Joe Biden's Climate Plan Actually Has Teeth

Photo: AP

Joe Biden’s energy advisor made waves (and not in a good way) last month by saying the former vice president was working on a “middle ground” climate policy. On Tuesday, the Democratic presidential hopeful put out his plan, and it shows that the middle of the road has been pulled pretty far to the left by both activists and science.

The Biden climate plan outlines how the former vice president would spend $1.7 trillion in federal money along with a mix of executive orders and legislation that would transition the U.S. to net-zero emissions “no later than 2050" while also protecting workers’ rights to organize and a just transition for fossil fuel workers and communities of color. That puts it broadly in line with the Green New Deal and other climate plans released by presidential contenders like Jay Inslee and Beto O’Rourke. But it also offers a whole section on getting the rest of the world involved in ramping up climate ambition, breaking new ground for 2020 climate plans, and once again showing what the new climate landscape of the left looks like.

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“[This plan] embraces a lot that I like in terms of seeing innovation as a key part of the response to climate change, and it embraces a lot of policy tools to accelerate innovation,” David Hart, a political scientist at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, told Earther.

Biden’s so-called Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice starts with a “series of new executive orders with unprecedented reach” that Biden says he would make day-one priorities as president. Chief among them are limiting methane emissions from current oil and gas infrastructure, setting new energy-efficiency standards for appliances and buildings, and leveraging the federal government’s vast footprint and procurement system to spur innovation in low-carbon technologies.

The plan also calls for creating ARPA-C, a program that would fund climate innovation moonshots in the vein of the vaunted Department of Defense’s DARPA project and the Department of Energy’s ARPA-E. The idea certainly sounds interesting, but it also risks creating a program that will take time to fire up at a point when speed is of the essence.

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“There’s been a bit of obsession of ARPAizing everything,” Hart said. “While ARPA-C can be a centerpiece, in the larger scheme there are lots of tools already at work [like] other agency programs and loans. None of that is spelled out here.”

Beyond the executive branch efforts, Biden’s plan also lays out a one-year legislative agenda including establishing an “enforcement mechanism” that would help the U.S. meet the net-zero emissions goal no later than 2050. That could mean many things, from establishing a cap and trade program to a carbon tax to other policies that put a price on carbon. Kelly Sims Gallagher, the a professor at Tufts Fletcher School, director of the Climate Policy Lab, and former Obama advisor, called the vague language around what that mechanism would be “notable” and told Earther it indicates “Biden apparently wants to give Congress the opportunity to shape this mechanism.”

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That in itself reveals that Biden will likely need a Democrat-controlled Congress to pass a huge portion of his climate plan, something other presidential contenders have in part banked on as well. It’s a big if about whether Democrats can snag the Senate (and maintain their advantage in the House), and it’s nigh impossible for them to get a filibuster-proof majority. But unlike Inslee, who has called for abolishing the filibuster, Biden has yet to say whether he would or not. If he doesn’t, that would mean dealing with Republicans who have been worse than completely useless on climate policy.

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One of the more revealing pieces of Biden’s plan is its goal of getting the rest of the world involved in vigorously combatting climate change. The Trump administration has notably swept the U.S. off the global stage of promoting clean energy, instead spreading the gospel of coal and, uh, freedom gas. Biden’s plan says he would re-engage the rest of the world by getting the U.S. back into the Paris Agreement and convening the world’s biggest carbon polluters to cut emissions. And it borrows a page from the Trump playbook by using trade policy to lower emissions by putting fees (perhaps even tariffs?) on high-carbon goods and goods made in countries that fail to meet their climate goals. The plan also calls out China, specifically its Belt and Road infrastructure initiative that has helped spur fossil fuel development and fossil fuel-dependent infrastructure in developing countries.

Whether any of this could work is a big TBD, though. The Trump years have done a lot to damage U.S. credibility, and both Hart and Sims Gallagher said that could be one of the biggest roadblocks to Biden’s international ambitions.

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“The plan does not provide a realistic strategy for international leadership,” Sims Gallagher said. “A lot of damage has been done and it will be hard for the United States to be perceived as a trusted leader even if it rejoins the Paris Agreement, honors its international financial commitments, and meets its own target.”

Beyond that, Hart also said that the massive investments in R&D could be tough to ramp up because the government has been hollowed out by the Trump administration. Money isn’t necessarily the issue—assuming Congress approves a multi-billion dollar climate budget—but rather having the infrastructure and brain power at the ready to do the R&D, administer new grant programs, and enforce carbon pollution regulations.

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“We tried to double NIH’s budget in the 1990s and you can drive up salaries because that’s the way the money gets absorbed,” Hart said. “It takes a while to build labs and recruit people.”

To be fair, both of these are issues any Democrat who wins the White House would face. And it points to the dramatic challenges the U.S. and world as a whole face as the timeframe for averting catastrophic climate change grows tighter.

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But by releasing the plan, Biden has also revealed another important truth about the 2020 election. Climate change is no longer a bottom-tier issue but front and center, and it’s in no small part to the Overton window shift being led by youth activists, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and others who have advocated for climate policy in line with science. Biden’s climate plan called the Green New Deal “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” While his plan could be bolder in some areas, it’s very far from the wishy-washy centrism that seemed on the horizon just a short few weeks ago.

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