Biden signals a climate shift

The presumptive Democratic nominee is promising to "expand" and "build up" his climate policy following pressure from youth activists.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden taps the nose of a person in a polar bear costume during a campaign event in New Hampshire. Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

I got a push notification last night from Twitter. It read: “Joe Biden wins Wyoming Democratic caucuses.” This made me laugh—because duh. Who else was gonna win it?

But it probably made a bunch of youth climate activists want to walk into the acidifying ocean. In Senator Bernie Sanders’ $16 trillion climate plan, they saw their best chance to secure a livable future on this rapidly-warming, virus-ridden planet. Now they’re being forced to choose between an eco-fascist sympathizer, and a guy who only has a $1.7 trillion plan to save the world; a figure smaller than the recently-passed coronavirus economic relief package.

In both candidates, they see men content to watch the world burn.

“I am not willing to vote for Joe Biden”

Let’s just state this off the bat: When it comes to climate, Biden is not Trump. 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. These are not the same people, and their presidencies will not produce the same outcomes for the people most vulnerable to the climate crisis. Period.

But just because Biden’s climate plan isn’t a disaster doesn’t mean his presidency won’t be a disaster for the climate. 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. (To understand why, read Kate Aronoff’s New Republic article about Biden’s climate record, or just watch Biden tell a climate activist to “go vote for someone else” in the general election if he wants climate action). So no matter who sits in the Oval Office, they see their planet careening toward the brink.

Many members of the youth climate movement—led by the grassroots climate non-profit Sunrise Movement—are “struggling to live with Joe Biden,” Vice News’s Alex Lubben reported on Sunday.

Sunrise, one of the most powerful youth-led climate advocacy organizations in the U.S., endorsed Sanders in January, based on his commitment to a Green New Deal. Now the leadership and chapters around the country are trying to come to terms with Biden as the inevitable Democratic nominee.

“I am not willing to vote for Joe Biden,” one Sunrise member wrote in the Zoom chat among the group last week titled, “Bernie's Out: Where We Go from Here.”

“FUCK JOE BIDEN,” wrote another.

It’s not just individual members, either. Because Sunrise has a decentralized leadership structure—meaning individual local chapters of the group can do what they want, separate from the national group—a handful of local chapters have already disavowed the former vice president. Some say they’re not planning on endorsing him unless he strengthens his climate policy. Some say they never will.

A screenshot of tweets from Vice News’s article, “The Sunrise Movement Is Really Struggling to Live With Joe Biden.

This isn’t the case for Sunrise’s national leadership, though. Earlier this 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. Those things are:

  • Adopt the frameworks of the Green New Deal and make specific commitments around achieving a just transition to 100 percent Clean Energy by 2030 for electricity, buildings, and transportation;

  • Restart the economy by committing to mobilizing $10 trillion in green stimulus and infrastructure investments over 10 years that will create tens of millions of good jobs of the future; and

  • Commit to take on and prosecute the fossil fuel executives and lobbyists who have criminally jeopardized our generation.

Sunrise’s co-founder Varshini Prakash told Lubben that the group has already started engaging with the presumptive Democratic nominee’s team in the hopes that his climate plan will improve on those fronts. “We’ll see if that conversation translates into policy changes," Prakash said.

See the full PDF of the letter Sunrise Movement and other progressive groups sent to Joe Biden HERE.

There’s no reason to think it couldn’t translate. After all, Sunrise already has a history of shaping the national conversation about climate change.

And Sunrise isn’t the only place Biden is getting pressure from. On Monday, the League of Conservation Voters endorsed the former vice president, giving him the benefit of millions of dollars of ad spending and campaigning from the group.

In that endorsement, LCV praised Biden for his “strong” climate plan and his “commitment to climate action.” But the group also assured its members 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.”

“LCV Action Fund looks forward to continuing to work with Biden as he further develops his plans on the campaign trail and as president,” the group’s endorsement reads.

The endorsement alone is unsurprising, given LCV’s history of backing establishment Democratic politicians. You may remember that during the 2016 presidential primary, LCV endorsed Hillary Clinton after only one debate with Sanders. This really pissed off a lot of progressives. Jacobin’s Liza Featherstone later called LCV “The worst environmentalists in the world.”

But the fact that LCV’s endorsement led with the need to defeat Trump—and not the inherent strength of Biden’s climate plan—is notable in itself. “The 2020 election is our last, best chance to address the climate crisis,” the group’s senior vice president of government affairs said, “and we simply must have strong leadership in the White House.” As is LCV’s acknowledgement that Biden will “further develop” his plan. This is not a group that outwardly criticizes Democrats. This is probably about as close as it would ever feasibly come.

It’s also notable that Biden’s response to LCV’s endorsement was not simply a celebration of his own climate policy. It was a promise to do better, pointed directly at the youth climate movement.

