Joe Biden Proposes the Climate Equity Act to Mitigate Climate Change and Provide Massive Assistance to Frontline and Fenceline Communities

Joe Biden, Democratic nominee, rolled out his climate action plan in July and environmental groups who have been sounding the alarm over the Climate Crisis were surprised at the plan’s bold, progressive stance.  After all, just a few months ago, when Biden was sharing the crowded stage with other Democratic presidential hopefuls, he was viewed by many as a 77 yr. old that didn’t really get the science and urgency of climate change.  The youth-led Sunrise Movement actually gave Biden an “F” on his first climate plan announced during the primaries.  

The new Biden proposal is ambitiously titled the “Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Opportunity in a Clean Energy Future,” or the “Climate Equity Act,” for short. 

What has transformed the Biden camp, in just a few short months, and led to the announcement of the new and far reaching, Climate Equity Act?  Biden knows he must attract the support of young and liberal Democrats and independents to defeat Trump in November.  Many of the younger Sanders and Warren faithfuls have shown little enthusiasm for Biden as a true advocate for the environment, where they say he comes up short.  Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, was the Democratic presidential candidate with the strongest credentials and the most detailed and ambitious five-part plan for protecting the environment.  The Biden camp has borrowed freely from Inslee’s comprehensive and far-reaching plan in devising its own and it even adopted the environmental justice policies set out in the Green New Deal.

Despite a decades-long, elaborate and well-funded disinformation campaign by oil and gas producers to sow doubt that there is a direct link between the burning of fossil fuels and the greenhouse effect, a majority of Americans, including many conservatives, now view climate change as a top ranking issue of national concern.  Wildfires raging in California, Oregon and Washington, massive floods and droughts in the Midwest farm belt and record- breaking, scorching temperatures across much of the South and West, can no longer be ignored or passed off as merely natural variations in the weather.  

Trump, famously a climate denier, called climate change a Chinese hoax, and just after taking office announced the United States’ withdraw from the 200-member 2015 Paris Climate Accord, the only country to do so.  

Under the Trump White House, appointees to head the EPA and Interior Department are fossil fuel lobbyists, industry representatives and former state officials that sued the EPA and challenged its authority to regulate industries that pollute the air and water.  In close concert with these industry advocates, the Trump cadres have shamelessly put forward an endless series of policies and executive orders to roll back the bedrock 1960s and 1970s Clean Water and Clean Air legislation.

The EPA and Interior Department under Trump have advocated the elimination of Obama’s signature environmental policy, the Clean Power Plan, which required each state to monitor and  require reduced emissions from local power companies.  Trump also drastically scaled back the Obama administration’s strict timetable for reducing auto and small truck tailpipe emissions – the biggest source of Earth warming greenhouse gases.  Obama’s plan required that auto manufacturers build car and small truck fleets with an average of 54 mpg fuel efficiency by 2025 compared to Trump’s rollback that requires only 40 miles per gallon.  In July Trump announced the weakening of key features of the landmark 1969 Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) that mandates all executive federal agencies to prepare environmental impact statements and assessments to show the environmental effects of federal infrastructure projects such as pipelines, highways and power plants.

The Trump White House’s policy to reverse more than a half century of legislation passed by both Democratic and Republican administrations to protect the country’s air and water and the public’s heath, has been alarming, especially against the backdrop of a constant flow of new major climate studies showing that climate change models have been far too conservative in their predictions of a dangerously warming planet.  

During the primaries, Biden’s climate plan called for the expenditure of  $1.7 trillion over ten years that would achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. He’s now upped the ante to spending $2 trillion in just four years with the goal of reaching zero carbon emissions from the electric power sector by 2035. 

Issues of environmental justice, for poorer communities, key components of the Green New Deal, authored by Sen. Ed Markey, (D-Mass.) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, (D-Bronx and Queens, N.Y.), have been incorporated as a central feature of Biden’s new climate plan.  In a nod to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, Biden named Ocasio-Cortez as Co-Chair of his new task force to implement the Climate Equity Act.  Joining Ocasio-Cortez as Co-Chair will be John Kerry, former Secretary of State and an architect of the Paris Accords.

Biden is calling for the creation of an Environmental Justice Division within the US Department of Justice. Communities will be encouraged to file lawsuits against industries that degrade their water, soil and air. States will be required to monitor environmental pollution and industrial emissions. 

Two prominent advocates in the environmental justice movement, Catherine Flowers and Donald McEachin (D-Va.), have also been named by Biden as members of his new task force. Flowers is the founder of the Alabama-based Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice. She worked in the poorest counties of Alabama’s Black Belt on issues of lack of sewage disposal and infrastructure.  McEachin co-sponsored an environmental justice bill that mandates consideration of cumulative health decisions under the Clean Air Act in new permitting decisions. 

Also named to the Task Force are Gina McCarthy and Representative Kathy Castor (D-Fla.).  McCarthy, President and CEO of Natural Resources Defense Council, was Administrator of Environmental Protection Agency under Obama and who helped develop the Obama Clean Power Plan.  Castor has served as Chair of the House Select Committee on the Environment that just released its own 500-page comprehensive climate plan in early July.      

