Biden links climate action with jobs in closing argument

Source: By Scott Waldman, E&E News reporter • Posted: Monday, November 2, 2020

Joe Biden has leaned on climate change in the homestretch of his White House campaign — deploying the issue as a way to talk about energy jobs, environmental justice and how he sees the world differently from President Trump.

In a Twitter post yesterday, Biden recalled Trump’s past dismissal of climate change as a hoax. “I believe climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Donald Trump doesn’t even think it exists,” he wrote. “It’s that simple, folks.”

The message builds on a climate speech Biden delivered Sept. 14 in which he described global warming as an unequal disaster. “The unrelenting impact of climate change affects every single, solitary one of us,” he said. “But too often the brunt falls disproportionately on communities of color, exacerbating the need for environmental justice.”

And it adds to an economic message that Biden uncorked last week. “Combating climate change means jobs,” Biden said at a rally in Florida on Thursday. “We can unleash American ingenuity and manufacturing to build a stronger and more climate-resilient nation, creating millions of new, high-paying union jobs.”

Biden’s use of climate change as a political Swiss Army knife has earned plaudits from allies and progressive activists. And there are signs that U.S. voters are growing more attuned to the dangers of a warming planet.

But Biden’s focus on the issue also has given fuel to Trump, who repeatedly has accused Biden of pursuing climate fixes at the expense of U.S. fossil fuel workers. That’s especially true in the swing state of Pennsylvania, where Trump has harped on Biden’s past comments about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

“Pennsylvania: Biden said that he doesn’t want Fracking. Besides, and more importantly, his handlers won’t allow Fracking,” Trump wrote yesterday on Twitter. “That would be the end of Pennsylvania!”

Biden said at a primary debate earlier this year that he would ban fracking, but he later walked that statement back to say he only intended to bar fracking on federal lands.

Which message wins out won’t be known until the results of tomorrow’s election roll in. But one Democratic operative argued that the political and environmental climate is more friendly now to a dual climate and jobs message.

John Podesta, an architect of President Obama’s climate agenda, said the renewable energy industry is in a much stronger position now than it was in 2016. Tens of thousands of clean energy jobs have been created throughout the country in the last decade, he said.

“Acceleration has shown that this is real, that these are the jobs of the future, that this is a pathway to produce jobs at all skills levels, and people can count on the fact that they’re going to be real and that you can’t export them, and that the industry and innovation of the future is really in the clean tech sector,” he said.

Polls show that a clean energy jobs boom is a winning political issue, not only with Democrats, but with independents and Republicans.

A Morning Consult poll released Wednesday found that 69% of Americans want the country to transition to renewable energy from fossil fuels, compared with 19% opposed.

Americans in support include 83% of Democrats, 68% of independents and 55% of Republicans, according to the poll, which was conducted Oct. 23-25 and has a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

Another poll released Wednesday found 63% of Americans want to invest in renewables, while 36% embrace natural gas as the foundational fuel that should power the country.

Fifty-eight percent of respondents said increasing production of renewables is more likely to create a greater number of good jobs than increasing production of fossil fuels, while 25% said the reverse, according to the poll conducted by Yale and George Mason universities and Climate Nexus, an advocacy group.

Promises of jobs

If Biden is elected, it remains to be seen how much influence his $2 trillion climate plan would wield over a clean energy market that has been growing for years, observers say.

Biden can nudge the industry, but it is already poised for tremendous growth over the next decade without government intervention, said Charles Fishman, an analyst at the Morningstar market firm. He predicts the share of renewables powering the grid will grow from 11% to 22% in the next 10 years.

The renewable industry has been growing for years and is now competitive with fossil fuels. It’s eating into the market share of both coal and nuclear and can do so without government subsidies, Fishman said. And it’s not just about cost, he noted. State and local governments are increasingly setting aggressive renewable energy targets on a relatively tight timeline, and a growing number of corporations are also committing to clean energy.

Biden’s clean energy job promises would be boosted by a market that faces few significant headwinds, but it will come at the cost of fossil fuel jobs, he said.

