Joe Biden made climate change a priority of his presidency, but progressives want him to go bigger

Ledyard King and Matthew Brown, USA TODAY
·7 min read

WASHINGTON – The biggest political challenge to President Joe Biden's efforts to combat climate change and address environmental injustice won't exclusively be the Republicans in Congress who think he's going too far left.

It'll likely also be the Democrats who are pushing him to go bigger and bolder.

Progressive lawmakers applaud Biden's goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, his re-entry into the Paris Climate accord, steps to pause drilling on public lands, and his calls for economic justice in forging a climate-friendly future.

But they also want him to speed things up. Dramatically.

Biden is expected to announced Thursday at an Earth Day summit with global leaders that the U.S. will cut greenhouse gas emissions by half from 2005 levels over the next decade, an administration official said Wednesday. That's twice the commitment former President Barack Obama made, a move environmental activists are likely to applaud as good – but not good enough.

Senator Ed Markey, D-MA, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) speak during a press conference to re-introduce the Green New Deal in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on April 20, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: AFP_98D8LR.jpg
Senator Ed Markey, D-MA, and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez(D-NY) speak during a press conference to re-introduce the Green New Deal in front of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on April 20, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images) ORG XMIT: 0 ORIG FILE ID: AFP_98D8LR.jpg

"The urgency of this crisis demands action," said Rep. Jared Huffman, D-Calif. "Winning slowly is the same thing as losing."

Huffman is a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, a sweeping climate change and economic justice plan reintroduced Tuesday by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., that has galvanized climate advocates and been used by Republicans to contend Democrats are radical socialists.

The 10-year, $10 trillion plan calls for free higher education, housing and health care, dwarfing the proposed $2.25 trillion jobs and infrastructure proposal known as the American Jobs Plan that Biden unveiled last month.

The president has broadly committed to decarbonize the country's electrical grid by 2035 and eliminate emissions altogether by 2050. His plan calls for spending on electric vehicle charging stations, improved broadband and technologies such as carbon capture to meet those targets. He also wants to reverse high pollution levels in minority and low-income communities.

More: AOC, Markey reintroduce Green New Deal proposal aimed at climate change, economic injustice

More: Biden builds solid infrastructure proposal, but hard questions remain on American Jobs Plan

It's unlikely the Green New Deal will get a floor vote in Congress, but the president and congressional leaders at least will have to acknowledge the sizeable marker progressives have laid down.

“Two trillion dollars over eight years as proposed by President Biden last month is not going to get the job done in time," Kari Fulton with the Climate Justice Alliance said during a Capitol Hill news conference Tuesday announcing the Green New Deal.

But it's not just progressives Biden needs to please.

Democratic moderates, particularly West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, whose state's economy relies on coal and natural gas production, have already signaled their resistance to any phase-out of fossil fuels – especially when it's not clear whether China and other major carbon-emitting nations are making similar sacrifices.

The U.S. is the world's second-biggest generator of greenhouse gases (behind China), emitting about 13% of the planet's annual output.

"You better come to the realization that this is the only country that will find a solution through innovation that produces new technology," Manchin said Monday at a National Press Club event. "We can use coal and continue to use it cleaner than ever before and we can clean up the environment around the world, but we can't do it by sticking our heads in the sand and eliminating it."

Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing for Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., President Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of the Interior, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 24, 2021, in Washington.
Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va.,, chairman of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, gives opening remarks at the confirmation hearing for Rep. Debra Haaland, D-N.M., President Joe Biden's nominee for Secretary of the Interior, during her confirmation hearing before the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, at the U.S. Capitol on Feb. 24, 2021, in Washington.

Manchin, who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, is one of the few voices in the party calling for a more measured approach. But in a Senate split 50-50 between Republicans and Democratic caucus members, Biden will have to navigate his plan around the West Virginia senator.

