Memo: Joe Biden’s Mandate for Climate Action

© 2019 Gage Skidmore/Flickr cc by SA 2.0

The 2020 presidential election presented a stark contrast between former Vice President Joe Biden and President Donald Trump on every imaginable issue — but most notably on the climate crisis.

While Donald Trump’s closing message centered his support for fossil fuel polluters, the roll back bedrock environmental protections, and abdication American climate leadership on the international stage, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris ran — and won — on the boldest presidential climate plan in history. And tonight, Joe Biden declared a mandate to act on it.

2020 was more of a climate election than any other in American history, and more Americans cited climate change among their top voting issues in 2020 than ever before. Driven by this drumbeat of public support, questions about climate change were asked in every general election debate for the first time, ever. And against the backdrop of destructive climate disasters, from historic wildfires in the West to devastating hurricanes in the Southeast, voters chose Biden and bold climate action. With nearly 70 million votes so far counted in his favor, Biden has already won more votes for any presidential candidate in U.S. history.

Biden’s victory was ultimately a mandate for climate solutions and a clean energy transition. As president, Biden must act on his climate mandate by any means necessary — using the powers of the executive branch to advance popular, common-sense solutions for people and the planet, while also pushing for the most ambitious legislation possible.

Biden Ran on Bold Climate Action, and Voters Responded

Biden’s victory should be credited, in part, to the fact that climate action — and his Standards-Investments-Justice agenda to fight the climate crisis — is widely popular, and was a key factor motivating Democratic voters. 3 out of every 4 Biden voters said climate change was “very important” to their vote.

Trump’s fossil-fueled platform did not convince the majority of Americans: even Fox News’ exit polls showed that 68% of voters support increasing federal government spending on green and renewable investments.

Joe Biden, by contrast, campaigned on the promise of tackling the climate crisis by investing in an equitable clean economy, standing up for environmental justice, and creating millions of good, union jobs along the way.

In the final weeks of the campaign, Biden released climate-focused ads in two narrow swing states that were ultimately critical to his Electoral College path: One ad focused on a family concerned about the impacts of climate change on their cherry farm aired in Michigan, and another featured a wildland firefighter in Arizona connecting increasingly destructive fires with the climate crisis.

Stills from Joe Biden’s climate change ads aired in Michigan and Arizona

Biden’s closing ads also targeted young voters, who consistently cite climate change as a top issue. Exit polls show Biden’s emphasis on bold climate action paid off with young people: this year, Millennials and Gen Z posted record turnout numbers, and voters under 30 supported Biden by 27 points — an 8-point increase over their support for Clinton in 2016.

Key Democratic voting blocs, such as young, Latinx, and African American voters, are strongly motivated by the need for bold climate action, and Biden’s margins among them were critical to his leads in crucial states such as Arizona, Michigan, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

While voters of color broadly broke for Biden, the room for improvement across the Southeast and Southwest implies that a Biden administration can improve future Democratic chances among African Americans and Latinx voters by strongly delivering on their mandate for climate action and climate justice. A majority of all voters want action on environmental justice, and support efforts to protect and drive investments toward communities on the frontlines of pollution and climate impacts — much like the goals outlined in Biden’s plans.

The Historic Ambition of Biden’s Climate Plan

Biden’s climate plans were unprecedented in their scope, ambition, and urgency. The comparison to candidates’ 2016 plans is significant: Hillary Clinton’s 2016 plan had a marquee goal of reducing carbon emissions 80% from 2005 levels by 2050, while Bernie Sanders’s plan that year called for an 80% reduction from 1990 levels on the same timeline. Biden’s 2050 goal, by contrast: net-zero emissions, economy-wide.

Progressive think tank Data for Progress scored the climate plans of every candidate in both the 2016 and 2020 Democratic primaries, and found that in just four years, the entire Democratic field had ramped up their ambition on cutting carbon emissions, investing in clean energy jobs, and fighting for environmental justice.

In short: after winning the Democratic nomination, Biden released a climate plan that set the bar higher than any past nominee. Its ambition can be measured in 3 numbers: 2035, $2 trillion, and 40%. The plan sets a standard for fully decarbonizing electricity by 2035 (and the whole economy by 2050), will invest $2 trillion in jumpstarting the clean economy, and will direct 40% of all green investments to communities on the frontlines of environmental injustice.

© 2020 Gage Skidmore/Flickr cc by SA 2.0

Inside Biden’s Standards, Investments, and Justice Agenda

In developing his plan, Biden listened to grassroots advocates, frontline community organizers, workers and labor leaders, policy experts, and some of his primary campaign rivals. Biden’s ultimate platform embraced a bold and necessary framework of Standards, Investments, and Justice to lessen the impacts of climate disasters, invest in vulnerable communities, and create millions of good jobs in the process.

Standards

Preventing the most catastrophic impacts of climate change will require establishing ambitious sector-specific standards to cut carbon emissions on clearly defined timelines.

While Donald Trump campaigned (and governed) on rolling back existing environmental standards, Biden called for setting new ones designed to slash carbon emissions and protect a livable climate. Crucially, a Biden administration can use executive action to set a range of standards to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy — even without Congressional action.

Some of the most notable standards in the Biden plan include:

  • 100% clean electricity by 2035
  • Zero-carbon buses by 2030 and aggressive fuel economy standards for all vehicles
  • Upgrading 4 million buildings and weatherizing 2 million homes in the first four years of his administration
  • A net-zero goal for all new commercial buildings by 2030

The Biden plan includes a new gold standard for the clean energy transition: his proposed Energy Efficiency and Clean Electricity Standard would push the electric power sector to be fully carbon-pollution free by 2035. Clean electricity standards are increasingly the law of the land at the state level: 13 states, plus D.C. and Puerto Rico, have committed to achieving 100% clean electricity targets through legislation or executive order, and that 1 in 3 Americans live in a state or city with a 100% clean target. Biden’s plan takes that momentum even farther: a target of a zero-carbon power sector by 2035 is a more ambitious deadline than any existing state or local policies.

