The Candidate Who Did Not Want To Change Anything Could Become the Great American Climate President

Lincoln, Roosevelt, Johnson, Biden? During the primaries, Biden promised that nothing would “fundamentally” change. Since then, the world has spun faster than usual, the moderate candidate is campaigning on a historically ambitious climate plan, and it is feasible that he will be the next in the line of American presidents to transform society: the climate president.

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is a climate policy breakthrough. He has refused to accept donations from fossil fuel companies. A Biden supporter would argue that Biden has made an ideological choice. A more cynical assessment is that Biden has refused to accept dirty money because he can.

Biden is not a progressive politician. Throughout his 50 years in politics, he has rarely represented himself as being particularly visionary, particularly liberal or particularly concerned about the environment.

During the primaries, he was the most moderate of all Democratic candidates, and a return to the world as it looked before Donald Trump emerged as the backbone of his political program. In June 2019, in front of an assembly of wealthy Democratic donors, he even stated “nothing will change fundamentally” if he becomes president.

This summer, just over a year later, Bernie Sanders appeared on MSNBC and told the host, “You know what … Joe Biden may become the most progressive president since FDR.”

At the time, Joe Biden had just unveiled the most liberal, socially revolutionary program a Democratic candidate has campaigned on in decades: trillions of dollars in funding for housing, jobs, welfare, better unemployment benefits and a higher minimum wage.

This is classic liberal politics when it comes to crisis management and distribution of wealth, spiced up with elements of economic nationalism that Trump campaigned on with such great success in 2016. If one did not know any better, one might call it democratic socialism.

More sensational, however, is Biden’s $10.5 trillion climate plan with its goal to make the American energy network fossil free by 2035 and to make the entire United States carbon neutral by 2050.

“Scientifically, one can argue to set an even higher goal, but politically it is a very, very progressive plan. Never before has a candidate campaigned on a climate policy that is so ambitious, so comprehensive and so far-reaching,“ says researcher Peter Gleick, who co-founded the climate think tank Pacific Institute in 1987.*

The phrase “Green New Deal” does not appear in Biden’s Plan for Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. Nevertheless, it reiterates the basic idea. Massive public investment needs to go hand in hand with green considerations. Biden will pump up the economy and the transition to go green by building sustainable homes and a new electric grid, expanding public transport and helping the auto industry to switch to electricity.

“We are facing an economy in crisis, but an incredible opportunity to not only rebuild what we had before, but to build better, stronger and more sustainably,” Biden himself explained, referring to the COVID-19 crisis.

Biden’s campaign slogan is Build Back Better.

Biden has probably not changed since last year, but circumstances have dramatically changed since. Incredibly, it seems likely that the candidate who promised not to change anything could end up as the climate president who kick-starts a great transformation in the United States.

The Climate Change Battle

The battle to become the next president of the United States is about more than polls and who can scare voters with either Trumpism or left-wing extremism.

Trump’s and Biden’s approaches to climate policy are fundamentally different, and if Biden wins he could become the global leader of the green transition.

Today, we discuss Biden’s climate plan and next week we will talk about what four years under Trump have meant to the climate and environment.

Finally a Movement

The economic crisis is not the only thing that has opened up a window of opportunity for the climate fight in America, explains Gleick, who has followed the American climate debate for decades.

“In recent years, it seems that the acknowledgment that this is real, serious and requires drastic action has finally taken root in a significant part of the population and within the Democratic Party,” he said.*

This is partly because the consequences of climate change are becoming more concrete and obvious. Right now, even as I write, for example, the sky above San Francisco glows orange following a series of violent forest fires. Some 2.5 million hectares [nearly 6.2 million acres] of forest have burned down, eight people have died, and the entire state of California has been in a state of emergency since Aug. 18.

“I feel the climate change on my own body,” another Southern California based climate scientist Peter Kalmus explains via Skype. “You can see the flames, smell the smoke and feel the heat. It is impossible to ignore.”*

Kalmus, a researcher at the University of California, primarily believes it is a generational issue. Some 80% of Americans under the age of 30 see climate change as a significant threat to humanity, and they are far more willing to change than are their parents.

