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Democratic presidential candidate and former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden addresses a crowd at a town hall event at Clinton College on August 29, 2019 in Rock Hill, South Carolina. Sean Rayford / Getty Images

By Jeff Berardelli

At the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, former Vice President Joe Biden said point-blank that he does not support the Green New Deal — a progressive plan which not only aims to aggressively tackle climate change but also encompasses many other issues like social justice, jobs, housing and health care.

By Jeff Berardelli

At the first presidential debate on Tuesday night, former Vice President Joe Biden said point-blank that he does not support the Green New Deal — a progressive plan which not only aims to aggressively tackle climate change but also encompasses many other issues like social justice, jobs, housing and health care.


In response, President Trump pounced on what appeared to be an opportunity to underscore that point to Biden’s base, saying, “That’s a big statement… you just lost the radical left.”

But this was not actually a new position for Biden. Instead, he explained, “I support the Biden plan that I put forward” — a trillion proposal that is more narrow and less aggressive than the far-reaching Green New Deal.

Their exchange reveals the needle that Biden is threading in his campaign, between trying to win the confidence of climate crusaders on the left while not alienating more moderate voters in the middle.

Although it is true that Biden’s climate plan does not fully match the Green New Deal, there are many similarities. That’s because over the last few months the Biden campaign made a deliberate effort to consult with more progressive factions of the party through the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force, a committee which included climate and environmental justice activists like the Sunrise Movement — a group instrumental in the design of the Green New Deal. Biden has committed to some, but not all, of the task force’s recommendations.

“Joe Biden’s climate plan isn’t everything, but it isn’t nothing at all,” Varshini Prakash, the founder of Sunrise Movement, told CBS News in an interview for the recent CBSN special “Climate in Crisis.” She said if he is able to make good on those promises, it would represent a “seismic shift in climate policy at the federal level.”

As a result of the task force’s work, Biden’s climate plan was boosted from .7 trillion over 10 years to a much more substantial trillion over four years, with a faster timeline to achieve a carbon-free electricity sector and a greater focus on environmental justice.

“I think that Biden has done a good job of responding to pressure from the climate movement,” said Professor Leah Stokes, an energy and environmental politics expert at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who is very active in the climate policy arena and plugged into the progressive wing of the climate community. “The Unity Task Force was set up explicitly to accomplish this goal — and it was extremely successful.”

The careful wording on Biden’s campaign website is revealing. It says “Biden believes the Green New Deal is a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face” — an acknowledgment but not an embrace.

Goals and Costs

First, it is worth mentioning that comparing Biden’s plan to the Green New Deal is not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, because the Green New Deal is a broad resolution, not a specific plan. The goals of the Green New Deal are many, but the details on how exactly to achieve those goals are few. Thus, putting a price tag on the Green New Deal has been elusive; some experts estimate it would likely be tens of trillions of dollars over 10 years.

In contrast, Biden’s climate plan would lay out trillion over 4 years towards clean energy and infrastructure, which he says will create “millions” of jobs and move the U.S. closer to a carbon-free future. (For comparison, the cost, while expensive, it is still short of the one-year, .2 trillion price tag for U.S. coronavirus stimulus measures to date.)

Biden’s plan is also much more narrowly focused than the Green New Deal, which envisions broader reforms across the U.S. economy. For instance, the Green New Deal includes a goal of “providing all people of the United States with high-quality health care” — an issue that is not addressed in Biden’s climate plan.

However, like the Green New Deal, Biden’s plan is aggressive in addressing climate change while also attempting to tackle other related issues such as environmental justice, sustainable housing, supporting a “just transition” for workers whose jobs are affected, and the building of major infrastructure projects such as high speed rail, which is mentioned in both proposals.

Green Jobs and Infrastructure

At their core, both the Green New Deal and Biden’s climate plan are about jobs as well as the environment. They both place an emphasis on supporting labor unions’ right to organize and bargain for fair wages for their members. The Green New Deal sets a goal of providing a guaranteed job with a family-sustaining wage and benefits to every American — but Biden does not go that far.

Biden’s jobs plan is big, but not as comprehensive as the Green New Deal’s. He pledges to create millions of new jobs by retooling the auto industry for low-emission vehicles, building infrastructure for a green future, upgrading millions of buildings to be more energy efficient, constructing 1.5 million new sustainable housing units, and cleaning up pollution from oil and gas wells and coal mining sites.

