Ahead of this year’s presidential election, many voters are signaling they will vote for anyone but the incumbent. That’s how bad he is doing. And that might be enough for opponents to build on. However, Joe Biden, the presumptive Democrat in the race, knows he’ll need more than that to win.
To that end, Biden is unveiling his Build Back Better plan, an approach to economic recovery after the ravages – and mismanagement of – the COVID-19 epidemic. That strategy includes separate plans for clean energy, climate change, and environmental justice. I will avoid a deep dissection of each plan and stick to summarizing its main muscle movements. Suffice it to say however, if you have insomnia, reading the plans will cure it. They are beyond thorough, (while I’ll explore in a moment), covering every aspect imaginable regarding these subjects. Further, their presentation on the screen is horrendous. The authors have done little more than slap mountains of verbiage in a single column format, occasionally interrupted by a text box. In the end, the plans, though extensive, are like bumper stickers: they say more about the person driving the car than the car itself.
How Did We Get Here?
Before analyzing Biden’s plans, some context is necessary. During the early stage of the campaign, the former Vice-President’s approach to 21st century energy and climate change needs were milquetoast at best. Competitors like Tom Steyer, Jay Inslee, and Elizabeth Warren ran circles around him regarding these intertwined themes. However, the race eventually narrowed to Biden and Bernie Sanders and rather than prolong the appearance of party disunity, Sanders conceded. However, he did so only after Biden agreed to work with the Sanders team on key issues including clean energy and climate change.
Biden therefore convened an energy and climate group comprising members of his own team, the Sanders team, the Sunrise Movement, and champions of the Green New Deal (GND) including Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. The group also includes former members of Jay Inslee’s presidential campaign. Recall that the Washington governor, currently running for re-election to that post, had a very serious energy and climate plan. There is a lot of overlap among the views of these groups and individuals. IN some areas, agreement should have been easy. Still, Biden and his principals needed to find them palatable, so I assume some give and take took place.
Whose Plan Is It Anyway?
The broadest strokes of the GND and Inslee’s plan are evident at the heart of Biden’s strategy. All have long-term targets, though the details vary. And whereas the GND tries to encapsulate all aspects of climate and energy policy, Biden, like Inslee, keeps them separate. I personally see the two issues as inextricably linked and would prefer a unified plan. I assume the more stalwart voices would have preferred the same because choices in one area impact the other. However, this separation gives Biden wiggle room where he needs it.
For example, both Biden’s plan and the GND call for net zero emissions. (Note: If fossil fuel-based assets produce 1,000 metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), but an equal amount of power comes from solar, wind, and other non-emitting sources, that is technically “net zero.”) Biden specifically sets 2050 as the deadline. However, the GND has, as a goal, that all future power be generated from emissions-free sources. This assumes 100 percent renewable, but nuclear power, by definition, qualifies. However, the word nuclear never appears in the GND. Biden’s plan, by contrast, includes space for continued nuclear use and future nuclear-based solutions.
In addition, by setting a goal so far in the future, Biden buys time with voters still employed by the fossil fuel industry, many of whom are the very voters that Biden, Sanders, and other progressives have vowed to protect, voters in states Biden needs in order to win. Unfortunately, the noise around the GND, well sold by a hyperbolic and fear-mongering conservative media, has left these voters thinking that environmentalists see them as the enemy, when in fact it is the negative externalities of fossil fuel use. Biden has to walk a tightrope here: sell the GND, without calling it the GND, to a group adamantly opposed to it.
Biden’s energy and climate plans mimic the GND’s focus on significant infrastructure upgrades and using them as a vehicle for job growth. The GND specifies a completely overhaul of the country’s energy, transportation, and building infrastructure for long-term environmental sustainability. However, as I have pointed out, the GND never reconciles the fact that such an undertaking will, through further resource extraction and increased emissions, exacerbate the very challenges it is trying to resolve.
By contrast, instead of focusing on infrastructure investment as a means for future environmental benefit, (though there is some of that), Biden’s plan focus more on job creation and increased economic competitiveness. It assumes an upgraded American infrastructure will be greener but does not insist on it to the degree that Inslee or the GND do. The same goes for the automotive industry. Biden is as strong a champion for electric vehicles and investing in charging infrastructure, all of which comprise the jobs of the future. However, the focus is less about environmental impacts – although it’s easy to see the link – and more about what it means to the American economy.
This is an area where the GND and Inslee teams have had significant influence. In the early days of the campaign, beyond noting the importance of clean air and water, Biden never mentioned anything about justice for those negatively impacted by the structure of America’s energy sector, which are primarily the poor and communities of color. In addition to health issues, challenges around housing, services, and jobs can be connected to power plant siting and availability of more competitively-priced electricity. These plans – and now the Biden plans – call for aggressive restitution through investment that makes communities healthier and more resilient to the growing impacts of climate change.
But while these original plans focus heavily on addressing the injustices than getting those left behind back in the game, Biden goes a step further by doing something that other plans have not: recognizing the role that that current (and past) fossil fuel workers have played in shaping the American economic juggernaut. Many of them are being – and will be – left behind as the energy transition of the last twenty years continues. Biden is much more sympathetic to all who are impacted by the current realities of America’s energy choices and has a more thorough plan for investing in the workers themselves so they can transition. They too have suffered the negative externalities of the industry, but previous initiatives and legislation, beyond saying they need to be re-trained, have done little to find ways to re-engage them.