“I believe it really took off two years ago. There was a new report by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Greta Thunberg exploded, and the scientists started talking in a more alarming tone,” he says. “In the United States, only a small, narrow circle of people cared about climate issues, people who otherwise always led a quiet life and were always overshadowed by other issues.”

Finally, climate policy drilled down to the wider public. “Finally we had a movement,” says Kalmus.

Becoming Mainstream in Express Time

Many feared that this movement would run out of steam following COVID-19. With 200,000 American deaths, the pandemic has emerged as the paramount subject, and a recent Pew Research Center poll showed that Americans viewed the climate as the 11th most important policy area in the election campaign.

Still, Gleick believes there is hope, not least because the climate agenda has been settled in the Democratic Party. A good example of this happened two weeks ago when the party’s green wing did something unprecedented in American politics. It beat a Kennedy in Massachusetts.

Ed Markey, 74, has been a member of Congress longer than Robert Kennedy’s grandson Joe Kennedy III has been alive. Yet it was interpreted as the victory for the new and young over the old and established, as he won the primary election to become the party’s candidate for the Senate in a very Democrat-minded district.

“It doesn’t matter how old you are. What counts is how old your ideas are,” the party’s 30-year-old rising star, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, said in one of Markey’s campaign videos.

What’s more, Markey’s most famous idea is no more than two years old: The Green New Deal. At the grassroots level of the Democratic Party, the idea arose to weave change and large public investment together as a green counterpart to the Roosevelt-era crisis response reforms from the 1930s, but it was Markey and Ocasio-Cortez who brought the final reform plan into Congress.

Key Points in Biden’s Climate Plan

The key points in Biden’s climate plan include the following:

• $10.5 trillion in green public investments over 10 years;

• A fossil-free energy network by 2035;

• The United States must be carbon-neutral by 2050;

• Fossil-free public transport and bike lanes in all cities with more than 100,000 inhabitants;

• Extensive energy renovations of homes and public buildings;

• 1 million new jobs in the auto industry related to incentives to invest in electric cars;

• All new infrastructure projects must help reduce emissions; and

• “Vulnerable groups” must benefit from at least 40% of the “gains” from public investments.

Markey’s win “sent a resounding message: the politics of climate have changed, and embracing bold climate action is a winning message in tough races,” according to John Podesta, who served as former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and chief adviser to Barack Obama.

Biden’s climate plan is not the Green New Deal. Liberal economical elements in Cortez and Markey’s original plan have been removed, such as a nationwide job guarantee.

Finally, a broad climate movement in the United States has emerged which embraced the idea that climate policy is not just a matter of small adjustments and tougher regulation, but is a project that requires fundamental change throughout society. In a little more than two years, this idea has traveled from the party’s young grassroots climate activists in the Sunrise Movement via the far left wing of Congress and into the center, becoming a mainstream political project in the Democratic Party.

Some 1 1/2 years ago, Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi scornfully called the Green New Deal “the Green Dream or whatever they call it.”* Today, it was the key to beating a Kennedy in Massachusetts and is one of the main sources of inspiration for Biden’s Build Back Better plan.

Not So Big Oil

For decades, large oil and coal companies have attempted to prevent this transition. It is well documented that the industry has tried to obscure the public debate with misinformation like the tobacco and sugar industry did before them. Moreover, it is a well-known fact that companies have donated huge amounts to both parties.

In that sense, Biden’s campaign marks a breakthrough in climate policy. He has refused to accept donations from fossil energy companies. A Biden supporter would argue that Biden has made an ideological choice. A more cynical assessment is that Biden has refused to accept dirty money because he can afford to do so.

“Big Oil” is not nearly as big as it used to be. Although Trump has done what he can to fulfill his election pledge to make fossil energy “big again,” renewable energy sources keep getting cheaper, making it harder for coal and oil prices to be competitive.

Two weeks ago, ExxonMobil, the largest oil company in the United States, completely dropped off the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Similar to the Danish C20 index, the Dow Jones index calculates the 30 largest companies in the United States. ExxonMobil, formerly called Standard Oil, has been on that list for 92 years and, as late as 2011, it was the world’s most valuable company. Today, Apple is worth more than 10 times as much as ExxonMobil was worth in 2011.

