October 8, 2020

How 2020 Became a Climate Election

by How to Save a Planet

Background show artwork for How to Save a Planet

For years, American politicians have failed to take climate change seriously. The 2016 presidential debates didn’t even include a single climate question. Fast-forward four years, and climate change is a major election issue. So how did 2020 become a climate election? This week, how a bunch of outsiders turned the Green New Deal into a national rallying cry — and pushed Joe Biden to adopt the most ambitious climate platform in U.S. history.

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How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet on Twitter and Instagram, and email us at howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com

How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Additional music by Peter Leonard, Catherine Anderson, and Billy Libby. Full music credits can be found on our website. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Special thanks to Rachel Strom.

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Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg.

Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: And I'm Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. This is the podcast where we ask, what do we need to do to address climate change? And how do we make those things happen?

Ayana: So there's an election coming up, you may have heard. And we figured that as a climate podcast, we should probably take some time to compare the candidates' climate plans.

Alex: Indeed. So which one do you want to start with?

Ayana: Let’s take the easy way out and start with Trump’s plan.

Alex: Okay.

Ayana: We went to his website. I’m going there now, DonaldJTrump.com.

Alex: And just probably go to the part of the website that says "Climate plan."

Ayana: There’s no policy section, per se. But there is a section that sort of talks about some of the stuff he's done on energy and the environment. And basically all, like, really bad things that I wouldn't brag about.

Alex: And I'm looking at his list of what he's calling achievements, and they actually—that's not the word I would use.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Like, stuff about bragging about, like, opening oil and gas leases in the Gulf of Mexico, permitting oil pipelines. Talking about how the Trump administration is pulling the United States out of the Paris climate accords, you know, the gigantic global agreement on reducing carbon emissions.

Ayana: So there is no plan, though. There's nothing forward-looking about, like, what he would do on climate change. Just a list of ways he has, like, tried to destroy the environment in the last four years.

Alex: Should we look at Biden?

Ayana: Oh, sure. So Biden's plan, on the other hand. Well, first he actually has a climate plan, and it includes some major and ambitious commitments, including: eliminating fossil fuels from our electricity by 2035—so in just 15 years. Ensuring all cities have good zero-emission public transit, weatherizing millions of buildings to make them more energy efficient. And creating millions of green jobs. Pretty good, especially compared to the alternative there.

Alex: Exactly. And, you know, I don't know if we're going to want to make a habit of endorsing political candidates on this podcast, but we're in the middle of this really big election where one candidate literally pretends climate change is not happening. And the other one actually has a plan to address the threat we're facing. So. I think we're going to ...

Ayana: Don't be nervous. We can do this.

Alex: I think we should maybe endorse a candidate. Are you ready to take this step?

Ayana: I've already taken this step, Alex.

Alex: Oh, you have?

Ayana: I've had calls with Biden's policy team. I've donated. I've hosted fundraisers. I've written, like, Twitter threads about how surprisingly legit Biden's climate proposal is. Yeah, I'm in.

Alex: I'm not in the way you are. For most of my life, I've been working as a journalist where you don't really endorse political candidates. At NPR, for example, it's not allowed. You're not allowed to give money to individual candidates. And there's good reason for that. You know, you're covering both parties. You want to be talking to them. You want to be providing the same level of skepticism to both of them. So it does feel weird if you're, like, actively working to get one party elected when you're covering them both as a journalist. But this does feel different.

Ayana: I was waiting for that "but." Yeah, I don't know that it's terribly controversial to say that we, as a climate podcast, favor the guy who actually has a serious climate plan grounded in science. So if Scientific American can make an endorsement for the first time in their 175-year history then maybe we can make an endorsement for the first time in six episodes.

Alex: [laughs] All right. Here it is. We're breaking with six episodes of tradition and officially endorsing Joe Biden for president.

Ayana: Alex, I'm so proud of you.

Alex: Oh, thank you. It felt weird.

Ayana: What a big moment!

Alex: It felt weird, but good.

Ayana: But here's the thing, Alex. A few months ago, Biden's plan was definitely not something I ever would have endorsed. It was one of the worst plans among the top primary candidates. And it's not that I, or we, have lowered our standards. It's that Biden actually really stepped up. And in some ways he was forced to. In fact, all of the Democratic candidates were forced to.

Alex: If you look back to the last presidential election, for example, climate was hardly on the agenda. And yet this election, despite all the really big issues that are at stake: COVID, the economy, immigration, racial justice, I think you and I could argue that this election in many respects has become a climate election. CNN, for example, held a seven-hour town hall on climate with all the Democratic candidates. Compare that to 2016 when there literally was not one single climate question in any of the debates between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Ayana: How did that happen? Well, it turns out there's been an enormous sea change in American politics over the last couple of years. And today on the show, we're telling the story of that change, how it turned this election into a climate election, and how it turned Joe Biden—Joe Biden!—into a climate candidate.

