Can Joe Biden convince climate voters he is one of them?

  • Reid Frazier

It may not feel this way — but there is still an election going on.  And this year, American Climate policy will be on the ballot. Democratic nominee Joe Biden ran considerably to the right of his top rivals on climate policy. But now that he is the nominee, the Biden campaign is trying to convince climate activists that his campaign is taking the issue seriously. Recently Biden named Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of the authors of the Green New Deal, to co-chair a climate policy committee. So where exactly is Joe Biden on climate and environmental policy?

On this episode, we talk to Marianne Levelle, a reporter at InsideClimate News who has been covering Biden’s climate policies. Then we talk to 16-year-old climate activist Lily Gardner about what she thinks about Joe Biden’s plan.

Reid Frazier: So you’ve been following Biden’s climate policy and you wrote that it was historic by any number of yardsticks, even though it lacks the size, scope and clarity of Bernie Sanders policy.

Can you tell me what that means? 

Marianne Lavelle: Beside Bernie Sanders’s climate policy it probably looks small. It’s about a tenth of the size of the spending that Bernie Sanders was talking about doing. But it’s 30 times the clean energy commitment that Hillary Clinton had when she ran in 2016. So it goes quite beyond Hillary Clinton, and way beyond what Barack Obama’s goals were. Biden is all in on the goal of getting to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. It’s just the question of how you do it.

In the Democratic primary, a lot of the progressive young activist groups rated his plan as mediocre. But I think the important thing to remember is that you have to do more than have a plan. You have to get a plan through. The plan that Biden has put together has more of a chance of pulling together enough support in Congress to really forge ahead on climate. Joe Biden will be selling himself as somebody who can build bridges no matter who wins.

Frazier: So let’s go through the plan that he has on his website. The goal is net-zero by 2050. And there’s a bunch of policies that he says he will push: controls on methane leaks from oil and gas wells, fuel efficiency standards, using federal procurement to address climate change, protect the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve, ban on new fossil fuel permits on public lands, investments in clean energy. It seems like Obama did a lot of stuff on climate change and Biden’s kind of saying, ‘let’s go back to what they were doing then.’  

Lavelle: Everything I think that you mentioned there involves going back to what the climate policy was under Obama. So this is where Joe Biden faces a challenge. The more progressive parts of the Democratic Party just are not convinced that it’s bold enough. They don’t feel that Obama really left a climate legacy that was durable.

Last week, Biden named this new task force to advise him on climate. This climate task force is co-chaired by John Kerry, who really kind of symbolizes the international policy under Obama and Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, who is really the avatar of the Green New Deal.

He also has named one of the co-founders of the Sunrise movement to this climate task force. By bringing people like AOC and the Sunrise Movement to the table, what Joe Biden is saying is that I’m serious about coming up with a policy that will embrace bold measures. I think what you’re going to see is possibly more investment in green jobs and more integration of health care into climate policy since these are very popular portions of the Bernie Sanders climate platform.

The area where Biden is going to have trouble forging a unified, assertive platform with the progressives is over things like fracking. Bernie Sanders and AOC are very much in the school of fracking needs to be banned and the moderates in the party especially looking at a place like Pennsylvania — a state that Biden has to win. Biden is not going to want to have a policy that will turn those blue-collar voters away.

In a way, Biden has a different landscape than any Democrat could have imagined in the middle of the primary battle because the oil and natural gas industry is on its knees along with the rest of the economy. I think the issue that Joe Biden will face is which energy industry do we support? Do we support the fossil fuel industry or do we support the clean energy industry?

They realize he has a big plan on his website, but they don’t hear him talking about it. Biden really has to convince these voters that this is a very top priority. 

Frazier: The Green New Deal is not just getting to zero carbon. It’s a lot of social programs like universal health care, jobs guarantee, things like that. Critics said you’re just throwing everything in the pot and it’s going to be way harder to pass.  The youth-led Sunrise Movement was at the forefront of pushing for the Green New Deal. Clearly, by appointing one of the co-founders of the Sunrise Movement, Biden is trying to appeal to Bernie Sanders supporters.

Why is that so important for him? 

