President-elect Joe Biden cited the New Deal as a major American inflection point in his victory address to the nation, indicating that we will need an equally massive policy response now to battle the Covid-19 pandemic and heal our damaged economy. And as he no doubt learned from Franklin Roosevelt, the window of opportunity for a president to achieve that kind of sweeping impact starts to close the moment he takes office.
In the coming weeks and months, there will be enormous pressure—from Republicans, from polluting and self-promoting industries, and from pundits who still think climate change is too controversial to address—for Democrats to limit their scope, to think small, to negotiate with a Republican Senate that has little interest in negotiating. The Biden-Harris administration and elected Democrats across the country should ignore such advice and build a political and governing movement that truly meets the moment.
To go big in the way the country expects, given the struggles millions of Americans are still going through, the administration will need a cohesive, unifying theme that creates a common story about its major goals. Just as the Great Depression called for a shared understanding of what needed to be done and why, the effort to “build back better” will depend on a genuine sense of common purpose in rebuilding infrastructure, rejuvenating the economy and restoring public health.
The common thread we need is obvious, and they shouldn’t miss it: It’s climate change. Beginning with its crucial first 100 days, the Biden-Harris administration—and Democrats in Congress and elsewhere—should close ranks around one big theme with many facets: The need to fight climate change and build a forward-looking, climate-friendly economy that’s strong enough to weather the shocks we know are coming.
For too long, “climate” policy has been treated as a discrete bucket of ideas divorced from our wider reality. It’s now clear that our entire national policy portfolio—economic development, transportation planning, housing and urban renewal, agricultural practices, not to mention oil and gas drilling—is really about climate change and how we intend to deal with it. It’s not just the elephant in the room. It’s the whole room.
Viewing the necessary work ahead through this lens has two enormous advantages over the alternatives. On the policy side, it’s big enough to encompass all of the administration’s major goals. Tackling climate change will require major action on transportation, infrastructure, energy supply, public health and more. On the political side, climate action polls extraordinarily well—two thirds of Americans think government should do more on climate—in a way that much of the political class has yet to internalize, even as the numbers get stronger for Democrats every election cycle.
The American people already understand the climate challenge to an extent that isn’t readily apparent inside the Beltway. The more aware Democrats become of this fact, the clearer our choices become. The most recent version of a long-running Yale poll called “Global Warming’s Six Americas,” released in October, had some remarkable findings:
• In 2014, the ratio of Americans alarmed about climate change to those who were dismissive was roughly one to one. There are now roughly four alarmed citizens for every American dismissing the science of climate change—the highest ratio since the program began collecting data in 2008.
• Only 18 percent of Americans are now “dismissive” or “doubtful” about the science of climate change and the need for action. More than half (54 percent) think the opposite, falling into the “alarmed” or “concerned” categories.
• For policymakers, the question is no longer how to explain the risks to the American public—it’s how we intend to address those risks and decarbonize our economy.
In other words, Democrats are in the enviable position of being on the right side of the science and public opinion at the same time. What’s better politics than taking necessary steps that Americans are already pushing us to take?
Indeed, the House Democratic majority has already been doing this, and it works. Climate policy comes under two very broad headings: ways to avert further catastrophe, and ways to mitigate the damage we know is already happening. House Democrats have voted overwhelmingly for both kinds of pro-climate policies time after time over the last two years in a way that few other policy areas matched. The House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis played a key role in building Democratic support for a comprehensive rather than piecemeal approach to climate policy, and its final report issued earlier this year will serve as a basis for our thinking in the upcoming Congress.
Bills to ban offshore drilling on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, in the Eastern Gulf of Mexico, and in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge saw few Democratic defections and even attracted considerable Republican support. So did bills to protect wilderness and create more conservation-friendly outdoor recreation jobs. A bill to improve federal planning for extreme weather events introduced by Rep. Matt Cartwright, a Democrat in a Pennsylvania swing district, passed the House without opposition—and Rep. Cartwright was re-elected this year in an unexpectedly tough political environment even as his district went for President Trump.
Put simply, pro-climate policies unite Democrats and voters. Climate change is already impacting millions of lives across the country, and anyone looking for a key to revitalizing Democratic fortunes in any region, with any demographic, should look first to direct and practical climate solutions.
Farmers know climate change is going to wreak havoc on their crops; Democrats should offer comprehensive environmental mitigation measures and economic assistance plans. Coastal areas—including politically contested regions like South Florida—are in serious danger of flooding and even disappearing; Democrats have everything to gain by campaigning on and implementing coastal resilience plans and other job-creating solutions like the Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act, the first comprehensive legislation for addressing climate impacts to the ocean and utilizing it to curb greenhouse gases and boost resilience.
By the same token, millions of Americans have been crying out for heightened emphasis on environmental justice and attention to the disparate impacts of existing pollution sources. Vice president-elect Kamala Harris understands the importance of responding to this enormous and long-ignored issue; in July she introduced the Senate version of a bill co-authored by me and Rep. A. Donald McEachin, the Environmental Justice for All Act. To his credit, President-elect Biden made a point of demonstrating during the presidential debates how out of touch the Trump administration has been on this front.
Our country’s best hope for the future is a decarbonized economy built around sustainable jobs and powered by clean energy. Rather than trying to explain each individual project or set of projects in isolation, fighting repeated hand-to-hand battles against the usual demagoguery and anti-government rhetoric, the Biden-Harris administration should continue what it started during the campaign. It should unite the country around a common theme and a set of important and achievable policy goals, an ambitious effort to retool our economy and our institutions to meet the challenge of climate change that we all know is very real.
As vice president, Biden led the “cancer moonshot” effort to break through longstanding barriers and deliver a major win not just for his fellow countrymen, but for all of humanity. That same spirit can now animate his entire presidency. Addressing climate change is necessary to make America stronger and safer, but it’s also part of our leadership role in protecting the entire planet. That’s the kind of president Biden promises to be, and it’s the kind of president he can be if he uses the right strategy to mobilize and unite the country in a way that truly meets the moment.