Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez thinks former Vice President Joe Biden’s $5 trillion climate plan — one of the first major policies his campaign has released — is a “start,” albeit one that needs to be scaled up dramatically.
“I think what that has shown is a dramatic shift in the right direction, but we need to keep pushing for a plan that is at the scale of the problem,” Ocasio-Cortez, progressive superstar and co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, told reporters on Tuesday. (For the record, she thinks the plan that gets closest is Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s, which she called the “gold standard.”)
But the very fact that Biden felt the need to release a climate plan near the start of his policy rollout shows the influence and success of Ocasio-Cortez and her allies in the climate movement. Five candidates, including Biden, Inslee, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and former Reps. Beto O’Rourke and John Delaney have all released massive plans to combat climate change, ranging from $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion in federal investment over a decade. Candidates are factoring in the spur of private investments as well, hence the jump to $5 trillion in Biden’s plan.
“It’s a recognition of where the electorate is,” Monmouth University polling director Patrick Murray told Vox. “This popped out from the very beginning. Climate change and the environment in general was the No. 2 issue after health care for Democratic voters.
“I think it’s just becoming a zeitgeist for Democrats,” Murray added.
How climate change went from an “add-on” to a “zeitgeist”
Over the past eight months, climate change has shot up as a core Democratic issue in polls. Murray noted that while it certainly came up during the 2016 presidential primary and was discussed on the sidelines in 2018, this year marks a noticeable shift.
“If we look at 2016 and even 2018 among Democratic voters, there was a whole host of issues, and climate change was, ‘by the way, what do you think of that?’” Murray said. “It’s no longer an add-on, it’s become a core issue for many voters.”
Climate change is still trailing health care as the most important issue on Democratic voters’ minds; in an April Monmouth poll of Iowa voters, 51 percent of Iowa Democrats named health care as their top issue, followed by 17 percent who said climate change. But it’s also no longer an abstract concept. Iowa is currently dealing with severe flooding, with parts of towns underwater as heavy rain has caused rivers to swell.
“It shows that climate change is actually manifesting into a real political force,” Ocasio-Cortez told Vox on Tuesday, pointing to the widespread success of the climate-focused Green Party in recent European elections.
For Sen. Brian Schatz (D-HI), a longtime advocate of tackling climate change, the support can’t come soon enough. Schatz sees a direct correlation with the rising number of natural disasters like floods in Iowa and Missouri, deadly forest fires in California, and sweltering heatwavesacross the world. In his home state of Hawaii, residents are watching as coral reefs bleach, beaches erode, and temperatures increase.
“Climate change is a hot issue for 2020 in a way that we’ve never seen before,” Schatz told me in an interview. “Democrats everywhere are puzzling through the challenge of turning out young voters. There’s a very simple way to motivate millennials to vote, and that’s demonstrating commitment to addressing climate change.”
While climate change is consistently a top issue for young voters, Murray insisted it’s increasingly becoming important for older voters as well.
Climate change’s sudden rise as an issue people care about isn’t coming out of nowhere. It’s been built on the work of climate activists, both from the relatively new youth activist group Sunrise Movement, as well as older organizations like 350.org, the US Climate Action Network, and others. Several of these groups have had viral moments, from a group of schoolchildren pressing Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) to support the Green New Deal, to Ocasio-Cortez encouraging climate protesters staging a sit-in in House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office.
Sunrise Movement, which has worked closely with Ocasio-Cortez in the past, released a statement on Tuesday also calling Biden’s plan to decarbonize the US by 2050 a “good start.”