Lavelle: You have to look at the electoral landscape in November. There are basically six states, including Pennsylvania, that are competitive. In order to win those states, Biden is going to have to do well in places like State College, Pennsylvania, Ann Arbor, Michigan — places where there are young voters. The number one issue for a lot of the voters is climate change. There is no way for Joe Biden to win unless he really excites that part of the electorate.

Frazier: You’ve actually talked to some climate activists who’ve been watching this. What did they tell you about how they’re viewing Biden’s stance on climate change? 

Lavelle: I talked to some both before Biden won and before the whole coronavirus really shook up the landscape. A lot of the Bernie Sanders supporters were very much in the show-me camp on Biden. They realize he has a big plan on his website, but they don’t hear him talking about it. Biden really has to convince these voters that this is a very top priority.

We can’t just have four years of one policy and then let’s backpedal for the next four years. It has to be durable. It has to be long-term.

Frazier: Looking back on some of the coverage during the primary, Biden’s plan to deal with climate change, I think, was like $1.7 trillion dollars. In the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen Congress dish that amount out like it was given away free cookies at the diner or something. 

So given that context, could Biden ask for more if he’s going to move forward on climate change? 

Lavelle: He’s going to have to ask for more. But this current Congress is very wary of spending more money on the economy at all and wants to see what happens. It’s going to take someone who really has a lot of leadership and consensus-building skills. I always thought during the Democratic primary, the candidates should have been asked the question of how are you going to build a durable climate policy, something that will last, not something that can be undone the way Obama’s climate legacy has been just shredded by the Trump administration because he relied on executive action without Congress. But if you bypass Congress, you’re not going to have the bipartisan consensus that you need in a closely divided America.

The whole history of environmental policy until about 2010 or so was bipartisan. We can’t just have four years of one policy and then let’s backpedal for the next four years. It has to be durable. It has to be long-term.

Frazier: So trying to get Republicans to go along with him has been one of Biden’s talking points during the primary. He got a lot of criticism for that because all through the Obama administration, the Republicans were not interested in a lot of bipartisan efforts. Is there a danger for Biden in going too far on climate change? We know that there’s a danger in not going far enough. We’ve already seen criticism from conservative groups attacking Biden for including AOC in his advisory panel on climate.

What is the danger level for Biden in alienating potential voters or potential supporters who may not love Donald Trump, but are also not dyed-in-the-wool liberals? 

Lavelle: That’s a real challenge that he faces. I think you can see that Trump is going to try to use fracking as a wedge issue. I think that Biden is going to have to somehow find that realm of conservative voters who still have moderate views on climate whether that’s suburban moms or young Republicans.

Look at the House Minority Leader, Kevin McCarthy. What he cares about is his members who are in risky districts. So he’s pushing the trillion trees initiative that allows them to show they care about cutting carbon emissions without doing anything that that really will hurt their fossil fuel supporters.

I think there’s a glimmer of hope in that for Biden because those are exactly the districts where Biden can say, ‘hey, I’m not going to have some crazy socialist policy, but I’m going to have a smart, jobs focused climate policy that’s good for the industrial Midwest as well as for the coasts.’

I think Republicans are worried about this, too. If they weren’t, you wouldn’t hear Donald Trump saying he cares about crystal clean water or crystal clean air while he’s rolling back water and air protections. Biden is going to have to call that out and also show that he has a positive alternative.

Marianne Levelle is a reporter at InsideClimate News.

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Frazier: I’m joined now by Lily Gardner. She’s a youth activist for the Sunrise Movement in Lexington, Kentucky. I read your bio on Twitter. How old are you? 

Gardner: I am 16.

Frazier: So does that mean you’re in high school? 

Gardner: It does. It means I’m a junior in high school. I can not yet drive on my own. All the things that come with being 16.

Frazier: Let me just ask, how are you dealing as a young person, as a high school student? How are you dealing with the quarantine? 

Gardner: You know, I think it’s a radical change from going into a school building. I think it’s really tough. I know that my teachers are doing the best that they can to provide online learning that feels fulfilling and continues some form of education. But it’s truly not the same.

