How Biden Outmaneuvered Trump on Climate

November 2, 2020

Very perceptive take.
We are in a new moment on climate politics, and the Biden campaign seems to have successfully learned that lesson. We’ll see this week if voters agree.


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.”

2 Responses to “How Biden Outmaneuvered Trump on Climate”

  1. If, and this is at this moment still a big if, Trump lose the election to Biden than it will not be on Climate Change but the way he mishandlede the corona crisis.

    • ubrew12 Says:

      Biden will get more votes than Trump. Trump has never polled higher than 50% in his entire four years in office. Trump may be returned to office, but he will definitely lose the election. That’s not even up for debate.

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