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Joe Biden Pays Lip Service to Climate But Has Fallen Short on Action

If Biden is nominated, climate activists will face the challenge of persuading a moderate to do a revolutionary’s work.

Former Vice President Joe Biden walks to a stage to give a speech during the Polk County Steak Fry at the Water Works Park in Des Moines, Iowa, on September 21, 2019.

As Joe Biden’s chances of clinching the Democratic nomination continue to rise, environmentalists are absorbing the possibility that they may eventually be faced with the challenge of trying to exert pressure on a nominee with deep ties to the fossil fuel industry.

Though awareness of the climate crisis among the public has reached a high, voters have failed to notice the meaningful differences between Biden and Bernie Sanders on climate policy. According to Washington Post exit polls, 34 percent of Super Tuesday voters who rated climate as a top issue voted for Biden, whereas 28 percent voted for Bernie Sanders.

Voters “are hearing a similar message from the candidates, even if their plans are different,” E&E News reported. That makes sense — both candidates refer to the crisis as “existential,” and Biden’s campaign has even admitted to plagiarizing environmental organizations in his climate plan.

But as voters do more research about the candidates’ climate positions, they may begin to understand why many environmental activists are alarmed about the likely environmental setbacks that would occur if Sanders drops out and Biden becomes the nominee.

For one, Biden’s close relationship with the oil and gas industry is troubling at best. One of the most harmful things a politician can do for the climate is to get cozy with the fossil fuel industry — the more anti-environmental policy a politician passes, a recent study found, the more the money flows from oil and gas. Though Biden has pledged not to take money from fossil fuel or corporate interests, one of his PACs, American Possibilities, did just that in support of his campaign. Last September, he attended a fundraiser hosted by a natural gas company founder named Andrew Goldman. When questioned about it, he claimed that he wasn’t aware of Goldman’s fossil fuel ties — though, even if that were true, it’s alarming that a presidential candidate would apparently join forces with a fossil fuel executive unknowingly.

His campaign has also made hires with ties to oil and gas: Heather Zichal, a former Obama aide who has earned over a million dollars from natural gas and worked to expand oil and gas development; and Anita Dunn, whose PR firm represents oil and gas clients, such as TransCanada, the owner of the Keystone XL Pipeline.

Zichal, Biden’s climate adviser, has drawn some ire from the press. Dunn, however, has received little press attention and was elevated last month to a senior position on the campaign, according to The New York Times. They are just two of the several oil and gas hires that Biden has made in the past and on this campaign trail.

When a Sunrise Movement activist asked Biden about Zichal, Biden told the activist to “just look at my record” on climate, a common retort he’s used on the campaign trail. But his record on the environment is sparse. Something his campaign often raises is that he introduced the first climate legislation back in 1986 — the Global Climate Protection Act. Had it passed, this legislation would have established a governmental climate task force that Grist likened to Nancy Pelosi’s Select Committee on the Climate Crisis — Pelosi’s moderate answer to the Green New Deal that, in its year of existence, has not produced a single piece of carbon-cutting legislation. Perhaps, in 1986, such a group would have made a difference. Even so, introducing a single piece of failed legislation isn’t exactly the bombshell you’d expect from someone who keeps pointing to his record.

The Global Climate Protection Act was the first and last climate change legislation that Biden introduced in his 36 years in the Senate. Since then, he supported some carbon-cutting measures like fuel efficiency measures for cars. But he also missed the vote for the 2008 Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which was, at the time, “the strongest global warming bill ever to make it to the Senate floor,” according to Time. When the bill failed, Sen. Barbara Boxer said the bill’s journey would be “a road map [for] the next President, so he knows where are the consensus areas and where are the difficult areas.” That next president was Barack Obama.

Infamous in the climate community is Obama’s “all-of-the-above” approach to energy policy, which meant that, while expanding renewable and clean energies, his administration also expanded what it described as “safe and responsible” oil and gas exploration. Obama’s presidency is the closest analogy we have to what a Biden presidency would look like — and under Obama, the U.S. experienced the largest oil boom in American history, a boom with such momentum that it’s spilled over well into Trump’s presidency.

To his credit, Obama also implemented a $90 billion investment into clean energy, joined the Paris Climate Agreement, and introduced the now-defunct Clean Power Plan. But these initiatives, while important, only make up a small piece of the climate puzzle. On the campaign trail, Biden has continually promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement — a move that has very little meaning, considering the agreement is nonbinding — and has claimed that he had a major hand in negotiating the agreement when he served as vice president. However, former Biden advisers have no recollection of this happening, per E&E News.

The final nail in the coffin for environmental policy from the Obama-Biden era, however, doesn’t have anything to do with climate at all. For any robust climate policy to pass and be implemented, the country will need Democrats packed not only in Congress, but likely also in state and local governance. And, during Obama’s presidency, Democrats lost over 900 downstream seats, leading to, as NPR pointed out, the least number of Democrats in office since the 1920s.

When the news of this broke in 2015, pundits used past elections to chalk up these losses to complacency and bad luck. But in an era of Trump, there is little that can be tracked with political normalcy. Following the pattern of the party of the president losing downstream, Republicans have also lost a significant number of seats under Trump; but losing Democratic leaders is unaffordable for the climate in the upcoming years.

Biden has acknowledged, strategically, that what’s needed is a “green revolution,” but his current climate plan has been deemed less than revolutionary by climate groups. For example, his climate plan got a B from Greenpeace but an F from the more radical Sunrise Movement, whose scorecard included not only consideration of candidates’ climate visions but also their “plan to win” the political power to pass climate plans. This is the same plan that plagiarized supposed environmental groups like the fossil-fuel backed BlueGreen Alliance and Carbon Capture Coalition.

When the climate plan came out, green group after green group slammed it for its inadequacy. A Greenpeace senior organizer praised the step forward for Biden but said that “this plan does not do nearly enough.”

His weakness on climate also shows in his stance against an immediate fracking ban (a proposal on which Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have introduced a bill), despite the fact that fracking releases methane, a greenhouse gas that is as much as 86 times more potent than carbon dioxide at warming the atmosphere. Continuing fracking is just maintenance of the status quo — which is currently unsustainable.

It’s true that a climate plan calling for dramatic emissions reduction is a step forward from the current denier-in-chief. But climate action has been so forestalled that an unprecedented overhaul of the country’s entire energy infrastructure is not only revolutionary, it’s necessary.

Biden’s campaign and other establishment Democrats have been attempting to frame Biden as the practical choice — while Sanders couldn’t pass drastic policies, which are what workers and marginalized people in the country need, Biden could get more moderate policies passed, they say. But Democratic downstream losses suggest otherwise, and moderate policies are no match for a climate apathetic to the fact that, for whatever reason, establishment Democrats are imprisoned by the farce of compromise. In contrast, Sanders inspired thousands of progressives to run for office during his 2016 campaign, and has led a movement that many never thought was possible.

To counter this, Biden’s campaign is trying to paint him as the candidate who could bring about change. But, behind closed doors, Biden has reassured high-dollar donors that “nothing would fundamentally change” if he were elected. When a Sunrise activist pushed him about his fracking position, he replied, “you oughta vote for someone else.” Rejecting change and refusing to listen to the electorate on climate are stances that mainline Democrats have held for years, as shown in recent years by people like Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Pelosi waving away Sunrise activists who were demanding a Green New Deal.

The establishment has delayed action to the point where dire action is needed. If Biden goes on to become the Democratic nominee in this moment of unprecedented and unpredictable climate crisis, environmental activists will face the challenging situation of trying to persuade a moderate to do a revolutionary’s work.

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