Hold the Applause. Biden’s Climate Plan Is Mostly Fluff.

Biden avoids taking on the fossil fuel industry by relying on vague promises and unproven technologies.

Dayton MartindaleJune 5, 2019

Joe Biden wants you to think he's serious about climate change, but his plan leaves much to be desired. (Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

When I first skimmed the sec­tion head­ers of Joe Biden’s cli­mate plan on Tues­day, my eyes gloss­ing past most of the details, I came away cau­tious­ly opti­mistic. While I wished his goals were more ambi­tious, I was heart­ened to see even a rel­a­tive mod­er­ate like Biden call­ing for an end to fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies, a vast expan­sion of pro­tect­ed lands and $1.7 tril­lion in cli­mate invest­ment over the next 10 years. That seemed like a win.

Biden’s plan is a gamble, plunging us into the torrent and betting on carbon capture to stabilize the climate—and the fossil fuel industry.

Lat­er in the after­noon, how­ev­er, I took the time to read the whole thing more close­ly, and my opti­mism turned to dis­ap­point­ment. The 10,000-word plan cov­ers a lot of ground — includ­ing some­what arbi­trary for­ays into the sci­ence of the green­house effect, Biden’s record, and steps already tak­en by city and state gov­ern­ments to address cli­mate change — giv­ing the appear­ance of a mon­u­men­tal doc­u­ment. But once you look beneath the puff, it becomes clear the plan is not ground­ed in robust pro­pos­als, and the sub­stance is remark­ably flim­sy. His good ideas (like end­ing sub­si­dies) are most­ly shared by the rest of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic field; he puts undue faith in new tech­nolo­gies, hop­ing they can save us with­out hav­ing to direct­ly con­front the fos­sil fuel indus­try; and the reg­u­la­tions he sug­gests are gen­er­al­ly either mild or tooth­less — like­ly not enough to achieve his stat­ed goals, them­selves insuf­fi­cient to stem the crisis.

Lack of speci­fici­ty is not, in itself, dis­qual­i­fy­ing. The Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion, as intro­duced in Con­gress by Rep. Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez (D‑N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D‑Mass.), is much more a state­ment of goals and prin­ci­ples than an actu­al plan. Any com­pre­hen­sive cli­mate plan will ulti­mate­ly require input from Con­gress, and from envi­ron­men­tal, labor and com­mu­ni­ty orga­ni­za­tions; the pres­i­dent won’t and shouldn’t write the whole thing on their own. But Biden’s goals leave much to be desired, and many of the solu­tions he does pro­pose are either woe­ful­ly insuf­fi­cient, doomed to fail­ure or both. The Green New Deal begins to sketch out a gen­uine eco­nom­ic trans­for­ma­tion; Biden’s plan seems designed to sal­vage the sta­tus quo. While cli­mate activists and sci­en­tists are increas­ing­ly doubt­ful that mod­est mar­ket-based actions can reduce emis­sions at the speed we need, Biden is try­ing sell such a mod­er­ate approach to the public.

A Green New Deal?

In the last month, Joe Biden has tak­en a lot of heat on cli­mate change. On May 10, Reuters report­ed that Biden cli­mate advis­er Heather Zichal — for­mer­ly on the board of a nat­ur­al gas com­pa­ny — said the cam­paign was search­ing for a mid­dle ground” on cli­mate change. Envi­ron­men­tal orga­ni­za­tions pum­meled Biden over this com­pro­mise strat­e­gy, and Bernie Sanders turned “#NoMid­dle­Ground” into a hash­tag. Then Green­peace gave Biden a D‑minus in its can­di­date score­card released May 30, nar­row­ly edg­ing out John Hick­en­loop­er to place 18th out of 19 Dems. And in a June 3 Wash­ing­ton Postarti­cle sur­vey­ing the Demo­c­ra­t­ic can­di­dates on cli­mate pol­i­cy, Biden was cit­ed as the only one with­out a stance on the Green New Deal, declin­ing to answer any of the Posts ques­tions.

In his new plan, some of this appears to change. He calls the Green New Deal a cru­cial frame­work,” and says that his plan shares two impor­tant prin­ci­ples with the GND: “(1) the Unit­ed States urgent­ly needs to embrace greater ambi­tion on an epic scale to meet the scope of this chal­lenge, and (2) our envi­ron­ment and our econ­o­my are com­plete­ly and total­ly connected.”

