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Biden's climate plan won praise from progressives. Now he needs their votes.

Posted July 30, 2020 9:00 a.m. EDT

— Joe Biden's increasingly aggressive plans to combat climate change have turned a fraught primary that often pit the moderate former vice president against progressive activists into a shotgun political marriage ahead of next month's Democratic convention.

Biden's climate plans -- the product of his campaign's months-long talks with multiple former Democratic presidential rivals and movement leaders, crafted as the coronavirus pandemic sent unemployment soaring and protests over racial injustice gripped the nation -- offer a unique and telling window into how Biden has managed to at least temporarily unite his party's warring factions.

People involved in conversations as Biden developed his proposals said the coronavirus pandemic helped open the door for the campaign to embrace the sort of large-scale policies that meet progressives' demands for immediate action while also bringing on board skeptical labor unions, including the AFL-CIO.

"The thing that I think is the cherry on the top is his acumen in building this alliance, and he was successful in that because he exercised one of the most rare skills in politics -- and that is to listen to people," said Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, Biden's former 2020 rival who centered his own bid on climate policy.

The consensus among leading progressive activists is that climate is the issue where the Biden campaign is most inclined to stake out more ambitious ground. His new plan seeks to end carbon emissions from power plants by 2035 and proposes broader public investment in green infrastructure, including $2 trillion for clean energy projects. The political implications are clear: Biden is trying to increase his appeal to younger voters, a cohort that broke heavily for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders during the primary, and climate change regularly ranks among their foremost concerns. The youth-led climate movement has become a power player in Democratic elections and a volunteer army that Democrats need motivated -- or at least up off the sidelines -- in the run-up to November.

"Vice President Biden produced a clean energy and infrastructure plan that received support from labor organizations like the electrical workers union and the auto workers union and environmental groups like the Sierra Club and the League of Conservation Voters," Biden policy director Stef Feldman said. "That's part of the magic of Vice President Biden -- he has an unparalleled ability to bring people together to get big things done, like creating millions of high-paying union jobs while combatting climate change at the same time."

Biden's aides and Sanders' campaign leadership brokered the formation of six unity task forces after the nomination was effectively decided in early April. The group working on a climate policy platform hashed out the details as Biden's campaign was also speaking regularly with other Democrats to craft a clean energy plan that would become a core part of the economic platform Biden has unveiled in a series of speeches this month.

In an interview, Sanders credited the Biden team for acknowledging, implicitly, that "they were quite weak" on climate issues during the primary -- and making sincere efforts to pick up ground.

"It was not a major priority for them," Sanders said. "And I think they understood that, if they want these young people to not only vote for them, but to become actively involved in the campaign, they're going to have to move in a very, very significant way forward, on climate change."

The shift has also been made possible, in large part, by the economic crisis brought on by the coronavirus pandemic -- opening another political door for the sort of massive government spending that scientists and environmental activists have long argued was necessary to combat climate change.

"The range of what is politically possible on any issue has been blasted wide open by the Covid-19 crisis and by the Trump administration doing whatever the hell they want," said Jenny Marienau Zimmer, campaign manager for the environmental group 350 Action. "What is a politically viable solution to any problem in the United States is up for grabs."

The prospect of a new administration pushing to inject a historic new round of capital into the economy next year opened new avenues for the Biden campaign to get labor unions -- some of which have feared that a rapid shift away from fossil fuels would harm workers in that industry -- on board. Biden's economic platform is built on a stimulus plan that would pump hundreds of billions of dollars into climate-friendly construction, research and infrastructure projects. It is packaged in labor-friendly policies designed to boost manufacturing within the United States and create jobs building and outfitting green buildings.

"I think he's doing exactly what he said that he was going to do, which is try to be a leader that actually unites this country -- which is sorely needed," said Rep. Conor Lamb, a Democrat who represents western Pennsylvania and was a member of the unity task force on climate change -- effectively representing labor's interests on the panel.

"This is a plan that's designed to create jobs, you know?" Lamb said. "To have more jobs tomorrow than we had yesterday. And that's just as true whether you're working in an existing field right now, laying pipe and fixing pipe, or you're somebody who's going to take a new job in solar, maybe retrofitting buildings."

A fragile coalition

The future of this election-season coalition, stitched together for now by a shared desire to defeat President Donald Trump, would be immediately tested if Biden wins in November.

Biden and the Democratic Party's more progressive wing are still at odds on a number of issues, including health care -- with Biden winning the primary on a promise to expand the Affordable Care Act, rather than embracing Sanders' sweeping single-payer "Medicare for All" proposal -- and marijuana, which Biden wants to decriminalize and the left, led by Sanders, says should be legalized.

But even beyond climate change, many Democrats and organizations that criticized him in the primary now support him, including abortion rights groups that took a harsh view of his previous support for the Hyde Amendment, a measure that blocks federal funds from being used for most abortions.

Progressives will closely watch, and are seeking to influence, Biden's staff moves and Cabinet selections, as well as his first 100-day executive actions and Capitol Hill priorities, both in policy and -- if Democrats win control of the Senate -- in tactics, as the chamber weighs whether to do away with the 60-vote threshold to break the filibuster.

Varshini Prakash, the executive director of the Sunrise Movement and a member of the climate-focused unity task force, joked that Biden and progressives are in "a semi-codependent relationship right now."