Alex: And a lot of that change had to do with this audacious plan hatched just a few years ago by a bunch of young people. That's coming up after this quick break. Oh, but first, a quick warning. There's some explicit language in this episode.

Ayana: The story of how this election unexpectedly turned into a climate election, that begins a couple of years ago before Donald Trump was even president. And we're going to start the story with a young activist named Varshini Prakash.

Alex: Varshini was a youth organizer with the climate group 350.org. This was in 2015, and there was this big action ahead of the 2016 election. It was supposed to bring thousands of young people to Washington, DC, to demand that politicians listen to them on immigration, social justice and climate change.

Ayana: And then the day came, and it was disappointing. The turnout really wasn't that big. Varshini remembers organizers fighting amongst themselves. And it certainly seemed like there was no reason for politicians to stop and listen to them on climate or anything else. So after this rally, she was just completely fed up with the entire climate movement.

Varshini Prakash: I remember walking through the streets, just utterly dejected, holding a sign and saying something has to change.

Alex: Who had been the organizer of this event that you were at?

Varshini: Oh me! Us.

Alex: You had been the organizer?

Ayana: So this was your rock bottom.

Varshini: It was my rock bottom, and it was also the moment that I think was the kick in the butt to imagine new possibilities. Me and my best friend Sarah and one or two others grabbed lunch—Ethiopian, I remember it was that. And I said, we have got to start a new movement in this country for young people.

Alex: At that moment when you’re saying to your friend "we need a new movement," what were you imagining?

Varshini: I was imagining a few things. One, I just desperately wanted a movement that took itself seriously about the level of power it was going to take to overcome political gridlock and partisanship in this country. That was not—yeah, that was essentially not about—I'm trying to say this without swearing. What's the deal with swearing on this podcast?

Alex: You can swear! Swear!

Ayana: Bring it on. Give it to us straight.

Varshini: I was like, we need a movement that is not going to fuck around.

Alex: From Varshini’s point of view, the climate movement was failing. It needed to bring in more people, a lot more people, and a much broader group of people than it ever had before.

Varshini: One of the great failings of the climate movement has been an inability to build across class and race. And I don’t know if we’re going to be fully successful at this, but to me part of what we needed in a new movement was a movement that took very seriously a commitment to building multiracial, cross-class movements.

Alex: You're essentially saying, like, I want a brand new movement, and I want it to be way more inclusive, way broader and ultimately much more powerful than all the existing movements that have been out there for, like, 40 years or something. That's a big thing to want. Did it feel like a big thing to want? Or, like, how did you feel about even having that desire?

Varshini: It did feel big, but you know what? I felt—I didn't feel scared thinking about it. I felt relieved. I think what was—I felt totally relieved. I think what has been causing so much anger and angst over the few years prior to that was realizing that everything, like, the work I was putting into the movement was amounting to nothing.

Alex: Right.

Varshini: It wasn't having impact. So why not dream big?

Ayana: Why not play to actually win? So they started figuring out, how do you make change, real change in the United States of America? They looked at past movements, the civil rights movement, the movement for marriage equality, the Tea Party, Indigenous-led efforts, the New Deal, and asked basically, how do you build a movement that doesn't fuck around, that takes itself seriously?

Alex: And they did that for a whole year.

Varshini: We spent week after week after week, understanding the way that transformative change gets made in America, understanding the level of power you have to make to shift public opinion, to pass legislation.

Ayana: What surprised you? Like, what were the effective tools or approaches that maybe you wouldn't have predicted before you went into this phase of deep learning?

Varshini: I would say one is that public opinion feels almost immovable, oftentimes. Like, how many times have you heard someone just say, you know, "Oh, well the public doesn't care about the climate crisis," or "Climate change will never matter in our politics. That's just a given." We just didn't stand for that. We were like, are you kidding me? This is the biggest crisis facing humanity right now. And I think for us, in reading history, you see how quickly public opinion can shift on a number of issues over years, or even sometimes months.

Varshini: I remember in particular, the civil rights movement, you saw in 1962, 1963, at that time public opinion for civil rights legislation was at, like, four percent. And after they hold hundreds of actions across the country, after thousands of people are arrested and, like, young people, like, teenagers are out in the streets getting firehosed and attacked with dogs, you see public opinion in this country completely shift. And I think that's the exact thing that people are saying now about the climate crisis, right? They said, politicians will never care. You can never make the public care. The truth is people haven't tried.

Alex: Now of course, there were lots of environmental groups out there. Lots of people trying. But those groups were focused on other things. Lobbying Congress, filing lawsuits, working on policy. What Varshini was talking about was something that didn’t exist yet on climate change: a mass movement of everyday people that was so big, politicians and people in power couldn’t ignore it.

Varshini: And our bet is that if you can actually engage that demographic of people—which is usually young, which is usually people of color, which is usually working people, if you can mobilize and engage and activate that group of people, that is enough to create a seismic shift in American politics, to which we are now operating in a new common sense. And the political weather has utterly changed, and new things become possible.

