Analysis

Why Biden Has a Better Shot at Saving the Climate Than Obama Did

He has a lot more nations and interest groups on his side, and this time the promise of millions of new clean jobs is real.

U.S. President Joe Biden greets Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry
U.S. President Joe Biden greets Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry at the White House on Jan. 27. MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images

The most striking thing about U.S. President Joe Biden’s massive plan to accelerate the fight against climate change, rolled out on Wednesday, was not just that it was a virtual reversal of his predecessor’s blinkered stance on the issue.

It’s that the Biden administration’s ambitious effort to combine global climate activism with old-fashioned populism amounts to a fresh approach that environmentalists and politicians alike say could actually work.

At a White House news conference, the new president made no secret of the fact that he was melding his populist bid to “Buy American” with plans to avert the “existential threat” of catastrophic global climate change. Biden indicated he sees a new road toward success in getting his scheme through a nearly stalemated Senate, despite the return of hyperpartisanship to the Capitol and predictable Republican claims that such plans will hurt the economy.

“When I think of climate change, I think of … jobs,” Biden said. “Today is Climate Day in the White House, which means today is Jobs Day at the White House.” 

The president maintained that under his plan “millions” of Americans will be able to get new jobs by “modernizing our water systems, transportation, our energy infrastructure to withstand the impacts of extreme climate.” One of his executive orders directs the federal agencies to procure carbon-free electricity and clean, zero-emission vehicles to create “good-paying union jobs” and stimulate clean energy industries. Deploying all of the government’s purchasing power would force the speedier obsolescence of gasoline-powered cars and could lead to “1 million new jobs in the American automobile industry,” Biden said. He also proposed expanding the network of electric-car charging stations nationwide. 

Beyond that, major developed and developing nations—in particular China—are on board in a way they decidedly were not a decade ago, when then-President Barack Obama’s green jobs pitch fell flat at home and when developing nations, led by China, undermined the 2009 Copenhagen climate summit. Obama was left with only the voluntary, nonbinding pledges from other countries to curb emissions as part of the 2015 Paris accord (which Biden, reversing former President Donald Trump’s move, has quickly rejoined). 

One big difference: Clean energy, from wind power to electric cars, has gotten a lot more competitive with traditional energy sources due to technological advances.

“All of this has been made possible by economic realities, where wind and solar are growing dramatically, and the cheapest vehicles will be electric-powered,” said Nigel Purvis, who directed U.S. environmental diplomacy under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. “Who doesn’t want a Tesla today? What we’re selling to developing countries is a vision of the world we should create together and one they find attractive, unlike when Obama came into office.”

What the Biden team failed to proffer this week, and which remains murky, are hard projected numbers for new green jobs. Asked to produce some estimates, a White House spokesperson pointed to several outside studies, including a July 2020 one by Rewiring America, a new climate activist non-profit, that concluded as many as 25 million new jobs could be created through “an aggressive national commitment to electrify all aspects of our economy.” He also cited a January 2018 study by the Environmental Defense Fund that found an additional 4 million jobs have already been created, “with wind and solar jobs outpacing those in coal,” from improvements in renewable energy, improvements in energy storage and an advanced grid, more efficiency, and advanced vehicles and transportation.

The spokesperson said that major unions such as the AFL-CIO, United Auto Workers and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have come out in support of the Biden climate proposals in conjunction with his “Buy American” agenda, which in total will cost trillions of dollars. He added that “if unions didn’t believe that we were going to create good jobs for their members, they wouldn’t be supporting our plan.”

On Thursday none other than General Motors, the nation’s largest automaker, announced it was pledging to be carbon-neutral by 2040.

Nonetheless Biden will face stiff political resistance domestically, especially after cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada and pausing gas and oil leases on federal lands and waters. Instead, Biden claimed, he would create “a quarter million jobs to do things like plug the millions of abandoned oil and gas wells that pose an ongoing threat to the health and safety of our communities.” 

That won’t wash for many on Capitol Hill. Republicans swiftly declared war on his grand plans, repeatedly calling them “job killers.” “With the pipeline cancellation, the president effectively closed the door on thousands of American jobs with the stroke of his pen,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor on Thursday. “According to one study, the decision on federal lands will leave us down nearly 1 million American jobs by next year alone. It’s a heck of a way to kick off a presidency: mass layoffs of our own citizens.” 

House Republicans were equally vehement. “America has become the world leader in energy production and a major exporter of oil and natural gas, strengthening our national security and boosting our economy for hard-working families,” said House Republican Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana, alongside 30 Republican members of the House Energy Action Team, in a statement Wednesday. “In less than a week, the Biden Administration has placed these jobs and accomplishments at risk.” 

