Biden Succeeds in Uniting Climate People and Labor People—For Now

Joe Biden’s climate plan promises to put the U.S. on a path to 100% clean energy and net-zero carbon emissions“no later than 2050.” It also vows that greening the U.S. economy will create millions of good-paying jobs, many of them in unions.

With this plan, the Democratic nominee for president has achieved an extraordinary feat: winning over both environmental activists and organized labor. But keeping those often-opposed constituencies happy inside the Democratic Party’s big tent will get tougher if the former vice president manages to get elected in November and has to choose between them.

$69.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020

Portland, U.S.Most polluted air today, in sensor range

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 3 2 1 0 9 0 4 3 2 1 0 .0 9 8 7 6 5 0 2 1 0 9 8 0 5 4 3 2 1 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 6 5 4 3 2 0 4 3 2 1 0 Parts per million CO2 in the atmosphere 91% Carbon-free net power in Brazil, most recent data

“As an environmental economist, I would be very skeptical about trying to combine an environmental policy with a jobs policy,” says Robert Stavins of the Harvard Kennedy School. “It sounds good, but there’s always the risk that as a result of trying to hit two birds with one stone, I miss both birds.”

The two kinds of green—dollars and nature—don’t go that well together, Stavins says. And he’s not alone in this opinion. Measures to fight climate change tend to destroy some jobs while creating others, says David Popp, an economist at the Maxwell School of Syracuse University. “The literature that looks at employment effects says it’s mainly about reallocating jobs from one sector to another,” he adds. Fewer coal miners, more solar installers.

For the sake of argument, let’s say Biden has come up with a green plan that requires millions of workers. Is that even a good thing? It is right now, withunemployment historically high, but it won’t look as good when the economy recovers and the requisite workers are all busy doing other things. As recently as February, employers were desperately short of talent to fill openings; the jobless rate was around a half-century low. It could happen again, albeit not soon.

It’s understandable that Biden emphasizes jobs in his platform, a sales pitch for his candidacy. It’s essential to counter President Trump, who called the Environmental Protection Agency under President Obama “one of the biggest job killers” and in Augustwithdrew limits on oil and gas companies’ emissions of methane, a greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

So far Biden has kept the unions on his side. Robert Bair, for instance, business manager of an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers local in Harrisburg, Pa., says he firmly believes that Biden cares about both climate change and workers. “Do I think he can be a bridge builder? Yes, yes, I do,” Bair says. “The man is a gentleman.”

Still, disagreements over how to set priorities can’t be papered over forever. Many environmental groups that have lined up behind Biden oppose fracking for natural gas and mining for coal. At a campaign stop in Pittsburgh on Aug. 31, Biden flatly said, “I am not banning fracking.” And his platform implicitly supports the continued burning of coal, vowing to “double down” on technologies for extracting carbon dioxide from the air in lieu of halting the most polluting activities. He “never said we’re going to close all the coal plants,” says Lonnie Stephenson, president of the 775,000-member IBEW and a member of Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. For the union leader, this counts as a mark in favor of the Democratic candidate.

The problem from an environmental perspective is that anything close to business as usual won’t come close to achieving Biden’s goal of getting to net-zero emissions by 2050. This year’s likely 8% drop in global greenhouse gas emissions—caused by the punishing Covid-19 recession—“would need to be repeated, year after year, to reach net-zero emissions by 2050,”according to a study published earlier this year by the University of Oxford. Nobody is running on a “Let’s Repeat 2020” agenda.

There’s a way to achieve steep annual emission reductions without enduring continuous recession: technology. Solar cells that convert sunlight into electricity more efficiently. Better wind turbines. Batteries that store the variable energy output from the sun and the wind, and release it as needed. New technologies for deriving hydrogen from water and then recombining it with oxygen in fuel cells for the ultimate clean energy cycle. In that spirit, Biden’s platform calls for an “historic investment in energy and climate research and innovation”; the whole plan will cost an estimated $2 trillion over 10 years. The spending would back promising ideas including more efficient controls and sensors in factories, better insulation and refrigerants, safer nuclear reactors, sustainable aircraft fuels, and digesters for farms that turn manure into biogas.

For labor, though, the downside of energy and climate research and development is that the resulting improvements will never employ a lot of blue-collar workers displaced from fossil fuel jobs. The whole point of R&D is to invent more efficient ways of meeting human needs. Successful inventions typically use less labor than before, not more. This idea clashes with the Biden platform’s pledge to “create millions of good, union jobs.”

Biden’s climate plan will, if passed, certainly create some well-paying union jobs for solar installers and wind turbine technicians, who are already in great demand. But other jobs that will be created in large numbers—planting trees, remediating mines, weatherproofing homes—aren’t especially high-skilled. Others still, such as the manufacturing of electric vehicles, are high-paying but don’t appear at the top of climate priority lists.

Yes, the U.S. needs more EVs to reduce emissions. But the planet doesn’t care if they’re made in the U.S. or, say, China. If climate change truly is the global emergency that Biden says, policy should focus on whatever steps would reduce greenhouse gases the most, which might not include producing electric vehicles in Detroit. Conversely, if creating good blue-collar jobs is the priority, there are more straightforward ways to do so, such as expanding manufacturing apprenticeships.

Economists’ favorite way to set priorities impartially is to put a tax on the carbon content of fuels—or, equivalently, a cap on the amount of carbon that can be emitted, combined with tradable emission permits. The tax or cap should be set at a level that fully compensates for the damage done to the environment by greenhouse gases. Once you do that, presumably by a democratic process, the market has free rein to meet the requirement in the least expensive way. The government isn’t involved in the choices.

But the transparency that’s a plus for economists can be a minus for politicians. The free-market approach levels the playing field for disparate technologies while making it harder to subsidize favored constituencies, such as labor unions, for instance. It also makes explicit that fixing climate change isn’t a free lunch. A carbon tax is anathema to Trump, and it’s also absent from Biden’s platform.

It’s understandable that Biden is playing up green jobs. “Carbon tax” is a downer, beloved only byeconomists and other nerds. A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundationpoll last year found that even though 76% of American adults considered climate change a crisis or a major problem, only 47% were willing to pay a $2 monthly tax on their electricity bills in the name of climate progress. Only 35% were in favor of raising the federal gasoline tax by 10¢ a gallon.

Nathaniel Keohane, who worked for Obama’s National Economic Council and is senior vice president for climate at EDF Action, the political arm of the Environmental Defense Fund, says that even though his organization favors a carbon tax, it’s not busting Biden’s chops over it. “The important thing about the campaign is setting a clear signal” that fighting climate change will be a priority, he says. “Much less important during the campaign is the nuts and bolts about how you plan to meet all those goals.”

For Keohane and Stavins, Biden is an easy choice compared with Trump, whose administration gutted the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, pulled the U.S. out of the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, approved the Keystone XL pipeline, allowed more logging on federal lands, eased rules on coal plants, approved offshore oil wells in the Arctic, relaxed fuel economy standards, and canceled a rule to protect whales and sea turtles from fishing nets. Less noticed, Trump’s Office of Management and Budget raised the bar for judging investments—the so-called discount rate—so it’s not considered worthwhile to spend more than 3¢ today to prevent $1 of environmental damage in 50 years.

“For now,” Stavins says, “the most important thing that Biden can do for climate change is get elected.”

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