President Donald Trump thought he had hit the jackpot during the final presidential debate when his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, declared that he would “transition away from the oil industry.”
“Oh, that’s a big statement,” Trump said. “He’s going to destroy the oil industry. Will you remember that, Texas? Will you remember that, Pennsylvania?”
Trump thought the moment would shake up the race. But the political strategists who have spent recent years plotting how to capitalize on the issue of climate change say his reaction points to a fundamental misunderstanding, not just of the electorate’s shifting views on climate change, but of how profoundly the issue has already shaped the presidential race. Even amid a devastating pandemic, economic calamity and endless stream of Trump-related controversies, the 2020 election is the first in history where climate change has played a pivotal role in a major candidate’s campaign, even if the issue wasn’t always in the headlines.
“The politics of climate have changed,” says Lori Lodes, executive director of Climate Power 2020, a Democratic group formed to help place climate in the center of the 2020 race. “It’s not that it was a liability in the past, but candidates viewed it that way.”
For the last two years, Trump has repeatedly played to his base with various rejections of climate science. The Biden campaign, in contrast, has used the issue to carefully build a broad coalition. His climate plans have become key vehicles to address an array of issues—and to attract a range of voters key to his electoral chances.
From the early days of 2019, it was clear that climate change was likely to rank high among Democratic priorities in the coming presidential election. A landmark climate report in the final months of 2018 sparked a global awakening on the issue and, in the U.S., the Sunrise Movement pressed politicians on the topic in high-profile protests. Within weeks, most of the leading Democratic presidential candidates endorsed the concept of a Green New Deal and vowed to reject contributions from fossil fuel interests. Biden immediately embraced the issue, even as many activists compared him unfavorably on the issue to his counterparts. Last summer, Biden introduced his first full-throated plan, which proposed a $1.7 trillion federal outlay over ten years to tackle climate change. On the campaign trail, he touted his work to support clean energy projects under President Obama.
It’s easy to imagine a world in which the issue would have fallen off the radar when Biden became the presumptive Democratic nominee. Historically, candidates track to the center to appear more palatable for a general election audience. Widespread voter concern over the spread of COVID-19 also could have bumped the issue from Biden’s agenda.
But, strategically, Biden leaned in rather than back down. Two-thirds of Americans support aggressive action on climate change, according to a Pew Research poll released in June, one of many showing heightened voter concern over the issue. Perhaps more significantly, a growing group of Americans rank the issue among their top concerns and cite it as a motivating factor in their political engagement. In August, researchers from Resources for the Future and Stanford University found that a quarter of the American public view the issue as key motivator for their voting and political participation, up from 13% just five years ago.
To activate these voters, Biden created a handful of task forces and committees to address the issue. Climate change played a key role in a “unity task force” composed of Biden and Sanders supporters. Meanwhile, Biden convened a separate “advisory council” made up of high-profile environmental, labor and environmental justice leaders as well as climate activists to develop a common-ground plan. Around the country, the Biden campaign held listening sessions with local activists—both traditional climate advocates and others whose may have had concerns about his aggressive approach to climate.
When the time came to release the new plan, the campaign framed the $2 trillion program as an opportunity to create jobs, invest in protecting communities of color and decarbonize the economy. “It was not that they went off in a room and came up with it,” says Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who competed for the Democratic nomination for president and now heads Biden’s Climate Engagement Advisory Council. “That was a plan that had input from people across the board.”
The program — and Biden’s climate message more broadly — targets several key demographics, including voters under 35. In recent years, young people have been the most vocal activists calling for action on climate change, and Biden allies saw taking a vocal stance on the issue as a strategic move to push young people, who often stay home on Election Day, to the polls. The campaign worked with leadership from the youth-powered Sunrise Movement to shape its climate proposals, and Biden, in turn, benefited from Sunrise’s vast voter-outreach operation that has sent more than a million post cards to young voters in swing states in recent weeks. In the final days of the race, the Biden campaign went live with a climate-focused ad on Comedy Central and Cartoon Network, both of which are watched primarily by a young demographic.
