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Biden Is Imperiling a Tremendous Climate Legacy

If he loses — which, at this stage, seems likely — this will all have been for nought.

President Biden.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Let’s start here: Joe Biden is losing the presidential election. He is now roughly 2 points behind Donald Trump in national polls, according to the FiveThirtyEight average. Though that may sound small, no Democrat has been further behind in the polls, at this point in the election, since Al Gore in 2000.

Some of this collapse is due to fatigue with Democrats in general, part of a global wave of anti-incumbent fervor. But at least some is specific to Biden. In some swing state polls, a large gap has opened up between Biden and the Democratic Senate candidate. Senator Tammy Baldwin, for instance, is running 12 points ahead of Biden in Wisconsin, according to an AARP poll released on Tuesday. Wisconsin is one of three key states that the president must win to clinch re-election.

This is, obviously, a significant problem for Democrats. Senator Michael Bennett, a Democrat of Colorado, believes the party is on track to lose control of the House and Senate in addition to the presidency.

But it is a particular issue for those who believe the American economy should decarbonize. Biden alone among candidates in the presidential election has an impressive climate record: He fought for the passage of — and subsequently signed — the Inflation Reduction Act, the largest climate law in American history. For 30 years, Democrats had tried and failed to pass comprehensive climate legislation through the U.S. Senate; it finally happened under Biden’s watch.

The Biden administration has also used its considerable presidential powers to lower carbon emissions: The Environmental Protection Agency has proposed rules that would significantly cut heat-trapping pollution from power plants, cars and trucks, and the oil and gas sector, and the Department of Energy and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration have each set out their own emissions-reducing rules.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law is also helping to establish new, multi-billion-dollar “hubs” that aim to commercialize clean hydrogen production and carbon removal technologies. The president even stepped in to block new natural gas export terminals — a move that I have more complicated feelings about, but that, in any case, a federal judge has now blocked.

I don’t need to go over the litany of Trump’s environmental misdeeds, but suffice it to say that during his time in office, Donald Trump demonstrated a distinct glee in tearing up climate regulations and blocking decarbonization. He withdrew America from the Paris Agreement, rolled back the EPA’s climate rules, and deemed climate change a “hoax.” In his second term, he again seeks to overturn the EPA’s new climate proposals, including requirements that automakers sell more electric vehicles. The Heritage Foundation’s more complete plans for a second Trump administration — dubbed Project 2025 — calls for closing dozens of government offices concerned with climate change, ending energy efficiency standards, repealing the IRA’s tax credits, and breaking up the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Suffice it to say: Biden is the only serious candidate in the race who wants to do something about climate change. He is the climate candidate, and he has a climate record to run on. But Biden has miserably failed to communicate any of these policy successes to the masses. Nearly 60% of voters said they knew little or nothing about the Inflation Reduction Act, according to the Heatmap Climate Poll, conducted late last year. (A Yale and George Mason University survey found roughly similar results.)

You might think that reveals a canny strategy on the White House’s part: Perhaps it knows the IRA is divisive, and so it is only bragging about the law to the right audience. But polling shows Biden’s policies are consistently failing to reach the very Americans who should have heard about them — the subset of Americans who are worried about climate change and want to see something done about it. Of Americans who believe climate change is a “very important” issue, only 10% have heard or read a lot about Biden’s climate policies, according to an April CBS News/YouGov poll. And nearly half of Americans who rate climate change highly said that they have heard nothing or “very little” about Biden’s efforts, according to the same survey.

That is not the only poll to reach that conclusion. Another recent survey, conducted by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Research, found that nearly half of Americans were more concerned about climate change this year than they were last year — but that barely any of that cohort had heard about the IRA, and few thought the legislation would affect their lives or mitigate climate change. Nearly half of the poll’s respondents either didn’t know whether the IRA would help climate change or thought it would make it worse. The IRA — and Biden’s climate agenda more broadly — is failing to break through.

Now, I don’t labor under the impression that climate change is a particularly potent or popular electoral issue. I’ve come to think that climate, if not actively deleterious to Democrats, is at least an electoral sideshow to the more enduring issues at the center of American politics: the economy, interest rates, taxes, health care, and national security. (Of course, climate change could vastly reshape the American economy and the public’s health, but other, more immediate concerns — such as employment, inflation, or abortion access — understandably remain more front-of-mind for voters.)

But as a climate journalist, I’ve still found the past two years perplexing. Why do so few people seem to understand the IRA’s goals? Why has the Biden administration struggled so much to communicate the IRA’s most popular aspect — namely, that it will reduce electricity costs (if not inflation itself) for voters? Consider the bare political record here: The Biden administration passed a law called the Inflation Reduction Act, and inflation subsequently came down. A more competent administration would be all over that simplistic, but still potent, victory. So why don’t more people seem to know about what Biden is doing? How is the federal government doing so much on climate change and nobody — not even climate-concerned Democrats — seem to care?

These questions have an easy answer: The candidate is not capable of communicating these victories, so they are not breaking through. Biden, in his diminished state, is not a skilled, crisp, or even very decipherable communicator. As Ezra Klein has observed, Biden is not generating the kind of memorable moments or sterling speeches that Democrats can share among themselves. He is barely speaking in complete sentences. In today’s fragmented media landscape, where first-person accounts and viral videos can go much further than news stories or wonky analysis, the candidate must be the chief champion of his or her victories. Judging from Biden’s disastrous performance at the first presidential debate — and his relative lack of lengthy, unscripted public appearances since then, and the account of those who have interacted with him — he seemingly cannot meet that standard.

Biden’s tremendous climate legacy rests on whether he can sell his accomplishments to the public and win the 2024 election. And that ability is faltering, to say the least.

Robinson Meyer profile image

Robinson Meyer

Robinson is the founding executive editor of Heatmap. He was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he covered climate change, energy, and technology.


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JD Vance.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

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