Joe Biden may not be the most progressive candidate in the crowded Democratic primary field. But one thing is for certain: Among 2020 presidential candidates, he has the longest legislative record on climate change.
In fact, Biden has taken this title a good deal further by claiming to have pioneered some of the earliest climate change legislation in U.S. history.
"I’m one of the first guys to introduce a climate change bill, way, way back in ‘87," Biden said during a stump speech in Des Moines, Iowa, on May 1.
We were curious if that was accurate. A review of the legislative history shows Biden is right.
The Delaware senator’s first climate change bill, introduced in 1986, died in the Senate. But the following year a version of Biden’s legislation survived as an amendment to a State Department funding bill. President Ronald Reagan went on to sign it into law.
The upshot of Biden’s Global Climate Protection Act was to call on the president to set up a task force to plan how to mitigate global warming.
Biden spoke about the bill on the Senate floor in January 1987 in terms that seem uncannily familiar to present-day warnings. He discussed, among other ills, the threat to human habitat resulting from melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels.
"Life on this planet exists only under highly specialized circumstances," Biden said during a Senate session. "Indeed, so special are these circumstances that even a small rise in temperature could disrupt the entire complicated environment that has nurtured life as we know it."
The measure also called on the president to make climate change a higher priority item on the U.S.-Soviet agenda.
"President Reagan told Secretary General Gorbachev ‘that if we had an invasion from Mars, both sides would put aside our differences.’ While not an exterrestrial threat, global warming could prove no less dangerous," Biden said.
Biden’s amendment became law when Reagan signed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act on Dec. 12, 1987.
Biden’s bill was not the first time Congress focused on climate change.
In 1976 — decades before making the Academy Award-winning documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" — a 28-year old freshman congressman named Al Gore, D-Tenn., held House hearings on climate change.
In 1985, then-Sen. Gore introduced a concurrent resolution — a non-binding legislative measure — in which both chambers of Congress asked the president to an international research program on greenhouse gas emissions.
But it was a Senate hearing in June 1986 that historians recall as a watershed moment in the public’s understanding of the threat posed by global warming. Biden’s Republican colleague in the Senate, John Chafee of Rhode Island, held the hearings.
"This is not a matter of Chicken Little telling us the sky is falling," Chafee said at the hearing. "The scientific evidence … is telling us we have a problem, a serious problem."
The show-stopping moment came when Dr. James Hansen of the Goddard Institute for Space Studies declared that, based on his climate modeling, significant warming could be observed much earlier than previously thought, perhaps as soon as 5 to 15 years.
Source: The Washington Post front page on June 11, 1986.
It was several months after the Chafee hearings that Biden introduced the prototype of his bill, a version of which would clear Congress the following year. It’s worth noting that Biden introduced his measure several months before Chafee sponsored a separate bill, the Stratospheric Ozone and Climate Protection Act.
Most experts we consulted said yes.
"I think Biden’s 1986 bill was the first introduced in Congress on this issue," said Sean Hecht, an environmental law professor at UCLA. "He gets credit for that."
While other legislation predates Biden’s bill, they addressed climate generally and didn’t cite global warming mitigation as a specific goal, wrote Roel Hammerschlag, an associate scientist at the Stockholm Environment Institute, in a 2007 law review article.
At the same time, it’s important not to overstate the impact of Biden’s bill, said Josh Howe, a professor of history and environmental studies at Reed College.
"It's significant insofar as Biden has been more or less on top of the issue since the mid '80s. But let's not stretch the intent of the bill and suggest that this was a comprehensive plan for reducing emissions or adapting to the consequences of climatic change," he said. "It was a plan to make a plan. Which, of course, neither Reagan nor Bush ultimately did."
Some historians argue that climate change and greenhouse gases were the motivation behind a provision of the Clean Air Act of 1963, according to John Reilly, an MIT professor and climate change expert.
Even if you take the view that the Clean Air Act, or Gore’s non-binding resolution, should be classified as climate change bills, Biden didn’t claim to propose the first climate change bill — rather, he claimed he was one of the first.
Paul Bledsoe, a former Clinton White House climate staff member who is now a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute, told us Biden deserves his due.
"Without question, Biden was among the earliest supporters of climate change action in Congress," Bledsoe said. "His 1987 bill was focused on forcing the Reagan Administration to establish a wide-ranging White House Task Force on Climate Change, a critical action that in fact was not taken until the Clinton Administration, so it was both prescient and influential on long-term policy."
Biden said, "I’m one of the first guys to introduce a climate change bill, way, way back in ‘87."
There had been some high-profile hearings about climate change on the Hill, as well as a non-binding resolution prior to Biden’s proposal. But he is credited with introducing the first climate change bill.
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