Alex: Right.

Varshini: And so I would wager that if we are able to do that, the positions of people like Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump become virtually untenable. Like, get on board the ship and if you don't, we're coming for your jobs.

Alex: Varshini and her co-founders called this new organization the Sunrise Movement. It launched officially in 2017, and they got to work immediately recruiting students on college campuses. They would stage these protests at politicians' offices, where they would demand that elected officials stop taking money from the fossil fuel industry. And a lot of times they would sing. Singing was sort of their calling card. The goal is basically to force politicians to acknowledge that climate change wasn't some abstraction, it was their future.

Ayana: And all of this is happening in the lead-up to this big midterm election for Congress in 2018. And that election, in November of 2018 was this huge wave, and the Democrats took control of the House of Representatives. Activists hoped that a new Democrat-controlled Congress would be more open to climate legislation than the Republican-controlled one had been. But just before the election, news reports suggested that Democrats weren't actually going to make climate change a top priority. So the Sunrise Movement, they planned their biggest action yet. They decided to stage a sit-in in the office of the democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi, who was about to become a Speaker of the House with the power to control the policy agenda.

Alex: But they weren't sure whether they could actually pull this off. And so they reached out to a new member of Congress for help. That new member? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—AOC for short. And of course, she was this political phenom. She'd beaten one of the most powerful Democrats in the House in a primary that sent shockwaves throughout the political establishment. She'd literally been elected days before, and she hadn't even been sworn in yet. She was just in Washington, DC, for her congressional orientation. And at first, Sunrise was just asking if AOC could help publicize the event, like, send a tweet or something.

Ayana: Ocasio-Cortez said she would do better than a tweet; she would join them. This is Saikat Chakrabarti. He was AOC's chief of staff at the time.

Saikat Chakrabarti: And I was like, you know, this really cool youth group that actually seems to be legit, they want to do this sit-in in Pelosi’s office. They want you to tweet about it, or you can join them, as sort of a half joke. And she's like, "Oh, yeah. Of course, I definitely will join them." And I was like "Okay."

Ayana: But AOC’s team told Sunrise, if you're going to do a big sit-in, you need a clear message. Something for people to rally around. You should ask for something big.

Alex: And AOC’s campaign actually had this big idea they'd been kicking around, an idea for a huge economic mobilization to tackle climate change. One that they said would generate millions of jobs.

Saikat: It's meant to be not just, like, a climate change solution, it’s meant to be this economic mobilization program to solve climate change, and through that build wealth for the vast majority of Americans.

Alex: Something like the New Deal of the 1930s, this massive government mobilization designed to dig America out of the Great Depression. Internally AOC’s team was actually calling it the Green New Deal. And they suggested to Sunrise, maybe you should ask for that. And that suggestion kicked off a debate.

Varshini: We know we needed some kind of popular demand that would ultimately become the rallying cry on climate. We went through a few different iterations of it, it was like Green New Deal, there was, like, a Green Jobs Guarantee, there was, like, Green Jobs for All, there was a bunch of different versions of it, but ultimately it came down to the final moment of actually deciding that that was going to be the term moving on with it, and then kind of like unleashing it on the day of the actual sit-in.

Ayana: So wait, are you—is what you’re saying that, like, this concept ...

Varshini: What I'm saying is that moment could have been really messed up, and we might've done Green Jobs Guarantee and imagine what would have happened. [laughs] We were this close guys, this close!

Alex: It turned out, settling on the demand for a Green New Deal, that was a turning point. One that would played a huge role in this sea change in US climate politics we talked about at the beginning, and set the stage for Biden’s ambitious climate plan. But in that moment, in those anxious days before the sit-in, none of the people involved actually knew it was a turning point.

Alex: If you guys had come down on the other sort of idea, a green jobs guarantee, do you think we’d be where we are today?

Varshini: No. No, I don’t think so.

Ayana: Varshini is vigorously shaking her head for the listeners.

Alex: Yeah. Why not?

Varshini: I don’t know. I mean, a lot of it goes back to the namesake, right? Like, there's something about the New Deal that the level of both movement-building, and policy-making, and legislating, and governing that we have to do in the next decade to combat the climate crisis has really similar parallels to the New Deal. And I think this was able to capture the imagination and the scale in a way that was fully different than say, just like a green jobs for all kind of thing which, when you think about, it sounds like something that, like, Hillary Clinton would have said on the, like, 2016 campaign trail, you know? And it’s just more hashtag-able, you know? There’s that. Green New Deal.

Ayana: Let’s be real. It’s a better hashtag.

Varshini: Yeah.

Alex: And so the day came. 250 young activists from the Sunrise Movement crammed into Nancy Pelosi's office and lined the halls outside demanding that she set up a special committee to design a Green New Deal. And just as she’d promised, AOC joined the protesters in Pelosi’s office.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez: What we can really do is give courage, give courage to those Democrats and to those Republicans even, to any elected official, give courage to elected officials who may be waffling and may be on the line. And we want to let them know that if they commit to a Green New Deal, if they commit and if we really pursue and show this country that we are really about change, we will have their back, we will knock their doors, we'll make sure they get re-elected in every swing district in America.]

