The Hidden, Eat-Your-Vegetables Side of Biden’s Climate Policy

By Michael Grunwald
·10 min read

Tonight’s presidential debate will have an entire section devoted to climate, a long-neglected issue in American politics that has become an urgent issue in 2020. And Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden, who wasn’t the first choice or even a top choice of most climate activists, seems to have figured out how to make it a winning issue.

Biden is likely to stick to the simple strategy he deployed when Fox News moderator Chris Wallace asked about climate in the last debate. Biden has emphasized his support for very popular things, like climate science and clean energy, emphasized his opposition to controversial things, like the "Green New Deal" and a fracking ban, and avoided mentioning the parts of his climate policy that could become controversial if people actually knew about them.

Basically, Biden has accentuated the popular, focusing on climate dessert rather than climate spinach, portraying climate action as a job-creating, economy-boosting, relatively painless no-brainer for a warming world that’s already besieged by costly wildfires and storms. And President Donald Trump has played into his hands by accusing him of proposing radical actions—like abolishing fossil fuels, getting rid of cows or spending $100 trillion—that Biden isn’t in fact proposing. Climate action is polling better than ever, and Biden is associating himself with the best-polling forms of climate action, after beating Democratic primary rivals like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Jay Inslee who had much more aggressive and disruptive plans.

The irony is that Biden’s current climate plan, which he pegs at $2 trillion, borrows heavily from his vanquished rivals—and it actually would require America to take some pretty radical actions, like transition to carbon-free electricity by 2035 and a carbon-neutral economy by 2050. Most climate scientists believe those kinds of radical actions will be necessary to avoid the worst-case climate scenarios, but they would inevitably involve the kind of economic dislocation in heavy-emissions industries that Biden prefers not to discuss.

So far, at least, most Americans seem to consider Trump’s refusal to embrace climate science—and his enthusiastic advocacy of the fossil-fuel industry—more extreme than Biden’s sunny climate messaging. A New York Times poll found that 66 percent of Americans support Biden’s climate plan, while only 26 percent oppose it. The liberal group Data for Progress found a closer 54-34 tally when respondents were given positive and negative commentary about the plan, but the group’s director of climate policy, Julian Brave NoiseCat, says Biden has been clever about putting a smiley face on a complicated policy dilemma.

“When Democrats are having a good day talking about climate, they’re talking about nice things like green jobs, green infrastructure and economic growth that make people happy,” NoiseCat said. “I do wonder sometimes about the risk of overpromising, but until November 3, I think it’s a really good idea for Biden to keep talking about popular stuff.”

The politics of climate are clearly in flux, and even amid a pandemic, a recession, a racial reckoning and the fire hose of daily Trump news, it’s rising on the national agenda. Before Wallace linked the issue to the California wildfires, there had never been a climate question in a presidential debate; it now seems unlikely that there will ever be another debate without a climate question. Democratic nominees usually try to moderate their policies after winning primaries, but Biden actually strengthened his climate plan this summer to address criticism from activists who thought it failed to meet the moment. There are now climate donors as well as fossil-fuel donors, so the money is no longer all on one side. Politicians who worry about alienating fracking supporters in Pennsylvania or coal miners in Ohio also have to worry about suburban climate voters, so the votes are more evenly distributed.

Serious climate policy would not be all butterflies and rainbows. Biden’s clean power plans, for example, would require the closure of most coal and gas plants within 15 years, and it’s ultimately incompatible with most fracking operations even though he opposes an outright fracking ban. But Biden isn’t making up the economic opportunities inherent in a clean-energy transition; Trump’s Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that America’s fastest-growing job in the 2020s will be wind-turbine technician, and that solar-installer will be the third fastest.

“Historically, politicians just had to think about the downside of saying the right things about climate,” says Leah Stokes, a professor at the University of California at Santa Barbara and author of a new book about climate policy. “You’re starting to see the upside, too.”

At the initial presidential and vice presidential debates, the candidates were asked whether they believe the prevailing science of man-made global warming. It’s an odd framing, because climate science isn’t really a concept that people do or don’t believe in, like limited government or Casper the Friendly Ghost. It’s a reality that people do or don’t accept, like gravity or the moon landing, which is why it was also odd that Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett refused to take a position on the same question during her confirmation hearings. But it’s a convenient framing for Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris, because their answer is an unqualified yes, and a recent survey by the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication found 57 percent of Americans agree, versus only 32 percent who disagree.

Trump and Vice President Mike Pence are part of the 32 percent, although they both fudged their denials on the debate stage. In the White House, they have pushed for more coal mining, more oil drilling and less regulation of fossil-fuel pollution. For voters who see climate as an existential emergency that overshadows all other issues—or voters who want to preserve the energy status quo—2020 will be an easy choice between two starkly contrasting visions. Biden would rejoin the Paris climate accord, restore air pollution and energy efficiency rules that Trump has rolled back, and push for a green infrastructure bill, while Trump would not.