Biden starts to responds to climate pressure

Biden’s statement on Monday morning about LCV’s endorsement began with the typical, bare-minimum rhetoric one would expect from a candidate who purports to take the climate crisis seriously.

Climate change is an existential threat, and there is no greater challenge and opportunity facing our country and our world. For me, this is personal: I live in a state that’s dealing first hand with the impacts of climate change and impacts of pollution on kids and families. I’m going to fight for my grandkids, for the families rocked by super storms and environmental injustice, and the upside — those good-paying jobs that will power a green economy. That is why I outlined a bold plan to lead a clean energy revolution and fight for environmental justice.

Biden’s statement ended, though, with a promise to “expand” that plan; to engage with “more voices from the climate movement,” to create “new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade;” and to campaign and govern “with climate change as a top priority.”

Here’s the rest of it:

But 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.

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. To achieve this aim, I have asked my campaign to commence a process to meaningfully engage with more voices from the climate movement — including environmental justice leaders and worker organizations, and collaborate on additional policies in areas ranging from environmental justice to new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade, to more investments in a clean energy economy.

That’s all well and good. But will it translate into anything real?

Biden hits climate at fundraisers

Last week, for example, a reader who attended one of Joe Biden’s recent virtual fundraisers sent me a message. On climate change, the reader said, the former vice president seemed to be developing a sharper focus.

I asked for audio of the event, and indeed, Biden spent about 8 minutes at the end of the conversation talking about climate change in response to a question from the host’s teenage daughter, who asked what Biden was doing to earn the youth vote. Biden spoke about:

  • Needing action before 2035, not just by 2050;

  • Reinstating Obama-era fuel efficiency regulations that Trump just gutted;

  • Electrifying transportation and high-speed rail, and providing $45/hour union jobs to achieve it;

  • Building transmission infrastructure to move renewable energy around the country, investing heavily in R&D for batteries;

  • Paying Brazil $20 billion to stop deforestation and imposing a tariffs on products from Brazil if they don't stop;

  • investing in R&D for decarbonization technology and creating a $470 billion program to get such exports going;

  • Telling polluters that there will be “consequences” if they don't cut emissions.

Aside from the nod to action by 2035 instead of 2050, these points don’t contain anything much different from Biden’s original plan. But Biden’s transitions on the topics were smooth, indicated he’d at least taken the time to up his rhetorical game.

Biden is also planning to hold a virtual fundraiser on Wednesday—Earth Day—specifically for climate and environmental interests. Tickets are $1,000, though there are a limited number available for $250.

There’s no power in sitting out — or shutting up

It’s still too early to see if pressure from progressives and the youth climate movement will result in significant policy changes from Biden. 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.”

Progressives have the opportunity to create their own “lock them up” rhetorical movement this campaign cycle—“them,” of course, being fossil fuel executives. Does that mean fossil fuel executives are really gonna get locked up? No. It means energizing a large group of people around the idea that fossil fuel companies have knowingly screwed over millions of people for their own short-term profit.

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.

It’s time to get to work.

Some Earth Day 50 virtual events

  • The Earth Day Initiative has an entire week of virtual events planned, and a ton of suggested actions. Click HERE for more information.

  • Climate Collection NYC, an art and science collection, is putting on a week of virtual events. They including speaking with a climate counselor to find out “your climate personality,” among other things. More information HERE.

  • World War Zero will be kicking off "Earth Day Inside" this evening at 7pm ET, with a virtual town hall featuring science educator Bill Nye, former Secretary of Energy Ernie Moniz, and activist and actress Kate Walsh. More details HERE.

  • “The Earth Day Network created a citizen science initiative called Earth Challenge 2020 with the U.S. Department of State's Eco-Capitals Forum and the Wilson Center in Washington, D.C., that allows people to engage with science through a smartphone app.” (Source: USA Today)

Recommended reading: BP oil spill 10 year anniversary

As if there wasn’t enough to think about this week, today is the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster, which killed 11 people and spewed about 134 million gallons of oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

Here’s what I’m reading:

  • NOLA: “Its most visible impacts—oil mats, birds covered in crude and dolphins washing up on shore—are long gone, and the gulf is teeming with finfish, shellfish and large marine mammals. But the signs of normalcy belie a more complicated truth: Researchers say the Gulf still hasn't fully recovered, and it could still be years before the full extent of the damage is known.”

  • HuffPost: “A decade after Deepwater, experts and environmental advocates warn that the U.S. remains woefully unprepared for a major spill ― and is perhaps even more at risk of one due to the Trump administration’s relentless push to expand offshore drilling and gut environmental regulations.”

  • New York Times editorial board: The BP spill provides “One more argument, if any were needed, to wean the country off a carbon-based economy.”

  • The Advocate: “If there is one thing we can learn from the BP oil disaster, it is our resilience to endure and to rebuild after the storm. The world saw it 10 years ago in the Gulf of Mexico. We are still inspired by it today.”

OK, that’s all for today—thanks for reading HEATED!

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