Throughout the Democratic party presidential primary, candidate Joe Biden was variously chastised for his preference for incrementalism, for declining to fully endorse the Green New Deal, and for his perceived unwillingness to take on fossil fuel interests. Last December, the Sunrise Movement, an influential youth-led activist group that backed Bernie Sanders, graded his primary-season climate plan an F-. Yet even this group had to offer Biden cautious praise last month after he unveiled a plan to invest $2tn in clean energy, jobs and infrastructure in the four years of his first term, should he beat Donald Trump in November’s election.
The chances of the plan making it through the US Congress without modification may be low but the boldness of the proposals it sets out is still instructive. The Democratic nominee has committed to eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector of the world’s second-largest polluter within 15 years.
In the process, he intends to create millions of well-paying, unionised jobs making wind turbines, building sustainable homes and manufacturing electric vehicles; to construct a new national high-speed rail network and zero-emissions mass transit in every large US city; and to establish a civilian climate corps to plant trees and protect and restore vulnerable ecosystems. And all of this while seeking to tackle racial and economic inequality by directing 40% of the earmarked $2tn to those communities who are disproportionately impacted by pollution and climate breakdown.
That the former vice-president has chosen to put bold climate action at the heart of his presidential bid suggests not only an awareness that prioritising the issue is good politics, but also that the need to rebuild after the coronavirus crisis presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity that can and must be seized for progressive ends. As he argued when launching his plan: “We can live up to our responsibilities, meet the challenges of a world at risk of climate catastrophe, build more climate-resilient communities, put millions of skilled workers on the job and make life markedly better and safer for the American people all at once.”
The plan is also a clear indication that a man viewed by many as the consummate centrist Democrat now accepts that averting runaway global heating requires a fundamental reshaping of the US economy rather than mere tinkering around the edges, and that both the speed and scale of climate action matter. By comparison, the climate proposals that formed part of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, considered “ambitious” just four years ago, amounted to just $90bn of investment – about a 20th of what Biden is now promising. That his commitment to a $2tn programme – approximately one-eighth of US federal spending – delivered over the course of a single presidential term, is now viewed as a moderate response to the climate crisis illustrates just how far the centre ground has shifted on this issue.
In the emphasis it places on the opportunities presented by the green transition, Biden’s plan is also rooted in a recognition that forging a broad consensus for transformative change requires climate action to be as much about retaining and creating decent jobs and addressing economic, racial, generational and regional inequalities as it is about cuts to greenhouse gas emissions. Biden does not shy away from the hard truth that climate breakdown represents an “existential threat”, but his agenda remains relentlessly optimistic, clothed in the language of the labour movement and progressive politics: innovation, technological progress, job creation and the pursuit of equality.
Biden’s plan – and the fact it has won praise from environmentalist groups and trade unions alike – has not come from nowhere. It is the product of years of painstaking work within the Democratic party and beyond: of listening to communities’ hopes and fears, building coalitions and establishing trust, and developing and testing policies. And it points to the task ahead for the labour and environmental movements here at home.
It is also far from perfect, not least in that it conspicuously avoids confronting many of the more difficult trade-offs that lie ahead and fails to engage with the obvious need to rapidly divest from fossil fuels. Yet for all its flaws, Biden’s plan serves to highlight the UK government’s lack of climate ambition. As the host of next year’s critical COP26 climate summit, Britain’s ministers need to raise their game.
The fact that the candidate currently favourite to be the next US president is determined to seize this historic moment, has committed himself to a dramatic acceleration in the pace and scale of climate action, and is advocating rapid decarbonisation as the means to achieve social justice, national renewal and international leadership, illustrates that a bold climate agenda is now basic common sense.
o Matthew Pennycook MP is the shadow minister for climate change