With Donald Trump defeated and Joe Biden declared president-elect, the climate movement is already engaged in a fierce discussion about how to move policy forward in the Biden era, especially if Mitch McConnell manages to maintain his control of the Senate. But the debate over policy misses one of the most important things Biden must do when he finally makes it to the White House: Use his new bully pulpit to advance the politics of climate action.
Past presidents have used the bully pulpit to sell and advance their political agendas, often despite resistance from the opposing party. Theodore Roosevelt, who coined the term, used his to rail against corporate monopolies such as Standard Oil and to advance his environmental agenda (as well as some despicable ideas about white supremacy). Ronald Reagan used his reputation as “the great communicator” to push forward his tax cuts and anti-government agenda. Trump turned the presidential megaphone up to eleven, using it to shatter political norms and advance his toxic ideology.
President Biden needs to use the Oval Office to advance the bold climate agenda he adopted during his campaign. Climate politics has been transformed over the last year, thanks in large part to youth-led groups like the Sunrise Movement and grassroots groups that insisted that climate justice become the centerpiece of Democratic plans to address the crisis. Large parts of the labor movement also got on board, giving credibility to Biden’s claim that when he thought about climate change, he thought about “jobs.” Meanwhile, investors continue to flee fossil fuels as the market shifts toward clean energy.
With Biden talking about the climate crisis against a backdrop of wildfires, derechos, and hurricanes, parts of the mainstream media finally got the memo that covering the largest crisis facing humanity should be a top priority. Newspapers made the connection between extreme weather and global warming. Climate change got more time in this year’s presidential and vice presidential debates than ever before, although cable news largely continues to drop the ball.
All this had an impact: Even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, economic crisis, and Trump’s daily tirades, climate remained a top-tier issue for Democratic voters. And large numbers of Republicans also said they were concerned about the crisis. According to a Fox News exit poll on election night, 70 percent of voters supported increased government spending on green and renewable energy.
The lesson for the Biden administration should be clear: Keep climate change and the clean-energy revolution in the spotlight.
For those of us who spend our lives following politics on Twitter or reading climate stories over coffee, it’s easy to forget that for many people, the benefits of acting on climate are still abstract. Worse, there are plenty of people out there who still embrace the outdated notion that they must choose between jobs and the environment. They don’t know that more people are employed in the clean-energy economy than in fossil fuels. That a Green New Deal could rescue communities that have depended on coal, oil, and gas. That all these changes wouldn’t just save the climate but also make us healthier, safer, and more secure.
Most of the public also don’t know that the fossil fuel industry is working around the clock to stop all these good things from happening. Your daughter’s asthma? Chevron knows the pollution from its refineries makes that worse, but lobbies against regulations to control it. Your Florida city is going underwater? Exxon predicted that, and then spent millions to convince you it wasn’t true. Your pension has dried up and you can’t get your black lung benefits? The coal industry lobbied to get out of those requirements, even as it gave its CEOs a golden parachute.
President Biden could bring these issues to the forefront in dramatic ways that build the case for climate action. He could start his term by convening an Environmental Justice Summit at the White House to highlight the ways that Black, brown, and Indigenous people are championing solutions. He could hit the road in an electric sports car and visit clean-energy companies that are creating jobs across the country. He could take a helicopter flight over the Block Island Wind Farm and talk about the potential for offshore wind. He could convene the nation’s governors to talk about how they can set state mandates for 100 percent clean electricity. And he could do all of this and more in partnership with the climate movement, so that as people get interested in these issues, they can plug into grassroots organizing that builds political momentum on the ground.
And here’s the thing: None of this requires approval from McConnell. If Republicans maintain control of the Senate and refuse to let a climate bill modeled on the Green New Deal come to the floor, the temptation from some congressional Democrats will be to let the issue die and move on to other topics. This is exactly what advisers like Rahm Emanuel urged President Obama to do back in 2009, leading to years of climate silence from Obama that left the public misinformed and inactive and undercut his administration’s ability to pass strong legislation on Capitol Hill. Instead, Biden and his fellow Democrats should put a bill on McConnell’s desk and then go out across the country and fight for it—and make McConnell and his followers own their opposition to an agenda most Americans support.
This barnstorming tour could visit communities being poisoned because Republicans won’t crack down on pollution. It could visit solar companies that could hire more workers if the government would just act. I live in Utah, where we’ve got a growing clean-energy sector—and a senator named Romney who might just be convinced to vote for a stimulus package if local businesses were organized to apply pressure.
We all know we’re running out of time to address the climate crisis. There’s no way the climate movement is going to let President Biden get away with just doing a big public relations campaign on climate change; he’s going to have to take action. And we’ll be there to make sure Biden follows through on his promises to stop fossil fuel extraction on public lands and more. But as important as these policy fights will be, the larger political fight is just as critical. Even as we take action on climate, we need to make climate action popular. Biden should use his presidential bully pulpit to do just that.