But even in that scenario, he is likely to shift federal policy in a profound way. His advisers have spent months thinking about how to reduce carbon emissions through regulation rather than legislation. And Mr. Biden may also be able to win over a few Republican senators — which is all he would need — for an economic recovery bill that included billions of dollars of clean-energy spending.
The fact that Mr. Biden seems inclined to make the climate a top priority does not stem from a longtime personal obsession. He is not Al Gore. But he has spent his career trying to understand where the center of the Democratic Party is moving and then moving with it. And both the Democratic Party and the country have moved on climate.
For many young progressives and political activists, who will have to live most of their lives on a planet suffering from climate-related damage, climate is the defining issue. “There’s so much pressure from the outside, from young activists — it’s very impactful,” said Kathy Castor, a Democrat from the Tampa area who heads the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis. Consider that Bernie Sanders made Medicare for All his signature issue; Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has made the Green New Deal hers.
If anything, the attention on racial injustice since George Floyd’s killing in May has put more momentum behind climate policy. When Ms. Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey of Massachusetts released the Green New Deal — a statement of principles, rather than a detailed piece of legislation — last year, some moderate Democrats and climate experts criticized its breadth. It called not only for stopping global warming but also for addressing economic inequality and racism.
Now, though, that broad approach means that climate policy feels like a crucial part of another progressive priority: combating racial inequities, by reducing the disproportionate health damage that pollution causes in Black and Latino neighborhoods. Rhiana Gunn-Wright, who helped write the Green New Deal and now runs the climate program at the Roosevelt Institute, said that she used to spend a lot of time answering questions about how climate change and racial justice were connected. “I don’t get asked those questions anymore,” she added.
In addition to the activist energy, broader public opinion seems to be shifting, as climate change has gone from being a hypothetical future problem in many people’s minds to an everyday problem. In a Pew Research Center poll this year, 52 percent of Americans said that dealing with global climate change should be a top priority for the president and Congress. In 2009, only 30 percent did. In a New York Times/Siena College poll during the campaign, 66 percent of likely voters said they favored Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan, with only 26 percent opposed.
As Ms. Gunn-Wright said, “It’s getting harder and harder to act like climate change is a long-term issue that’s coming down the pike.”