with Paulina Firozi


Environmental groups are preparing to double down on their criticism of Joe Biden after the former vice president notched victories across the country on Super Tuesday. 

They're licking their wounds and preparing for the next voting rounds, after Biden's surprising surge in the mega-primary essentially transformed the race into a two-man contest between him and Sen. Bernie Sanders. The independent Vermont senator has the backing of nearly every green group that issued endorsements in the 2020 race.

“We're going to make crystal clear the contrast between Biden and Sanders on climate change,” said Stephen O'Hanlon, a co-founder and spokesman for the Sunrise Movement, which endorsed Sanders. 

Or as the youth-led climate activism group warned on Twitter, “The Democrats are planning their own funeral if they nominate Joe.”  

Though Biden vowed to take on what he called “the existential threat of climate change” as the results rolled in Tuesday, it's Sanders whose endorsements include the political arms of the environmental groups Friends of the Earth and 350.org. Those two groups co-endorsed Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Democrat from Massachusetts, as well. 

And Sanders's environmental plan also ranked highest on scorecards issued by the Center for Biological Diversity, Greenpeace USA and Sunrise.

Yet Super Tuesday exit polls show the climate movement still has a limited ability to sway voters on specific candidates. Biden won more than a third of Democratic voters on Tuesday who said climate change was the issue that mattered the most to them, according to exit polling conducted by Edison Media Research for The Washington Post and other news outlets. Sanders got 28 percent of the climate vote. 

And that's despite the fact that the issue of global warming is energizing voters more than in previous elections. In the first three states to cast ballots — Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada — voters ranked climate change as a greater concern than income inequality or foreign policy.

Edward Maibach, a George Mason University professor who specializes in climate communication, said it may be hard for voters to tell Biden and Sanders apart on the climate issue since “clearly both [are] signaling that they're climate hawks” and “very few voters” have dived deep into their climate plans.

Biden bolstered his support among those most concerned about climate change by talking up his role in brokering the 2015 Paris climate accord and promising to keep the United States in the agreement. His $1.7 trillion climate plan, which aims to eliminate the nation's contributions to global warming by the middle of the century, is more ambitious than anything drawn up by his former boss, President Barack Obama.

Yet Sanders won over die-hard environmentalists by promising, unlike Biden, to kneecap the fossil-fuel sector by banning hydraulic fracturing and to enlarge the federal government's role in producing electricity from solar and wind energy. Sanders's goal is to get all of the nation's power from renewable sources by 2030 a herculean task with a price tag nearly 10 times bigger than Biden's plan.

Erich Pica, president of Friends of the Earth, thinks Biden's emphasis on the well-known Paris agreement helped him among climate voters. But his group is ready to press Biden further now that he is the only moderate left standing.

“We need to start making some real distinctions between the two candidates,” he said. “Vice President Biden can't base his policy or his plan just on getting back into Paris.”

Volunteers for the Sunrise Movement made more than 115,000 calls the weekend before Super Tuesday in support of Sanders and canvassed homes throughout the primary season. The Sunrise Movement's leaders are meeting Thursday to discuss their next steps to support Sanders's candidacy, but they plan to focus electoral efforts in Arizona, Florida, Illinois, Michigan and Washington.

And although it has not made an official endorsement, Oil Change International has mostly trained its fire on Biden and other moderate Democrats throughout the race. “If it is literally a two-person race, that means it's more concentrated” on Biden, said David Turnbull, a spokesman for the group, which has pushed candidates to pledge to forgo donations over $200 from oil, gas and coal executives.

Biden has drawn howls from Oil Change and other activists for adding a former board member of a liquefied natural gas company on as an informal adviser and for attending at a fundraiser co-hosted by a co-founder of a natural gas company. Turnbull said the Manhattan fundraising event in September violated the spirit for the “No Fossil Fuel Money” pledge Biden signed.

“He's been skirting around it,” he said. “He's been finding loopholes.” 

Now, with Biden in the lead for delegates, some environmentalists are coming to terms with the possibility of his nomination that only a week ago seemed like a long-shot – and are trying to pull the former vice president even further to the left on environmental issues. 

“If Biden ends up being the Democratic nominee,” said Tamara Toles O'Laughlin, the North America director at 350.org, “we will unleash everything that the climate movement has to offer to persuade him to recognize the primacy of this issue." 


