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Does Biden Himself Matter for Climate Policy?

Whether he steps aside or not, there’ll be a climate Democrat on the ticket.

President Biden.
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Joe Biden was not a late arrival to the cause of arresting climate change, even if for most of his career he was better known for advancing the interests of the credit card industry than for environmental passion. He introduced an early climate bill in 1987, and though it didn’t do much (the bill, which eventually passed, set up a task force to study the issue), he can legitimately claim to have been there early. As president he has spoken with sincere feeling about climate; even through the muddle of his first debate with Donald Trump, he managed to say that “the only existential threat to humanity is climate change,” one of the clearest statements he made all evening.

After his first debate with Donald Trump and the doubts it raised about his ability to serve out another term, it’s natural to wonder whether we’re approaching a high water mark of action on climate, and that after this president the tide will again gradually recede. When we elect a president, we elect a person who has their own values and priorities — but we also elect not only the large group of policy personnel that accompanies them but on top of that an entire political party that determines what course they will take. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact when so much attention is focused on the individual who occupies the Oval Office, as though politics were a story with a singular protagonist whose will determines the outcome of events.

But the truth is that the next Democrat in the White House — whether it’s Kamala Harris or someone else — would not be able to backslide on this issue even if they wanted to. Aggressive climate action is now woven into the Democratic Party’s governing agenda for the foreseeable future.

This is partly a story about polarization, which can sometimes have positive effects. Not too long ago, the parties contained an ample amount of ideological diversity; there were Northern liberal Republicans and Southern conservative Democrats. Though it was race that powered the realignment that began in the 1960s, one by one nearly every major policy issue polarized cleanly along party lines. Which means that once a party decides an issue is important to them, every elected official has to get on board if they have ambitions for higher office.

Intra-party disagreement on policy hasn’t entirely disappeared, but it takes place within a much narrower band of alternatives, and on some issues there is almost no disagreement at all. There used to be pro-choice, pro-gun reform Republicans and pro-life, pro-gun Democrats, but they all either left office or changed their positions. With Joe Manchin retiring this year, there will be almost no prominent fossil fuel advocates left in the Democratic Party.

Few politicians have been more diligent in shifting with their party than Biden, who spent a career carefully positioning himself precisely where the center of Democratic gravity was. This is why he has been a much more progressive president than one might have thought, especially given that he was considered the “moderate” alternative to the likes of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren in the 2020 primaries. On almost no issue is that more clear than on climate, where he can accurately claim to have done more than any president in history.

If you look back at what the primary candidates were saying in 2020, most of the differences were small. Biden and others promised to pursue net-zero emissions for the nation by 2050, while a few set their target at 2045. Sanders’ plans were the most enthusiastically optimistic (100% renewables in energy and transportation by 2030; $16.3 trillion in green spending), but all of them had committed to making climate action a policy centerpiece of their administrations.

That includes Kamala Harris, who has sometimes been the public face of the administration’s climate efforts. To anyone wondering whether Harris feels the urgency of climate action in her bones, the answer is that it doesn’t really matter. If you’re a Democrat, you have to pursue that goal because the entire party, from members of Congress to activists to voters, will demand it.

That goes as well for the Democratic governors who are likely future presidential contenders, either this year if Biden steps aside or in 2028. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan signed a package of measures to bring her state to 100% clean energy by 2040, and has pushed a comprehensive “Healthy Climate Plan” that addresses energy, transportation, residential decarbonization, and climate resilience. California’s Gavin Newsom has put climate at the center of his governorship, attacking oil companies, spending tens of billions of dollars on climate initiatives, and signing a law banning the sale of new gas-powered cars by 2035. J.B. Pritzker in Illinois has signed legislation to achieve 100% clean energy and pushed a comprehensive climate strategy. Gov. Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania has walked a more careful line in the third-largest coal-producing state (unlike the others, he has to contend with a legislature partly controlled by Republicans), but he has advocated a carbon pricing program and touts a variety of efforts to reduce emissions in the state.

In other words, any Democratic governor with national ambitions has to be able to tell voters that in their state they made progress on climate. It isn’t enough to say they agree with the party’s basic orientation; they have to show results, just as a Republican governor will have to demonstrate that they limited abortion access and expanded gun rights.

That doesn’t mean progress is guaranteed even when an administration committed to climate action is in office, as recent Supreme Court rulings make clear. But if it was something of a surprise to see the moderate Joe Biden do as much as he did on climate, his Democratic successors will have to take this administration’s record as a baseline, and at least try to do no less. They won’t have a choice.

Paul Waldman profile image

Paul Waldman

Paul Waldman is an MSNBC columnist, co-host of the Boundary Issues podcast, and author of The Cross Section, a newsletter about politics. His latest book is White Rural Rage: The Threat to American Democracy.

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