As presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden gears up for a fall campaign to defeat Donald Trump, he’s been moving to consolidate support from the less moderate wing of his party, promising to shore up his climate platform, and earning some high-profile endorsements in return.
As veteran U.S. climate journalist Emily Atkin noted a couple of weeks ago in her excellent Heated newsletter (subs here), Biden’s successful run for the Democratic nomination was met by a good deal of angst from youth activists and others who’d signed on with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), including some grassroot members and local chapters of the U.S. Sunrise Movement.
But “this isn’t the case for Sunrise’s national leadership,” Atkin writes. “Earlier [last] month, Sunrise and six other youth-led progressive groups sent a letter to the Biden team, containing a list of things Biden would need to do to earn their support.” Their conditions included:
- Adopting the frameworks of the U.S. Green New Deal;
- Committing to a just transition to 100% clean energy by 2030 for electricity, buildings, and transport;
- Restarting the U.S. economy with a 10-year, US$10-trillion green stimulus and infrastructure investment package;
- Promising to “take on and prosecute the fossil fuel executives and lobbyists who have criminally jeopardized our generation”.
Atkin notes that Biden received a similar push when the more centrist League of Conservation Voters announced an endorsement worth millions of dollars in advertising and grassroot campaign support. While referring to his “strong” climate plan and his “commitment to climate action”, the league added that Biden “is committed to building on his climate leadership with additional policies, including in environmental justice, new, concrete emissions reduction goals to achieve within a decade, and more investments in a clean energy economy.”
And Biden replied in kind, with a pledge to “expand” the plan, engage with “more voices from the climate movement,” create “new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade;” and campaign and govern “with climate change as a top priority”. Atkin says he’s also been highlighting climate in his fundraising pitches to potential donors.
“The best policy work is continuous, creative, and keeps reaching for greater ambition and impact. In the months ahead, expanding this plan will be one of my key objectives,” he said in response to the LCV endorsement.
“I know this is an issue that resonates with many, including young people and those who have seen floods, fires, and drought destroy lives and livelihoods. I want to campaign on climate change and win on climate change so that I can govern with climate change as a top priority for legislative and executive action in the White House.”
That kind of language also won the support of Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who previously became the first major U.S. presidential candidate ever to focus their campaign primarily on climate change. “I am convinced, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that this will be a major driving force of his administration,” Inslee told the New York Times. “I think what you’re going to see is an increased commitment to some shorter-term actions, and he’s been very open to that.”
More broadly, Times columnist Michelle Goldberg says Biden is coming up with campaign planks that some veteran progressive Democrats never thought they’d see in their lifetimes. Her explanation: As his party gradually moves toward more grassroot (she’s saying leftward) priorities, Biden, who “has always positioned himself at the centre of the Democratic Party,” is following along to unite the team.
She adds that, contrary to conventional wisdom, politicians generally try to keep their promises when they take office. “Biden wouldn’t need to pivot so dramatically to be a transformative progressive president,” she writes, and “it will be in Biden’s political interests to try to make good” on the various commitments he’s been making.
“I’ve worked with him for a while now,” said Jared Bernstein, Biden’s former chief economist. “He really believes you achieve political success by either doing what you’ve promised to do or getting caught trying like hell.”
Even as he adjusts his campaign platform, Atkin notes that Biden starts from a notably different place than his general election opponent.
“Let’s just state this off the bat: When it comes to climate, Biden is not Trump,” she writes. “They are factually different candidates. Trump’s climate plan is to continue filling his cabinet with former fossil fuel lobbyists; continue firing science advisors and hiring climate deniers; continue taking massive donations from fossil fuel executives; and continue warming the planet as fast as humanly possible. Biden acknowledges climate change is an existential threat; has a plan to make the United States carbon neutral by 2050, rated B+ by Greenpeace; and has signed a pledge not to take campaign money from fossil fuel executives.”
But as Atkin notes, 2020 will be a campaign year when a good enough climate platform really won’t be good enough.
“Just because Biden’s climate plan isn’t a disaster doesn’t mean his presidency won’t be a disaster for the climate,” she writes. “That’s because the climate is heading full-speed toward death spiral, and the only way to stop it is decarbonizing the economy very quickly. That will take enormous political will that climate activists—particularly youth climate activists—don’t believe Biden has demonstrated.”
Now, she says it’ll take all their effort to get him there.
“It’s still too early to see if pressure from progressives and the youth climate movement will result in significant policy changes from Biden,” Atkin concludes. “But it’s clear the pressure has already been enough to inspire stronger climate rhetoric from the former vice president. And rhetoric is everything in a presidential campaign. Think of the power of ‘Build the wall’. Think of the power of ‘Lock her up’.”
That makes the 2020 campaign an opportunity for U.S. progressives “to create their own ‘lock them up’ rhetorical movement” focused on the climate emergency and the flagrant misbehaviour of fossil executives. “That won’t happen, though, if progressives throw their hands up and decide to sit out for the rest of the presidential campaign cycle. It also won’t happen if progressives throw up their hands and support the Democratic nominee no matter what. Democracy is a participative process,” so “it’s time to get to work.”
Campaign update: While climate isn’t visibly the lead issue for voters in a country gripped by a deadly and epically mismanaged pandemic emergency, Biden’s climate shift comes at a time when state-by-state polls have him comfortably ahead in the race for the White House. While many of the key polling margins are razor-thin, and the vote is still 182 days away [yes, we’re counting—Ed.], electoral-vote.com’s Sunday morning map showed the former vice president leading the former reality TV star 352 to 148 in electoral college votes, with the two candidates tied in Texas, Biden leading comfortably in several key swing states and eking out smaller margins in others, and Trump ahead by only 1% in Georgia, down from 8% in recent polling.