Ayana: And we talked about this in our recent episode, The Green Wave, about how the Green Deal took off in Europe, and how this moment was when the idea really blew up. But AOC later admitted that she was terrified that she had just ended her political career before it even began. But the fact that she challenged her leadership, that's what caught the media's attention. That's what made this moment go viral. And suddenly the Green New Deal was everywhere.

[NEWS CLIP: On Capitol Hill, police arrested 51 youth climate activists Tuesday as they held a nonviolent sit-in protest inside the office of House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, demanding a Green New Deal and urgent action on climate change.]

[NEWS CLIP: Ocasio-Cortez also called for a Green New Deal by 2020.]

[NEWS CLIP: Here in the United States, incoming House Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez want what they call a Green New Deal, moving the United States toward using 100 percent renewable energy.]

Alex: And there was one person in particular who was watching all of this with a lot of interest.

Rhiana Gunn-Wright: I think maybe it was a CNN—so I don’t remember exactly what was the story, but I remember seeing the photo, and I was like, "Phew, it’s about to get really real." [laughs]

Alex: This is Rhiana Gunn-Wright. And at that moment, she was one of the few people on Earth who knew what was in a Green New Deal, because she was writing it. She was working for a brand new progressive think tank that most people in Washington, DC, had not even heard of yet. And for the past couple months, she had been tasked with coming up with ideas for a Green New Deal. She had heard that the Sunrise Movement was taking this demand to Congress, but she hadn't expected this.

Rhiana: So in real time with everyone else, I was working on this thing and basically being like, "Oh, wow! Oh it’s popping off. Oh it’s popping off right now."

Ayana: Rihana Gunn-Wright was a rising star in progressive policy circles. She'd been policy director for Abdul El-Sayed, a young progressive candidate who ran to be governor of Michigan. And when he lost, she got hired by a think tank called New Consensus. This was in the summer of 2018, just a few months before that sit-in. And New Consensus was part of this same group of progressive thinkers as the folks on AOC’s campaign.

Alex: And New Consensus was working on this idea of a massive economic mobilization to combat climate change. And they had hired Rhiana to figure out what would that look like?

Rhiana: Initially when they came to me, the goals of the Green New Deal were zero emissions, zero waste, zero poverty. And I was like, "Mm-mm, Can’t get you all that!" [laughs] If I could, I’d be making a lot more money.

Alex: [laughs]

Ayana: Rhiana knew this was a hugely ambitious project. But the more she thought about it, she realized, why not? Why not give this a shot? Let's figure out what this thing could actually look like. Plus, she really needed a job.

Alex: The original New Deal included huge job programs to put people back to work, also a ton of things that you take for granted today: social security, the federal minimum wage, rural electrification, which is harder to say than it sounds.

Ayana: [laughs] And my personal favorite: the Civilian Conservation Corps, which involves lots of tree-planting and other work to restore habitats. And like the original new deal, this Green New Deal would be expansive. It wouldn't just focus on transforming the energy system, it would have to transform the entire economy. Rhiana and the Sunrise movement and AOC’s team, they were arguing that in the past, climate movement talked way too much about polar bears and parts per million. And what had been missing was a focus on jobs and justice. Specifically, a focus on communities that had traditionally been left out: poor communities, rural communities, communities of color, who are often the ones most harmed by our current fossil-fuel economy, from dealing with polluted air and water to the impacts of extreme weather.

Rhiana: A lot of folks, I mean, who have been working on climate their entire lives, were not talking or thinking about climate change or the climate crisis as an outgrowth of the racial oppression or white supremacy or racial capitalism, right? So, like, these are leaps for people. So we have to bring them along, establish the validity of these ideas to some extent, prove them. And so a lot of my work was, honestly, doing that.

Alex: Rhiana and Sunrise argued that you can't actually tackle climate change without dealing with economic and racial injustice. But lots of people she would talk to were like, "Really? Does it need to be this big? Why do we need to include affordable housing and health care and a jobs guarantee in climate legislation? Questions which Rhiana got very tired of answering.

Rhiana: There's only so many times you can answer that question as a person of color, and not feel like you are saying, "Well, you should make sure that people like me don't die and get sick because—" right? And I just, ultimately now at this point, I don’t like to do that. You shouldn’t do it because it’s wrong, right? And, like, we have to ask ourselves to be better, right? Instead of just asking people of color to constantly tell us why they matter, and why they shouldn't be left aside as essentially a policy solution. Because that's the other thing that's really frustrating about it is that essentially dumping pain on people of color is a policy solution in the US, right? Like, we use people of color as a buffer, and we're finally facing a problem where that's not possible. There are not enough Black people to throw between the sun and the Earth [laughs]. There just aren't, right? Like, there's no way to solve this while maintaining a racial hierarchy, really truly. And so isn't it time to just set aside those questions anyway, and start figuring out how do we solve this problem for real, and not try to solve it by just dumping that pain on a set of people, right? Especially when we know that that is not going to solve the problem this time.

