It’s remarkable: A number of polls suggest that Democratic voters now consider climate change to be a top-tier issue, as important as health care. Perhaps even more remarkably, the party’s presidential candidates seem to be taking that interest seriously. Jay Inslee has staked his candidacy on the issue; Beto O’Rourke has used a climate proposal to revive his flagging campaign; and Elizabeth Warren has cited the warming planet across a wide set of her famous plans.
This week, Joe Biden joined their ranks, releasing a lengthy climate plan on his website. Though Reuters teased his policy last month as a “middle ground” approach more moderate than the Green New Deal, the proposal looks pretty aggressive and sounds almost Bernie Sanders–esque in its ambition. What the United States needs, Biden says, is a “clean energy revolution.”
That revolution’s main objective: achieving a “100% clean energy economy” in the United States by the year 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, both more stringent and longer-sighted than what the previous Democratic White House—which Biden unfailingly calls the “Obama-Biden administration”—pledged under the Paris Agreement on climate change. To meet its old Paris target, the United States had to cut its annual carbon emissions by 1.3 percentage points every year from 2016 to 2025. To meet the 2050 goal, it must cut at more than double that rate—2.9 percentage points—for each of the next 31 years.
Of course, pending both a revision to the Twenty-Second Amendment and a surge of investment in brain-in-a-jar technology, Biden will not be president 31 years from now. He does not propose a specific binding mandate, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime, to carry the country all the way to that mid-century goal.
Instead, Biden says he will work hard to point the federal ship of state toward climate action. He promises to implement a muscular set of executive orders on his first day in the White House. He will require public companies to disclose climate-incurred costs, deploy the federal government’s purchasing power on the side of clean energy, and restrict the release of the superpowerful greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas wells. He will also “require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change”—a policy that could have led to a different outcome in the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline battles.
Biden also promises to wring $1.7 trillion in investment from Congress, “the largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation.” This money will fund a new technology-development program modeled on the Pentagon’s R&D agency, DARPA. This new “ARPA-C” will focus on the big and mostly unsolved challenges of decarbonization, such as electricity storage, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture, aviation emissions, and zero-carbon cement and steel manufacturing. The longtime Amtrak commuter would also push Congress to “spark the second great railroad revolution,” catching up to high-speed rail in Europe and China. He says he will halve rail-travel times from New York to Washington and extend his old train line—the Northeast Corridor—into the “fast-growing South.”
Finally, Biden says he will use the various instruments of global governance, including the International Monetary Fund, to pressure China and India to reduce their carbon emissions.
I have not glossed all the details here; the full proposal exceeds 10,000 words—although, as Business Insider and The Daily Caller have reported, the plan appears to have lifted language directly from climate-advocacy groups in at least five different places. (Biden’s campaign says the error was inadvertent and that the proper citations have now been added.) As the political scientist Leah Stokes has remarked, those lapses suggest that the policy was compiled hastily, almost in reaction to other candidates’ work.
And there is plenty of other work to draw from. Inslee, the governor of Washington who is running for president on a single-issue climate campaign, can claim to have a more detailed and ambitious proposal than Biden. Today Inslee debuted a plan to reenter the Paris Agreement and enshrine climate at the center of U.S. diplomacy. It runs more than 50 pages single-spaced.
Inslee earlier outlined his aim to decarbonize some parts of the U.S. economy by the 2030s, and he has endorsed some aspects of the Green New Deal. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal’s champion, told a reporter yesterday that Inslee’s plan is the “golden standard.” (Inslee’s plan is also untainted by plagiarism accusations.)
If anyone comes close to Inslee-level detail, it’s Warren, who also announced an ambitious climate policy yesterday. Like her other climate plans, which have targeted the Pentagon and public-land management, this one seems, at first, to focus on another issue.
Warren calls this issue “economic patriotism.” Under its banner, the senator from Massachusetts and presidential candidate proposes a huge new program of climate-friendly manufacturing investment, meant to turn the United States back into a major industrial exporter. She would spread R&D funding across all regions of the country and focus American trade policy on maintaining exporting power. This program would go hand in hand with her also just debuted “Green Manufacturing Plan,” which promises to allocate $1.5 trillion in federal spending for climate-friendly technology. She would also use federal power to encourage other countries to purchase this new American gear.
Essentially, Warren wants to bring Germany or South Korea’s mixed-economy model to the United States and then point it at the challenge of climate change. As I wrote in February, this suite of approaches—often called industrial policy, though Warren brands it as “economic development”—has roots in the ideas of Alexander Hamilton. It’s also clearly inspired by the same economic thinker, Mariana Mazzucato, who has consulted with Ocasio-Cortez and her allies about the Green New Deal.
Which is no coincidence. Even if neither Biden nor Warren becomes president, their proposals demonstrate how the Green New Deal seems to be winning the battle of ideas among Democrats, at least for now. On his website, Biden even praises Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal by name, calling it “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face.” And both his plan and the Warren plan—and the Inslee climate plan, and O’Rourke’s proposal—adopt its theory of change, emphasizing that gushing federal investment can help the U.S. economy solve the problem of climate change. All four proposals, to varying degrees, promise a new age of plenty, a dawning era of renewed American dauntlessness. And they show how the window of political possibility has already moved significantly, such that Biden’s $1.5 trillion in climate-focused federal spending can start to seem moderate to right-wing observers.
In the Washington Examiner yesterday, the conservative writer Tiana Lowe paid relatively high praise to Biden’s plan. Unlike the Green New Deal, she said, Biden’s proposal is “not insane,” but a “legitimate, big-boy climate change plan” in its own right. She complimented its mention of nuclear power and focus on Chinese and Indian emissions. Lowe should look more discerningly: Any Democrat, except for maybe Sanders, would fund advanced nuclear approaches, and all of them would undoubtedly try to nudge down Asian pollution. Yet compared with the Green New Deal, those relatively milquetoast climate policies may suddenly seem friendly and effective to the right. “If nothing were executed into action here except for the international aspect, nuclear research and development, and the infrastructure developments that [Biden] details, it would do more to decrease greenhouse gas emissions in real life than any $93 trillion Green New Deal,” Lowe wrote.
That may come as news to actual supporters of a Green New Deal, who know a victory when they see one. In the opinion of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, Biden’s plan is far better than the “middle ground” proposal he was considering last month. “We forced [Biden] to backtrack and today, he put out a comprehensive climate plan that praises the Green New Deal,” it tweeted yesterday. It is not the last time, I suspect, that self-described moderate Democrats will find themselves praising that “pie in the sky” proposal.