Joe Biden Gets a C+ for His Climate Plan

Caroline Brehman/Congressional Quarterly via ZUMA

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Joe Biden has proposed a $1.7 trillion climate plan over ten years that includes the following major components:

  • Net zero emissions by 2050.
  • $400 billion (over ten years) on R&D targeted at: grid-scale storage; small modular nuclear reactors; zero net energy buildings; using renewables to produce carbon-free hydrogen; decarbonizing industrial heat needed to make steel, concrete, and chemicals; leveraging agriculture to remove carbon dioxide from the air; and sequestering carbon dioxide from power plants deep underground.
  • Special attention paid to R&D on nuclear power and carbon sequestration.
  • A climate adaptation agenda.
  • A lengthy plan to “rally the world” to address climate change.
  • All the usual shoutouts to climate justice and protection for fossil-fuel workers who lose their jobs.

This is . . . surprisingly good. There are two key components to any good climate plan: (a) it can’t rely on lifestyle sacrifices that people simply won’t accept, and (b) it has to be truly global. The United States accounts for about 15 percent of total carbon emissions, so even if we spend trillions in subsidies to become carbon free it will represent only a drop in the ocean unless the rest of the world comes along.

Biden’s plan doesn’t say this as explicitly as I just did, but its emphasis on R&D and global action is obvious: nearly 20 percent of the report is taken up by R&D and another 20 percent by the need to work with other countries. What’s more, Biden has obviously taken some expert advice on the R&D front. His suggestions for general areas to spend money on are quite good.

That said, Biden’s suggestion of $400 billion in R&D is laughably small. Multiply by ten and you might have something serious. This is the place where Biden’s natural caution and centrism work against him. He’s on the right track here, but climate change is the single biggest catastrophe our planet has ever faced. If we’re going to do something about it, we’re going to need the single biggest response our planet has ever put forth.

So: right idea, but pitifully small. I’ll give it a C+. A sharp bump upward in the R&D budget would get Biden a solid B.

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You expect the big picture, and it's our job at Mother Jones to give it to you. And right now, so many of the troubles we face are the making not of a virus, but of the quest for profit, political or economic (and not just from the man in the White House who could have offered leadership and comfort but instead gave us bleach).

In "News Is Just Like Waste Management," we unpack what the coronavirus crisis has meant for journalism, including Mother Jones’, and how we can rise to the challenge. If you're able to, this is a critical moment to support our nonprofit journalism with a donation: We've scoured our budget and made the cuts we can without impairing our mission, and we hope to raise $400,000 from our community of online readers to help keep our big reporting projects going because this extraordinary pandemic-plus-election year is no time to pull back.

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