At long last, combating climate change is having a moment in the United States.
Over the course of a few years, addressing climate went from being a backburner issue to a centerpiece of President Joe Biden’s domestic agenda, a crucial plank of his economic policy. A career moderate, Biden is an unlikely champion of the issue. But as the politics and urgency around climate change has shifted, so too has Biden.
The Biden administration on Thursday formally committed to cutting America’s greenhouse gas emissions 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Biden’s campaign pledge on emissions was getting the US to net-zero emissions by 2050, and getting the American economy to run on 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2035.
“Transforming the energy system was both essential and a tremendous opportunity,” John Podesta, the founder of the Center for American Progress and former climate adviser to President Barack Obama, told Vox in a recent interview. “It went from being a down-the-list environmental issue to the center of his economic project.”
For perspective, at a 2017 climate march in Washington, DC, progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (VT) and Jeff Merkley (OR) unveiled a new bill calling for 100 percent of US energy to be generated by clean and renewable sources by 2050. Four years later, Biden is speeding up the timeline significantly.
Public polling from the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication shows that while a slimmer majority of voters believe the US should tackle global warming, transitioning to clean energy sources like wind and solar is broadly popular across parties. That could be a boon for Biden as he aggressively sells his $2.25 trillion American Jobs Plan to Congress — a jobs and infrastructure package that doubles as a climate bill.
There’s no doubt Biden was influenced by young climate activists and other progressives in the Democratic Party pushing him to embrace the Green New Deal and go big on climate. While Biden has been careful to separate his plan from the Green New Deal, he has also adopted some of its key tenets. For one, Biden recognized the ability to pair his climate ambitions with an optimistic economic message: “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs,’” Biden said during a July campaign speech.
No president of either party has so fully embraced tackling climate change before, but the hardest part for Biden is yet to come. Though White House officials have insisted they have multiple pathways to halve emissions from 2005 levels in less than a decade, it will be difficult without passing Biden’s American Jobs plan through a divided Congress.
Obama’s signature climate bill, cap and trade, failed in 2010. And though the Clean Power Plan, Obama’s regulatory effort to lower emissions, largely withstood President Donald Trump’s efforts to weaken it, the Biden administration wants to implement something more ambitious.
“That policy change has been driven by a significant transformation, essentially the zeitgeist of climate change,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, told Vox in an interview. “The conversation used to be about how the heck do we get people to care about climate change when it feel so far off.”
How the public perception around climate has changed
The politics around climate change — and what to do about it — have changed significantly over the past decade.
Compiling data for the past 13 years, researchers at Yale and George Mason universities used to see about 12 percent of people they classified as “alarmed” about climate and the same amount who were “dismissive” about the issue. Over the years, the numbers have shifted. Those in the alarmed group have grown to about 26 percent (there’s another 29 percent who classify themselves as “concerned” about climate change), while the number in the dismissive category has shrunk to 8 percent.
“The bigger question is, is public engagement in climate increasing — and the answer is unequivocally yes,” said Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Climate Change Communication.
At the same time, Maibach and his colleagues have noted there’s widespread support among voters for the US to embrace clean energy. In a December survey, Maibach and his fellow researchers found that 66 percent of registered voters said developing sources of clean energy should be a “high” or “very high” priority for the president and Congress. That number was 13 percentage points higher than the number of registered voters who said global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, the poll found. And 72 percent of registered voters supported transitioning the US economy from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. (Of course, it’s worth repeating that Biden wants to speed up this timeline.)
“While there is clearly a divide in America between liberals and conservatives on the issue of climate change, that divide is much much smaller with regard to clean energy and support for clean energy,” Maibach said. “It is still true that Democrats are much more likely to support an aggressive pivot toward transitioning to clean energy; it’s also true a large majority of Republicans support the same.”
As Democrats have wholeheartedly embraced climate as both an environmental and an economic issue, Republican politicians are still trying to articulate the party’s position.
For the most part, Republicans are no longer the party of outright climate denial, recognizing a fundamental shift in the electorate. At the same time, their initial plans to tackle climate change revolve around planting 1 trillion trees worldwide and investing in technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere — rather than reorienting the American economy to not produce carbon in the first place. And the GOP is sounding the alarm about Biden’s decarbonization targets, saying a departure from fossil fuels will wound the economy.
“I’d say there isn’t an overall Republican strategy to combat the climate crisis where it is,” said Joe Bonfiglio, president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund. “What we’re seeing now is a party grappling with a need to have climate plans that neatly fit under the policy umbrella of all of the above energy strategy that doesn’t reduce fossil use.”
Republicans are also not going along with Biden’s infrastructure and climate push, releasing their own, narrower plan that deals more with fixing the nation’s roads and bridges. While Democrats can pass Biden’s American Jobs Plan through the Senate without Republican support using an obscure procedural tool called budget reconciliation, they have a limited window to get policy through Congress and shovels in the ground.
The Biden White House is very aware of the potential for climate progress to be reversed by Republicans if and when they win in the midterms or the next presidential election. That’s why it is far more focused on proposing concrete changes that are “hard to roll back,” a White House official told Vox.
Many in the energy industry are moving ahead
When slashing environmental regulations and lowering emissions standards, Trump often cast his actions as being friendly to businesses.
At the same time, many businesses and utilities recognized that the broader economy was heading toward renewable sources of energy, in large part because wind- and solar-generated energy has become much cheaper than energy generated from fossil fuels. There are about 3 million clean energy workers in America, according to the latest annual jobs report from the national nonpartisan group E2. Nearly three times as many workers are employed in clean energy, compared to fossil fuel extraction and generation workers.
“It is consensus that the urgency around this is growing, so that momentum has been moving for quite some time,” said Mike Boots, executive vice president of Breakthrough Energy. “It’s always helpful to have a consistent and durable policy at the federal level.”
The wild swings from Obama to Trump to Biden and a lack of stable federal policy on climate and clean energy has been difficult to contend with, experts told Vox.
“Investors like certainty, and they haven’t gotten any certainty at the federal level,” Karen Wayland, policy adviser to electricity utility coalition group Gridwise Alliance, told Vox. “The utilities have embraced this decarbonization agenda, and they do long-term planning.” In the Trump years, Wayland added, utilities were “setting goals absent federal policy.”
At the same time, a recent study from the Rhodium Group found that though the US is indeed on target to hit the Obama-era emissions goals, that hasn’t happened purely because of the good intentions of American business and industry. The Rhodium Group study found that the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly grinding the economy to a halt led to a 10.3 percent drop in US greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.
“With coronavirus vaccines now in distribution, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without meaningful structural changes in the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions will likely rise again as well,” the Rhodium Group study concluded. In other words, the federal government can’t count on businesses to do the right thing. It needs to set the tone moving forward.
Biden’s promise to modernize the electrical grid and invest in cleaner sources of energy is welcome to some industry groups and leaders, but there are many more who oppose the push. Oil and gas groups are not happy, and some unions are uneasy about what the transition could mean for workers who have made more, on average, from fossil fuel jobs.
The 2019 median annual wage for solar photovoltaic installers was $44,890, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the median annual wage for wind turbine service technicians was $52,910. Comparatively, jobs in the fossil fuel power sector pay between $70,310 and $81,460, and tend to be more heavily unionized compared to the emerging clean energy sector.
“In order for us to get where all of us want to go, we have to bring everyone along with us,” AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka told Vox recently. “We can’t just jettison people. That’s the transition we have to strike, and I think this administration understands that transition.”