“When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, he thinks ‘hoax.’ I think ‘jobs’,” Biden has said. He aims to provide additional jobs out of the pandemic by boosting this green energy economy.

Climate change is also expected to continually increase major stresses on America’s already aging infrastructure. To address this, both plans call for major investments to, as the Green New Deal puts it, “meet the challenges of the 21st century.” Biden’s plan calls for making “smart infrastructure investments to rebuild the nation and to ensure that our buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.”

However, on housing, Biden’s proposal to build 1.5 million new sustainable housing units is far short of the lofty ambitions of the Green New Deal, which calls for “providing all people of the United States with affordable, safe, and adequate housing.”

Carbon Emissions and Fracking

On emissions reductions, Biden’s plan calls for a carbon pollution-free U.S. power sector by 2035, with net-zero emissions throughout the economy by 2050. The Green New Deal’s timeline is more aggressive, calling for a 10-year national mobilization to generate “100 percent of the power demand in the United States through clean, renewable, and zero-emission energy sources.”

Both the Green New Deal and Biden’s plan call for overhauling the American transportation industry to reduce pollution and greenhouse gases by creating more public transit and pushing the country toward more hybrid and electric cars. Biden’s plan puts forth proposals like giving Americans rebates to trade in gas-guzzling vehicles for more efficient American cars, incentivizing auto companies to offer more zero-emission vehicles, and investing in 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations, among other ideas.

One area where Biden’s position has differed more significantly from environmental activists — and many of his rivals in the Democratic presidential primaries — has been on fracking.

Fracking, short for hydraulic fracturing, is a drilling method for extracting natural gas from shale formations underground by injecting liquid at high pressure. Since 2005, the use of fracking in the U.S. has grown exponentially. Some energy experts forecast the U.S. will be the world’s top exporter of natural gas within the next few years.

While the Green New Deal does not explicitly mention anything about fracking, its timeline to cut emissions from the power sector is so rapid that eliminating fracking is implied in the proposal. Banning fracking has certainly been a priority among climate activists.

However, fracking is a substantial source of jobs and revenue in the crucial swing state of Pennsylvania, where some 32,000 workers are employed in the fracking and natural gas industry. Biden told voters there in July that fracking “is not on the chopping block,” though his campaign says he supports no new fracking on federal land.

“It is not surprising that Biden said he doesn’t support a Green New Deal. He has a climate plan that’s in line with science — but he has never vocally supported a GND,” says Emily Atkin, a popular climate journalist who writes and hosts HEATED, a newsletter and podcast followed closely by many progressive climate crusaders. “This is completely in line with who he said he was. Also, he’s trying to win Pennsylvania.” (According to the latest CBS News Battleground Tracker poll, Biden currently leads President Trump in the state by 5 points.)

Though he’s faced some criticism over fracking from the left, it has been far more muted than one might expect, perhaps because green activists realize how much worse their chances will be if Mr. Trump is reelected. So far, according to a tally by Columbia University’s Sabin Center for Climate Change Law, the Trump administration has taken steps to roll back 162 climate related regulations.

Environmental Justice

A hallmark of the Green New Deal is its emphasis on environmental justice, to help remedy inequities which leave minority, low-income and Indigenous communities disproportionately affected by pollution and the impacts of climate change.

Biden’s plan directs 40% of its spending to historically disadvantaged communities, and calls for the establishment of an Environmental and Climate Justice Division at the Justice Department to prosecute anti-pollution cases.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that while many of the concepts in the Green New Deal are also addressed in Biden’s climate plan, generally speaking the Biden plan is more narrowly focused and less expensive.

Professor Stokes says it seems to be a bargain most progressives can live with in this election.

“We have a choice right now between our current president, a climate denier, and our former vice president, someone committed to climate action at the scale of the crisis,” she told CBS News. “Biden has the most aggressive climate change plan of any presidential candidate in U.S. history.”

This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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NASA image shows locations of wildfires in red and plumes of smoke across the Western U.S. NASA

By Jeff Berardelli

This story was originally published on CBS News on September 9, 2020. All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication.

By Jeff Berardelli

This story was originally published on CBS News on September 9, 2020. All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication.

