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Joe Biden looks to shore up climate credentials for Earth Day

He scores high among many scientists and establishment Democrats, but hasn’t won over young climate activists

Biden and Latinas John J. Kim/Chicago Tribune/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

Joe Biden won key environmental endorsements this week as the 50th anniversary of Earth Day focuses attention on climate change. Longtime proponents of climate action Al Gore and Jay Inslee announced today that Biden has their endorsement. The League of Conservation Voters endorsed Biden on April 20th, potentially unlocking tens of millions of dollars in funding if the group continues the big spending it’s put into previous elections. And more than 80 prominent scientists penned an open letter giving Biden their backing ahead of Earth Day. It’s a major show of institutional support for Biden, but it remains to be seen whether these endorsements will help Biden win over voters concerned about climate change, who have emerged as a key priority in the Democratic primary race.

Much of that concern comes down to policies Biden has already announced. The candidate’s climate plan would bring the US to a “100 percent clean energy economy” and bottom out planet-heating greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. But progressive climate activists worry that the presumptive nominee doesn’t go far enough in phasing out fossil fuel extraction — in particular, failing to endorse a complete drilling and mining ban for federal lands and waters. He’s only gone so far as to say that he’ll stop new oil and gas permits and hasn’t outlined how he would phase out existing extraction or fracking. Without those moves, Biden’s campaign will continue to draw ire from young, green progressives.

Biden’s broad 2050 target falls in line with the recommendations of a leading authority on climate science, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, for which several of the scientists recently endorsing Biden have authored reports.

“Vice President Biden has long trusted the scientific consensus on climate change,” the scientists’ letter reads. “We are confident that, unlike President Trump, Joe Biden will respect, collaborate with, and listen to leaders in the scientific community and public health experts to confront the existential climate crisis and other environmental threats,” it continues.

But while progressive groups share the goal of zeroing out emissions by 2050, they’re not convinced Biden’s plan lays out enough money to get there. In his campaign documents, Biden pledges to spend $1.7 trillion on climate action over 10 years, quite a bit less than the $16.3 trillion pledged by his rival Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT). For many climate activists, it’s a troubling shortfall that suggests the candidate doesn’t appreciate the severity of the challenge.

“Our goal is to turn out our generation to defeat Donald Trump, and as it stands right now it’s going to be significantly harder for us to do that. Unless Joe Biden really shows young people that he’s ready to fight for us, then our job is going to get harder,” Stephen O’Hanlon, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement, a group that’s been a driving force behind the push for a Green New Deal, told The Verge this month.

Biden has signaled that he might expand his climate plan moving forward. “I have asked my campaign to commence a process to meaningfully engage with more voices from the climate movement — including environmental justice leaders and worker organizations, and collaborate on additional policies in areas ranging from environmental justice to new, concrete goals we can achieve within a decade, to more investments in a clean energy economy,” Biden said in a statement after winning the League of Conservation Voters endorsement. He also announced that he and Sanders will work together on a task force on climate change.

But some young environmental activists aren’t holding their breath for a dramatic transformation from the presumptive Democratic nominee. “For anyone waiting with bated breath, we will not endorse @JoeBiden,” the El Paso chapter of Sunrise Movement tweeted on April 13th.