Ayana: Rhiana joined forces with AOC's team, Senator Ed Markey's team from Massachusetts and the Sunrise Movement to turn the Green New Deal into something more concrete. And in February of 2019, a few months after the sit-in, AOC and Senator Markey officially introduced the Green New Deal resolution in Congress—a 14-page document outlining these sweeping goals.

Alex: And, as we also talked about in our previous episode on this, Republicans and conservative media attacked the plan as unrealistic and dangerous. And even many establishment Democrats were skeptical. Nancy Pelosi herself called it the "green dream." But the part of the story that we didn't tell in that episode is what actually happened here in the United States. That idea did capture the imagination of a huge group of people here, and completely changed the stakes in American politics as well. And that became clear in a big way in the Democratic primary for president.

[NEWS CLIP: Good evening everyone, I’m Lester Holt. And welcome to the first Democratic debate in the 2020 race for President.]

Alex: You may remember this early in the primaries, there was something like two dozen candidates for president. Beto O’Rourke, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Andrew Yang. And a young policy wonk named Maggie Thomas was working for one of those candidates, a guy named Jay Inslee—the Governor of Washington state. And climate? That was Inslee's issue. In the beginning, he was one of the only candidates with a serious fleshed-out plan on climate, which Maggie says made him pretty unusual.

Maggie Thomas: It was hard to fathom at the time that in a field where ultimately 23 people ended up running for president, that there was someone out there who was as credible and as well-versed on the issue as governor Jay Inslee, but also who would be interested in running an entire presidential campaign on this issue. And that there would be a whole team of people help—that were recruited to come work for this person. And you could actually have a job, like, with the title Deputy Climate Director, which means that if you're the deputy, that means there's a Climate Director out there, you know?

Alex: But Maggie says very quickly, her boss wasn’t alone. All the candidates started coming out with big climate plans. And a big part of the reason was the Green New Deal.

Maggie: I remember thinking this is very simple and distilled down into so few words. Why have we over-complicated it to this point?

Alex: But more than that, says Maggie Thomas ...

Maggie: It’s also an incredible organizing opportunity, right? Like, it’s a simple thing that you can get a candidate on the record to say yes, or no. You know, no squirrely answer in the middle. Do you support the Green New Deal or do you not support the Green New Deal? And so because of that, we had every event on the road for all of these candidates, you had young people trying to get them on the record, and saying, "Hey do you support this thing? Like, do you care about the future of our planet? Do you care about the future that I’m going to live in and I’m going to inhabit?"

Ayana: And so there’s all these amazing videos of young people, like, teenagers, going up to presidential candidates and trying to get them to commit to better climate policy, to the no fossil fuel pledge.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: You’ll get a better deal from me than anybody. I just want you to go back and look.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, young activist: I’m just wondering how we can trust you when you’ve continually broken your pledge not to take fossil fuel money and have fundraisers with the CEO.]

Ayana: To endorsing the Green New Deal. And it actually started to work. Over a period of just a few months, nearly all of the presidential candidates signed on to support the Green New Deal.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Andrew Yang: I love the vision of the Green New Deal. The framers of it have done us all a great new service by energizing so many people around a vision.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Kamala Harris: As President of the United States, I am prepared to get rid of the filibuster to pass a Green New Deal.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bernie Sanders: What I am also talking about is a just transition, all right? We can create what the Green New Deal is about—it’s a bold idea. We can create millions of good paying jobs.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: To me, what the Green New Deal says are a couple of really critical points. The first is the urgency of the moment. We’re running out of time here.]

Ayana: With one high-profile exception: Joe Biden. He didn’t endorse the Green New Deal, and his climate plan was singled out by people in climate circles as pretty disappointing.

Alex: Rhiana Gunn-Wright told us she thought his plan at the beginning was quote "milquetoast." And Varshini’s organization, Sunrise, they rated all the candidates’ climate plans, they gave the Biden plan initially an F-minus.

Ayana: I think that was, like, maybe a bit extreme. [laughs]

Alex: And actually by the standards of previous election cycles, his plan at the beginning was pretty good, arguably better than, for example, Hillary Clinton's plan from 2016. But the thing was, the bar had already been raised so much higher. Many of the other plans set ambitious deadlines to reduce emissions by 2030, in line with the most recent scientific projections. Biden’s plan had a much later deadline. And in the debates his opponents were hammering him for it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Inslee: And we know this. Middle-ground solutions like the Vice President has proposed, or sort of middling, average-sized things are not going to save us.]

