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'Better Than We Thought': Biden Wins Early Praise From Skeptical Mass. Climate Activists03:05
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President Biden signed a series of executive orders on climate change, in the State Dining Room of the White House, on Jan. 27. (Evan Vucci/AP)
President Biden signed a series of executive orders on climate change, in the State Dining Room of the White House, on Jan. 27. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Cole Harrison wasn't exactly excited about the idea of a Joe Biden presidency.

In fact, the executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action says his group was "fearful of [Biden's] leadership," in part because Biden's $2 trillion climate plan is less ambitious than the Green New Deal favored by progressives. The Green New Deal, coauthored by Sen. Ed Markey and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, would cost at least $10 trillion and possibly much more.

But the new president's approach to combating climate change is proving "better than we thought," Harrison said.

On his way to winning the White House, Biden rallied climate activists who viewed him as a less-than-ideal candidate — but an upgrade over Donald Trump. For his party to succeed in next year's midterm elections, Biden may have to keep those lukewarm voters happy.

He's put the environment near the top of his agenda, so far.

"I would say he is off to a good start," said Varshini Prakash, executive director of the Sunrise Movement, pointing to Biden's early executive actions, which include a moratorium on new oil and gas leases on federal land. Like Harrison, however, Prakash said she will keep pushing the president to take bigger steps.

"I think there's a lot more that he could be doing," she said. "One of the opportunities is setting renewable energy standards across all sectors of the economy. And then another thing that he could be doing is really championing the parts of his 'Build Back Better' plan that were about essentially rebooting the economy through a green recovery."

As Prakash sees it, environmental policy can be economic policy, and what is good for the planet can also be good politics.

"The gravest mistake that Democrats could make right now," she said, "is not putting everything they have behind making concrete improvements in people's lives, that will actually support them, to win in 2022" — when Democrats will try to keep control of the House and Senate.

A new president's party often struggles in the next election cycle, so one of Biden's challenges is to not disappoint progressives who came around to support him.

If his accomplishments over the next two years don't measure up to the Green New Deal, Biden can still avoid a letdown, says Cabell Eames, legislative manager of 350 Massachusetts, a climate advocacy group.

"I don't think that progressives are necessarily interested in the phrase, the 'Green New Deal,' " she said. "I think the branding of it is less important, going forward. That we deliver on jobs and adaptation and food justice and environmental justice — that's what's important."

This segment aired on February 1, 2021.

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Callum covers the Greater Boston business community for Bostonomix.

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