On Tuesday, former Vice President Joe Biden did something unprecedented for a Democratic candidate assured of nomination: he moved left. In a speech delivered from Wilmington in his home state of Delaware, Biden unveiled the most ambitious clean energy and environmental justice plans ever proposed by the nominee of a major American political party. The plans, which the Biden campaign described to reporters as “the legislation he goes up to [Capitol Hill] immediately to get done,” outline $2tn in investments in clean energy, jobs and infrastructure that would be carried out over the four years of his first term. Forty percent of these investments would be directed to communities of color living on the toxic edge of the fossil fuel economy—communities that have also been among the most devastated by the coronavirus pandemic. Biden proposes to pair these investments with new performance standards, most notably a clean electricity standard that would transition the United States to a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035.
Part of Biden’s “Build Back Better” agenda, these plans are a Green New Deal in all but name. If you set aside the most attention-grabbing left-wing programs included in New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s 2019 Green New Deal resolution, like Medicare for All and a federal job guarantee, Biden’s plans broadly align with an approach advocated by the left-wing of the Democratic party. Firstly, like the Green New Deal, Biden’s plans reframe climate action as a jobs, infrastructure and clean energy stimulus. After three decades of economic elites failing to pitch a carbon tax as a solution to the supposed “market failure” of greenhouse gas emissions, Biden has elected to focus instead on economy-wide performance standards as the cutting edge of decarbonization. And while earlier generations of Democrats wanted consumers to foot the bill for that clean energy transition at the gas pump, a position shared by Milton Friedman, Biden takes Keynes and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as his intellectual and political forebears. Perhaps most encouragingly, Biden views the workers, unions and communities of color most impacted by the fossil fuel economy and the potential shift away from it as deserving special attention. In his view, climate action cannot be separated from economic, environmental and social justice.
This is, in the broadest strokes, the climate policy gospel according to many progressives. Biden’s plans draw upon the Green New Deal-inflected recommendations issued by the joint taskforce convened by surrogates of the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns, including Ocasio-Cortez. They also crib heavily from plans devised by Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s climate-focused presidential campaign and are delightfully similar to policies drafted by Data for Progress, an upstart left-wing think tank where I work. (Full disclosure: we provided research and recommendations to the joint taskforce and campaign.) Now, Biden would be wise to run on these ideas and staff up his administration to make them happen.
Over recent months, public opinion research from Data for Progress has shown that climate change is a uniquely favorable general election issue for Biden and Democrats. When it comes to climate and clean energy priorities, voters trust the Democratic party more than the Republican party by an 18% margin. Climate change is a strong mobilization issue for the young voters Biden has struggled to attract to his campaign.
In a May survey, 61% of voters under 45 said they would be more likely to vote for Biden if he committed to a platform that would move the United States to a 100% clean energy economy, with just 14% reporting that such a platform would make them less likely to support the Democratic nominee. A more recent survey fielded in late June by Climate Power, the Global Strategies Group and Data for Progress found that bold climate action was also persuasive for middle-of-the-road and Latino voters. Even after survey respondents were shown strong messaging attacks from Trump and Republicans claiming that Democrats wanted to pass a $100tn Green New Deal that would increase taxes—as well as more outlandish arguments that Democrats were going to take away hamburgers, pickup trucks and airplanes—voters moved even further in Democrats’ direction. Middle partisans shifted 2 percentage points further in favor of Biden, while Latinos leaned a further 4 points towards the former Vice President.
These findings show that one of Trump and Republicans’ favorite act: that ‘Venezuela-style socialists are going to take away the American way of life’—doesn’t work. In fact, an analysis of the 2019 Cooperative Congressional Election Study published by Data for Progress found that 2016 Trump voters who are unsure how they will vote in 2020 are uniquely cross-pressured on climate issues. They view climate change as being much more important than other 2016 Trump voters and side with Biden and Democrats on key policy issues, like the Paris Climate Agreement and Clean Power Plan. Crucially, they also tend to be young, meaning that if Democrats can attract these voters in 2020, they could grow their base for years to come.
As Biden prepares for election day in November, he would be wise to run on his Green New Deal-style climate plan. And if he wins—which polls suggest he will—he’s going to need to staff up to turn these campaign promises into laws. Here, activists still have a lot of leverage. The most recent polling from Data for Progress shows that 44% of voters would be more likely to support a candidate who doesn’t take money from fossil fuel companies, executives and lobbyists and that 49% would be opposed to industry representatives receiving appointments to government agencies and the White House.
These are strange and scary times. The pandemic has laid bare some of the most devastating and brutal flaws of our corrupt president and our nakedly capitalist society. The coronavirus has skewed the electorate in favor of the Democrats, but the terrifying scale of the three-pronged crisis of pandemic, unemployment and climate change has tilted the party’s response even further in favor of its left-wing. Biden rode a wave of establishment endorsements to the nomination this spring. But come fall, it’s progressive ideas that just might carry him and his party to the presidency.