One prominent feature of the detailed House plan that is not mentioned in the Biden proposal is its strong opposition to any elimination of legal liability of the fossil fuel companies for their long history of greenhouse gases emissions, the principal cause of the Climate Crisis. By comparison, the House climate proposal chaired  by Castor, comes out strongly against relieving fossil fuel companies of legal liability.  Several states such as New York, Massachusetts, Minnesota and the District of Columbia and cities such as Boulder, Hoboken, Richmond and Charleston as well as citizens groups, have brought lawsuits against the biggest oil and gas companies for their decades-long contribution to the accumulation in the atmosphere of carbon emissions and environmental degradation of their communities. The oil and gas companies have been angling for immunity from liability in exchange for the passage of a nominal carbon tax or other new, modest environmental legislation. 

One criticism of the Biden plan from environmental groups including the Sunrise Movement, that was that it does not call for the end of fracking, doesn’t  ban exports and imports of fossil fuels and doesn’t  halt the building of fossil fuel infrastructure including  pipelines.

The Biden plan calls for programs that reduce pollution to residents of black and brown “front line” and “fence line” communities.  Minorities disproportionally bear the brunt of toxic degradation from refineries that are often built adjacent to their poorer neighborhoods.  These communities whose health and well-being have largely been ignored by both private industry and public officials, are promised an impressive 40 percent of the new clean energy benefits and infrastructure contained in the new Biden Climate Equity Act.

“We have to make sure that the first people who benefit from this are the people who were most hurt historically,” Biden announced.

Biden wants to create more than one million jobs in a clean, renewable, economy including in the coal mining communities of Appalachia that are in sharp decline as coal, the dirtiest fossil fuel, is quickly being replaced by natural gas to fuel a majority of electric power plants around the country.  Subsidies and tax credits would be given to companies that build wind and solar energy-based power plants. Electric generating plants will be carbon free by 2035 under the plan. 

Under the Biden proposal, the federal government will support the development of carbon-free public transportation within cities as well as high-speed rail between cities. 

Millions of commercial and residential buildings, including public housing, will be upgraded for energy efficiency. Any new residential and commercial construction will be required to be built to the new efficiency standards. 

To gain the support of labor unions, Biden has promised to create thousands of high paid, skilled jobs in the development of renewable energy.  He anticipates that jobs will proliferate in the coming manufacturing boom of electric vehicles. Economic incentives would be provided to auto manufacturers to promote the development of emission-free electric cars and the US would replace China as the world’s biggest producer of zero emissions cars and trucks.  

How will the $2 trillion plan be financed?  Biden proposes an increase of the current corporate income tax rate from 21 % to 28 %.

Not mentioned in the Biden plan is totally ending US dependence on fossil fuels, what many environmental groups state as the unavoidable step in effectively reducing the catastrophic effects of the Climate Crisis.

The US has recently become the world’s largest producer and exporter of oil and natural gas, a revolution created by the new fracking technology.  With only 4.5 % of the world’s population, the US has historically contributed 25 % of the accumulated carbon in the atmosphere and each year the US is responsible for 15% of the world’s carbon emissions, second only to China that emits 27 %.

To avoid a dystopian world of an overheated planet, rising sea levels, floods, droughts, mass starvation and hundreds of millions of climate refugees by mid-century, a large percentage of fossil fuel reserves must simply be kept in the ground.  Climate scientists predict, and Biden has acknowledged, that if the US and other countries continue to emit carbon at present levels, in only nine years the planet will be locked into an irreversible climate crisis with rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures spiraling out of control for thousands of years. 

Joe Biden’s sudden epiphany of the Climate Crisis and the need to face it head on with a transformed green economy is a welcomed new departure as compared to the Trump years of climate denial and pandering to drilling and mining interests.  

To bolster Biden’s chance of prevailing in the November election, the Democratic Party will have to please its liberal as well as more conservative supporters in the formulation of its environmental platform.  To win important states like Pennsylvania, where the economy relies in part on the continued mining of coal and extraction of oil and natural gas, will the Democrats scale back their ambitious announcement to reduce the country’s dependence on fossil fuels? 

Big Oil recognizes it is facing strong political headwinds to keep increasing its extraction of oil and gas and avoid vast stranded assets that would be kept in the ground. They know they will be confronting substantial opposition from many states and the federal government as policy makers advocate more progressive policies to reduce dependence on fossil fuels and support the development of renewable energy.   

If Biden is elected, a radical and transformative environmental program of new laws and regulations would have to be enacted if there is any chance of meeting the goals set forth in the UN IPCC Climate Report to keep the planet’s temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 C degrees above pre-industrial levels. The Earth has already experienced a dangerous 1 C degree increase, much of it just since the 1970s. 

“We’re going to lock in progress that no future president can roll back or undercut to take us backward again, “ Biden announced.

Will a Biden administration have the political will and enjoy sufficient broad public support to institute policies and legislation necessary to lead the country in an entirely new direction and transform the US economy to one based on renewables and energy efficiency?  Kamala Harris, Biden’s running mate could be a key player in pushing an aggressive agenda to protect the environment after the four-year Trump environmental debacle. Harris  got a “B +” (“77/100”) on the Greenpeace # Climate 2020 scorecard, just slightly ahead of Biden who  received a  B+ (“77.5/100”).  

Harris has been criticized by environmentalists for not suing Big Oil when she was Attorney General of California as New York and Massachusetts did.  But Harris cosponsored with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the Green New Deal (2019) and the Climate Equity Act (2019).  She introduced or cosponsored  the Stop Arctic Ocean Drilling  Act (2017), the Close Big Oil Tax Loopholes Act (2017), the Living Shorelines  Act (2018) and the Zero-Emissions Vehicle Act (2019).