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Climate Change Is A Top Campaign Issue — At Least For Democrats

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: This year, climate change is a top campaign issue, at least for Democrats. Yesterday, we looked at President Trump's record on the issue. Today, we'll explore Joe Biden's plan, which is the most ambitious climate proposal any presidential candidate has ever laid out. We've got NPR's Nathan Rott and NPR's Jeff Brady, both of our climate team, with us. Hi, guys.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Good morning.

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: Hey.

MARTIN: So let's just state the obvious here. Joe Biden and Donald Trump do not exactly agree on climate change.

ROTT: Absolutely, yeah. I think that's a fair way to put it. President Trump repeatedly rejects climate science. And generally, he depicts regulations to address climate change as bad for the economy and bad for jobs. Joe Biden calls climate change an existential threat to our health, our economy, our national security, the whole thing. But he's also trying to frame it right now as an opportunity.

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JOE BIDEN: You know, when Donald Trump thinks about climate change, he thinks hoax. When I think about it, I think jobs - good-paying union jobs that put Americans to work building a stronger, more climate-resilient nation.

MARTIN: I mean, Nate, that sounds great, but has he laid out a plan for how he would actually make that happen?

ROTT: Yes, and it is a lot. He would invest money, for one. You know, climate change is part of his economic recovery plan for the pandemic. But he also says he'll do executive actions right out of the gate. He says he's going to reenter the Paris climate agreement and put the U.S. back in the global climate conversation. He's talking about conserving land for biodiversity, stopping offshore drilling in the Arctic, reducing emissions like methane from existing oil and gas. Tell me when you want me to stop.

(LAUGHTER)

ROTT: But he's also putting money towards climate adaptation measures to make communities more resilient to sea level rise, flooding, hurricanes, fires - you know, the type of things we've experienced over the last few months.

And he's also promising massive investments in green energy and infrastructure. This is where the, you know, the jobs part of what he's promising comes in. So that means more solar, more wind, high-speed rail, electric car chargers, all with the goal of zeroing out carbon pollution from our electrical sector by 2035 and making the country carbon neutral so it's not contributing any more to climate change by 2050.

MARTIN: And, I mean, I know a lot of campaigns, I mean, the rhetoric is aspirational, right? But even so, I mean, by 2050, shifting the entire U.S. economy to be carbon neutral just sounds like a massive undertaking. Is he really going to be able to accomplish that, Jeff?

BRADY: You know, most of the experts I've talked with think it is possible. The plan includes a lot of executive actions that Biden says he would take right away. Some of them Nate just mentioned. It also - this plan requires new laws passed by Congress to create policies for meeting that overall goal. Now, that's going to require a Democratic majority in the Senate - at least most likely.

I talked with Scott Segal. He's a partner with the law firm Bracewell, which represents a lot of energy clients, including fossil fuel companies. And you can imagine that they have a lot at stake here. He thinks Biden's climate plan is realistic. He says it includes both regulations and incentives for people in industries to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

SCOTT SEGAL: And I think when a plan has both and doesn't rely only on the carrot or the stick, it's a sign of sort of maturity in approaching these issues.

BRADY: Segal likes that it leaves room for some fossil fuels with carbon offsets and capture. And he points out that the electric power sector is already on its way to meeting that interim 2035 goal. Some of those companies and utilities are setting net-zero carbon goals all on their own.

ROTT: Yeah, and that's an important point. You know, I talked to Carla Frisch, who worked at the U.S. Department of Energy under three administrations, including Trump's. She's now with the Rocky Mountain Institute. You know, and I asked her if she thinks that this could all be done by Biden alone if he gets elected.

CARLA FRISCH: No. So to get where we need to go on climate in the United States, to reduce emissions and build a sustainable economy, it takes action by the executive branch, action by Congress and action by state leaders, city leaders, business leaders on the ground.

ROTT: And she says, you know, a lot of these actions are already happening at the local level. So a Biden administration would be smart to try to build on that existing momentum.

MARTIN: So something we hear President Trump attack Joe Biden on a lot is fracking - fracking for natural gas - the president alleging that Joe Biden wants to ban it. Let's just clear this up, Jeff. Does Joe Biden want to ban fracking?

BRADY: No, he doesn't want to ban fracking. He has repeatedly said that he would not ban all fracking, just new fracking on federal land. And when Trump says that, it's aimed at voters in energy-producing swing states like Pennsylvania, which actually has very little federal land. But that's still a point of contention for Biden with many climate activists who say the country should stop all fracking and keep all fossil fuels in the ground to slow climate change.

MARTIN: So what about the politics of climate change, you know? I mean, we know what the facts are, that it is happening, that humans have contributed to it as well. But what about the politics of climate change because we know for Republicans, it's an incredibly divisive issue? Where do Democrats stand on Biden's proposals?

ROTT: Well, polling indicates a majority of registered voters in the U.S. view climate change as a real threat to the country. And when you look at Republicans, climate change is actually a lot less divisive the younger you get.

But in terms of Democrats, a recent poll by Pew found that more than two-thirds of Joe Biden supporters say climate change is very important to them. So Biden's plan is not as ambitious as what some progressive Democrats want to see. It is not the Green New Deal, despite what the president repeatedly says.

But it is more ambitious than what Joe Biden had initially proposed. So, for example, his plan now includes an environmental justice component, which would aim to address the fact that people of color are disproportionately affected by pollution and climate change and have been for a long time. His plan says he'd do that by investing in disadvantaged communities, holding polluters accountable.

I talked to Michele Roberts with the Environmental Justice Health Alliance about this, and she has a long history with Biden because she's actually from Delaware, his home state. And she says, historically, Biden wasn't always overly supportive when it came to dealing with polluters like DuPont over communities like hers.

MICHELE ROBERTS: He was a filibuster for the political economy that was running the great state of Delaware. Does that make sense?

ROTT: But Roberts says she's met with Biden since, and she thinks his views have evolved. She supports him. But it's going to be important, she says, if he's elected to hold him accountable for all the things that he's promising to do now.

MARTIN: NPR's Nate Rott and NPR's Jeff Brady, thanks to you both for your reporting.

BRADY: Thank you.

ROTT: Thank you.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: This story calls Joe Biden's climate plan the most ambitious of any presidential candidate ever. That remark should have been qualified to say the plan is the most ambitious of any major-party candidate.]

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "MINOR CAUSE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: October 19, 2020 at 11:00 PM CDT
This story calls Joe Biden's climate plan the most ambitious of any presidential candidate ever. That remark should have been qualified to say the plan is the most ambitious of any major-party candidate.