Oth­er such rad­i­cal-sound­ing rhetoric pep­pers the plan, includ­ing an explic­it call to go well beyond the Oba­ma-Biden Admin­is­tra­tion plat­form.” To hear this from an estab­lish­ment-backed fron­trun­ner looks like progress. The Sun­rise Move­ment, a youth-led cli­mate group that has been advo­cat­ing a Green New Deal, claimed vic­to­ry in a press release — We forced [the Biden cam­paign] to back­track and today, he put out a com­pre­hen­sive cli­mate plan” — and Green­peace upped his grade to a B, putting him in a more respectable sev­enth place.

The prob­lem is, Biden’s plan doesn’t actu­al­ly endorse the Green New Deal. While prais­ing its spir­it, he sets a goal that is notably less ambi­tious: net-zero emis­sions by 2050, a goal shared by Beto O’Rourke. (The Green New Deal calls for a 10-year mobi­liza­tion” to achieve zero-emis­sions elec­tric­i­ty, and to get as close to zero in oth­er sec­tors as tech­no­log­i­cal­ly fea­si­ble.”) He also steers clear of some of the Green New Deal’s more ambi­tious com­po­nents, such as a jobs guarantee.

Worse, the plan is com­pre­hen­sive” only in the most super­fi­cial sense. It is true that it is long, that it includes many facts about cli­mate change, and that it at least briefly address­es near­ly every high-emit­ting sec­tor — includ­ing oft-over­looked sec­tors such as ship­ping, cement and steel. But, despite a few spe­cif­ic ideas scat­tered here and there, his pro­pos­als tend to be vague at best, and the whole thing is slop­pi­ly put together.

Wait­ing for car­bon capture

To under­stand the oper­at­ing log­ic behind Biden’s plan, you have to scroll down about a third of the way in the orig­i­nal ver­sion, to a sen­tence that appar­ent­ly was pla­gia­rized: Car­bon cap­ture, use, and stor­age (CCUS) is a rapid­ly grow­ing tech­nol­o­gy that has the poten­tial to cre­ate eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits for mul­ti­ple indus­tries while sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduc­ing car­bon diox­ide emis­sions.” (After this and oth­er instances of pla­gia­rism made head­lines, the plan now cred­its the Blue­Green Alliance for this quote.)

CCUS means suck­ing car­bon diox­ide — either out of the air or out of a pow­er plant — and then either using it or stor­ing it some­where. Most UN pro­jec­tions incor­po­rate some amount of CCUS in their pre­dict­ed futures; we can buy our­selves more time to decar­bonize, they assure us, if we can fig­ure out neg­a­tive emis­sions. The eco­nom­ic ben­e­fits for mul­ti­ple indus­tries” Biden men­tions would like­ly include extend­ing the life of the fos­sil fuel indus­try through cap­tur­ing (or promis­ing to even­tu­al­ly cap­ture) its emis­sions. The prob­lem is, CCUS tech­nolo­gies are expen­sive, do not yet exist at scale and poten­tial­ly would not all even work at scale.

There is good-faith debate among pro­gres­sives over whether the tech­nol­o­gy mer­its fur­ther research. Some say to drop it alto­geth­er: It only encour­ages fur­ther fos­sil fuel use, they argue, and cer­tain vari­eties of CCUS would require pro­hib­i­tive amounts of land. But even among pro­po­nents of fur­ther research — such as cli­mate sci­en­tists Kevin Ander­son and Glen Peters — few pro­gres­sives think we should plan on this tech com­ing through.

Neg­a­tive-emis­sion tech­nolo­gies are … an unjust and high-stakes gam­ble,” Ander­son and Peters wrote in Sci­ence. The mit­i­ga­tion agen­da should pro­ceed on the premise that they will not work at scale.” To do oth­er­wise, they wrote, would be like let­ting some­one jump into a rag­ing tor­rent, and telling them that we may be able to save them with a tech­nol­o­gy that we have not yet developed.”

