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Is Joe Biden a climate champion?

By Scott Waldman | 01/29/2024 06:44 AM EST

Activists are split on the answer, and how they approach the question has big implications for the president’s 2024 campaign.

Protesters gather outside the White House on Oct. 12, 2021, to demand the Biden administration do more to combat climate change.

Protesters gather outside the White House on Oct. 12, 2021, to demand the Biden administration do more to combat climate change. Patrick Semansky/AP

There is no doubt that climate activists scored a major win last week when President Joe Biden announced a pause in approvals of liquefied natural gas export terminals. In fact, Biden gave a nod to their pressure when making the decision by acknowledging the “calls of young people and frontline communities.”

What Biden didn’t say — though he didn’t have to — was that the election-year move was aimed at young and climate-conscious voters in deciding if he returns to the White House for a second term.

Whether Biden’s climate efforts will make a difference could be one of the biggest uncertainties headed into his likely showdown with former President Donald Trump. Key to that question is how environmentalists respond to his record in the White House.

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Climate activists have dogged Biden since before Democrats made him their standard-bearer in the 2020 election. Since then, Biden has moved closer to their position both as a candidate and as president. He put environmentalists in advisory roles, returned the United States to the Paris climate agreement and passed one of the biggest climate laws in U.S. history with the Inflation Reduction Act.

But for many climate activists, it still isn’t enough. And that attitude is creating a rift on the left — both tactically and ideologically — as Biden gears up for a reelection campaign against Trump, an opponent who rejects the reality of climate change and has promised to boost fossil fuels even more than he did during his first term.

“It is the job of activists to push, to push for more, push for what is needed, to raise the bar of ambition,” Jamal Raad, co-founder and former executive director of Evergreen Action, a climate policy advocacy group, said before the administration’s LNG pause was made public. “Election season is a key moment to do that, to extract commitments and promises and to demand a vision for what the next four years will look like in a Biden administration.”

That persistence, though, has chafed some in the climate policy community. They worry that hitting Biden too hard over his climate platform could encourage Biden-leaning voters to stay home.

It’s “dishonest” to portray Biden as weak on climate policy, said Leah Stokes, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and author of “Short Circuiting Policy.” And it potentially puts off a whole pool of first-time voters who don’t know much about the Inflation Reduction Act, methane fees or power plant carbon reduction rules, she said.

Earlier this month, the Biden administration proposed new rules that would fine oil and gas companies for their methane emissions. New regulations that would cut power plant emissions are expected later this year.

If voters who might be swayed by these actions don’t head to the polls, the United States could elect Trump, who is a “climate arsonist,” she said.

“We have a responsibility as a climate movement to be telling the truth about Biden’s record, and yes to push him, but also to be communicating accurately about what he’s managed to accomplish and to be reckoning about the alternative, which is climate destruction,” she said.

Going to war against Biden because of his climate policy is reminiscent of progressive attacks on Al Gore by Ralph Nader supporters in the 2000 election that mortally wounded Gore in Florida, said Paul Bledsoe, who worked on climate change in the Clinton White House and is now a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy.

“I’m worried publicity-seeking activists are going to undermine Biden’s sterling climate reputation with just enough impressionable young voters that it could be a problem in key swing states,” he said.

The nation’s biggest green groups have not waited to give Biden their stamp of approval. The League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, NextGen PAC, the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council Action Fund gave Biden their electoral seal of approval last June, some 18 months before the November election and well before the LNG pause was announced. They’ll be backing up their endorsements with tens of millions of dollars in ad and outreach spending to rally behind Biden.

Their political calculation is an acknowledgment that Biden has a tough fight in the coming months.

But support for Biden isn’t uniform. Some climate groups that have yet to back his reelection include the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, Oil Change U.S. or the Sunrise Movement, though such endorsements typically come much later in the election cycle.

Their desires run the gamut. They want him to shut down construction of liquefied natural gas export facilities in Louisiana, stop financing of international oil and gas projects, halt the final construction stage of the Mountain Valley Pipeline and more.

And in some corners, there’s the belief that criticizing Biden on climate could be a good thing for his reelection prospects.

“The climate movement is composed of a whole lot of young people who are really angry with Biden right now,” said Colin Rees, U.S. program manager for Oil Change International, in an interview.

“I don’t see how us pushing him on climate hurts,” said Rees, who attended protests at export facilities in Louisiana before the permitting pause came down. “These are the people who are already thinking about participating in the election, and we are trying to get them back engaged, and this is the way to do it.”

At this point in the race, polls show that Biden is in for a political dogfight all the way to November. He consistently has received approval ratings in the mid-30s and is dealing with voter questions about his age and his handling of the economy.

Still, some climate activists see the LNG permitting decision as an indication they can back off Biden, at least in part.

“I can’t remember a bigger win,” said Bill McKibben, the prominent climate activist and author who had been planning to get arrested at a Department of Energy sit-in over the permits that had been scheduled for next month.

“This is a watershed moment in a lot of ways, and to see a Democratic president stand up to the natural gas industry is a powerful moment,” McKibben told reporters on a conference call celebrating the pause.

As a result of the LNG permitting pause, that sit-in is now canceled and the Biden administration gets to avoid the political headache of a protest at the Department of Energy headquarters, which would have provided headlines and television footage of liberal activists slamming the administration on one of its core issues.

But that doesn’t mean all activists are planning to stay quiet.

The LNG move is a “political calculation and I think the Biden administration should be listening to what voters they can excite right now in this moment to live another day,” said Jean Su, director of energy justice for the Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund, adding, “That’s an opening salvo to a greater more ambitious climate future.”

Michele Weindling, political director for the Sunrise Movement, took a similar view.

“It doesn’t end here,” she said.

Voters in their teens and twenties have been an essential part of Democratic victories in the last three election cycles, and it’s important to them that the administration do more than just pause the permitting, she said.

“Young people are the largest voting bloc in this country, and they vote for the issues that they care about,” Weindling said. “Climate is one of those top issues, and it needs to be seen that leaders are leading boldly and unapologetically to solve this crisis and take it seriously — that’s what turns them out to vote.”