The Biden Agenda: Can Joe Walk a Fine Line on Climate Change?

Good morning and welcome to the latest in our series, “The Biden Agenda.” We’ve invited some of the smartest thinkers and subject-matter experts we know to contribute to what will become an occasional series on what a Biden presidency might look like. Today, Steven F. Hayward, a climate-policy expert and resident scholar at the Institute of Governmental Studies at UC-Berkeley, examines Biden’s pledges related to climate change. Please see our past entries from Scott Lincicome on trade and James C. Capretta on health care.

With informed reports holding that Joe Biden sees the prolonged pandemic crisis and aftermath of the Trump presidency presenting a second New Deal moment in American history that calls for “going big” on sweeping economic and social restructuring plans, it is no surprise that he has thrown in with the “Green New Deal.” The biggest question about Biden’s plans is where each major element in his agenda will end up on the hierarchy of political priorities if he wins in November, and whether climate change will be a top-tier item.

 Already we can see Biden straining to link climate with other top-tier issues into a seamless package. Hard-core climate change activists—many now styling themselves “climate hawks” for whom anything less than radical steps are insufficient—harbor bad memories of the Obama administration, when climate change took a back seat to other political priorities. Many of those remain top priorities for a potential Biden administration, especially the perennials such as health care, education, new pro-union laws, and immigration reform. They’ll be joined this election season by racial justice programs and perhaps a universal basic income. So while Biden appears to be proposing to go far beyond the climate ambitions of the Obama presidency, it still likely won’t be enough to satisfy the climate hawks. 

About all the climateers got out of Obama was a string of subsidized green-energy bankruptcies, plus an unambitious regulatory scheme for the electricity sector and Obama’s signature on the largely toothless Paris Climate Accord. Trump swept away the latter two with Obama’s leftover pen and phone. Meanwhile, old-fashioned fossil fuel energy sources, with the exception of coal, prospered during the Obama years, especially the natural gas boom brought about by fracking. Cheap natural gas—never part of Obama’s intended policy mix—accounts for most of the substantial reduction in U.S. greenhouse gas emissions over the last 15 years as gas-fired electricity became cheaper than coal. Plus, the domestic oil boom reversed decades of falling U.S. production and has favorably disrupted global petropolitics. It is possible that without the fossil fuel energy boom of Obama’s first term, he might have lost re-election in 2012, as it was about the only sector of the post-crash economy that grew substantially.

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