But Biden’s support of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking—one of the key technologies that made America more energy secure—will help his cause on Capitol Hill. And billions more dollars are being invested in new green technologies—including through projects like the $1 billion Breakthrough Energy Ventures fund, founded by Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, and other deep-pocketed tech titans—than during the Obama era. The $900 billion stimulus package passed with bipartisan support at the end of last year also provided billions of dollars for renewable energy and technologies to remove carbon from the atmosphere—something urgently needed to avert the worst effects of climate change.

Innovators in this latter area are hopeful. “Carbon capture (and direct air capture specifically) is likely to grow into a multi-trillion-dollar industry,” said David Elenowitz, the founder of Zero Carbon Partners, a relatively new investment firm focused on emerging companies developing carbon reduction technology. “And if the U.S. takes the lead in funding this area, to help drive down costs, similar to what happened with solar and wind, this could mean a huge industry and job growth over time.”

Beyond that, some climate experts say the political environment is very different from the last time Biden laid out such plans, when as Obama’s vice president he pitched the administration’s stimulus plan as a green-job creator as well, seeking to produce what candidate Obama said in 2008 would be 5 million jobs in all. That didn’t quite pan out: Several studies later showed that not nearly that many were created as the effects of the stimulus wore off.

Biden now says he wants the United States on an “irreversible path to a net-zero economy by 2050,” meaning a country that removes as much carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases as it adds to the atmosphere. That is in tune with once-recalcitrant nations like China, which in an astonishing reversal from a decade ago now has its own 2060 target for the same outcome (though some doubt Beijing’s sincerity, since it still mines and burns more coal than any other country). 

In November 2019, the European Parliament declared a climate “emergency” and asked the European Commission to make the Paris agreement even more ambitious by aiming for a rise of only 1.5 degrees Celsius in temperatures, compared with the 2 degrees enshrined in the accord. The commission has since developed a European Green Deal that sets a goal for Europe to become carbon-neutral by 2050.

International pressure could change the political climate in Washington as well, especially with a president so eager to cooperate abroad. Even some conservative Democratic senators such as Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona have made climate change a key issue. And while Biden will have to persuade Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin from coal-intensive West Virginia, the 50-50 split in the Senate (with Vice President Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote) makes big climate policy doable through budget reconciliation, which requires only a simple majority.

In a statement, Manchin said he supported some of the administration’s new goals in “advancing innovative energy technologies in order to address climate change.” But he indicated that he opposed elimination of oil and gas drilling, and warned that the president’s “executive orders also commit the Biden administration to focus on reinvesting in communities that have seen the loss of traditional energy jobs, like many in West Virginia. I intend to hold the administration to this.”

Biden’s plans, announced alongside climate special envoy John Kerry and former Environmental Protection Agency head Gina McCarthy, now the domestic climate czar, amount to a complete reinvention of the executive branch’s approach to climate change. Biden ordered a national intelligence estimate on the security implications of climate change. He elevated Kerry to a National Security Council position, making climate policy an integral part of national security decisions. 

“That is truly a sea-change, and not a minute too late,” said David Bookbinder, a climate lawyer at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank in Washington.

The president’s big bet, in the end, is that the new economics and a broad new international consensus on the climate crisis will carry him over the top. Because what’s also changed since the Obama era—and the four-year interlude in which Trump denied that global warming was happening at all—is the sense of urgency made horrifyingly real by wildfires, rising sea levels, and increasingly severe hurricanes in the last few years. 

“What you have to keep in mind is the degree to which the goalposts have moved, even from Paris,” said Todd Stern, Obama’s chief climate negotiator and one of the main architects of the Paris accord. In 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the U.N. panel tasked with evaluating climate science, concluded that, in effect, the Paris goal of limiting temperature increases to less than 2 degrees Celsius was not enough. 

“We have only another decade to get on a path to a non-catastrophic outcome,” Purvis, the former climate diplomat, said. “I think both at home and abroad there is better alignment than was the case a decade ago. At home the climate issue has come to be widely supported as an issue the Democratic Party campaigns on, with a wide spectrum of Democratic stakeholders” ranging from labor unions to Wall Street, and even the auto industry and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, he said. 

“Internationally, there has never been more substantive agreement among the major economies about the world they want and how they’re going to get there. By the time of the G-7 summit in June every country will have a commitment to decarbonize by midcentury.”

Jan. 28: This story has been updated with comment from the White House.

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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