On Monday, 14 September 2020, as wildfires ravaged the west coast of the United States and hurricanes devastated the Gulf Coast, then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden chastised President Donald Trump’s lack of climate response by saying, “If you give a climate arsonist four more years in the White House, why would anyone be surprised if more of America is ablaze?”
Aaron Eisenberg is a Project Manager for North America and the United Nations at the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung in New York City.
Biden was right. Had Trump won a second term, the hopes of a socio-ecological transformation by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) declared 2030 deadline would be nearly impossible. During his term, Trump issued 84 rollbacks of environmental regulations. These ranged from shrinking national monument lands in Utah allowing for mining and drilling on sacred indigenous sites, to repealing President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan, to weakening the Endangered Species Act. On the international level, Trump operated with open disdain toward international mechanisms and systems. He removed the U.S. from the Paris Climate Agreement, cancelled all funding to the U.N. Green Climate Fund, and withdrew the U.S. from the World Health Organization during a global pandemic. Biden put it correctly: Trump was a climate arsonist.
Biden’s Campaign Focused on a “Return to Normalcy”
In the 2020 campaign, both Trump and Biden were clear about their priorities. For Trump, it was a further embrace of all the hatred, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry and white nationalism imbued in the Trump-tinged, blood-orange, Republican Party. For Biden, his campaign focused on a “return to normalcy”, not being Donald Trump, and a recurring reminder that he was Obama’s vice-president. While candidates like Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Andrew Yang campaigned on deep substantive changes to the country and the country’s orientation to the world, Biden remained consistent in his rhetoric of returning to normal. When the Democratic establishment rallied behind him before Super Tuesday, it was as much a last ditch effort to stop Sanders as it was an embrace of centrist stability embodied by Biden. Yet once Sanders dropped out, giving Biden the democratic nomination, the call for a return to normal—at the same time COVID-19 became a full-blown pandemic—made normalcy impossible.
On the climate front, Biden rejected embracing the Green New Deal during his campaign, despite its overwhelming popularity. However, his “believing in science” message diametrically countered Trump’s clear-cut opposition to planetary survival. Biden did offer his own 2-trillion-dollar climate plan that would eliminate carbon emissions from the energy sector by 2035 and deliver net-zero emissions by 2050. The plan received some initial cautious support for its environmental justice principles and consideration of frontline groups. However, grassroots groups remained sceptical of Biden’s stances on other issues such as indigenous sovereignty, energy democracy, and his insistence on continuing fracking. Naming Kamala Harris as his vice-presidential nominee showcased that environmental equity and justice were to be taken seriously. Yet Biden’s underlying issues remained, and his improvements were only enough to raise his climate plan’s rating with Greenpeace from a D- to a B.
Biden’s Cold War and Dual Power Rhetoric Has No Place in Climate Discourse
On the international front, Biden’s climate plan reflected his worldview. The entire plan failed to mention international cooperation once. Rather, it focused on using carrots, sticks, competition, and innovation. Instead of seeking cooperation with China on greening the Belt and Road Initiative as proposed by Tobita Chow and Jake Werner, Biden’s plan proposed outright antagonism. It also talked about auto manufacturing in a distinctly twentieth-century manner, with lines like “positioning American autoworkers and manufacturers to win the twenty-first century”. This Cold War and Dual Power rhetoric has no place in climate discourse, and is ultimately unhelpful. When collaboration is the only path towards averting the worst of the crisis, a single country cannot defeat a global problem alone.
In the end, however, none of that really mattered. The fact that Joe Biden was not Donald Trump was all that mattered. Getting Trump out of office was enough justification for the youth climate movement to hitch their wagons to Biden. They did so less for the messages that Biden was sending himself, and more for the idea of living to fight another day.
Yet for some of the climate Left, so desperate for any win whatsoever, Trump’s defeat was proof that climate politics had progressed over the course of four years from a tertiary national political issue to a campaign-defining, winning issue for Democrats. It is from this belief that the climate mandate framework took root. Under this idea, progressive groups believed that their work that dragged Biden over the finish line against Trump would then translate into Biden hitting the ground running with bold and progressive climate policies.
We are now on the precipice of a Biden presidency. The arsonist is out of the White House. But where do things stand?
During the campaign, everyone in the “big tent” of the Democratic Party was able to view Joe Biden as a canvas onto which they could project their politics. Almost immediately after the election he reminded everyone that he was and is Joe Biden, and a climate mandate was never part of his politics.