With­out exten­sive use of CCUS, the world would need to reach net-zero emis­sions by 2050 for 50/50 shot at keep­ing tem­per­a­ture increase to 1.5 degrees Cel­sius (2.7 degrees Fahren­heit). Biden calls on the Unit­ed States to lead through the pow­er of exam­ple” by achiev­ing net-zero emis­sions no lat­er than 2050here at home” [empha­sis mine].

Biden does not seem to expect the whole world to reach net-zero by 2050. Biden’s plan, then, is a gam­ble, plung­ing us into the tor­rent and bet­ting on CCUS to sta­bi­lize the cli­mate — and the fos­sil fuel industry.

This tech­no­log­i­cal opti­mism per­me­ates the plan. One of the more sub­stan­tive pro­pos­als is to estab­lish an Advanced Research Projects Agency focused on cli­mate (ARPA‑C), meant to pur­sue not only CCUS but every­thing from clean refrig­er­a­tion to new and improved nuclear reac­tors to alter­na­tive con­struc­tion mate­ri­als to improved bio­fu­els for air­planes and ships. It’s not that I nec­es­sar­i­ly oppose any of this research — some of it is cru­cial.

But for Biden, this research is the cen­ter­piece: In his plan, it will allow us to con­tin­ue with busi­ness as usu­al with­out any major chal­lenge to indus­try or changes in our eco­nom­ic and social lives. In oth­er words, Biden bets the farm on what is fun­da­men­tal­ly unknown. We don’t have time to keep wait­ing for future tech­nol­o­gy; we need to start act­ing imme­di­ate­ly to trans­form elec­tric­i­ty, trans­porta­tion, agri­cul­ture, man­u­fac­tur­ing and more.

Giv­ing fos­sil fuels a pass

One might argue I’m being unfair to Biden — research and inno­va­tion are only part of his plan to build a domes­tic clean-ener­gy econ­o­my. There are also calls for tax cred­its to incen­tivize clean ener­gy; a com­mit­ment to end fos­sil fuel sub­si­dies; and pro­posed exec­u­tive orders on reg­u­lat­ing methane emis­sions, improv­ing fuel effi­cien­cy stan­dards and cre­at­ing new nation­al parks. All of this, how­ev­er, has become stan­dard fare for Democ­rats: Biden per­haps deserves cred­it for shift­ing some with the times, but move­ments are to thank for trans­form­ing the debate, and oth­er lead­ing can­di­dates are as strong or stronger.

Crit­i­cal to Biden’s plan is con­gres­sion­al action to cre­ate an enforce­ment mech­a­nism to achieve the 2050 [100% net-zero emis­sions] goal, includ­ing a tar­get no lat­er than the end of his first term in 2025 to ensure we get to the fin­ish line.” What is this enforce­ment mech­a­nism, and what is the tar­get? We don’t know. For­mer Oba­ma advis­er Kel­ly Sims Gal­lagher told Earth­er that Biden appar­ent­ly wants to give Con­gress the oppor­tu­ni­ty to shape this mech­a­nism.” It could mean a car­bon tax, cap-and-trade or some oth­er pric­ing mechanism.

Again, giv­ing Con­gress a say is good. But the mys­tery mech­a­nism is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the plan’s broad­er lack of sub­stance, and sug­gests a lack of seri­ous­ness about tak­ing on the fos­sil fuel industry.

Com­pare Biden’s pro­pos­al to the Ever­green Econ­o­my Plan of Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee, who has cen­tered his entire pres­i­den­tial cam­paign around cli­mate change, and leads Greenpeace’s score­card with an A‑minus grade. On his web­site, one is bom­bard­ed with pol­i­cy after pol­i­cy that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment can con­crete­ly pur­sue. There are spe­cif­ic goals and sub­goals for spe­cif­ic time increments.

To be fair, not even Inslee quite meets the ambi­tion of the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion: He’s called for full decar­boniza­tion by 2045, 100% renew­able elec­tric­i­ty by 2035, and also stopped short of a jobs guar­an­tee. I hope oth­er can­di­dates go muchfur­ther. But Inslee’s pro­pos­al stands in stark con­trast to Biden’s vague­ness. Biden’s plan is full of sen­tences like, Biden will com­mit that every infra­struc­ture invest­ment that receives fed­er­al fund­ing should reduce cli­mate pol­lu­tion, as much as pos­si­ble.” Ques­tion­able gram­mar aside, that doesn’t actu­al­ly mean any­thing — as much as pos­si­ble” ren­ders it tooth­less. Dec­la­ra­tions like, Work­ing with the insur­ance indus­try, the Biden Admin­is­tra­tion will iden­ti­fy ways to low­er prop­er­ty insur­ance pre­mi­ums,” hard­ly inspire confidence.

