Joe Biden has embraced the Green New Deal. He might not have uttered those magic words on Tuesday while unveiling his campaign’s new, far-reaching plan to combat climate change and revitalize the U.S. economy, but he didn’t have to. In substance and spirit, the Democratic nominee has signed on to the concept’s most important pieces, while doing away with some of its more controversial, and less essential, trappings.
It’s understandable why Biden might avoid the branding. For many moderates and conservatives, including our president, the phrase “green new deal” itself has become a shorthand for leftist overreach. In part, that’s because no one group can really claim complete ownership of the idea and some maximalist versions favored by young activists have included things like Medicare for All and a federal jobs guarantee, along with zeroing out carbon emissions, which make their proposals look a bit like democratic-socialist wishlists disguised as plans to stop global warming.
When Democrats in Congress actually tried to write up an official Green New Deal framework in 2019, a bizarre, unofficial FAQ circulated by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s staff explained that they’d lowered their 10-year emissions goals a bit “because we aren’t sure that we’ll be able to fully get rid of farting cows and airplanes that fast.” The result has been a never-ending stream of jokes about banning hamburgers—the kind of crazy that Biden, whose whole candidacy is basically comfort food for America’s moderates, would like to avoid.
But when it comes to actual climate policy, the Green New Deal has always represented a very specific and serious philosophical shift. In the past, Democrats have wanted to reduce emissions through market-oriented mechanisms like a carbon tax or cap and trade. You still see prominent strains of that thinking today, such as when a bipartisan group of 45 renowned economists, including former Federal Reserve Chairs and nobel laureates, signed an open letter in the Wall Street Journal calling for a carbon-tax-and-dividend scheme. Green New Dealers have taken a different, less market-focused approach, combining clean power mandates that would force a shift away from carbon, massive government spending and industrial policy designed to create jobs, and a strong emphasis on environmental justice for communities hardest hit by pollution. Instead of putting a price on CO2 and letting capitalism do its magic, the new generation of climate hawks want to force power companies and other emitters to abandon fossil fuels while using the federal purse to put people to work and reinvent the American economy.
Biden’s primary season climate plan included some of those pillars, and even referred to the Green New Deal as a “crucial framework,” but the new version adopts it much more fully. The candidate’s original platform called for $1.7 trillion in spending over 10 years, and set a goal of zero net emissions by 2050. The new edition ups the price tag to $2 trillion over four years (there’s your massive spending), and aims to scrub carbon from the electricity sector by 2035 using a clean energy standard for utilities (there’s your mandate). Biden has also rolled out a “made-in-America” economic plan that would use gobs of government procurement and R&D funding to build up domestic sectors like renewable batteries and electric vehicles (there’s your industrial policy). And the campaign has outlined an extensive proposal to “secure environmental justice” by directing 40 percent of its climate spending to disadvantaged communities.
Biden is borrowing some of his new ideas directly from Washington Governor Jay Inslee, whose short presidential run made him a folk hero to climate hawks. The proposal to achieve clean electricity by 2035 comes from Inslee. So does Biden’s call for to create a Civilian Climate Corps that would work on restoration and resilience projects, a direct nod to Franklin Roosevelt’s original New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps. As writers like Vox’s Dave Roberts have noted, Inslee’s campaign essentially wrote a a nuts-and-bolts “instruction manual” for achieving the Green New Deal’s climate goals, even if he didn’t quite use the name. Now, the former veep appears to be reading from it.
“Basically, Joe Biden endorsed a Green New Deal in our view, substantively,” Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of strategy and policy at the progressive polling and policy shop Data for Progress, told me. (His outfit was among the first to outline what a Green New Deal might actually look like, releasing a plan in September 2018.) Other left-wing groups haven’t gone quite that far, in part because Biden’s plan doesn’t adopt some of their more absolutist stances on energy. Unlike his former opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders, for instance, Biden wouldn’t ban natural gas and oil fracking or phase out nuclear power, and he leaves the door open to carbon capture technology, which some environmentalists see as distracting techno-optimism, and a lot of others think will be absolutely essential if we want to keep the planet from frying . Also, on the list of differences: AOC and Sen. Ed Markey wanted to move the country to clean energy in 10 years, whereas Biden’s timeline is longer and more realistic. And, of course, he isn’t signing on to Medicare for All.
But activists are still clearly happy with Biden’s leftward shift. The Sunrise Movement, the youth activist organization closely associated with the Green New Deal, issued an approving statement that took credit for teaching Joe Bide to “talk the talk” on climate, and promised to make him “walk the walk.” The group had previously given Biden’s climate plan an “F” grade during the Democratic primary.
What’s important about all of this, in the end, is that the activist wing of the Democratic party and its temperamentally moderate presidential nominee now appear to be closely aligned when it comes to their core approach to economic and climate policy. While Biden was getting ready to give his climate speech Tuesday, I happened to be talking with one of his longtime economic advisers, Jared Bernstein. I asked what part of his agenda Biden was most excited about. “I think what gets him particularly excited is doing something in the clean energy space that also helps domestic manufacturers, so that you’re doing well by doing good,” Bernstein told me.
What’s more, talking the talk comes extremely naturally to Biden. The Green New Deal, in the end, is meant to connect job creation and climate policy in the minds of voters. Adopting it as a keystone of his campaign gives Biden an excuse rhapsodize about bringing back well-paying blue collar jobs. “Look, these aren’t pie in the sky dreams,” he said in his speech Tuesday. “These are actionable policies that we can get to work on right away.”
“When Donald Trump thinks about renewable energy, he sees windmills somehow causing cancer,” Biden told the crowd. “When I think about these windmills, I see American manufacturing, American workers rising to dominate the global markets. I see steel that will be needed for those windmill platforms, towers and ladders which could be made in small manufacturers. I see the union-certified men and women who will manufacture and install it all. I see the ports that will come back to life—the longshoremen and the shipbuilders and the communities they support.”
That’s the Green New Deal, minus a bit of crazy.
Support our independent journalism
Readers like you make our work possible. Help us continue to provide the reporting, commentary, and criticism you won’t find anywhere else.Join Slate Plus