Joseph R. Biden Jr. (1942), who represented Delaware in the U.S. Senate for more than 35 years and then served as Vice President under Barack Obama (2009–2017), unveiled his plan “to build a modern sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future” in mid-July 2020. It calls for spending $2 trillion—equal to nearly half of the entire 2019 federal budget of $4.4 trillion – on infrastructure and energy in just four years. The aim is to put America on “an irreversible path” to net-zero emissions: the U.S. electricity sector by 2035 and the entire economy by 2050.
Biden’s plan leaves out several policies – carbon pricing, a nationwide halt to fracking, and a ban on new oil-drilling permits for federal land and waters – dear to the hearts of Democratic environmentalists. But it’s much more aggressive than his pre-corona proposals, which foresaw spending $1.7 trillion on clean energy over ten years. Moreover, it takes him closer to the views of his more progressive primary opponents like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren – ideally, close enough to capture the votes of their younger, more liberal supporters.
Employment up, emissions down
The four-year injection of $2 trillion in new spending would aim to:
set the U.S. electricity sector on a path to carbon neutrality by 2035
convert government vehicle fleets to electric, offer rebates on American-built electric vehicles, and install 500,000 charging stations nationwide
upgrade 4 million buildings, weatherize 2 million homes, and build 1.5 million sustainable and affordable housing units
provide zero-emission public transport to all cities with 100,000 or more residents
accelerate the development of clean energy technologies (battery storage, negative emissions, green hydrogen, and advanced nuclear).
Biden expects each of his policies for electricity, infrastructure, eMobility, and buildings to “create millions of good-paying jobs with a choice to join a union.” His climate agenda is simultaneously—and perhaps primarily—a labor and social agenda.
It’s also an agenda to remediate, restore, and reclaim land and waterways polluted by resource extraction. Biden pledges to plug thousands of leaky oil and gas wells and remediate abandoned mines. The cleanup too is designed to be an employment engine, creating “more than 250,000 good jobs.” Moreover, Biden has a set a goal that 40 percent of spending for remediation, clean energy, clean transport, and affordable housing will benefit disadvantaged communities. For Biden, environmental protection must promote environmental justice.
Echoing the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933–1942), a voluntary public work program that was part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, Biden intends to mobilize a Civilian Climate Corps. The volunteers will be led, he says, by a “new generation of scientists and land managers committed to ecological integrity and natural climate solutions.” If Biden is elected, the new CCC would work to:
enable America’s national forests to better resist wildfire and sequester carbon
plant millions of trees in cities
restore wetlands, repair irrigation systems, and remove invasive species from lakes and river
improve the ability of wetlands, reefs, and seaweed forests to store carbon.
The Sermon on the Plain teaches that “the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.” Joe Biden’s heart seems fuller of labor policy than climate policy. His energy plan mentions jobs (61 times), workers (48), and unions (32) much more frequently than energy (45), the climate (28), or the environment (28). In 2020 America, the promise of job creation may be a necessary spoon of sugar to help the medicine of climate protection go down: at the end of July 2020, unemployment was still above 10 percent – nearly 7 percentage points higher than before corona – while 35 percent of Americans believe that the media exaggerates the risks associated with climate change. In short, Joe Biden’s jobs (psst: climate) plan may send the right message to voters in an America enduring its worst recession since the 1930s. We’ll find out on November 3.