Telling­ly, one of Biden’s intend­ed day one” exec­u­tive orders calls for reduc­ing methane emis­sions for new and exist­ing oil and gas oper­a­tions”— O’Rourke’s anal­o­gous plan only men­tions exist­ing sources.” The dis­tinc­tion could be innocu­ous, but one also won­ders whether this is a sub­tle assur­ance to indus­try: Under Pres­i­dent Biden, there will be new oil and gas development.

As Inslee put it on Tues­day, My plan puts up stop signs, and I’m afraid that the vice president’s plan does not.”

Not a cli­mate leader

Biden’s plan, to its cred­it, rec­og­nizes that any tru­ly effec­tive cli­mate strat­e­gy must be glob­al. Here he seems to favor the stick over the car­rot, propos­ing to stop coun­tries from cheat­ing [on cli­mate com­mit­ments] by using America’s eco­nom­ic lever­age and pow­er of exam­ple,” and to name and shame glob­al cli­mate out­laws.” Unfor­tu­nate­ly, he doesn’t rec­og­nize that the Unit­ed States has been one of these out­laws — even before Trump.

A whole sec­tion of the plan focus­es on how to pres­sure Chi­na, far and away the largest emit­ter of car­bon in the world.” There is no men­tion of the fact that the U.S. is sec­ond; or that cumu­la­tive­ly, we have emit­ted more than Chi­na; or that on a per capi­ta basis we still emit more than Chi­na; or that a good chunk of China’s emis­sions go toward pro­duc­ing con­sumer goods for the U.S. and Europe. China’s emis­sions are indeed a real prob­lem, but this is a case of the pot call­ing the ket­tle black.

Biden also calls on Chi­na to reduce its coal exports, point­ed­ly omit­ting that the Unit­ed States is a top oil and gas exporter, and calls on U.S. inter­na­tion­al finance insti­tu­tions such as the Export-Import Bank to stop invest­ing in coal-fired pow­er plants and sig­nif­i­cant­ly reduce the car­bon foot­prints of their port­fo­lios.” Yet under the Oba­ma-Biden Admin­is­tra­tion,” the Export-Import Bank spent $34 bil­lion financ­ing 70 fos­sil fuel projects around the globe. In a glob­al cli­mate plan released the fol­low­ing day by the Inslee cam­paign, the Wash­ing­ton gov­er­nor one-ups Biden, call­ing to end Export-Import Bank sup­port for all fos­sil fuel projects, not just coal.

Biden also calls for enforce­able” inter­na­tion­al cli­mate com­mit­ments, ignor­ing that legal­ly bind­ing tar­gets are what the Oba­ma-Biden admin­is­tra­tion opposed at the Paris con­fer­ence (enforce­able com­mit­ments require Sen­ate approval, which was not an option in 2015).

Hypocrisy aside, per­haps the most omi­nous com­po­nent of the plan’s inter­na­tion­al vision lies in a sub­tle fore­shad­ow­ing of what could become the next phase in the war on ter­ror: “[Cli­mate change] puts our nation­al secu­ri­ty at risk by lead­ing to region­al insta­bil­i­ty that will require U.S. mil­i­tary-sup­port­ed relief activ­i­ties. … Dete­ri­o­rat­ing eco­nom­ic con­di­tions in cli­mate-impact­ed areas could increase pira­cy and ter­ror­ist activ­i­ty, requir­ing a U.S. mil­i­tary response.”

A just transition

Accord­ing to Reuters, Zichal hoped Biden’s cli­mate plan would help bridge the gap between pro­gres­sive envi­ron­men­tal­ists and unions. So what does he offer labor that the Green New Deal doesn’t?

