sanders, who promised to spend $16.5 trillion over next 15 years.
Moderates on the Biden team will quite rightly point out that their promised level of climate expenditure far exceeds that of the Obama administration. They are also likely to highlight that promising massive expenditure on the campaign trail doesn’t necessarily translate into a value for money outcome if the planning, management and targeting of the expenditure is not done carefully. Throwing vast sums of money at a set of aspirational goals risks setting up Republicans in Congress with a ready-made platform to accuse the new administration of wanton, wasteful and ill-considered expenditure. The Department of Energy’s ill-fated $500 million investment in failed solar panel developer Solyndra during the Obama administration resulted in several years of congressional hearings, investigations and negative press. CUTT members who were caught up in that controversy will be keen to avoid a repeat.
The Biden campaign promise of a “modest” $1.7 trillion to fight climate change may be more attuned to a general election audience than the primaries. While it seems unlikely that there will be an increase in the overall commitment between now and election day in November 2020, the plan is sufficiently vague to provide room for CUTT input. Indeed, if the group of climate all-stars is not able to make a meaningful contribution, this will be seen as a significant failure. Areas where the CUTT could make their mark include greater clarity on how the expenditure will be divided between incentives for big business and support for communities who will face economic pain and dislocation as the nation moves away from fossil fuels. Alternatively, it may be promises of stronger oversight on “leveraged” private investments to alleviate concerns over government handouts to the wealthy.