Ayana: This is Governor Jay Inslee in a debate in Michigan attacking Joe Biden for his moderate positioning, the thing that had defined him as a candidate. Biden had a cautious, moderate plan on climate. And Jay Inslee was arguing, that's just not good enough anymore. For example, this idea of the need to center racial justice that Rhiana was talking about, just a year or two ago, that idea wasn’t given much mainstream air-time. But now, here was Jay Inslee taking Joe Biden to task on it in a presidential debate. And getting applause for it.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Inslee: We also need to embed environmental justice. I was in zip code 48217 in the Detroit neighborhood the other day, right next to an oil refinery where the kids have asthma and they have cancer clusters. And after talking to these folks, I believe this, I believe this: it doesn’t matter what your zip code is, it doesn’t matter what your color is, you ought to have clean air and clean water in America. That’s what I believe.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, moderator: Vice President Biden, I’d like to get you to respond. Governor Inslee just said that your plan is middling.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: There is no middle ground about my plan.]

Alex: At this point, Biden does the political thing of trumpeting his accomplishments. He says, I helped negotiate the Paris Agreement when I was Vice President, I'm going to get rid of oil and gas subsidies. And then the moderator asks him this follow-up.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, moderator: Thank you, Mr. Vice President. Just to clarify, would there be any place for fossil fuels including coal and fracking in a Biden administration?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: No. We would work it out, we would make sure it’s eliminated, and no more subsidies for either one of those, any fossil fuel.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Jay Inslee: We cannot work it out. We cannot work this out. The time is up, our house is on fire. We have to stop using coal in 10 years, and we need a President to do it or it won’t get done.]

Alex: Even when Jay Inslee dropped out of the race, which he eventually did, and Maggie and her team of policy wonks were briefly out of a job, the competition for the candidates to outdo each other on climate, it just picked up steam. And Maggie? She wasn't out work for long.

Maggie: We were actually busier, the day after the governor dropped out of the race, which is not always exactly how you expect a presidential campaign to go. Having lost a few jobs on campaigns, I can assure you that you mostly have a lot of free time after your candidate drops out of the race. And, you know, we had Kamala Harris's team calling us saying, "Hey, will you line edit our climate plan that we're going to put out?" We had a call with Julian Castro's team saying, "Hey, we were—we've been waiting to put this out, but we just have a few things that, you know, can we just check in with you on a few policy ideas that we've got here?

Alex: Maggie says that what was happening was something very rare in primary politics, and especially in climate politics. She said what started to emerge was a race to the top, a race for each candidate to outdo each other by who had the most ambitious and sophisticated climate plan.

Maggie: They would say "Yes, I support the Green New Deal," and then they were held accountable to write a really good climate plan.

Alex: And perhaps the greatest example of this race to the top involves you, Ayana.

Ayana: I did get in the mix for a little bit there.

Alex: You did get in the mix. So Maggie eventually got hired by Elizabeth Warren to help her craft her climate plan. And of course, Elizabeth Warren, if there is a race to the top for policy proposals, that is a race she does not want to lose. And just a week after Maggie shows up for work, Elizabeth Warren is on TV at this CNN climate town hall when this guy you know, Ayana, this guy Bren Smith, a fisherman turned ocean farmer asks a question.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, moderator: Bren, what’s your question?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: Hi, Bren.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bren Smith: Those of us that work on the water, we need climate solutions and we need them now.]

Ayana: And I saw that, Bren on the screen, and I jumped off the couch and started yelling, "I know him! He’s going to ask about the ocean! You guys!"

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Bren Smith: So what’s your plan for a Blue New Deal, for those us working on the ocean?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Elizabeth Warren: I like that!]

Maggie: Immediately, Senator Warren said, yes, absolutely, I think that’s a great idea. Of course we need to be thinking about the oceans as part of our climate solution set. That happened on national television, and then a few emails later down the chain, I got an email that was like, "Well, the first plan you’ll be working on will be a Blue New Deal." [laughs]

Alex: That our boss just promised on national television.

Maggie: Yeah, that we just committed to on national television, so get to work. You’ve been here for about one week, good job. And that’s when I called Ayana and I was sort of like, please help! Let’s get to work. And I roped Ayana into probably a lot more than she bargained for. But we ended up writing the Blue New Deal together, which as Senator Warren often told me was the most popular climate plan that she heard about on the road.

Ayana: I remember standing in my mom’s kitchen on the phone with her being like, am I about to help Elizabeth Warren write a plan? And it was super exciting. It was all about the ocean economy, and all these different carbon solutions, offshore renewable energy, and the work that Bren does on regenerative farming of the ocean. We’ll do an episode about it one day because, like, this is my jam. But for now, it's important to think about this in the context of, like, how far this idea of a Green New Deal spread, that it was spinning off these other deals, basically.

Alex: But in the end of course, the candidate who won was Joe Biden, who had not endorsed a Green New Deal. And that race to the top among his opponents, it did not help them beat him. And at this point, the worry was, well, does this mean all those ambitious climate plans, like the Blue New Deal, they're kind of out the window?