Well, for one, the pos­si­ble con­tin­u­ance of the nat­ur­al gas or even coal indus­try through CCUS tech­nol­o­gy. Many unions do sup­port this as a way to keep fos­sil fuel jobs alive, and mem­bers of the AFL-CIO ener­gy com­mit­tee called for CCUS in a cri­tique of the Green New Deal (though the Green New Deal does not rule CCUS out). While under­stand­able, this posi­tion is ulti­mate­ly short-sight­ed: Giv­en the tech­nol­o­gy is still unproven, every moment we delay phas­ing out fos­sil fuels the even­tu­al effects of cli­mate change get more severe, dev­as­tat­ing impacts that by and large will hurt work­ers more than their boss­es. There is hard work to be done in ensur­ing the tran­si­tion for work­ers in dirty indus­tries is fair and equi­table, and that green jobs are union­ized and well-com­pen­sat­ed, but this is a fight we must embrace rather than postpone.

Biden’s plan does rec­og­nize that the coun­try is shift­ing away from coal (thanks to mar­ket­place com­pe­ti­tion”), and com­mits to fund­ing coal min­er pen­sions and healthcare.

It promis­es to defend work­ers’ rights to form unions and col­lec­tive­ly bar­gain in these emerg­ing and grow­ing indus­tries; pur­sue new part­ner­ships with com­mu­ni­ty col­leges, unions, and the pri­vate sec­tor to devel­op pro­grams to train all of America’s work­force to tap into the grow­ing clean ener­gy econ­o­my; incor­po­rate skills train­ing into infra­struc­ture invest­ment plan­ning by engag­ing state and local com­mu­ni­ties; and rein­vig­o­rate and repur­pose Ameri­Corps for sus­tain­abil­i­ty, so that every Amer­i­can can par­tic­i­pate in the clean ener­gy economy.”

He also calls for a Task Force on Coal and Pow­er Plant Com­mu­ni­ties, which would help these com­mu­ni­ties access fed­er­al invest­ments and lever­age pri­vate sec­tor invest­ments to help cre­ate high-pay­ing union jobs based upon the unique assets of each com­mu­ni­ty, part­ner with unions and com­mu­ni­ty col­leges to cre­ate train­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties for these new jobs, repair infra­struc­ture, keep pub­lic employ­ees like fire­fight­ers and teach­ers on the pay­roll, and keep local hos­pi­tals open.”

This is not noth­ing, but what’s strik­ing is that the Green New Deal res­o­lu­tion already con­tains strength­ened labor pro­tec­tions, union jobs at a pre­vail­ing wage, and much of what Biden advo­cates—plus a jobs guar­an­tee. Writ­ing for In These Times, Jere­my Brech­er of the Labor Net­work for Sus­tain­abil­i­ty sug­gest­ed the Green New Deal could do even more, offer­ing work­ers dis­placed full wages and ben­e­fits for four years and no-cost train­ing and education.

But it’s Biden’s plan, where labor gets a few neb­u­lous promis­es toward the very end, that Zichal claims can bring union mem­bers into the cli­mate fight. It is a trag­ic irony that a plan osten­si­bly designed to appeal to orga­nized labor does less than the Green New Deal to actu­al­ly build work­er power.

In the end, Joe Biden’s plan takes a few good ideas from oth­er cam­paigns but advances few new specifics, show­ing lit­tle inter­est in tak­ing on the fos­sil fuel indus­try (or, it must be said, in con­sis­tent punc­tu­a­tion and for­mat­ting). In the two areas where he most dis­tin­guish­es him­self from oth­er can­di­dates — his empha­sis on tech­no­log­i­cal research and inter­na­tion­al rela­tions — he shows him­self to be liv­ing in a fan­ta­sy world, where future inno­va­tions allow us to avoid dras­tic action and the Unit­ed States is some sort of glob­al cli­mate hero.

As a state­ment from Food and Water Watch’s exec­u­tive direc­tor put it, Joe Biden’s cli­mate plan is a cob­bled-togeth­er assort­ment of weak emis­sions tar­gets and unproven tech­no­log­i­cal schemes that fail to ade­quate­ly address the depth and urgency of the cli­mate cri­sis we face. This plan can­not be con­sid­ered a seri­ous pro­pos­al to tack­le cli­mate change.”

Day­ton Mar­tin­dale is an asso­ciate edi­tor at In These Times, and a found­ing mem­ber of Sym­bio­sis. His writ­ing has appeared in In These Times, Earth Island Jour­nal and The Next Sys­tem Project. He tweets at @DaytonRMartind.
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