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Biden has taken more action on climate than any president. His pitch? It creates jobs

President Joe Biden speaks at Prince William Forest Park on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, 2024, in Triangle, Va. Biden announced $7 billion in federal grants to provide residential solar projects serving low- and middle-income communities and an expansion of the American Climate Corps green jobs training program.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
/
AP
President Joe Biden speaks at Prince William Forest Park on Earth Day, Monday, April 22, 2024, in Triangle, Va. Biden announced $7 billion in federal grants to provide residential solar projects serving low- and middle-income communities and an expansion of the American Climate Corps green jobs training program.

Joe Biden has one line he loves to repeat about climate change.

"When I think of climate... I think of jobs," Biden said at an event with union members just before Earth Day this year.

It's a line that draws applause from a union audience. But it also sums up how Biden has approached his work on climate change – as an economic opportunity as well as an environmental problem.

It's a strategy born, in part, of the moment when Biden was elected, says Gina McCarthy, Biden’s former White House National Climate Advisor.

“Four years ago, millions of people across the country were sheltering in place. Thousands of Americans were sick and dying from COVID,” McCarthy says. “There was a need to really jump-start the ability for people to feel hopeful and excited again about the future.”

Focusing on climate as a jobs strategy accomplished another Biden goal of boosting the country’s manufacturing sector and the economy, McCarthy says.

Almost four years later, Biden has arguably done more than any other American president to start moving the country away from burning fossil fuels, the main drivers of climate change.

In 2022, he worked with Democrats in Congress to pass the most ambitious climate legislation in U.S. history, the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA). The law directs hundreds of billions of dollars to boost renewable energy, electric cars, and cleaner manufacturing. His administration has also drafted sweeping new rules to clean up pollution from cars and power plants.

Those efforts are projected to reduce the country’s greenhouse gas emissions up to 42% by 2030, compared to peak 2005 levels, according to the research firm Rhodium Group. Biden has pledged to essentially zero out greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

These policies have been cheered by many environmentalists.

"President Biden is the greatest climate president we've ever had, by far," says Tiernan Sittenfeld, senior vice president of government affairs at the League of Conservation Voters.

But so far, Biden hasn't made his climate record a centerpiece of his bid for reelection. His campaign is more focused on reproductive rights, the economy and protecting democracy. The campaign did not make anyone available for an interview for this story.

It’s one of a series of seeming contradictions on climate change that mark Biden's first term in office.

While his administration has done more to address the warming planet than any previous one, few voters say they’re aware of those accomplishments. Even as his policies aim to replace fossil fuels with cleaner energy, the oil and gas industry is booming. And many of the places that have benefited from Biden’s policies are unlikely to vote for him.

Addressing climate change and rebuilding manufacturing

To see Biden’s climate agenda in action, a good place to visit is a factory in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.

This North Central Pennsylvania city is best known for hosting the Little League World Series each summer. But it also has a long history of manufacturing. The Italian multinational firm Prysmian, which produces electrical cables for power lines, just completed a new addition nearly the size of a football field – funded in part by subsidies for clean energy infrastructure in the IRA.

Italian multinational firm Prysmian is adding an addition nearly the size of a football field to its Williamsport, Pennsylvania facility. The company makes electrical cables for power lines and received $3.89 million in tax credits from a federal program boosted by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
Italian multinational firm Prysmian is adding an addition nearly the size of a football field to its Williamsport, Pennsylvania facility. The company makes electrical cables for power lines and received $3.89 million in tax credits from a federal program boosted by the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act.

A key aim of the climate legislation is to transition the U.S. away from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas, while expanding cleaner options like wind and solar power.

That will require a much bigger power grid and a lot more of Prysmian’s products. After years of declining demand, manufacturers like Prysmian are boosting production and developing new technologies.

“We're now in a new era for the power grid,” says David Horton, Prysmian’s plant director. “We need to rebuild the manufacturing capabilities to be able to keep up with the demand.”

The expanded facility will supply more efficient overhead lines for a major transmission project planned for the Midwest. The Grain Belt Express project is designed to move renewable power from where it’s generated on wind and solar farms in rural Kansas, to cities.

“In a project like the Grain Belt Express transmission line, we’ll use over half a million miles of that wire, which is enough to go to the moon and back,” says Patrick Whitty, a senior vice president with Invenergy, the company behind the project.

Prysmian received federal tax credits boosted by the IRA, totalling $3.89 million, to expand its Williamsport facility. The company says it plans to add 27 new jobs that pay at least $50,000 a year.