The experience of being in a classroom and having conversations is totally lost when watching the world around us really crumble, I would say. I’m in AP US history and learning about the ways in which our federal government should be working to serve its constituents and its people and how it’s failed to do so in the past. Then watching how it has failed to do so right now is really tough.

Frazier:  How did you get involved in the climate movement? 

Gardner: I grew up in eastern Kentucky in Appalachia, which many consider the heart of coal country. I think that I was always, in many ways, exposed to climate justice. Cognizant of that fact or not, I did not have family in the mines, but it’s impossible to ignore growing up there, the impact that extractive industries have in the proliferation of cyclical poverty and also things as maybe disparate as the opioid crisis or crumbling infrastructure.

I’m sick and tired of hearing that we need incremental change and that we can’t do what’s necessary and what ordinary Americans need.

So I saw very clearly those impacts. It wasn’t until later and actually wasn’t until I found Sunrise [Movement] through Twitter, you know, as all people my age might, that I realized that some of the things that I had been experiencing where I grew up and angry about, but didn’t really jive with the climate movement that talked about protecting natural resources or national parks for just the sake of beauty and conservation, that there was now an opportunity for a climate justice movement that centered things like a just transition, which is something that’s so important to eastern Kentuckians and also to rebuilding infrastructure and opportunity in the region where I grew up.

Frazier: And what exactly does being a climate activist in high school in Kentucky, what does that even look like? 

Gardner: Well, pre-pandemic, it was kind of all over the place. I was running around to meetings trying to organize students within my school. We were prepping for Earth Day 2020, which was going to be incredible. Millions of people in the street and Lexington was going to be no different. So we were really riling people up, ready to do a really major action in the halls of our city council building.

I would say that organizing as a high schooler is just like any organizing, except it takes place between the hours of four and midnight. So it’s a bit different and you’re trying to balance it with hours of school work, but also knowing that that’s the most important thing that we can be doing right now.

Frazier: You can’t vote this election. But I think you and other young people are heavily invested in it because it does impact your lives. What do you make of the sort of choice that voters will have when it comes to climate? I know that many in the Sunrise Movement favored Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. He’s no longer running. It will be Joe Biden for the Democrats in the fall.

What have you seen out of Joe Biden? Walk me through the journey.

Gardner: I think that as an individual and also as a movement, we’re really cognizant of the fact that Joe Biden is far from the ideal candidate. We gave him an F rating for his climate plan. He has a lot to own up to and also a lot that needs to change if he’s going to earn the vote of young people. Right now, I am oriented towards finding the ways that we can continue to push Joe Biden when he inevitably becomes the Democratic nominee — unless something radically changes to adopt the progressive and bold policies that we know are necessary if he’s going to get the strength and the power of of young voters.

Frazier: So he has appointed a couple of Sunrise Movement allies, including the co-founder Varshini Prakash and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the congresswoman, to his climate task force, along with more centrist moderate people from the Democratic Party.

Can you give me a sense of when you say he has to earn our support? What are some things that you would be looking at? 

Gardner: We’re showing up to the table, committed to pushing for a Green New Deal. Now, broadly speaking, that looks like three major asks. It looks like shortening the timeline to enact urgent policy reform. Right now, Joe Biden’s climate plan reaches carbon neutral by 2050. We know that is not within the 10 year mobilization framework that is necessary.

The second is prioritizing environmental justice. Right now, there are few provisions for Indigenous rights or reparations for marginalized communities who have been hit the hardest historically by climate change.

Number three is really holding fossil fuel companies accountable. There is no language that talks about ending fossil fuel construction and ending new construction and fracking. We want to ensure that we’re not only creating a clean and regenerative economy, but we’re actively moving away from the economy and the systems of the past that got us to this place.

Rachel McDevitt / WITF

Demonstrators gather on the steps of the state capitol in Harrisburg to demand action on climate change on Friday, September 20, 2019.

Frazier: So when you see that he has invited some of the Sunrise folks and AOC to the table. Are you worried at all that he could be trying to do that as a way to bring people from your movement into the tent to appeal to them, but in the end, won’t really remember you when the when the rubber hits the road and it’s time to govern if and when he gets elected?

