Joe Biden Taking Climate Science Seriously Isn't a Move 'Left'

Joe Biden wants to give climate policy a big ol’ hug.
Joe Biden wants to give climate policy a big ol’ hug.
Photo: Olivier Douliery/AFP (Getty Images)

On Thursday night, former Vice President Joe Biden officially accepted the Democratic nomination for president. It’s not what progressives hoped for, but here we are.


In his speech at the Democratic National Convention, Biden laid out a vision for tackling the four crises facing the U.S., including the coronavirus, economic collapse, systemic racism, and climate change. While he didn’t quite make the case for how they interlock, it was generally a good speech that reflects a shift in how Biden has changed his stance on climate in particular since the primary wrapped.

From the Washington Post to progressive think tank Data for Progress to the august pages of Earther, the shift has been described as Biden moving to the left on climate. This is, at least in part, wrong. Activists on the left may have gotten Biden to move, but that obscures the actual dynamics of what’s happening, namely that Biden is moving in a direction of science—science that climate activists have long embraced and pushed for. That’s not moving to the left. That’s being right.

Mapping any issue onto a right-left spectrum is just how we talk about politics. It makes it easier to frame in the news and incorporate it into a political identity. What to do about climate change has been charted onto that spectrum, with do nothing sitting furthest to the “right” and the Green New Deal standing the furthest “left.” Between those two poles, you have plans to plant a trillion trees, a carbon tax, end fossil fuel subsidies, and so on.

Biden has embraced policies and targets that are increasingly aligned with the climate activists. That includes holding fossil fuel polluters accountable in court and using the massive buying power of the federal government to clean up the supply chain. And he’s targeting a grid decarbonization date of 2035, which would be a major step in line with activists’ demands. There’s still work to do, of course, but this is absolutely a win for activists and is a move left in terms of policy for Biden. Defining the climate crisis in purely political terms, however, ignores the reality that science has laid out what needs to happen for us to address the catastrophe of a warming planet.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s two-year-old report on how to limit warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). There’s plenty of wonkery in it from percentages of how much coal use will have drop this decade to how far agricultural emissions will need to drop. But the report also notes that (emphasis added) “pathways limiting global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius with no or limited overshoot would require rapid and far-reaching transitions in energy, land, urban and infrastructure (including transport and buildings), and industrial systems.” In this case, “overshoot” refers to releasing carbon pollution that would cause the global average temperature to warm more than 1.5 degrees Celsius and then relying heavily on unproven technology to suck it back out of the atmosphere.

This idea of transformation of everything is hardly limited to just one report. Mountains of scientific evidence point toward the reality that humanity is on the brink, and the only way to avert spilling over into the abyss is a global shift in the systems we rely on from energy to agriculture.


“We need to do some very serious transformative change,” Patricia Miloslavich, a marine biologist at Simón Bolívar University, Venezuela who co-authored a massive report on ecosystem extinction last year, told me in the wake of the report’s release. “By transformative change we refer to profound changes in the way we do things as a society.”

Or as another report author, Patricia Balvanera of the Research Institute in Ecosystems and Sustainability, Mexico, also told me at the same time:

“We can stop the collapse of nature and of societies by shifting radically the current dominant paradigm:

From: more economic growth, more consumption, higher yields, more profit NOW To: more sustainable, more resilient, more equitable, more responsible societies TOWARDS THE FUTURE.”


In this light, Biden’s shift toward activists’ demands isn’t just a set of arbitrary outcomes based on politics. It reflects the best available science. Does Joe Biden need to dive into the scientific nitty-gritty on the campaign trail? Dear lord, no. But simply framing this as a leftward shift suggests there are multiple valid positions and outcomes. That’s just not the case, at least not in terms of the top-level goals. We act to reduce emissions rapidly by changing everything or we destroy the planet and descend into ecofascism. Solving climate change inherently draws on left-wing values of cooperation and working for the greater good over the warped version of individual freedom that passes for Republican orthodoxy today.

In other words, by framing the climate crisis in political shorthand, we obscure the reality that Democrats are simply aligning their policies with what science tells us is necessary to address the crisis. Then, we’re left locked in an intractable debate over how much action needs to be taken. The answer is a damn lot, and only one party is putting the effort in right now.


None of this is to say that progressive activists have not been successful. Quite the opposite. Without the Sunrise Movement conducting sit-ins on Capitol Hill after the 2018 midterms, activists confronting politicians to sign the No Fossil Fuel Money Pledge, or millions of teens in the streets, climate change would almost certainly not be a core issue of the Democratic party today. Left-wing activists absolutely deserve a victory lap and should continue talking about shared success and other values to make their case. But forgetting these asks are driven by the hot, hard physics of greenhouse gases does a disservice to our discourse and how we move forward.

Though Greta Thunberg’s polemics against capitalism and world leaders’ failures are the most viral moments of her speeches, her whole argument is based on science. “Listen to scientists,” she told U.S. lawmakers when she appeared before Congress last year. Activists in the U.S. have done that, and they’re getting Democrats to finally do the same. Leaving that out of any discussion of Biden’s climate plan (or Republicans’ lack thereof) turns climate politics into just another two-sided issue to fill up airspace on cable TV, delaying the real changes we need while the world burns.


Managing editor at Earther, writing about climate change, environmental justice, and, occasionally, my cat.


David E. Davis

Because political boundaries or directions don’t apply to science. Science itself isn’t political. Only people make it so.