(Bloomberg) — When Joe Biden released his climate plan last week, the Democratic candidate for president emphasized one overarching goal—and it wasn’t the reduction of greenhouse gases. Instead, he unequivocally linked broad climate action to employment.“When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax,’” Biden said in a speech unveiling the plan. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs.’” His proposal aims to create 1 million openings in the auto sector, in part by investing in electric vehicle charging, plus another 1 million positions retrofitting homes for energy efficiency and weather resilience. The word “union” appears 32 times in the plan’s 15-page outline.
A campaign promise is not policy, but the rhetoric and substance of Biden’s proposal represented two noteworthy developments. As a candidate, he’s signaling a bigger commitment to addressing climate change through policies targeting racial and economic inequality. At the same time, Biden is moving away from the discussion of climate change as a purely scientific problem.
The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led progressive climate group, took credit for the former part of the plan on Twitter. “Before the #GreenNewDeal, @TheDemocrats tip-toed around the climate crisis, buying into the GOP lie that we had to choose between good jobs & our environment,” the organization posted. “Now, everyone knows that acting on climate change is the biggest jobs & economic opportunity in history. We did that.”
The plan’s headline goals include a 100% carbon-free electrical grid by 2035 brought about by $2 trillion in climate-related spending over the next four years. Communities disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate change would benefit from 40% of the spending. These include many largely non-White communities, which experience higher rates of pollution-linked health problems such as asthma and lead poisoning and also tend to be more vulnerable to climate phenomena such as rising sea levels.
Biden isn’t the first American politician to link climate and jobs—in 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama pledged to create 5 million “green collar” jobs in the next decade—but the extent of the emphasis on employment is refreshing for many in the climate justice movement. “One of the critiques of the way many White organizations discuss climate change is that it is all technocratic, not something that the public can readily grasp or feel it’s relevant,” says Peggy Shepard, executive director of We Act, a Harlem-based non-profit environmental justice advocacy group, who said she was one of the many consulted by the Biden team. That approach to climate, as she sees it, can lead to narrow questions: “What can the average person do about reducing carbon by a certain percentage by a certain year?”
By emphasizing policies that address racial and economic equity, Biden’s plan takes an approach to climate that goes beyond market-driven solutions. There’s no mention of a carbon tax, for instance. And while the proposal does emphasize business-oriented priorities such as putting the country in a position to manufacture nascent technologies such as carbon capture and green hydrogen, a related social justice-centric plan also outlines the creation of a White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and aims to “target resources in a way that is consistent with prioritization of environmental and climate justice.” (Michael R. Bloomberg, founder and majority shareholder of Bloomberg News parent company Bloomberg LP, wrote an editorial in support of the plan.)
Biden has long been popular among Black voters, in no small part because he served as vice president under the first African-American president. His long legislative record came under fire in primaries, however, particularly his one-time collaboration with segregationist lawmakers in the Senate and support of the 1994 crime bill that led to mass incarceration. Some civil-rights activists continue to criticize his rejection of efforts to defund the police.
There’s a clear gap in Biden’s support between older and younger Black voters. An analysis by the non-partisan Democracy Fund and UCLA’s Nationscape project published in the Washington Post in May found that while 91% of Black voters aged 65 and up said they planned to vote for Biden, only 68% of Black voters aged 18 to 29 said the same. That’s less than the 85% of young Black voter support Hillary Clinton drew in 2016.
Maria Langholtz, a spokesperson for the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said in a statement that the Biden climate plan had to speak to these voters. “Younger generations need to know the next president will treat the climate crisis with the urgency it requires—and that a clean energy future will include good-paying union jobs and a real commitment to racial justice.”
Climate is an area where Black voters register consistently more concern than White voters. The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication has found that 69% Latino voters and 57% of Black voters describe themselves as “alarmed” or “concerned” about global warming, while only 49% of white voters do. Whites are also more likely to be dismissive of climate change than Blacks or Latinos.
Data for Progress, a progressive think tank whose 2018 climate plan maps closely to the blueprint released by the Biden campaign, released polling data last week on voters under 45 who identify as Black or African-American. The numbers show that the majority had heard at least something about Biden’s climate plans, and that most said provisions supporting social-justice initiatives as well as public investments in infrastructure projects to create union jobs made them at least somewhat more likely to vote for him.
The plan takes pains to convince those who worry phasing out fossil fuels from the U.S. power grid will create economic devastation, says Sean McElwee, co-founder of Data for Progress. “That is a pretty dramatic shift,” he says. “This is a way to talk about climate change to blue collar voters so that it doesn’t seem like a liberal academic exercise to take away their jobs.”
Jake Sullivan, a senior policy advisor to Biden, said the plan succeeded in something that is very tough: uniting many very diverse constituencies that don’t always agree. Its pretty good to get “the AFL-CIO and the United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, as well as the League of Conservation Voters and Sierra Club and other environmental groups to come out and say it is great,” he said.
An emphasis on jobs in some cases may have overshadowed policies favored by climate activists. Joseph Majkut, who directs climate policy at the non-partisan Niskanen Center think tank, notes Biden’s support for continued exports of natural gas. Biden has also declined to support a total ban on fracking, a wedge issue for many voters in swing states such as Ohio and Pennsylvania, and indicated that he sees a role for coal in the energy economy of the future. (Biden has said he opposes new fracking leases on public lands.)
Still, environmental groups such as the the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund greeted the plan favorably. Bill McKibben, founder of the grassroots advocacy organization to limit greenhouses gases in the atmosphere 350.org, acknowledges the plan is doesn’t explicitly condemn fossil fuels but says there’s no need for climate-concerned voters to worry. “The fossil fuel industry has been weakened enough by activism and by the competition from renewables that by the time Biden takes office it will be a much smaller political force than it’s been in the past,” he says. “Hence he’ll have a much freer hand to be bold.”
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