As the U.S. uses more electricity, there's more demand for the overhead conductor wire that Prysmian manufactures at its Williamsport, Pennsylvania factory.
Jeff Brady / NPR
/
NPR
As the U.S. uses more electricity, there's more demand for the overhead conductor wire that Prysmian manufactures at its Williamsport, Pennsylvania factory.

Many more IRA-funded projects are expected in coming years. So far, 316 new clean energy projects have been announced since the law passed, generating more than 100,000 new manufacturing jobs, according to the environmental business group E2. The White House estimates more than 270,000 jobs have been created.

But on the streets of Williamsport, few people seem to know what the IRA is – or that it’s focused largely on climate change. Lycoming County, where Williamsport is located, is a Republican stronghold. The Prysmian plant is one of many IRA-funded projects located in Republican-dominated states and regions.

“I’ve heard of it, but I'm not that familiar with it,” said Jean Weaver, outside the Williamsport Post Office. Another local resident, Carol Newman, said she’d never heard of the law at all. Both say they plan to vote for Donald Trump.

This lack of awareness goes well beyond Williamsport, national polling shows. That’s despite incentives aimed at encouraging climate action in nearly every corner of the economy, including subsidies to help households buy electric vehicles, make homes more energy efficient and install solar panels. The law also includes an expanded loan guarantee program to finance climate-focused businesses and tax credits to expand clean energy manufacturing.

Environmental groups are trying to raise awareness.

“Our polls show the more that people know about this progress – these investments – that it can make their individual lives better, the more excited they are,” Sittenfeld says. Her group, the League of Conservation Voters, endorsed Biden a year ago.

A second Biden term is essential to fully cement the policies he’s put in place so far, Sittenfeld says. Efforts like the IRA and new fuel economy standards for cars are so far-reaching, it’ll take years to fully implement them — something Sittenfeld fears could stall under a second Trump term.

Even as Biden boosts renewables, oil and gas are booming

While Biden has prioritized action on climate change, he's also presided over a boom in fossil fuel production. The United States is currently producing more crude oil than any country in history.

The president has little direct control over how much the oil industry drills on private land, where most oil is produced in the U.S. But Biden has also largely failed to deliver on a campaign promise to halt new oil and gas drilling on federal lands. Drilling has instead increased. In 2021, a federal judge blocked his administration's effort to temporarily suspend the sale of new oil and gas leases. His administration also approved some high profile projects opposed by environmentalists, such as the controversial Willow oil project in Alaska.

But that drilling hasn’t translated into more support from the oil and gas industry.

“While we are very supportive of the shared goals of creating lower emissions globally, we have huge concerns with the way President Biden has gone about it,” says Anne Bradbury, chief executive of the American Exploration & Production Council.

She cites Biden administration efforts she says have hurt the domestic oil and gas industry, including new environmental regulations, restrictions on natural gas exports and the push toward electric vehicles and away from fossil fuels in homes and buildings.

Bradbury argues these policies could have unintended consequences that increase pollution.

“By focusing on policies that reduce or restrict U.S. oil and gas production, you're actually empowering producers like Iran and Russia,” Bradbury says, noting those countries have lower environmental standards.

Environmentalists are skeptical of that argument. Climate scientists say most undeveloped fossil fuel reserves – everywhere in the world – will need to stay in the ground in order to avoid the worst effects of a warming climate.

Environmentalists hope phasing out fossil fuels will be more of a focus if Biden is reelected. The country still is not on track to meet the climate goals Biden himself has set.

“I think that transition from fossil fuel to clean energy, given how beneficial it would be for us in our health and our economy, is really the challenge of the next administration,” McCarthy says.

Some young climate activists who helped elect Biden four years ago aren't as enthusiastic this time around.

In February, members of the climate and youth-focused Sunrise Movement protested at Biden’s campaign headquarters in Wilmington, Del., demanding more action. 21 demonstrators were arrested – some saying they wouldn’t vote for Biden.

The group says it won’t endorse Biden. But it still plans to campaign for him, because, it says, the alternative is worse. Donald Trump has courted oil executives and promised to expand drilling for fossil fuels, a shift that could slow the growth of cleaner energy.

“We don't agree with everything Joe Biden has done, everything he’s saying,” says Stevie O’Hanlon, communications director for the Sunrise Movement. “But our best shot at winning the things we're fighting for, at securing a livable future for millions of people, is to defeat Donald Trump.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Jeff Brady
Jeff Brady is the Climate and Energy Correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He reports on the intersection of climate change and politics to reveal whether and how the U.S. is meeting its obligations to address the breakdown of the climate. And his reporting examines who's reshaping the energy system and who are the winners and losers. A key element of Brady's reporting is holding accountable those who block or stall efforts to address climate change in an effort to preserve their business.