Joe Biden was not exactly the preferred Democratic presidential candidate of progressives in the US or, among those paying attention, elsewhere in the world. He does not back the Medicare for All plan for universal healthcare; he voted for the Iraq War; his track record on racial equality is contentious. The writer and Bernie Sanders supporter Meagan Day spoke for many on the left when she recently argued in the journal Jacobin: “We deserve better than Trump versus Biden.”
It is all vaguely familiar. Polling after the 2016 election found that registered voters who had stayed at home were more Democrat-leaning than those who had turned out, strongly suggesting that parts of the left were simply not motivated to vote for Hillary Clinton. Others backed Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate whose vote-share in Michigan and Wisconsin was larger than Donald Trump’s margins of victory in those states, and was only fractionally smaller in Pennsylvania. Winning those three states alone would have given Hillary Clinton the presidency. Might something similar happen again?
High turnout levels over recent weeks tentatively suggest not. But plenty of those on the left voting for Biden will do so while holding their nose, backing him merely as the not-Trump candidate. Influential voices such as the philosophers Cornel West, Noam Chomsky and Angela Davis have advocated an “anti-fascist vote for Biden”, as West calls it. Young voters certainly seem to agree: a Politico/Morning Consult poll shows that while those aged between 18 and 23 prefer Biden to Trump by 51 per cent to 25 per cent, more view the Democrat unfavourably than do favourably.
There is, however, at least one stark reason for the left to vote actively for Biden, and to do so in a spirit of hope and idealism: climate change. The subject has come up little in the campaign but is the most momentous of the lot, one on which Trump’s record is particularly egregious and on which Biden’s offer to progressives extends far beyond his merely not being the incumbent.
On 4 November, the day after the election, the US will formally exit the Paris climate agreement, after Trump gave notice in 2019. It will be the culmination of four years of aggressive presidential support for fossil fuels and a bonfire of regulations benefiting green forms of energy and transport. Biden, by contrast, has described climate change as “the number one issue for me” and has pledged to apply to rejoin the Paris agreement on his first day in office. More than that, in July he unveiled a $2trn plan to decarbonise the US’s electricity generation and its transportation and building sectors by 2035, through infrastructure, energy and construction investments, and an end to fossil fuel subsidies. The plan elicited praise from progressives.
The huge difference between Trump and Biden on climate change is a matter of global importance. China, the EU, Japan and indeed some American states have made or strengthened commitments to decarbonise their economies in recent times. But without the participation of the federal US government – the White House and ideally a Democrat-led Senate – the Paris accord’s goal of limiting global temperature rises by 2100 to 2˚C is near inconceivable.
Why? First, the US is the second largest emitter of greenhouse gases after China. No other leading economy emits as much carbon per head or is further away from a proportional and fair contribution to global emissions reductions. According to the Climate Action Tracker, current US policies are consistent with a global heating of more than 4˚C by the end of the century; by contrast, those of China correspond to 3-4˚C and those of the UK (and the EU) to the still-bad-but-less-cataclysmic 2-3˚C range.
Second, the American example matters. Its politics influences others; Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro has explicitly mooted following the US out of the Paris agreement. Its consumer economy (think Apple and Amazon) sets standards and patterns that ripple around the world. It is home to much of the research and development capacity needed to pioneer the technologies – batteries, electric cars, clean electricity grids – that other nations will require to meet climate targets. Biden’s proposed investments, combined with a revival of US multilateralism, would support decarbonisation efforts far from his country’s shores as well as at home.
As Tom Rivett-Carnac, one of the architects of the Paris agreement, said on the New Statesman’s World Review podcast in September: “We have now entered the decade in which we will have more impact on life on Earth than in any decade in humanity.” At the current rate the world will by 2027 have emitted all the carbon it can ever emit while keeping to a 1.5˚C rise. With every passing year the importance of individual government policies on the future of the climate is increasing. But soon their influence could peak, then – when feedback loops such as rising atmospheric vapour levels take hold – decline, as global heating slips loose of humanity’s control. Peak influence is nearing and may come before the next presidential term ends in January 2025.
This may read like grounds for gloom. But in the context of the Biden candidacy, it speaks of a chance to hope for and expect more than the empty solace of a not-Trump presidency. The Democratic candidate was not the most progressive of the bunch. But he has shown that he can evolve and adopt new ideas. Progressives should push for him to keep doing so if he becomes president. That requires optimism and a willingness to see the potential for transformative change in that eventuality. They should vote for Joe Biden in that spirit and celebrate, raucously and joyously, if he wins. And the next day: start holding him to account.
This article appears in the 28 Oct 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Reckoning