For now, progressives want to see specifics, particularly on what Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., calls "the unifying message” to end subsidies to oil companies and other fossil fuel producers.

Washington provides several tax subsidies to the fossil fuel industry as a means of encouraging domestic energy production, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. The organization cites estimates that put direct subsidies at roughly $20 billion per year; with 20 percent currently allocated to coal and 80 percent to natural gas and crude oil.

Biden has been promising for months to eliminate the subsidies for drillers and producers. Getting there won't be easy since he'll need Congress to end the tax breaks that comprise the bulk of that federal assistance.

Despite resistant lawmakers, Khanna said Biden needs to be specific and assertive about ending the subsidies.

"I mean, the plan is just vague," the congressman told USA TODAY. "It says to end fossil fuel subsidies, but what we need to know is, What does that mean? And we want to make sure that that's in the House bill and the Senate bill signed by the president."

At the news conference unveiling the Green New Deal, Ocasio-Cortez praised the Biden administration for incorporating some of the positions progressives are pushing.

But "we have to go bigger and bolder than that," she said. "I think its politically riskier to not pass legislation that changes people's lives and send the message that a Democratic majority won't do much."

More: Republicans tell Buttigieg that Biden's infrastructure bill should focus on roads, rail, ports - not climate or social justice

Biden's emissions plan, GOP pushing back

Biden is expected to announce his plan to cut emissions by 50-52 percent during a virtual climate summit to commemorate Earth Day with 40 world leaders on Thursday and Friday. The summit will include Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron and Saudi King Salman.

The 50 percent target would nearly double the nation’s previous commitment and require dramatic changes in the power and transportation sectors, including significant increases in renewable energy such as wind and solar power and steep cuts in emissions from fossil fuels such as coal and oil.

Anything short of that goal could undermine Biden’s promise to prevent temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, experts say, while likely stirring up sharp criticism from international allies and Biden’s own supporters.

Biden could use some GOP support on Capitol Hill, but early verdicts on his plan aren't promising.

"I don't think the bill can grow into a multi-trillion-dollar catch-all," Missouri Rep. Sam Graves, the top Republican on the House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee, said during a recent hearing. "A transportation bill needs to be a transportation bill, not a Green New Deal. It needs to be about roads and bridges."

And Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a key GOP moderate, questioned why the Biden plan spends $174 billion on charging stations and subsidies to help the electric vehicle industry while only setting aside $157 billion for basic infrastructure.

"It's certainly appropriate to look ahead and to accommodate future and cleaner modes of transportation," she told Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg at a hearing Tuesday. "But what the administration is doing is spending billions more on subsidies related to electric vehicles than on the roads and bridges on which they will travel."

Climate policy in the executive branch

Not all of the administration's ambitions on climate run through the halls of Congress. At the start of his term, Biden identified climate change as one of the four "converging crises" of his presidency, alongside the coronavirus pandemic, economic inequality and racial justice.

The president's promise to address the climate is already being carried out through executive branch agencies and the White House even as much of the administration's focus is still trained on Congress.

Among the policies administration officials are deliberating are federal rule changes to limit fossil fuel development on federal lands, reforming building and fuel efficiency standards and new efforts to expand and preserve public lands.

More: Electric cars aren't the climate-change answer Joe Biden is selling you

Biden has taken other climate focused actions, including rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and signing an executive order upon taking office that directed federal agencies to prioritize combatting climate change as well as public and environmental health. He's also ordered a temporary pause on the issuance of new oil and gas leases on federal lands and waters.

Is it enough? Not for Markey, the Massachusetts Democrat who co-authored the Green New Deal.

“We believe that this is the moment that requires us to act big, think big, have a program that matches the magnitude of the problems that we’re confronted with and to do so with justice,” he said Tuesday. “We’re going to be calling for he highest aspirations that our country can reach.”

Contributing: Savannah Behrmann, Associated Press

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Earth Day: Biden faces heat from progressives and moderates on climate