As symbolic as it may seem, during times of major shifts in the economy, a tech company has replaced ExxonMobil on the Dow Jones Industrial Average.

Mobilization for War

In other words, there are opportunities. The United States has experienced a popular climate awakening, a new generation is leading a movement, the Democratic Party has taken over the agenda, and systemic dynamics in the economy have weakened the fossil fuel industry.

“And then the pandemic has shown us that it is possible, also in the United States, to invest an incredible amount of money in dealing with an urgent problem without the economy falling apart,” climate researcher Gleick says.* The coronavirus crisis has driven the United States into a recession, he stresses, not the increased public aid packages.

“What we have learned from the pandemic has opened the door for us to envisage taking even more drastic measures to solve an even more drastic problem: the climate crisis,” Gleick said.*

However, even if neither Gleick nor Kalmus are reluctant to use phrases such as “historical momentum” and “unique window of opportunity,” nothing is yet a given.

First, Biden must win. In the climate field, the distance between the two candidates could not be bigger. Trump withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Biden will make sure the United States signs back on the day after he takes office. Trump has reversed climate and environmental rules approximately 70 times. Biden will impose a significant part of the burden on the industry to meet climate goals. One could go on.

If Biden implements his climate plan, in all likelihood it requires that the Democrats manage to the House of Representatives and win back the Senate.

Then, of course, Biden and the newly elected majority in Congress must have the time and breathing room to deal with other things than the pandemic and the acute economic crisis.

The biggest challenge is a divided American population, Kalmus adds. If Biden gets a plan passed by Congress, it does not mean that the climate fight is over. Radical change is required at all levels of society. As of now, 68% of Democratic voters perceive the climate crisis as a “high-priority problem for society” versus 11% of Republican voters.

“If we want to achieve this, we need a completely new type of solidarity and mass mobilization similar to what happened during World War II, when everyone was moving in the same direction towards a common goal,” says Kalmus. “And it is very difficult to imagine this without people living in the same reality and acknowledging the same scientific facts.”*

Americans don’t do that. If anybody doubts how divided the American society is, one simply needs to look at the pandemic. If people do not accept wearing a mask or comply with social distancing guidelines to fight a pandemic that currently kills people nationwide, it is hard to imagine Americans agreeing to make even greater sacrifices to fight a far more abstract threat, Kalmus believes.

Can You Count on Biden?

Finally, a large portion of left-wing America is far from convinced that Biden intends to take drastic action.

As the socialist magazine Jacobin recently ran an article headlined “Think Joe Biden Will Be the Next FDR? His Wall Street Donors Don’t Seem To.” Shortly before that, The New York Times revealed that the financial sector gave Biden and his supporters 275 million Danish krones (approximately $43.8 million at the time of this article). By comparison, Trump and his campaign organizations have received 55 million Danish krones (approximately $8.8 million).

People have also criticized Biden for refusing to ban fracking, allegedly for fear that it could potentially cost him the battleground state of Pennsylvania.

Kalmus is not convinced that Biden will deliver in the field of climate change.

“It is important to keep in mind that Biden’s plan is not enough. CO2 neutrality by 2050 is not ambitious enough. It is still too little and too late,” Kalmus says. However, there is momentum, and the “conversation” about climate has changed fundamentally. “At least we can appreciate that what seemed unrealistically ambitious a few years ago can be criticized as inadequate today.”*

Gleick, on the other hand, cannot keep from cheering.

“Basically, I’m excited about the plan. A few years ago, it would have been unthinkable,” says Gleick, who does not fear that the economic crisis or pandemic will push the climate agenda into the background. “It’s not one or the other. It is all things all at once.”*

Climate President Biden; carved into Mount Rushmore among those who have drawn the broad outlines of American history.

It sounds unthinkable, but it could happen.

As Sanders’ campaign leader Faiz Shakir recently observed, “The most transformative presidents in our nation’s history — Lincoln, FDR, LBJ — were not ideologues fully aligned with the most radical movements of their time.”* Instead, they at times worked with activists to move the ball forward and at other times trimmed their sails to meet the constraints of public opinion.

*Editor’s note: Although these remarks are accurately translated, they could not be independently verified.

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