The real battle is for voters who feel less passionately about climate action, who might want to see Washington do something but perhaps not too much. The political conundrum is that the United Nations climate panel has suggested the world needs to cut greenhouse gas emissions in half by 2030, so the policy implications of taking climate science seriously can sound as radical as rejecting climate science. It could require drastic shifts not only in how we power our homes and businesses but in what we drive, how we farm, what we eat and where we live.

Trump and Pence have tried to make the case that Biden’s climate policies would cripple growth, but they have focused almost entirely on policies that Biden does not support. “They want to bury the economy under a Green New Deal,” Pence said, although Biden opposes the Green New Deal. “They want to abolish fossil fuels and ban fracking,” Pence continued, although Biden beat the Democrats in the primary who wanted to do those things. Trump groused that tougher fuel-efficiency standards and other green policies would drive up costs and kill jobs, but the Yale survey found that 58 percent of Americans believe policies to promote clean energy will create jobs and growth, while only 18 percent think they’re economically harmful.

“The idea that helping the environment hurts the economy is the oldest play in the Republican playbook, and the public doesn’t buy it anymore,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, a scientist who studies public perceptions of climate change and runs the Yale program.

Still, Biden has been careful to focus on carrots rather than sticks, because voters seem far more comfortable with government handouts than government mandates. Yale found that 87 percent support subsidies for renewable energy research and 83 percent support tax rebates for solar panels and energy efficient cars; by contrast, only two-thirds support requirements for utilities to produce 20 percent emissions-free energy, and presumably fewer would support a 100 percent requirement, while half of Americans actually support expanded offshore drilling. At the debate, Biden pledged to shift the federal government’s fleet toward electric vehicles, install 500,000 charging stations on the nation’s roads, weatherize millions of homes to reduce energy waste, and create greener infrastructure across the country.

“That’s not costing jobs, that’s creating millions of good-paying jobs—not 15 bucks an hour, but prevailing wage,” Biden said.

When Wallace pressed him about the cost of his plans, Biden argued that it would pale in comparison with the cost of increased disaster aid for a new era of more intense fires and floods. “Look how much we’re paying now to deal with hurricanes!” he said.

The Yale survey shows that while most Americans still see climate change as a someday problem that will affect their children, or at least other people, a growing minority is starting to see it as a now problem that affects everyone. Biden’s focus on the bad things that climate change is doing today, along with the good things a clean energy transition could provide tomorrow, is a lot closer to the sweet spot of 2020 politics than Trump’s weird conjectures that wind turbines cause cancer and televisions stop working when the wind stops blowing.

But climate politics is not going to get any easier, because even if Biden wins and takes all the aggressive actions he has promised, floods and droughts and fires and heat waves are going to keep getting worse for quite a while. And while a science-based climate policy doesn’t have to ban cows or abolish fossil fuels entirely, the world is going to have to eat less red meat and use fewer fossil fuels to meet the goals he’s talking about. NoiseCat understands why Biden and Harris were so insistent that they’re not proposing to ban fracking, especially when Pennsylvania is looking like the most crucial state in this election, but their long-term vision for a net-zero economy is not fracking-friendly. He worries how union members who have been promised that clean energy and green technology will produce more blue-collar jobs and a resurgence of American manufacturing will react if Biden tries to block pipelines or impose onerous regulations on dirty industries.

“You could see some real blowback with labor,” NoiseCat says. “I worry that all this conversation about jobs and infrastructure and the fun things could make it harder to pass the regulations we need that aren’t as much fun. We need to eat our vegetables, too.”

But vegetables are for governing. Campaigns are about promising dessert. Candidates have always preferred to talk about new tax cuts and spending programs over the hard choices needed to pay for those goodies or the deficits that erupt when the hard choices aren’t made; Biden’s similarly optimistic approach to climate is just another sign that it’s joined taxes and budgets as the kind of tricky issue that politicians have to spin to their advantage.

Some Green New Deal supporters have expressed some discomfort with the Democratic ticket’s middle-ground rhetoric, arguing that it’s essentially conceding the Republican argument that fossil fuels and plastic bags and gas-guzzling SUVs are necessary for economic growth, and that tying climate policy to social justice is crazy leftism. After Harris vehemently insisted on the debate stage that Biden has no intention of banning fracking, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the sponsor of the Green New Deal, tweeted: “Fracking is bad, actually.”

Hard choices will have to be made, and Democrats are going to fight about them. But most Democrats are more than willing to postpone the choices and the fights until after November 3.