“I don’t think it matters if it’s Biden or Trump, the move to renewables is driven at the state level as well as corporate level,” Fishman said. “Shifting to renewables is not as bad as Trump says and not as good as Biden says. Renewables do create jobs, but obviously any restrictions on fracking or those kinds of jobs, you’re going to have less of that.”

There are 3.4 million clean energy jobs in the U.S. including renewables, energy efficiency, grid modernization and storage, and clean vehicles, according to a report released by the Brookings Institution last month. Workers in the clean energy sector make higher wages than the national median, and some parts of the sector pay higher than some fossil fuel jobs.

Clean energy paid a median hourly wage of $23.89 in 2019 compared with the national median wage of $19.14. And while fossil fuel industry jobs paid a median of $24.37 an hour, solar jobs paid $24.48 an hour, while wind and grid modernization jobs pay on average more than $25 an hour, the report found.

Still, Biden will have to grapple with longtime criticisms of the renewable industry — which has relatively low union membership and generally fewer health benefits than the fossil fuel industry.

What’s more, after the construction of solar and wind installations, few employees are needed to maintain operations. Currently, there are about 350,000 jobs in the wind and solar industry, compared with about 800,000 people in natural gas and coal production, transmission and storage, according to the U.S. Energy and Employment Report.

The Biden plan promises millions of jobs across the sector, with a focus on increasing union membership. It envisions a million new employees in the automotive sector alone, building not just electric vehicles, but also the needed infrastructure such as charging stations.

Another million will come from upgrading buildings to become more energy efficient as well as in the construction of more sustainable homes. Most of the job growth will come in decarbonizing the power sector by 2035, a rapid and unprecedented shift that would be without precedent.

Biden has used his job pledges to win over union leaders, who have been skeptical of climate policy because of its impact on the fossil fuel industry that employs many of their members.

Biden won over the powerful International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers union, which has endorsed him even as it has fought against some of Obama’s climate policy. The IBEW endorsement came after Biden pledged his clean energy jobs plan would be centered on increasing and maintaining union jobs.

Environmental justice

But campaign rhetoric and market forces — not to mention Washington’s notorious political gridlock — will define whether Biden will actually deliver a clean energy jobs boom.

The challenge is to spend $2 trillion well, said Adele Morris, policy director for climate and energy economics at the Brookings Institution. In particular, it will be important not to give people money to do things they were going to do anyway, she said. Some parts of the job growth can be incentivized with regulation; others will need government funding.

Morris said one good example is Biden’s aim to create 250,000 jobs plugging abandoned oil and natural gas wells and reclaiming abandoned coal, hardrock and uranium mines. The jobs will give laid-off workers the choice to remain in a union while also controlling pollution, such as methane emissions and mine waste, that harms their own communities.

Perhaps the most meaningful shift around clean energy jobs is the willingness to spend large sums of money to get people working in the industry, Morris said. That’s a shift from previous elections, and it includes a broader assessment of where those funds should be spent.

“What’s different is this willingness to spend large sums of money. I don’t remember anybody ever talking in the trillions for climate-related spending; that certainly wasn’t the case in the last election,” she said. “I think there is a reframing. People are less focused on regulation, they’re talking more about spending and creating jobs and environmental justice.”

That environmental justice pledge is what sets Biden’s plan apart from previous Democratic attempts to boost the clean energy industry, said Robert Bullard, a professor at Texas Southern University who is widely considered the father of the environmental justice movement.

He said a green energy economy benefits those who live near refineries and other polluting sites, because the closure of those sites would make communities healthier. What makes Biden’s plan promising, he said, is that the closure of an oil refinery — where the jobs typically don’t benefit those who live near the plant — could create new jobs for the community to clean it up and replace it with a clean power source. While Biden’s vision isn’t perfect, it’s the strongest recognition of environmental justice he’s seen from a general election candidate, he said.

“Those of us who have been working on this for decades see this as a major step forward,” Bullard said. “This is ambitious, but the time we’re living in now calls for transformative change — not baby steps — and we need to make sure that we step up and take on these challenges that have too long been ignored or pushed on the back burner.”