Biden’s Climate Plan Isn’t the Green New Deal

But it’s a step towards actual policy-driven discussion to tackle the climate crisis.

President Donald Trump came out arms flailing during the first presidential debate last Tuesday and thought he landed a punch when former Vice President Joe Biden said he did not support the Green New Deal. “You just lost the radical left,” Trump quipped.

photo of wind farm
Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden has vowed to tackle the climate crisis through a $2 trillion, four-year plan he announced last July. Photo by Bill Devlin.

No matter that Trump has shrugged his shoulders as farms flood and communities burn, his goal is to deflect and drive a wedge in an opposition that has already promised to do something about the climate crisis. The missing detail of Trump’s infantile jab, however, was that Biden had never endorsed the Green New Deal (GND) at face value.

“We’ve known for years that Donald Trump denies the science of climate change,” Kate Aronoff, a climate reporter for The New Republic, told Democracy Now! after the debate. “And we know that Joe Biden doesn’t support the Green New Deal.” Neither of those details should be a surprise to voters in the homestretch of this election, Aronoff explained.

Trump’s stance on climate change is easily characterized by his relentless push for unchecked development by his buddies in the fossil fuel industry. Biden, meanwhile, has vowed to tackle the climate crisis through a $2 trillion, four-year plan he announced last July — a plan that Sam Ricketts, a coauthor of Washington Governor Jay Inslee’s aggressive climate plan, in The Washington Post, called “the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee.” And no, it’s not the Green New Deal, but like the GND, it’s a far cry from the current president’s oil-bought denialism.

But it’s difficult to draw a clean line between the Biden climate plan and the Green New Deal. For one, the Green New Deal isn’t a plan but a broad resolution. It’s not exactly a x-trillion-dollar scheme aimed at outlawing cows and airplanes like its opponents say. Rather, it’s a set of goals and principles for a radical shift in climate policy — one that would create millions of living-wage green industry jobs, decarbonize the energy sector, and address racial and economic inequalities.

The Green New Deal serves as a framework for the “rapid, far reaching, and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society” urged by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s October 2018 assessment on limiting global warming to 1.5 degree Celsius. The GND also recognizes the duty of the federal government to avert ecological collapse while building an “altogether fairer, more leisurely, and more democratic world,” as Noami Klein wrote in the introduction to A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal. The goal is staving off disaster, while also making the world a better place for both human and nonhuman life.

When Biden unveiled his climate plan in a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, last July, it was clear that his plan was not the Green New Deal. But at its core, it sounds similar: It would focus on transitioning to a carbon-free power sector by 2035, building modern infrastructure like high-speed electric rail, addressing climate injustices, diversifying the agricultural sector, and creating millions of jobs. In the debate last week, he vowed to reenter the Paris Climate Agreement and put an end to coal-fired power plants. His plan would also mobilize a Civilian Climate Corps to manage forests, plant trees, repair irrigation systems, improve wildlife habitat, and restore wetlands and coastal ecosystems.

“These are the most critical investments we can make for the long term health and vitality of both the US economy and the physical health and safety of the American people,” Biden said in July.

The similarities with the Green New Deal’s framework is no coincidence. That’s because the Biden campaign worked with some of the authors of the Green New Deal to put the Biden climate plan together.

Before Biden’s official nomination, the Democratic Party formed the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force on Climate Change, comprised of members like US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Sunrise Movement cofounder Varshini Prakash. In other words, Biden’s climate plan is a product of discussion, with evidence of influence from the task force, and from the Green New Deal.

One example is the Biden plan’s timeline. Task force members helped boost it from $1.7 trillion over 10 years to the current $2 trillion over four years. The task force also helped shift the plan’s focus to include environmental justice. According to the plan, “frontline and fenceline communities” will receive 40 percent of all clean energy and infrastructure benefits proposed in an attempt to correct historic racial and environmental injustices. The plan also borrows a proposal from Inslee’s plan to establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the Department of Justice to “hold polluters accountable.”

Of course, there are major differences between Biden’s plan and the Green New Deal, mainly when it comes to scale. For example, Biden’s plan to build 1.5 million new sustainable housing units falls far short of the Green New Deal’s call to provide all people with affordable housing.

Another point of contention is fracking. Natural gas extraction isn’t explicitly addressed in the Green New Deal, but many progressive Democrats have called for a fracking ban on both private and public land — a stance that Biden has refused to take. This is no surprise. Biden, who was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, has his sights on the Pennsylvania vote. Last year, the natural gas industry employed 32,000 people in Biden’s home state.

But according to some Democrats, the differences between Biden’s plan and a radical Green New Deal aren’t as much a cause for division as they are points for future discussion — especially on this side of Election Day. Biden’s climate plan isn’t the Green New Deal, but it’s a step towards actual policy-driven discussion of the climate crisis.

“A Biden administration is not a guarantee of climate success, just as wearing a mask is not a guarantee of avoiding coronavirus,” wrote climate journalist Emily Atkin in her newsletter HEATED. “But when you’re facing a life-threatening illness, you choose a course of treatment not based on whether you know it will work, but based on the likelihood of success versus failure.”

Climate action will require work no matter who’s elected. If Biden wins in November, there will assuredly be a time to critique his administration’s position on climate. Time will tell how the Biden plan would be phased out, which promises are kept and which are broken — which policies would be tossed around the legislature as hurricanes continue to batter one coast while wildfires spread across the other. There would be time to hold Biden accountable to his promise to ban fossil fuel lobbyists from his cabinet, and there would certainly be time to interrogate Biden’s informal advisors from the Obama period’s “all of the above” approach to energy development.

As Naomi Klein wrote, “We have a hell of a lot of work to do.” But the unanswered question now is what that work will look like come January.

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