Biden’s all-in strategy on climate may have already paid dividends: analysts say the youth vote has surged in early voting. “This isn’t that complicated,” says Evan Weber, political director and a co-founder of the Sunrise Movement. “If you go out and talk to most young people in America right now, the issue at the top of their list is going to be climate change.”
Amid the national reckoning over race, the Biden campaign also saw climate change as an avenue to address racial justice issues and engage communities of color. Pollution from fossil fuels and other industrial facilities tend to affect people of color disproportionately, contributing to an array of problems ranging from a lack of available clean water to higher rates of mortality from COVID-19. And, on average, these voters tend to be aware of the disproportionate burden faced by minority groups. Polls have shown Black and Latino Americans to be especially concerned about climate change and other environmental issues.
A key part of the outreach from the campaign was a series of media-free listening sessions with environmental justice leaders across the country. Campaign officials asked grassroots leaders what was happening on the ground, what their priorities were, and solicited feedback on the campaign’s climate plan. “They asked us questions—policy questions, personal questions: what are you dealing with? What are you hearing?” says Justin Onwenu, a community organizer at the Sierra Club in Michigan and a member of the DNC’s climate crisis council platform committee. “I think that went a long way.”
Organized labor, too, has played a critical role in the Biden climate coalition. From the beginning of his campaign, Biden has talked about the role that so-called green investment can play in generating new and better jobs. He has consulted with union leaders to assure them that he would approach climate change as opportunity to buttress the workforce.
“I’m the first person I’m aware of that went to every major labor union in the country and got them to sign on to my climate change plan,” Biden said on Pod Save America on Oct. 24. The move to engage unions almost served a prebuttal of the Trump campaign’s primary climate talking point: that addressing the global warming would be too expensive and cost jobs.
Trump’s positioning on the issue has been virtually the opposite, much to the chagrin of some Republicans, who recognize that the President’s agenda is out of step with the majority of American voters. In recent years, Trump’s climate policy has largely consisted of rolling back regulations and aiding fossil fuel companies, policies that remain deeply unpopular with American voters. This cycle, the campaign’s message — which was sometimes disrupted by off-the-cuff remarks from Trump — has shifted the focus slightly, asserting not that climate change isn’t real, but that addressing it would be too costly. (Of course, leaving climate change unchecked would in fact cost significantly more than addressing it).
Trump seized on this message during the debate, and Trump advocates have hammered home the argument since then. Campaign surrogates have tailored that message specifically for Pennsylvania and Texas, two potential battleground states where the oil and gas industry maintains a sizable workforce. “Joe Biden has even admitted that he will be an anti-energy president,” said Rick Perry, a former Texas governor and President Trump’s first energy secretary on a call of journalists. “Biden’s radical proposal to eliminate oil and gas and coal from the US power grid by 2035 will have a devastating consequence on workers and families.”
Trump’s messaging may resonate in some parts of Pennsylvania where the fracking industry employs some 25,000 and indirectly supports many more jobs. Trump has hammered home the talking point in messaging in the state, including TV ads running there. Meanwhile, the Biden campaign has played defensive on the issue. Facing questions about his promise to “transition” from oil and gas, Biden clarified that move would be gradual and not be completed during his time as president. He would, instead, end subsidies for fossil fuels. At the same time, he reiterated his promise to create more jobs in clean industry.
Some voters in swing districts and states reject Biden’s framing. They are reluctant to embrace anyone or anything that might threaten fossil fuels—even in the long term. But the fear of transitioning from fossil fuels is unlikely to gain traction among voters on the national stage. Polls consistently show that more Americans oppose fracking than support it.
There’s a sense among the activists and strategists who have spent months if not years plotting how to engage voters on climate that the acknowledgement of the oil industry’s long-term decline may not have struck the chord that it would have even a few years ago. Biden built a coalition energized by his bold stance on climate change, and he preemptively worked with activists, young people, people of color, and union leaders to build support for his climate agenda.
“I think [Biden] has been on the defensive a bit,” on fracking, said Michael Catanzaro, a former energy and environmental policy advisor in the Trump White House, before the debate. “But I think it’s actually working for him… he’s talking to union voters. He’s using his blue collar roots to push back pretty hard.”