Biden’s plan also set a groundbreaking standard for all new commercial buildings to be carbon-free by 2030. In addition, since operations of existing buildings account for a sizable 28% of carbon emissions worldwide, Biden’s plan includes standards to upgrade 4 million buildings and weatherize 2 million homes in order to improve energy efficiency, cut carbon, and create an estimated 1 million jobs. Once again, the scope of this effort is historic: the Obama administration set modest energy efficiency standards for buildings, representing the boldest federal action to decarbonize the building sector at the time — but Biden’s zero-carbon buildings and retrofitting commitments represent a remarkable scaling up of climate ambition compared to years past.

In addition, the plan also pledges to slash transportation emissions by including deadlines for all new buses to be zero-emissions by 2030, as well as new fuel economy standards to drive the transition to all-new carbon-free cars. Biden’s platform also included new standards for greening the federal government’s fleet procurement expenditures, pledging that new vehicles purchased by the government be both “clean” and American-made. After the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back Obama-era fuel economy standards, Biden’s commitments to clean cars and buses would reverse course and put the transportation sector on a fast track toward total decarbonization — while re-establishing the American auto industry as a global leader, this time in manufacturing clean cars.

Crucially, a Biden administration can use executive action to set a range of standards to accelerate the transition to a clean energy economy — even without Congressional action. Using existing authority under the Clean Air Act, and other statutes, Biden will be able to set stringent greenhouse gas pollution standards for new and existing power plants, implement rigorous new vehicle tailpipe and fuel economy standards to fulfill his commitment to transition to 100% new sales of electric and zero-emission vehicles, and reduce greenhouse gas pollution from buildings while also saving consumers money, with strong building and appliance efficiency standards. And, he can leverage the government’s massive procurement budget to drive low-carbon infrastructure and manufacturing.

Investments

The president-elect’s platform also relies on robust public and private investments to build 21st-century green infrastructure, support state and local climate leadership, and spur the creation of millions of living-wage, union jobs across the country to build the clean, fair economy that science and justice demand.

Americans are still suffering from the public health and economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic. Regardless of the balance of power in Congress, millions of people still need a stimulus package that will rebuild the economy and protect the vulnerable — and that economic recovery can, and must, be a green one.

To that end, Biden pledged to invest $2 trillion in jumpstarting a clean economy, with commitments including:

  • Building green, modern, resilient infrastructure
  • Retrofitting existing buildings and building energy-efficient, fully electrified new ones
  • Restoring landscapes harmed by pollution
  • Expanding green public transit and kickstarting the American leadership in building the clean cars of the future
  • Supporting the research and development of cost-effective clean energy technologies to be rapidly deployed on a national scale. Biden’s promised investment in clean energy innovation would be “on a scale well beyond the Apollo space program.”

These historic investments in every sector of the economy would create millions of jobs — a critical jumpstart for an economy still devastated by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. And, with the support of labor leaders, Biden has also called for labor standards to ensure that the jobs created by his clean economy investments will be unionized and pay a living wage.

Biden has also called for establishing a Civilian Climate Corps: a New Deal-inspired 21st-century service program that will put “a new, diverse generation of patriotic Americans back to work conserving our public lands, bolstering community resilience, and addressing the changing climate, while putting good-paying union jobs within reach for more Americans.”

A Climate Corps is one of the most popular proposals in Biden’s climate plan, with polls showing majority support from both Democrats and Republicans. And with millions still out of work, the program could provide much-needed economic relief while also accelerating the transition to a green economy that science and justice demand.

Justice

Crucially, Biden made justice and equity a clear priority in his plans for climate action and building a clean economy.

President-elect Biden will ensure that 40% of all investments in clean energy, sustainable housing, pollution cleanup, and job training are directed to communities that have historically borne the brunt of systemic racism, economic disenfranchisement, and environmental injustice.

To help the government direct those investments, Biden also called for the development of a “Climate and Economic Justice Screening Tool” that would map the overlapping impacts of pollution, climate impacts, poverty, and racial inequality. Such a cumulative impacts tool could be created through executive action.

Meaningful policy action on environmental justice has been long overdue. The Trump administration made repeated attempts to eliminate the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, established under the Clinton administration but already chronically underfunded.

Biden, by contrast, has backed up his environmental justice pledges with actionable goals and specific tools to ensure that impacts are well-understood, resources are directed to marginalized communities, and frontline leaders have a seat at the decision-making table. He also pushed for integrating environmental justice more actively into work across agencies beyond EPA, with proposals to establish a new Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice and an Office of Climate Change and Health Equity in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Presidents Clinton and Obama used the power of the White House to push federal agencies to prioritize environmental justice. Biden should follow their precedent by using the power of executive action to achieve his environmental justice goals, including developing an equity mapping tool, strengthening and establishing federal offices focused on climate and economic justice, and directing federal agency resources toward marginalized communities.

These historic commitments to environmental justice originated from grassroots leaders who have been organizing and demanding action for years. In developing his plans, Biden made it clear he was willing to listen to them.

Biden’s Mandate to Act on Climate

Biden’s campaign climate plans evoke transformative investments, aggressive standards, and a foundational commitment to justice for frontline communities. Those plans evolved from deep listening and collaboration with grassroots climate justice advocates, clean energy experts, and even the president-elect’s primary election rivals. The result was a more ambitious commitment to climate action than any presidential platform in American history.

Now, voters have given Biden and Harris a mandate — and it’s time for their administration to govern by making their climate plans a reality, starting on Day One.

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