Right on the heels of arguably the West Coast’s most intense heat wave in modern history comes the most ferocious flare-up of catastrophic wildfires in recent memory. Meanwhile, just a few hundred miles east, a 60-degree temperature drop over just 18 hours in Wyoming and Colorado was accompanied by an extremely rare late-summer dumping of up to 2 feet of snow.

It’s not coincidence, it’s climate change.


These kinds of dystopian weather events, happening often at the same time, are exactly what scientists have been warning about for decades. While extreme weather is a part of the natural cycle, the recent uptick in the ferocity and frequency of these extremes, scientists say, is evidence of an acceleration of climate impacts, some of which were underestimated by climate computer models.

“This is yet another example of where uncertainty is not our friend,” says Michael Mann, distinguished professor of atmospheric science at Penn State. “As we learn more, we are finding that many climate change impacts, including these sorts of extreme weather events, are playing out faster and with greater magnitude than our models predicted.”

On Wednesday NOAA released its latest State of the Climate Report, which finds that just during the month of August the U.S. was hit by four different billion-dollar disasters: two hurricanes, huge wildfires and an extraordinary Midwest derecho.

Just one such extreme event can strain emergency resources — a situation West Coast firefighters find themselves in now. However, in two dramatic cases this summer, the nation was hit simultaneously with concurrent catastrophes, some of which had no precedent in modern history. It’s a concept scientists call compound events, and it is necessary to factor these confluences into future projections to properly estimate risk, response and resources.

In mid-August the West suffered through an extended heat wave which saw Death Valley surge to 130 degrees, the hottest temperature ever reliably measured on Earth. The tinderbox conditions caused by the heat, along with a rare lightning outbreak, sparked the first round of major wildfires in California this season, escalating into three of the four largest fires in state history. At about the same time a powerful derecho caused billions of dollars in damage in Iowa and Illinois, and Hurricane Laura plowed into the Gulf Coast of Louisiana as a Category 4 with 150 mph winds and 16 feet of storm surge.

Just three weeks later, and here we are again. This past weekend California experienced an even more intense heat wave, with the southern part of the state hitting 121 degrees west of the mountains for the first time in record-keeping history. Predictably, fires flared back up due to the severe heating and drying, and then went into overdrive as a wicked early-season cold front — which is also bringing heavy snow to the Rockies — brought a wind event through the mountains and valleys of the intermountain west.

In Washington state, an estimated 330,000 acres burned across the state on Monday, more than the total in each of the last 12 fire seasons. California has seen a record 2.3 million acres burn so far this year — more than 3 times the normal for an entire season (typically July through November), and 7 times the normal year to date.

If it were just this fire season, one could chalk the extremity up to mere coincidence. But scientists say this is part of an ongoing upward trend, made clear by the data and well understood by science.

“There is little doubt that we’re witnessing an acceleration of fire activity in the West – be it in terms of burned area, number of large fires, fire growth, and of course direct and indirect impacts to people,” explains Dr. John Abatzoglou, climate professor at the University of California Merced.

The acceleration has been dramatic. Fire season is now two to three months longer than it was just a few decades ago across much of the West. Since the 1970s, California has experienced a five-fold increase in annual burned area and an eight-fold increase in summer forest fire extent. At least 17 of California’s top 20 largest wildfires have burned since 2000.

Increase in California areas burned by wildfires, 1975 to 2015. WILLIAMS, ABATZOGLOU ET AL., EARTH’S FUTURE

Abatzoglou makes clear that there are many factors — not just climate change — that contribute to the escalation of fire activity. These include the increased settlement of people in fire-prone lands and a legacy of fire suppression in many lower-elevation forests, which led to years of heavy growth of trees and brush.

“We can focus on the bad fortune of the lightning siege around the San Francisco Bay Area, or the multitude of stupid human tricks that materialized in large wildfires, but the confluence of long-term and short-term environmental factors set the table for the 2020 fire season,” he said.

In other words, though climate change does not cause the heat waves or fires, it sets the stage so that when conditions are ripe, like the summer and fall of 2020, heat waves are more intense and fires burn more fiercely.

CLIMATE CENTRAL

This summer has been extremely hot and dry in the West. According to NOAA, Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah each had their warmest August on record. Research has found that heat waves are now larger, getting more intense and lasting longer than decades ago. Specifically in California, extreme heat waves — like the ones of recent weeks — are now 3 to 4 degrees Fahrenheit warmer due to climate change. By 2080, that same study finds such heat waves will intensify by another 3 to 5 degrees.