Ayana: But a funny thing happened after Joe Biden won the nomination: this race to the top? It actually continued and Biden ended up joining it. How all that played out, that's coming up after the break.

Alex: So in our story, the primaries have just wrapped up. The only major candidate who hasn't signed on to the Green New Deal is the nominee, Joe Biden. And usually this is the moment when candidates tack back to the center, right? Conventional wisdom is during the primaries, when you're only talking to your own party, you can be more—in the case of the Democrats, you can be more left-leaning.

Ayana: But once you have a nominee, you have to appeal to centrists and swing voters, so you often tack to the middle. But that's not what Biden did on climate. In fact, he did the opposite. One of the first things he did, says Maggie Thomas, was call her old boss, Jay Inslee.

Maggie: Joe Biden called Governor Inslee and said, "Hey, I know that you’re the climate guy. And, you know, will you help me and my team with my climate plan?"

Ayana: And then Biden went even further. At the end of the primary, his last standing opponent was Bernie Sanders, who we know is pretty far left. And after Sanders withdrew, Biden agreed to set up these unity task forces. These were small groups of experts who would suggest changes to Biden's platform, and hopefully help unite the party. So Biden would appoint some folks and Sanders would appoint some people. And when it came to climate, Sanders appointed a co-chair—AOC—and the other person he appointed was Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement.

Alex: So five years ago, Varshini was a young activist imagining a movement that could actually take power seriously. She and her friends had willed that movement into existence. They’d grown that movement large enough to amass real power, and they’d exercised that power to influence the political conversation. And now here she was, helping to develop the climate plan for the man who could be the next president. Although actually, in the age of COVID, it wasn’t that glamorous.

Varshini: I mean, it was literally two hours of Zoom calls every week where we were on a zoom with John Kerry and all these Congress people and little old me, in this exact room that you were seeing me right now. This was the exact backdrop where it all happened.

Ayana: Some good exposed brick, some party lights.

Varshini: Yeah. Exactly.

Alex: [laughs]

Varshini: And everyone's probably, like, four decades older on average. So that was something.

Ayana: So was it contentious? Were people, like, really, you know, arguing and hashing it out?

Varshini: The places where we agreed the least were on the normal stuff. Like, They didn't want to go in on, you know, banning fracking or phasing out fossil fuels, because I think they see it as a really linchpin kind of political issue, and don't want to upset people in Pennsylvania. Although there's a lot of evidence to point that it might not. We obviously wanted them to be more ambitious than they were, but there were some areas where we were able to push and get movement. So for example, we went from a goal around decarbonizing the power sector by 2050 to 2035. You know, we moved that timeline up by 15 years, which is huge.

Ayana: Yeah, that’s massive.

Varshini: Because it means, you know, Joe Biden has to get moving on some of those goals by, like, tomorrow.

Alex: And in July, Biden released his new climate plan. The way more ambitious climate plan that we talked about at the beginning of this episode. And he gave this big speech just about the climate.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is "Hoax." When I think about climate change, the word I think of is, "Jobs." Good paying union jobs.]

Ayana: Despite all that, Biden still goes out of his way to say he doesn’t support the Green New Deal, specifically. For example, in the recent presidential debates:

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chris Wallace: But do you support the Green New Deal?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: Pardon me?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Chris Wallace: Do you support ...]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: No, I don’t support the Green New Deal.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Donald Trump: Oh, you don't? That's a big statement.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Joe Biden: I support the Biden plan.]

Ayana: But for so many of us who want meaningful action on climate change, who want to see major federal policy initiatives, it doesn't really matter what we call it, just as long as it's serious and big enough to make a real difference.

Alex: And Varshini says Biden's plan would be a major step forward.

Varshini: And I think if we are able to do that, like, if Joe Biden, like, what he's talking about, he's able to do a $2-trillion green jobs and infrastructure plan in the first four years of his administration, that will get us down the path towards a Green New Deal far, far quicker, and kind of like force all of these market signals and kind of create a culture shift, and a sort of like switch in, I think, US politics that we have no idea how quickly that could bring us to realizing the full vision of a Green New Deal.

Alex: So you know how Varshini said that thing about how sometimes these political facts, they seem immutable, but then they can change relatively quickly? Is that sort of what it feels like to you now, watching all this go down around climate?

Ayana: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I never thought 2020 would become, like, a climate election with this whole, "Who has the best climate plan" thing happening. It happened much faster than I thought it would. And for sure, it's because of this immense public pressure that the candidates were receiving.

Alex: And then, of course, there is the actual changing climate as well. Climate change is getting more and more in our faces. It's becoming harder and harder to ignore stronger hurricanes, freak tornadoes, massive wildfires.

Ayana: And certainly, this idea of a Green New Deal is really unifying. It gave young people who are trying to fight for a livable future, a concrete ask to hold politicians accountable to. It's this simple framing that helped push the debate forward towards action.