And perhaps that is one of the biggest differences between the final plan released by the Biden campaign and plans that have come before, specifically the GND. What Biden is planning is policy more focused on creating jobs and repairing the economy by addressing very urgent needs. The GND, by contrast, reads more like a centrally-planned industrial policy for the country. In addition to re-ordering the energy, infrastructure, transportation sectors, it tries to address worker’s rights, benefits, and economic standards of living. All of those are important and there are concrete connections to clean energy and climate, (not to mention separate policy prescriptions for them) but Biden leaves them out largely because they do not apply here.
Also on the domestic front, Biden intends to pick up where the Obama administration left off. He highlights rehabilitating and reinforcing the current Clean Air Act and doubling down on the same approach to energy as the Clean Power Plan. In addition, Biden plans to revitalize the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) program to jumpstart research and development (R&D) of the technologies that will drive the American economy forward. Biden also intends to create a parallel ARPA office for climate-related issues, ARPA-C. While I understand the need to address climate change with modern technological advances, a twin agency seems repetitive. I believe a better strategy would simply be to expand ARPA-E’s landscape to include climate given the symbiotic relationship with energy.
In addition to DOE, Biden might also have latitude to enact its plan via the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the Department of Defense (DOD). Also, never count out climate diplomacy through the State Department. However, Biden’s plan calls for a Clean Energy Revolution legislative package, which would require passage in Congress. Not entirely unlike FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps, the Biden Clean Energy plan cites a Civilian Climate Corps that will assume various environment-based jobs across the country. Forest management, brownfield restoration, and other restoration work including coastal areas and wetlands would fall under this and put hard working Americans to work.
But, even if the Democrats hold the House of Representatives and take control of the Senate as a result of this year’s general election, their majorities won’t be enough to avoid filibuster or other tactics that would derail the kind of package Biden (or at least his team) intends for using government resources to put people back to work. No doubt, anything passed would be significantly watered down, an outcome anathema to those who believe compromise is a dirty word. However, if the Trump administrations’ failed response to COVID-19 creates the cratered economic future many are predicting, Biden may have public sentiment for government action on his side. If constituents in the most diehard Republican strongholds need work badly enough, it might be sufficient to persuade their elected representative – who wants to maintain their job – to vote for a program that helps them get back on their feet.
As a matter of “energy as foreign policy,” Biden’s plans once again take their cue from Inslee. The Washington governor called for stronger international ties to address climate change, a hard line on abandoning international development that includes coal-fired power plants, ratification of the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, and linking trade and carbon use. In short, all things that only the hardiest of policy wonks would delve into.
The most well-known international climate-related action Biden can – and apparently will – take should he win in November is to re-join the famous Paris Climate Agreement. The move, though important for the message it conveys, would be largely symbolic. As I noted when Trump decided to withdraw, the Paris Agreement is not binding. There are no real ramifications for failure to meet obligations other than an unlivable planet that anyone over the age of fifty might not be around to see. But , rejoining would restore U.S. credibility when it comes time to rally other countries or hold laggards accountable.
Biden’s international plans also force development funding through the climate change lens. Future financial assistance from multilateral agencies like the World Bank or the newly re-imaged U.S. International Development Finance Corporation (f.k.a. Ex-Im and OPIC) would not allow for investment in coal-related projects. In addition, Biden plans to offer developing countries an alternative to the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative, a project China is using to expand its global influence, extract necessary resources, and often creates dependence on the Chinese.
Similar to every climate and energy plan before them, Biden’s plans are light on explaining how it will either pay for them or get them beyond obvious hurdles. Even before the added heft of progressives, Biden projected a $1.7 trillion price tag over ten years to address these pressing needs. He intends to spend $400 billion over that same span on R&D. He will need an allied Congress to get that kind of money, a task made more difficult after the sudden saddling of $3 trillion in coronavirus relief packages.
Equally unclear is how Biden intends to get his plans to last. According to the intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the earth has but 12 years to course correct vis-à-vis carbon emissions. For the U.S., currently the 2nd largest carbon emitter, such an about face will be difficult. And, these ambitious plans, necessary as they are, will need a lot more than two consecutive presidential terms to truly transform the American energy and climate profile. There is no clear indicator on how investment made between 2021 and 2025 (assuming he wins this year) will continue working should he be a one-term president. President Obama used $90 billion in the infamous 2009 stimulus package to focus on long-term energy transformation and though it yielded some results, it was far less than what is necessary to ensure the type of transition we need. Biden may need some similar instrument to get his energy and climate plans rolling.
Biden has a plan to address clean energy, climate change, and environmental justice. They might not have been his from the outset, but he has shown an open mind to more progressive voices and ideas on issues he knows are important. By contrast, his presumed opponent, the incumbent president, has only one plan related to these areas: go back to the 1950s.
It is not important that Biden accomplish every bullet on his lists. Rarely does a president achieve such a feat. He just needs to get the main muscle movements in place regarding long-term policy and legislation, targets with commensurate accountability mechanisms, investment in jobs and skills training, and legislation built to withstand future political turbulence. That last part will be especially difficult. Navigating the opposition’s wickets will mean watering down ambitions, something his energy and climate coalition will be loath to do. Probably the biggest challenge Biden will face, therefore, is applying his conciliatory, “go along to get along” prowess. Who knows? Success might address the global climate and the climate in Washington, D.C. too.