Gardner: There is no way to know whether or not this task force is going to be a farce or if it’s actually going to to achieve real radical policy shifts for the DNC platform and for his own platform. But Bernie Sanders has fought to give our movement and young people, broadly speaking, a place within climate conversations. We are arriving with the full might of our base, and yet with a full understanding that we are going to be uncompromising on the justice that we’re fighting for. If that doesn’t manifest, then that’s the reality.

But our priority right now is also not this task force. It’s still turning out millions of people to be to be a part of our movement, to show up in the streets when when we are able to again, and to continue to push for progressive climate policies and to hold the president, whoever he or she might be, really accountable to make climate change like a day one priority. So, broadly speaking, what we are doing as a movement and our priorities and our goals have not shifted. We don’t know what’s going to come out of this, but we’re showing up to the table to try.

Frazier: So I know you couldn’t vote in the Democratic primary, but who would you have voted for?

Gardner: I was a strong Bernie Sanders supporter.

Frazier: Why was that? 

Gardner: I think that I have grown up in a generation that has been completely unable to escape the realities of rampant income inequality, that climate change is this looming threat right now, but also for the rest of my life and what it could look like.

I’ve grown up where like where mass shootings in my public schools are the reality and something we have to grapple with and understand as we walk through those doors.

I think that as an individual and also as a movement, we’re really cognizant of the fact that Joe Biden is far from the ideal candidate. We gave him an F rating for his climate plan. He has a lot to own up to and also a lot that needs to change if he’s going to earn the vote of young people.

I’m sick and tired of hearing that we need incremental change and that we can’t do what’s necessary and what ordinary Americans need. We need health care. We need good jobs that are not forcing us to choose between, in eastern Kentucky, our own health and putting food on the table. We need to know that we’re protecting the only planet we have and allowing the generations after me to have any shot at a livable future.

Frazier: So you grew up in Kentucky, a big coal state, especially eastern Kentucky, for those who don’t know, has long been a very big coal region, very rural, where coal is king. It’s not too different than parts of western Pennsylvania where I am. When you talk to people in your state about climate change, is there any kind of sense that, ‘yeah, that seems bad, but, you know, we got to still make a living, we got to put food on our table.’

How do you as a young person try to deal with that paradox that people might have in their minds? 

Gardner: I actually think that’s a really legitimate concern from the members of my community who for years have been completely ignored by the environmental movement. There was no recognition that the idea of conservation is not possible when the land is the only commodity that a person has. It’s the only chance that they have to put food on the table.

Often I approach these conversations from a justice perspective, an economic justice perspective, more than I approach it from an inherent climate perspective.

It’s talking about the fact that eastern Kentucky has been calling for a just transition for 30, 40, 50 years. People know that we need to move away from coal jobs. There are no structures in place for how we do that and no support to do that.

People believe that we need radical infrastructure shifts and everybody wants to be able to live a life that is dignified and which they’re not reduced to the stereotypes that so many Appalachians are. So I think coming at it from this, the shared reality and also the shared desire to create a better world and one that is inclusive of people who who have often been forgotten, is something that everybody gets behind.

I’ve been really surprised and also so encouraged by the outpouring of support that I’ve received from members of my community in eastern Kentucky and even even my own family members who are notably Trump supporters, friends of coal. Things like that.

Frazier: When you talk to your family this fall, if you do, are you going to be lobbying them to vote for Joe Biden? 

Gardner: I am interested to see how Biden responds to the demands that we make of him. I’m interested to see how survivor justice groups interact with him and and hold him accountable for the Tara Reade allegations [of sexual assault] and how we ensure justice. I am interested to see whether or not Biden is actually going to be a candidate that is able to prioritize the radical change that needs to happen over our political establishment ideals.

We know we can’t have four more years of Trump pulling us backwards in terms of climate policy and so many other policy areas. But I want to feel confident in the candidate that I’m asking my family to put their ideological beliefs aside to support.

Frazier: So we’ll put you down as a maybe?

Gardner: Yes.

Lily Gardner is a climate activist in Lexington, Kentucky.

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