Now that Bernie Sanders has left the race for president, Joe Biden’s campaign knows the battle to unite the Democratic party to take on Donald Trump is just beginning.
Anxious to avoid the bitter divisions that emerged in 2016 between the supporters of Sanders and Hillary Clinton, Biden is already reaching out to find common ground with his former adversary.
Among the issues being discussed is climate change, a subject close to the heart of many Sanders supporters, many of whom question Biden’s commitment to the kind of radical steps they believe are necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and save the planet.
" Joe Biden has actively engaged with many progressive leaders and our campaign has been connecting with a variety of progressive organizations including environmental,” Biden’s campaign spokeswoman, Isabel Aldunate, told Univision.
“He has made it clear that we are open to considering proposals that will build on his agenda to achieve real, lasting progressive change in this country and in people's lives," she added.
Washington state governor Jay Inslee, one of the most prominent environmental voices in Democratic party, and a former presidential candidate, endorsed Biden on Wednesday after receiving assurances that climate change would be a priority in his administration, the Washington Post reported.
Inslee said he was confident Biden was "willing to aim faster and higher" in his climate policy.
While both campaigns believe climate change is an "existential threat," Sanders set more aggressive goals to meet more ambitious targets to reduce emissions than Biden. That includes ending the use of fossil fuels in power and transport by 2030, as well as phasing out the U.S. reliance on nuclear power plants, and a $16.3 trillion investment in clean energy, creating 20 million new ‘clean energy’ jobs.
Former vice-president Biden, has taken a less drastic view saying the country’s energy industry should transition more gradually to a cleaner, renewable future that would allow traditional power sources like coal, natural gas and nuclear to still have a role. Instead, Biden’s ‘Clean Energy Revolution’ plan, which was unveiled last summer, touts a smaller $1.7 trillion investment, creating only 10 million new jobs to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, two decades later than Sanders.
Biden and Sanders have both embraced the ‘Green New Deal’ a proposed legislative package in Congress, and have pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement on Day One of being president.
Time running out
“ While their values line up the depth of what they are proposing is quite different,” said Cristobal Lagunas, national organizer for The Climate Mobilization Project, which endorsed Sanders. Earlier this month it called on Biden to adopt the Sanders plan after giving him a B+ on its ‘Climate Reality Check Scorecard’, with Biden getting a D+.
“I wish we had enough time to do things gradually, but we are going to perish if we do that,” he added.
While Sanders has endorsed Biden, he has also intimated in the past that his former rivals’ campaign is too deferential to corporate donors and is worried about scaring off big energy companies. “We need a president who welcomes their hatred,” Sanders said recently.
Biden picked up an endorsement from a major environmental group on Monday, the League of Conservation Voters, that has spent tens of millions of dollars in recent election cycles to help elect Democrats.
But, he still has to convince influential youth movements, like Climate Mobilization and The Sunrise Movement and Greenpeace.
Biden has so far refused to impose a ban on coal or ‘fracking,’ the controversial drilling technique that pumps water and chemicals into rock formations underground which has helped the United States become energy independent in recent years.
The fracking issue exposes an inherent conflict in the Democratic party which has long considered itself a champion of blue-collar workers and union members. While Sanders has put the urgency of climate change ahead of workers in dirty industries, Biden continues to speak about the need to protect the health of coal miners and invest in their communities.
Biden’s plan would guarantee those workers five years of their current salary, housing assistance, and job training, among other things.
Rather than eliminating nuclear power, which how zero carbon emissions but produces highly toxic waste, Biden has also advocated innovation to make plants safer and more efficient.
The Covid-19 effect
It remains to be seen whether the crisis of global warming will still be at the top of voter’s minds in November due to the coronavirus pandemic. On the other hand, the covid-19 outbreak has almost overnight wiped out the fracking industry due to the falling demand – and price of oil and gas - potentially removing those jobs from the climate policy debate.
If those jobs don’t return, Democrats could unite around programs to retrain fossil fuel workers for the promised future boom in renewable jobs in wind, solar, geo-thermal and other clean energy technologies.
Lagunas says the covid-19 virus is a reminder of the need for urgent action to protect humanity and the living world. “ It’s a snapshot of what a global crisis looks like,” he said. “Underneath that there is a movement .. the people want their future back and we need the government to come along,” he added.
Instead, of taking a gradual approach, Lagunas and other Sanders supporters, talk of the need for a “reallocation” of resources and putting more faith in technology to provide clean energy solutions for a rapid transition to a zero emissions future.
While many say they will vote for Biden in November due to his recognition of the need to act now to halt global warming, they warn that mounting “eco-anxiety” will lead to a groundswell of popular pressure if he does not do enough.
“We’re looking at a generation that don’t believe they will survive,” said Lagunas, who travels the country educating young climate leaders.
Sam Van Leer, aged 55, the son of a prominent climate scholar in Miami, and founder of Urban Paradise Guild, which seeks to re-create native habitats in the city, says places like South Florida can’t afford to go along with Biden’s incremental approach.
“Fracking is driving climate change, it’s literally drowning Miami,” he said, citing streets increasingly flooded by seawater during high tides.
He argues Biden can afford to move to the left on climate change as Democrats increasingly appreciate the need for urgent action, and conservative Republicans aren’t going to vote for him anyway.
“What he needs is voter turnout and excitement. Like [president] Obama gave us hope, I’d like Biden to give us hope for a better world,” he said.
The Obama administration was strong on climate change, especially in its second term, notably achieving the landmark Paris climate agreement, and pushed through auto fuel economy standards that deeply cut emissions. Trump has since rolled all those back.
While progressives try to push Biden to be bolder, the Republican Party is already gearing up to attack him for being willing to sacrifice working and middle class jobs for an extreme “socialist” agenda.
However, polls suggest that the environment is in fact more of a wedge issue for Republicans. While younger and older Republicans often tend to view the issue differently , younger and older Democrats have fairly similar views on the environment.
Those divisions have only widened since Donald Trump was elected. A George Mason poll in December 2018, found that 92 percent of likely Democrat voters supported ideas incorporated in the Green New Deal, while only 64 percent of Republicans did. Six months later support among Republicans has fallen due to months of negative media coverage by conservative media outlets, led by Fox News. But among Democrats support went up.
That could hurt Biden in some industrial states in the Mid-West, the famous Rust Belt where Trump surprised Hillary Clinton in 2016.
Polling shows more alarm
But polling shows climate is an increasingly important electoral issue for voters. And, it’s no longer only a concern of radical younger voices. Nationwide, the number of people "alarmed" about climate change has tripled to 31% since 2014, according to polling by Yale and George Mason universities.
Some experts say it would be a major mistake for Biden not to reach out to those voters, especially in a close election where turnout could make the difference. While Biden has polled well in primary states among voters who ranked climate as their top issue, a sizeable 28 percent prefer Sanders, according to a Washington Post compilation of exit polls.
“Bernie Sanders supporters are passionate about the environment and Joe Biden has to woo them aggressively. He has to excite them by proving he is a climate hawk,” said Edward Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University
“Otherwise, they may stay home. It’s deeply personal. They want their vote counted for them, not just to be counted in an election,” he added.