This week’s NOAA report also finds that the same general area in the West also experienced one of its driest Augusts on record. This short-term dry and hot pattern is mainly due to natural cycles in weather, and from season to season has the biggest impact on the amount of area burned because it determines how dry the forests and brush are.

“Across the Western U.S. forests, we find that climatic measures of fuel dryness explain about ¾ of the year-to-year variability in the burned area — highlighting that climate very strongly enables big fire seasons in warm-dry summers and inhibits widespread fire activity in cool-wet summers,” explains Abatzoglou.

But over the long term, human-caused climate change has been gradually drying out the atmosphere and the fuel. “The observed changes in fuel dryness [plus the] number of days of high fire danger have been particularly stark in the American West over the past half-century,” says Abatzoglou.

Since the 1970s the warm season in the West has heated up by 2 to 3 degrees Fahrenheit. This extra heat has increased the evaporation of moisture from the surface. While atmospheric moisture has also increased some, it has not increased nearly as fast as the temperature. That has caused a long-term “moisture deficit” and has accelerated the rate of foliage drying. This is part of the reason why, according to research, the West has entered into one of the worst megadroughts in the past 1,200 years.

A recent study, co-authored by Abatzoglou, found a direct link with nearly all of the increase in summer forest-fire area during the period from 1972–2018 driven by the increased moisture deficit. To illustrate just how impactful the moisture deficit is, right now, as unprecedented wildfires burn out of control, the deficit is at record low levels in the majority of the Western U.S.

Another recent study from this spring found that the frequency of autumn days with extreme fire weather conditions has more than doubled since the 1980s, fueled by a combination of less rainfall and warmer temperatures.

But many scientists believe that there is more at play contributing to this extreme weather than simply the direct effects of warming and drying. One of those mechanisms is the indirect impacts of global warming on the most influential weather-maker on day-to-day conditions: the jet stream.

The speed and orientation of the jet stream — a river of fast-moving air currents in the atmosphere — determines the track, intensity and forward speed of most storm systems and also how cold or hot the weather is. The attributes of the jet stream at any given moment are determined largely by the placement of hot and cold air masses and the strength of the gradient between them. Because the Arctic has been warming at three times the rate of the rest of the globe, climate scientists know human-caused climate change is throwing the jet stream off-kilter. But how and to what extent is not totally understood.

A number of climate scientists believe that a warmer Arctic is slowing down the jet stream during certain times of year, resulting in a more wavy jet stream. As shown below, a wavy jet stream can catapult warm air northward into the Arctic and drive cold air far southward. This is exactly what happened during the catastrophic Midwest floods in 2019 and is also the kind of pattern we have right now, which is causing record low temperatures and extremely early season snow in the Rockies and Plains. A wavy jet stream is a normal part of nature, but climate change may be making it more amplified, resulting in more extremes.

“I think it’s a triple whammy — heat and drought, which are favored by climate change, and the extra added ingredient is the slower, wavier jet stream,” explains Mann. But he says the wavier jet stream isn’t well resolved by current models, thus they underestimate the extremity of weather events enhanced by climate change.

As a result, when scientists dig into the causes of an extreme event, Mann says the studies underestimate the influence of human-caused climate change. “So if anything, climate attribution studies are likely to under-attribute the role that climate change is playing with these persistent extreme weather events,” he said.

As for future fire seasons, Abatzoglou says we should expect extreme fires seasons like 2020’s to become the rule rather than the exception.

“While the extent of the ongoing fire siege is beyond what most have seen in the West, the alignment of ingredients for such fire seasons is becoming more favorable as a result of climate change and land-use practices,” he said. “We should expect, adapt, and prepare for similar years moving forward.”

This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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By Jeff Berardelli

From the historic heat wave and wildfires in the West, to the massive derecho that tore through the middle of the nation, to the record-breaking pace of this year's hurricane season, the unprecedented and concurrent extreme conditions resemble the chaotic climate future scientists have been warning us about for decades — only it's happening right now.

By Jeff Berardelli

From the historic heat wave and wildfires in the West, to the massive derecho that tore through the middle of the nation, to the record-breaking pace of this year’s hurricane season, the unprecedented and concurrent extreme conditions resemble the chaotic climate future scientists have been warning us about for decades — only it’s happening right now.


This story originally appeared in CBS News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalism collaboration strengthening coverage of the climate story.

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