After November 3, Prakash conceded, "all bets are kind of off. You have no idea what's going to happen after that."

Still, Prakash said, Biden's climate platform and clean energy plan represent major leaps in progressives' direction, and are likely to help Biden win over young and Latino voters, who are as a group younger than the overall electorate.

"The thing that I hoped and wished he was going to do, he is actually doing, which is leaning into his extremely strong labor side and forging that with the climate side and then using that to basically provide an answer to how this country is going to get the hell out of this crisis," Prakash said. "We have to tie climate to jobs and the economy, otherwise it will never actually be at the forefront of the conversation in American politics. And that's happening right now. It's amazing."

Prakash said that the climate movement will face a critical challenge following the election, if Biden defeats Trump, and during the opening stages of his presidency, when the sweep of that expected stimulus package is being negotiated.

"My sense is this that if the first leg of this is a massive infrastructure and jobs plan to reboot the economy and climate isn't a central pillar of that, we're totally screwed," Prakash said. "Our biggest, best shot at addressing the climate crisis is through the economic stimulus. And I actually think the Biden campaign is understanding and coming around to that."

How Biden got progressives on board

By late March, as Biden moved closer to securing the Democratic nomination, Biden's campaign had begun talking with Inslee's former climate advisers, who had formed a new group called Evergreen Action.

On March 27, Inslee's team sent the Biden campaign a 17-page memo with detailed policy recommendations that had been part of the 200-page climate plan Inslee had campaigned on, a source familiar with the matter said. The document, which came in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic having bludgeoned the economy, urged Biden to "announce major new investments in a clean energy economic recovery" -- an approach that Biden's economic platform incorporated.

Meanwhile, Biden's campaign had opened a line of communication with progressives who had been aligned with Sanders and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren -- who had adopted portions of Inslee's plan herself -- during the primary.

The formation of the task forces in May marked a bittersweet milestone for many progressive Sanders supporters, who had just watch their candidate fail to win the nomination, but had earned enough political capital to claim seats at the negotiating table.

The anxiety over entering into what would be closely tracked conversations was shared by some on Biden's team, said Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal Strategy for the think tank Data for Progress. His group reached out to the campaign early on and spoke, in a mid-March meeting on Zoom -- that included, from the Biden side, policy director Stef Feldman and spokesman Bill Russo -- after a planned in-person sitdown was scotched by the coronavirus in mid-March.

"The Sunrise Movement gave Biden an F-minus (on his climate platform during the primary) and he had been bird-dogged on the campaign trail by Sunrise activists," NoiseCat told CNN, "so they were very hesitant to lean into climate because they thought that it was all stick, no carrot -- that there was no pleasing the environmental left and particularly the Sunrise Movement on this issue. That was actually, probably, their biggest sort of hang-up on going back into this."

NoiseCat and other Data for Progress members, including co-founder Sean McElwee, pitched Biden's team on core areas they viewed -- with the backing of their own polling, which had been some of the primary's most accurate -- as offering politically helpful paths forward.

Some of those suggestions were reflected in the subsequent task force recommendations, which aligned with many of Inslee and Warren's goals, including a lauded increase in public investment in communities of color.

"A significant part of this story is that (the Biden campaign) overcame that concern and they ultimately, I think, did get the positive media day from everybody that they were looking for, at least in part, for this," NoiseCat said.

Despite some pushback from activists, who worried that the conversations would be, at best, fruitless and, worse, used by the Biden campaign as a means of quieting progressive dissent, Sanders successfully recruited some of the climate movements most respected figures for the task force.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who co-authored the Green New Deal resolution, signed on as a co-chair opposite former Secretary of State John Kerry, one of the architects of the Paris climate deal, and sat alongside, in the Sanders delegation, Prakash and Catherine Flowers, founder of the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice, for weeks of discussions.

Flowers, who is Black, lives in Lowndes County, Alabama, is a respected figure in the environmental movement and a leading voice on the intersection of climate and social justice. She met Sanders and his team when they visited the county last year for what turned into an emotional series of conversations about poverty in the region, which has since been slammed by the coronavirus, and a wastewater crisis fueled by inadequate sanitation.

Before leaving, Sanders promised that he would tell their story and send help, Flowers said. Nearly a year later, she received a call from Sanders' former campaign manager, Faiz Shakir, who asked her to join the task force -- describing it as an opportunity, she recalled, "for you to take environmental justice to another level."

Flowers, who told CNN she quickly found that the Sanders and Biden teams were "not as far apart on the issues as we thought we were," also credited the anti-racist protests that were gripping this country around the time of the task force meetings for helping steer the process.

"George Floyd had been killed and there were mass protests around the country and a lot of the young people that were protesting were also some of the same young people that were protesting about environmental justice and climate justice issues," Flowers said. "To me, I speak in parables: So, like it was time to bring down the Confederate memorials, it's also time to talk about and do something about climate change. Because we don't have a lot of time."

Flower said the Biden team, which also included Florida Rep. Kathy Castor, who chaired the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, former Environmental Protection Agency leader Gina McCarthy, Virginia Rep. Donald McEachin and former Biden adviser Kerry Duggan, was in accord with the progressives, who viewed the protests as inextricable from the group's work.

"You know why? Flowers said. "Because we were reminding them of that."

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