Alex: But, of course, getting politicians to acknowledge climate change and make plans to address it, that's just step one. None of that does any good if the politicians you've convinced don't get elected. And we talked to Rhiana Gunn-Wright, the foremost expert on the Green New Deal, about this election and how important it is.

Ayana: What do you want our listeners to know about what’s at stake for climate change in this election?

Rhiana: I mean, it's—yeah. I mean, it's tough. Because on one hand, I want to say everything, but that's not true, right? Like, it's not like if this election's over, it's like pack it all in guys, let's just buckle down for the apocalypse. And I don’t think that that is actually what we should be telling people. But I will say that, like, the kind of future that you and I—or, like, the kind of world that you and I lived in, have known, that our parents have known, that likely won't exist if Trump is re-elected. And that's just the reality of it. Climate change is moving too fast and we're already at too much of a threshold point. Like, if we don't do anything in the next four years, it's going to be—it's going to be bad.

Ayana: What would you say to people who are thinking of sitting this election out because they're not excited enough about the climate plan that Biden has put forward?

Rhiana: In many ways, like, I get it. I mean, I also grew up in a city—someone was asking me, like, something about the right or the left. And I'm like, listen, I grew up in a city where I've never known any mayor that wasn't a Democratic mayor. And I've also never known a city that didn't have double-digit Black unemployment rate, right? Like I—the community I'm from was definitely forgotten. And not forgotten. Forgotten is too passive. They abandoned in large part, my community and a lot of communities like mine in Chicago. And that was a Democrat.

Rhiana: And so I get it. Like, I get not wanting to vote, and I get why you would not want to continue to vote for a party that often says one thing and does another, right? But I guess the thing—and I was at a talk and an activist called Vic Barrett said this, and it really struck me. He was like, "Vote as an act of community," right? In a time where, especially we're talking about climate change as a communal challenge, it's something that's facing us all, well, then vote like it’s facing us all. And for me, I'm just like, I have one goal, which is I'm not trying to do this shit in 50 years. I'm not trying to be an activist. I'm trying to sit down, bake some cakes, look at some nature and mind my damn business. [laughs]

Ayana: Goals, as they say.

Rhiana: That is my goal. And so like—and for that to happen ...

Alex: We’ve got to wrap this up, people. We can't be squabbling.

Ayana: Can we fix this whole climate crisis thing so we can just, like, get back to our pastries?

Rhiana: I have things to do.

Ayana: Same.

Rhiana: And so, like, that is my goal. So for me, I'm like, let's just, like, do it. I'm just trying to kick it. That's it. That's my whole goal. Let's deal with this so we can all kick it.

Ayana: Can I kick it?

Rhiana: Yes, we can!

Ayana: Can I kick it?

Rhiana: Yes, we can!

Ayana: How screwed are we?

Rhiana: Honestly, I actually—I tend to think we're not that screwed.

Ayana: Ah! Yes!

Rhiana: And this, I don't—I don't think we're that screwed.

Ayana: Alex and I are both, like, stunned but also excited by your answer. Tell us more.

Rhiana: Well, the thing that, like, makes me hopeful is, like, most of the problems that we have are not natural. They didn't come out of the air. We created them. And if we created something, you can uncreate it. It's not gonna happen overnight. But a lot of the things that we think about often, political calculus, all of that stuff is incredibly mutable and incredibly shiftable. And take it from me, it is terrifyingly easy to hack the national conversation in certain circumstances. And so just the fact that, like, we created it, reminds me that we can always do something different. Because if you built the thing, you can literally take it apart.

Alex: And that is our episode for today. We are not screwed. We can take apart the thing we have built and build something new. And the first step is voting. And specifically, as we said in the beginning, we think you should vote for Joe Biden. He has a plan, and thanks to that work of many, many people, it's actually a good one. If you vote now, you can do your part not only to elect the candidate who will take action on the climate, but also you can do your part to ensure that Rhiana Gunn-Wright can bake cakes in peace 50 years from now.

Ayana: [laughs]

Alex: Who does not want that future? And then there's two other things that you can do. You can check out the Sunrise Movement online. They have a bunch of actions they suggest taking this political season. There is a link to their website in our show notes. You can also read Joe Biden’s climate plan for yourself, or listen to his speech in July when he laid out how he thinks about climate change. We will have links to both of those in our show notes as well.

Alex: How to Save a Planet is a Spotify original podcast and Gimlet production. You can follow us @how2saveaplanet—that is "how," the number 2, "saveaplanet" on Twitter and Instagram, or you can email us at Howtosaveaplanet—not the number two. howtosaveaplanet@spotify.com.

Alex: How to Save a Planet is hosted by Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson and me, Alex Blumberg. Our reporters and producers are Rachel Waldholz, Kendra Pierre-Louis, Anna Ladd and Felix Poon. Our senior producer is Lauren Silverman. Our editor is Caitlin Kenney. Sound design, mixing and original music by Emma Munger. Our fact checker this episode is Claudia Geib. Special thanks to Rachel Strom. We will see you next week!

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