An Affront to the Young People Who Made Biden’s Victory Possible
On Monday, 17 November, President-elect Biden announced Representative Cedric Richmond to be his Senior Advisor and Director of Public Engagement, the first climate-related post in the administration. Richmond received more donations from the fossil fuel industry than nearly any other Democrat during his eight-year tenure in Congress. Varshini Prakash, Executive Director of the Sunrise Movement said, “today feels like a betrayal… it’s an affront to young people who made President-elect Biden’s victory possible.”
If that was not enough for activists, Biden then went forward and made John Kerry his climate czar. Kerry has spent the last year building World War Zero, an ineffectual resource drain promoting bipartisanship. As Emily Atkin says, this shows “Biden will favour a moderate climate policy approach that hinges on GOP support.” Biden is now relying on the same Republican Party that was willing to go down with Trump to the end. Add in the news that a consultant for DuPont is on Biden’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) transition board, and many on the Left are saying, as Erin Brokovich put it, “Joe Biden, Are You Kidding Me?”
These choices confirm that Biden’s politics are predicated on moderation and loyalty. As a recent New York Times profile states, “He still reveres institutions, defiantly champions compromise and sees politics more in terms of relationships than ideology.” As with Richmond and Kerry, and then Ron Klain, Anthony Blinkin, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and Jake Sullivan, these choices reveal longstanding personal relationships and time spent in Biden’s inner orbit above all else.
While these choices do not align with those requested by the groups calling for a Climate Mandate, and do not signal ambition for anything the scale of the Green New Deal, for activists, they do clarify what kind of political moment we are in. With each day bringing us closer to climate catastrophe, mandate or no mandate, it was and will continue to be incumbent on social movements to demand meaningful climate policies from the Biden administration. His personnel choices remove the element of waiting for Biden to come around, giving him space to act, but rather highlight that movements must take action into their own hands to shape the climate discourse over the next four years.
Luckily, social movements and their elected allies are acting accordingly. Biden was never their first-choice candidate, and activists are ready to hold his feet to the fire. The climate movement is far more organized and stronger than at any prior moment. Thus, when Biden started backtracking, the movements quickly responded.
Inaction Will Not Be Accepted
On Thursday, 19 November, members of the “Squad,” including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar along with Representatives-elect Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman as well as others from the expanded Squad, joined the Indigenous Environmental Network, the Climate Justice Alliance, the Sunrise Movement, and the US Climate Action Network for a rally outside of the Democratic National Committee. Even the thought of a rally like this—against a president-elect from their own party—would have been hard to fathom four years ago. But times have changed. When Representative Ocasio-Cortez joined the Sunrise Movement’s sit-in of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office in support of a Green New Deal in November 2018, a shift in what was possible began. Now the election of more members of the Squad, plus the climate Left’s showing in Massachusetts, putting their support behind the “Green New Deal Maker” Senator Ed Markey, shows the true political force of the ascendant climate Left.
The activists in front of the DNC made it clear that token choices and inaction would not be accepted. Unlike under the Obama administration, when climate activists were told to give the president time and space to enact his agenda, and that critiquing the administration would only harm policies from being passed, activists are already hounding Biden. The Biden administration will enter office with pressure both externally from civil society and internally from the climate-fighting legislators inside Congress. These groups will continue pushing for Green New Deal polices regardless of who is in Biden’s cabinet. As of now, Biden still intends to fulfil his climate plan of eliminating carbon emissions from energy generation by 2035. But activists will of course push for more.
Climate Activists Will Have to Fight to Ensure that Biden Does Not Waste a Crisis
Biden has a laundry list of policies to choose from, and activists are more organized on this front than ever. As Trump showcased, the presidency can circumvent gridlock by ruling through executive orders. With this, 350.org has circulated ten executive actions for a Biden administration to enact on day one. These include ending fossil fuel extraction on public lands, stopping fracking through EPA pollution rules, ending oil and gas exports, denying permits to fossil fuel infrastructure projects, ending fossil fuel subsidies, and more. Some of these were signalled in Biden’s platform, but others, like the call to end fracking, are things that he has opposed. On the international front, Biden has said he will re-join the Paris Climate Agreement and push to strengthen the non-binding, nationally determined commitments. However, this will not be enough, and poses another area for activists to push him.
While Biden has certainly taken strides from where he began, over the course of his career he has shown to be somewhat of a weathervane for the politics of the moment. Coming out of the COVID-19 crisis, a critical infrastructure and jobs plan will be necessary. Biden will have to fight to pass it through a likely Republican Senate. Climate activists will have to fight to ensure that Biden does not waste a crisis and makes it a climate infrastructure and jobs program. While Joe Biden may not have embraced the label climate mandate, if he truly “believes in science”, the US will need to transition to a renewable economy. For a climate Left that tied themselves to Biden in order to defeat Trump and fight another day, their time to fight has come.