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What’s Joe Biden going to do on climate change? Look at his record under Obama.

Biden introduced the first Senate bill on climate change. Here’s what he’s done since.

hillary clinton joe biden
Former Vice President Joe Biden, right, is expected to introduce his plan to combat climate change this week.
Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images
Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Former Vice President Joe Biden is on the verge of announcing a climate proposal he hopes will set him apart in the crowded field of Democratic 2020 candidates.

The frontrunner among the 23 candidates for president will present his plan to fight climate change in a speech this week, according to the New York Times. A CNN national poll last month showed that climate change is the most important issue for Democratic primary voters.

As Reuters reported earlier this month, Biden is expected to seek a “middle ground” with a proposal to “appeal to both environmentalists and the blue-collar voters who elected Donald Trump.”

That means he is unlikely to back the Green New Deal, a sweeping resolution and set of principles for decarbonizing the US economy introduced in February that has earned the endorsement of some of his competitors, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg.

Given that Biden first took elected office in 1970, it’s also worth looking back at his record on environmental policy in advance of his speech. That record shows an early concern about rising temperatures and support for strong environmental rules.

But the climate crisis is undoubtedly the toughest environmental challenge yet. And critics say Biden’s pursuit of a compromise as a presidential candidate conflicts with policy that would truly address the problem.

The Obama administration had a complicated record on climate change

In 1986, Biden introduced the Global Climate Protection Act, the first climate change bill in the Senate. The act, signed into law by President Reagan as part of a State Department funding bill in 1987, directed the government to research and develop a strategy to deal with global warming.

Over his time in the Senate, Biden earned a lifetime score of 83 percent from the League of Conservation Voters for his support of various environmental and clean energy legislation, like backing provisions to limit greenhouse gases.

But perhaps most instructive might be Biden’s limited involvement in climate policy during his time in the Obama White House, especially since a key part of his pitch is nostalgia for the pre-Trump era. His rhetoric harks back to Obama’s appeals for unity and bipartisanship, so it stands to reason his climate strategy would be one that could potentially appeal to Republicans.

The Obama administration started out the gate with a massive investment in clean energy under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The White House called it the largest single investment in clean energy in history. The recovery act allocated more than $90 billion via loans, loan guarantees, tax credits, and grants for projects like developing better batteries and weatherizing homes.

Biden was tasked with overseeing the implementation of the recovery act and reported on its progress back to the president.

However, Obama struggled to get limits on greenhouse gas emissions in place. During his first term, the Waxman-Markey bill that would have created a cap-and-trade scheme for carbon emissions failed to clear the Senate in 2009.

The Obama White House didn’t touch climate change again until well into Obama’s second term. One of the signature accomplishments of that era was joining the 2015 Paris climate agreement, which aims to hold global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius this century.

Stateside, Obama introduced the Clean Power Plan in 2015 to limit carbon emissions from existing and new power plants. Crucially, the plan was built on existing authorities granted to the Environmental Protection Agency, obviating the need to go through Congress.

Many red-leaning states sued to block the rule, arguing that the EPA overstepped its bounds. In 2016, the Supreme Court issued an unusual ruling to stay the Clean Power Plan, pending lawsuits underway in lower courts.

The Trump administration is currently trying to repeal the Clean Power Plan, but since the EPA is required to regulate greenhouse gases, the current White House must come up with a replacement. Trump’s counterproposal, the Affordable Clean Energy rule, has been met with lawsuits from a different set of states claiming the proposal is too weak.

For his part, Biden provided rhetorical support for Obama’s policies in a divided government. “[T]he president is going to use his executive authority to, essentially, clean up the bad stuff, encourage the good stuff and promote private industry moving in that direction,” he told Rolling Stone in 2013. “If we had a different Congress, I think you’d see a more aggressive emissions legislation.”

In 2015, he said that fighting climate change was “the single most important thing” he and Obama could do in the White House. Ahead of the United Nations meeting to finalize the Paris climate agreement in 2015, Biden gave several speeches highlighting US progress in fighting climate change and calling for more aggressive action.

But during the same time, the Obama administration did little to thwart the growth of fossil fuels in the United States. Obama presided over the largest expansion of natural gas production in US history, lifted the 40-year-old crude oil export ban, licensed liquefied natural gas export terminals, and openly boasted about low gas prices. He even criticized Mitt Romney in 2012 for saying that a coal plant kills people.

Biden has also promoted the idea of natural gas as stepping stone away from dirtier fuels like coal and gasoline.

Biden’s climate proposal might get broad support, but it may not be good enough for activists

If personnel is policy, then Biden’s climate plan is likely to look a lot like Obama’s. His campaign recently hired Heather Zichal, who served a deputy assistant to the president for energy and climate change under Obama.

Environmental activists have criticized the hire because Zichal earned more than $1 million as a board member of a natural gas company.

What Biden is likely to propose is at a minimum restoring most of the Obama climate policies that Trump has tried to undo: rejoin the Paris agreement, reinstate the Clean Power Plan, continue funding clean energy research, development, and deployment.

We may also see a return to the all-of-the-above energy strategy, which aims to make all forms of energy cleaner, including fossil fuels via technologies like carbon capture and sequestration. On the campaign trail, Biden criticized the Trump administration’s proposed freeze of fuel economy standards for cars and light trucks.

Any new money promised in Biden’s plan will likely take the form of tax credits and loan guarantees. Most of the direct outlays will probably go to research and development.

What likely won’t end up in the proposal are the social justice provisions that formed the pillars of the Green New Deal, like a federal jobs guarantee or universal health care.

Fellow 2020 presidential contender Jay Inslee, who is carving out a niche for himself as the climate candidate, said he was “concerned” about how Biden’s campaign framed his upcoming proposal as a “middle ground” approach.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), one of the authors of the Green New Deal, was more direct. “I will be damned if the same politicians who refused to act then are going to try to come back today and say we need to find a middle-of-the-road approach to save our lives,” she said earlier this month. ”That is too much for me.”

One area where Biden might stand out in his climate plan is in his appeal to organized labor. Though unions have lost a huge amount of sway in recent decades, they remain an important constituency for Democrats and a key target for Biden in particular.

“I make no apologies. I am a union man. Period,” he said during his first campaign rally at the Teamsters Local 249 in Pittsburgh.

But unions have been divided over aggressive approaches to fight climate change. Some state-level union groups have endorsed versions of the Green New Deal, while national labor leaders like AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka have publicly opposed it.

The fossil fuel sector is more unionized than clean energy, so coal, oil, and natural gas interests hold more sway in organized labor. That in turn might limit how hard Biden is willing to push back against fossil fuels.

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