On Climate, Joe Biden Should Realize That Being Better Than Trump Is the Easy Part

Joe Biden shouldn’t take for granted that young voters will automatically support him just because Donald Trump was a disaster for the climate. Biden will still have to make good on ambitious climate promises before the election.

US president Joe Biden departs the White House on November 9, 2023, in Washington, DC. (Kevin Dietsch / Getty Images)

Donald Trump was a disaster for the climate as president, gutting environmental regulations left and right, opening up previously protected US lands and waters to fossil fuel exploration and drilling, pulling the United States out of the Paris Climate Agreement, and generally doing everything humanly possible to put fossil fuel production on overdrive.

It sounds like a second Trump term would be more of the horrifying same.

Trump’s advisers and campaign officials recently told the Financial Times that the former president’s climate policy plans should he win next year are, unsurprisingly, to reverse almost everything good that president Joe Biden has done on the issue the past two years. First and foremost, that means repealing the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the deeply flawed but important climate legislation that served as the whittled-down end point of Biden’s once-grander climate agenda.

Trump’s ability to shred the law will depend on the composition of Congress under his prospective presidency, but he’ll have a freer hand to pursue his other stated objectives. Those reportedly include scrapping car fuel-economy standards, reopening federal lands to drilling, revamping or outright nixing government agencies devoted to environmental policy, firing officials who don’t align with his vision, and generally rolling back regulations seen as stifling fossil fuel production. Those policies dovetail with the former Trump administration’s nihilistic view that it’s impossible to prevent runaway climate change, so we should simply stomp on the gas pedal and speed off the ecological cliff.

If you take the climate crisis seriously, which you should, all of this is pretty scary, and it should give Biden and the Democrats and a huge opening to draw the largest possible contrast with Trump. The reason it might not comes at the very end of the Financial Times story, where a Biden campaign spokesperson brags that US oil production under Biden has “hit a record high” and outdone Trump, and that if “Republicans actually cared about the United States’ energy independence, they would support President Biden’s agenda.”

Biden’s spokesperson is, unfortunately, not lying. While Democrats will no doubt spend the next twelve months pointing to Trump’s plans for planetary self-immolation, the fact is that the Biden presidency has not exactly sounded the death knell for Big Oil.

It’s true that climate policy has made important advancements under Biden, mainly thanks to the IRA, whose $370 billion investment in clean energy is nowhere near what’s needed to underwrite the US renewable transition, but is still the largest piece of government climate funding in US history. IRA provisions were critical to the passage of New York’s Build Public Renewables Act, something approaching a state-level Green New Deal, and it is already stimulating the expansion of renewable energy and electric vehicle production nationwide, while its tax subsidies for zero-carbon pollution will be in place for potentially decades, provided the law stays on the books. All of this will accelerate the market shift to renewables that’s already picking up speed, which over the last two years has overtaken both coal and nuclear in electricity generation, and make up 82 percent of all new electricity generation developed this year. This couldn’t have happened without the past near decade of left-wing organizing and political pressure — organizing and pressure that would have no influence under a Trump presidency.

But this is only half of the story. Biden has at the same time given out more oil and gas drilling permits over his first two years than Trump did in the same period. He’s also outdone Trump on production of crude oil and new oil and gas well approvals over his first twenty-one months. He continued a Trump-originated effort that resulted in the largest oil and gas lease sale in US history, and approved the largest drilling project on public lands. He’s approved multiple new fossil fuel pipelines, and argued in court that “there is no constitutional right to a stable climate system” in order to quash a lawsuit brought by children fearful for their future. As I write, he’s pushing for a weaker version of a global carbon market at this year’s annual climate summit, and the United States continues to severely lag the developed world in climate financing while pouring record amounts of money into more military spending, effectively a carbon bomb by proxy.

The Biden presidency has still been vastly superior to Trump’s on the climate. But it has not been nearly bold enough in the face of the crisis and at times even taken climate-killing actions that wouldn’t be out of place in a Trump administration.

The Biden White House should be very concerned about whether they’ve actually created a bold enough record and given climate-focused voters enough reason to show up to vote for him in 2024. This concern is particularly acute with young voters, who are most concerned about climate change and who are already deeply disillusioned with Biden over his handling of the Israeli war on Gaza. After all, being superior to Trump on climate is as unimpressive as boasting you’re a nicer guy than Ted Bundy.

More firmly breaking from the previous administration’s policies and making good on ambitious promises to declare a climate emergency or ban fracking might do the trick there. Bragging about how much more oil you’re producing than Trump probably won’t.