It’s remarkable: A number of polls suggest that Democratic voters now consider climate change to be a top-tier issue, as important as health care. Perhaps even more remarkably, the party’s presidential candidates seem to be taking that interest seriously. Jay Inslee has staked his candidacy on the issue; Beto O’Rourke has used a climate proposal to revive his flagging campaign; and Elizabeth Warren has cited the warming planet across a wide set of her famous plans.
This week, Joe Biden joined their ranks, releasing a lengthy climate plan on his website. Though Reuters teased his policy last month as a “middle ground” approach more moderate than the Green New Deal, the proposal looks pretty aggressive and sounds almost Bernie Sanders–esque in its ambition. What the United States needs, Biden says, is a “clean energy revolution.”
That revolution’s main objective: achieving a “100% clean energy economy” in the United States by the year 2050. It’s an ambitious goal, both more stringent and longer-sighted than what the previous Democratic White House—which Biden unfailingly calls the “Obama-Biden administration”—pledged under the Paris Agreement on climate change. To meet its old Paris target, the United States had to cut its annual carbon emissions by 1.3 percentage points every year from 2016 to 2025. To meet the 2050 goal, it must cut at more than double that rate—2.9 percentage points—for each of the next 31 years.
Of course, pending both a revision to the Twenty-Second Amendment and a surge of investment in brain-in-a-jar technology, Biden will not be president 31 years from now. He does not propose a specific binding mandate, such as a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade regime, to carry the country all the way to that mid-century goal.
Instead, Biden says he will work hard to point the federal ship of state toward climate action. He promises to implement a muscular set of executive orders on his first day in the White House. He will require public companies to disclose climate-incurred costs, deploy the federal government’s purchasing power on the side of clean energy, and restrict the release of the superpowerful greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas wells. He will also “require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change”—a policy that could have led to a different outcome in the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline battles.
Biden also promises to wring $1.7 trillion in investment from Congress, “the largest-ever investment in clean energy research and innovation.” This money will fund a new technology-development program modeled on the Pentagon’s R&D agency, DARPA. This new “ARPA-C” will focus on the big and mostly unsolved challenges of decarbonization, such as electricity storage, advanced nuclear power, carbon capture, aviation emissions, and zero-carbon cement and steel manufacturing. The longtime Amtrak commuter would also push Congress to “spark the second great railroad revolution,” catching up to high-speed rail in Europe and China. He says he will halve rail-travel times from New York to Washington and extend his old train line—the Northeast Corridor—into the “fast-growing South.”
Finally, Biden says he will use the various instruments of global governance, including the International Monetary Fund, to pressure China and India to reduce their carbon emissions.
I have not glossed all the details here; the full proposal exceeds 10,000 words—although, as Business Insider and The Daily Caller have reported, the plan appears to have lifted language directly from climate-advocacy groups in at least five different places. (Biden’s campaign says the error was inadvertent and that the proper citations have now been added.) As the political scientist Leah Stokes has remarked, those lapses suggest that the policy was compiled hastily, almost in reaction to other candidates’ work.