The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden wins backing of major environmental group

Barack Obama’s former Environmental Protection Agency chief said the nation needs a "leader who can rebuild us” after President Trump’s time in office.

Presumptive Democratic nominee and former vice president Joe Biden. (Matt Slocum/AP)

The political arm of the Natural Resources Defense Council, a major national environmental group, announced Wednesday that it is endorsing former vice president Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential race.

Gina McCarthy, who heads the group, said Biden’s four decades working in Washington will help him build the political support needed to pass legislation tackling climate change — something past Democratic presidents have promised but failed to do.

“We need a leader who can rebuild us from the crises we are reeling from today, and make us stronger and more resilient against the demands of the next,” McCarthy wrote in a blog post. “That person is Joe Biden.”

The endorsement is not a surprise. The NRDC has sued the Trump administration more than 100 times over its environmental rollbacks. And its president and chief executive, McCarthy, served as President Barack Obama’s Environmental Protection Agency chief for four years.

But the nod from the NRDC Action Fund, the group’s campaigning apparatus, shows the degree to which Biden has coalesced support among mainstream environmentalists after weathering criticism on the left during the primary campaign for not vowing to do enough to tackle climate change.

In a statement, Biden said he was “honored” to receive the support from the group and “my friend Gina McCarthy.”

“Climate change poses an existential threat to our environment, economic well-being and livelihoods,” he added, “and it demands we take swift and sweeping action to protect our planet and its people.”

The fund expects to spend $7 million to $8 million on the 2020 election — a relatively small amount in the big-dollar world of federal elections.

But its main influence comes in recruiting its roughly 75,000 members to volunteer for campaigns and encouraging about 1 million more on its email lists to vote.

And together with two other groups focused on climate issues, the League of Conservation Voters and NextGen America, the NRDC Action Fund’s political action committee supports the GiveGreen initiative to direct donors’ money to the campaigns of environmentally friendly candidates.

The initiative has already raised $15 million for candidates in the 2020 election cycle, beating its 2016 total of $8 million and on track to surpass its 2018 sum of $23 million.

While long a lobbying presence on Capitol Hill, the environmental group only recently began endorsing presidential candidates. The NRDC Action Fund issued its first presidential endorsement in 2016, when it backed Hillary Clinton.

Since posting big wins on Super Tuesday in March, Biden has also locked down support from the political arms of the League of Conservation Voters and the National Wildlife Federation, as well as an endorsement on Earth Day from former vice president Al Gore.

But the former vice president may still have a hard time winning over younger voters who preferred Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and worry that Biden’s climate plan does not do enough to prevent a devastating rise in temperatures this century.

Biden has made gestures to win over environmentalists since locking down the nomination.

His campaign put several of Sanders’s climate advisers, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), on a climate task force meant to bridge the divide between Democrats on climate change. McCarthy also serves on that committee.

And Biden said he would revoke the Trump administration’s permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, most likely vaulting the project to a campaign issue.

After years of being a secondary issue for Democratic voters, climate change emerged as a top issue in the party’s early primaries, second only to health care in exit polling in Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.

But it is unclear whether the issue will retain its potency as the country is gripped by high unemployment, protests over police brutality and the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Biden has said climate change and the pandemic are both areas where President Trump has rejected the advice of experts. “Our recent response to climate change has been a lot like our response to the pandemic,” he said at a fundraiser in April.

The pandemic is forcing campaigners to rethink their usual get-out-the-vote efforts, which for the NRDC Action Fund will mean more peer-to-peer texting than door-to-door knocking this year.

“In the covid-19 era, more of that is shifting online, and we’re trying to figure that out,” said Kevin Curtis, executive director of the NRDC Action Fund.