— The Congo rainforest is losing ability to absorb carbon dioxide: Alarming new research says the world’s second-largest contiguous rainforest is losing its ability to store carbon, which means the Congo's ability to help combat climate change is weakening. The study published in the journal Nature points to reduced carbon uptake as far back as 2010, “suggesting that the decline in Africa may have been underway for a decade,” Daniel Grossman reports for The Post

  • The extent of the problem: “The study predicts that by 2030, the African jungle will absorb 14 percent less carbon dioxide than it did 10 to 15 years ago. By 2035, Amazonian trees won’t absorb any carbon dioxide at all, the researchers said.”
  • Why this may be happening: “Increasing heat and drought is believed to be stifling the growth of the trees in the African rainforest, a phenomenon previously noted in the Amazon. The new data provides the first large-scale evidence that tropical rainforests untouched by logging or other human activity around the world are losing their potency to fight climate change.”

— David Bernhardt grilled during hearing on Interior Dept. budget: Senators on both sides of the aisle questioned the Interior secretary during a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing about Trump’s request for lawmakers to fully fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund he previously proposed gutting.

  • A switch on LWCF: Bernhardt acknowledged that some at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building may have experienced “heart palpitations” when they saw Trump’s tweet contradicting his budget request, but he called on lawmakers to “grab an oar and start rowing together” to make the funding happen, according to Roll Call. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) called it “almost too good to be true, but we’ll take it for what it is.”
  • Now LWCF funding may get a vote: Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was set to bypass a committee vote and place legislation to permanently fund the LWCF on the Senate calendar for a floor vote, E&E News reports. Murkowski told the publication the package would also contain a measure to address national parks' maintenance backlog.
  • Dems drill down on other parts of the budget request: “Democrats on the panel pressed the secretary on several issues and proposed budget cuts they said would set the country and the environment back, including changes to national monument designations, expanding oil and gas drilling, ‘ignoring the voices of Native communities,’ and weakening protection for endangered species,” per Roll Call. Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) said Trump’s “vision is moving us backward at a time when we can least afford it, when the need for us to tackle crises like climate and mass extinction has never been more urgent.” 

— Corn wars: Elsewhere on the Hill, Environmental Protection Agency chief Andrew Wheeler told lawmakers that the agency is considering new ways to support oil refiners as they deal with costs associated with complying with the nation’s biofuel policy, Reuters reports. His remarks come as the administration faces legal challenges to its waivers for the industry. “We’re looking for other avenues to provide stability in the program and make sure we don’t have fluctuations in the RIN market,” Wheeler said.

— Debate on Senate energy package kicks off: The upper chamber voted 90-4 to begin debate on a sprawling energy package introduced by Sens. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and Joe Manchin III (W.Va.) last week.

  • And senators are already queuing up amendments: As widely expected, Sens. John Kennedy (R-La.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) introduced an amendment ordering the EPA to start a phase-down of hydrofluorocarbons production and consumption over the next decade and a half. The chemical compounds, also called HFCs, are greenhouse gases used mostly as coolants in refrigerators and air conditioning systems.

— NOAA working to improve forecast accuracy: The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said it has signed a contract for new supercomputers that would triple the capacity of the machines used to run weather forecasting and research models, The Post’s Andrew Freedman reports. It’s a decision that aims to close the gap between U.S. weather climate agencies and international agencies.

  • The transatlantic divide: “In recent years, the accuracy of the GFS, which is America’s main forecasting model that produces predictions more than a week into the future, has fallen well behind the European model as well as the primary models run by the U.K. Met Office and, at times, Environment Canada,” Freedman writes.

— How climate change affected Australia’s deadly wildfires: New research has confirmed that human-fueled climate change made the burning in Australia “at least 30 percent more likely than in a world without global warming,” The New York Times reports.

  • To quote: Lead study author Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute called the percentage a “definite number we can scientifically defend” and added: “We think it is much larger than that, but we can’t prove that until we find out why there is this discrepancy between the observations and the climate models.”

— Trump to pick ex-chemical industry executive for consumer watchdog agency: Trump said this week he intends to nominate Nancy B. Beck, a former chemical industry executive, to lead the Consumer Product Safety Commission. Beck joined the administration in 2017 to be the top deputy for the EPA's toxic chemical unit, and she previously worked as an executive with the American Chemistry Council. The Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Todd C. Frankel reported in December that the White House was considering the nomination. 


Coming Up

  • The House Transportation and Infrastructure Economic Development, Public Buildings, and Emergency Management Subcommittee holds a hearing on FEMA's priorities for 2020 and beyond on March 11. 



— Bloom watch: The National Park Service says Washington's famed cherry trees are expected to peak from March 27 to March 30. A wet and mild winter has put the bloom ahead of schedule, The Post's Marissa Lang reports