How Joe Biden Wins the Climate Messaging War and Fixes the Crisis

How Joe Biden Wins the Climate Messaging War and Fixes the Crisis
President Joe Biden speaks in the State Dining Room of the White House on Jan. 26, 2021. (Photo: Doug Mills/Pool, Getty Images)

When U.S. President Joe Biden revoked the Keystone XL pipeline permit, Republicans responded by over-inflating job loss numbers and generally making stuff up. On Wednesday, though, the administration showed it won’t cede ground to the lies.

The White House announced a slew of executive orders on its “climate day.” (For me, personally, that’s every day, but I digress.) What ties these executive orders together is that they aren’t about windmills or polar bears — they’re about people’s lived experiences. There’s obviously a lot to hammer out and, as Mijin Cha, a climate justice expert at Occidental College, said in an email, “the devil’s in the details.” But Wednesday’s announcement is an indicator that the Biden administration has gotten the message that Americans want to fix the climate and the economy.

Among the actions are a directive to start a Civilian Climate Corps, to build out a new tool to map out environmental injustices to target investments, and a commitment to ensure “40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments” meet the needs of frontline communities. All are wildly popular, according to polling by Data for Progress.

“One thing that our polling clearly showed is that voters really reject the kind of jobs versus environment framing that Republicans have kind of tried to shove down everyone’s throats for the last two years,” Marcela Mulholland, the progressive think tank’s political director, said. “Voters are actually overwhelmingly supportive of a job-creating approach to climate, [and] racial justice is a way to make climate policy resonate with voters more.”

Explaining how the administration sees this plan, White House domestic climate advisor Gina McCarthy said the orders are about “how we can put people to work using the skills they currently have” in their own communities. “We’re not going to ask people to go from the middle of Ohio or Pennsylvania, and ship out to the coasts to have solar jobs,” she added at a press briefing.

The statements are light years beyond the technocratic rhetoric we saw around climate during the Obama years, and instead reflect the language and values of grassroots activists and progressive politicians like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They also reflect reality: A United Nations report found that climate crisis could create 24 million jobs globally, and the faster the U.S. acts, the more of those jobs that could be created here while also kickstarting the economy left reeling from the pandemic.

“I think the playbook on this has existed for a long time, Democrats have just been afraid to use it,” Billy Fleming, the director of Penn’s McHarg Centre, said, referring to the jobs-climate-justice nexus. “And the result of that is that Republicans fill that vacuum with misinformation and nonsense.”

Every facet of addressing the climate crisis requires workers, including those in the fossil fuel industry who can put the skills they already have to work. Electric vehicle charging infrastructure needs to be built. Orphaned oil wells need to be plugged. Soil needs to be restored. Communities that have lived in the shadow of polluting power plants and refineries need to heal and see an influx of new job opportunities and 21st-century infrastructure like broadband. A just transition means job creation, and the Biden administration is putting that front and centre on climate day. Mulholland called it “a huge victory for the climate movement, for the progressive movement.”

Of course, climate messaging doesn’t solve the crisis, or else I’d be on a beach sipping mai tais. Republicans’ bad faith talking points won’t stop just because of the executive orders; in fact, they will almost surely intensify. That means the administration needs to deliver meaningful, visible benefits to Americans to address the climate, jobs, and inequality crisis.

On the environmental justice benefits, for example, Fleming noted the administration hasn’t said whether that means direct investments in frontline communities or co-benefits (investments in rich communities that trickle down to poorer ones), nor has it explained how it’ll target them. If it defines frontline communities too widely, it risks ploughing money into wealthy communities that already have resources.

“If you use a census tract to define the boundaries of a community, you can target that money extraordinarily well,” Fleming said. “If you choose a county, which is very large and can contain potentially hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of people, that makes it impossible, really, to meet the goals.”

The Climate Conservation Corps is another area that will come under scrutiny as it’s rolled out. The idea was a plank in Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s climate platform for his presidential bid, and a wildly popular one at that. But modelling it after Americorps, a program that sends young folks to disadvantaged communities for a year of service at poverty-level wages, could actually undercut the value of the program. Fleming said it would be cheap to do, which is the exact opposite of what’s needed; Americorps operates on a grant cycle that communities can apply for whereas climate change will require sustained, multi-decade investments and good-paying jobs that don’t disappear. Plus, Fleming warned, the idea is “part of this larger neoliberal project of outsourcing public services”

“The model of sending people into underserved communities is not a good model for building community capacity and also has an air of ‘white saviour’ to it,” Cha said. “I think a consistent requirement is funding: If you have substantial funding for capping oil and gas wells, for instance, then the jobs will be created.”

All of this is reason to undercut another Republican argument: That government is good for nothing. Decades of the Regan mindset of shrinking government and increased privatization have indeed set up the government to fail. But addressing the climate crisis gives us a chance to once again invest in the public good could show the sham that is Republicans’ quest to undermine the government and democracy.

“Public investment does not crowd out private investment, it crowds it in,” Fleming said, rattling off investments the government made that have fostered the rise of Silicon Valley and even the oil and gas industry. (There’s a whole book on the topic if you’re interested.)

Investing big and highlighting those investments, whether it’s electrifying the fleet of postal vehicles or installing broadband in coal country, is absolutely vital. There are a lot of terrible things about the Trump years, but one thing it showed is the value of being a showman, and Biden could take a page while dispensing with the all lying and illiberalism stuff. Ultimately, doing so could undercut Republicans and continue to unite workers in a common cause.

“The truth is that fossil fuel workers and climate advocates have far more in common than in conflict,” Cha said. Believing in that and investing in those communities accordingly is the only way for Biden’s climate agenda to continue to lift off.