Former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s 2020 rivals and a group of progressive environmental organizations are attacking him as being weak on climate change, a sign of the central role global warming is shaping up to play as an issue in the Democratic primary.
The criticisms are based on a yet-to-be-released plan outlined in a Reuters report in which one person advising Mr. Biden characterized the Democratic front-runner as seeking a “middle ground” on policies to reduce planet-warming emissions.
Additional details in the report described Mr. Biden’s forthcoming policy as likely to include reinstating Obama-era regulations on automobiles and coal-fired power plants, while leaving a role for nuclear energy and natural gas in the United States energy mix. The emerging policy has sparked criticism among Mr. Biden’s political rivals, and left supporters worried that he is underestimating the passion on climate change, particularly among Millennials who have embraced the Green New Deal, an ambitious resolution calling for an end to fossil fuels.
“There is no ‘middle ground’ when it comes to climate policy,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont tweeted. Governor Jay Inslee of Washington, who has centered his campaign around climate change, praised Mr. Biden and former President Barack Obama for making “historic progress” on climate change but added: “We cannot simply go back to the past. We need a bold climate plan for our future.”
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has jumped into the fray, calling Mr. Biden’s plan “a dealbreaker.” The Sunrise Movement, a youth-led environmental group and an architect of the Green New Deal, slammed Mr. Biden as issuing “a death sentence for our generation.”
The Biden campaign has accused Reuters of mischaracterizing the candidate’s plans. But a campaign spokesman, T.J. Ducklo, declined to offer specifics. A Reuters spokeswoman said the news organization stands behind its reporting.
Mr. Biden on Friday sought to remind voters that he was an early supporter of tackling climate change and promised a detailed plan soon.
“I’m proud to have been one of the first to introduce climate change legislation,’’ he said on Twitter. “What I fought for in 1986 is more important than ever — climate change is an existential threat. Now. Today.”
He added: “We need policies that reflect this urgency. I’ll have more specifics on how America can lead on climate in the coming weeks.”
In a crowded Democratic Primary, Mr. Biden is presenting himself as an unapologetic centrist who can build coalitions, and has resisted the idea that the party needs to move far to the left.
“Show me the really left-, left-, left-wingers who beat a Republican,’’ he said before he entered the race. “So the idea that the Democratic Party has kind of stood on its head, I don’t get.”
That stance has left him open to criticism within his party that he is too much a creature of Washington’s past to deal with the urgency of the political moment.
Multiple studies over the years have shown people care about climate change but rarely vote on it. That has made it a low-priority campaign issue — until now. One recent poll conducted in early primary states found that 84 percent of likely Democratic voters ranked acting on climate change as essential or very important. It’s no accident, then, that every 2020 Democratic candidate has cited it as a top priority, even if a majority have yet to announce specific plans.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy at Data for Progress, a left-leaning think tank, said he hoped that Mr. Biden’s plan is ultimately a robust one.
“He appeals to white, middle class suburban voters and that’s great, but he’s not doing so well among young people,” Mr. NoiseCat said. “We do have a policy out there designed to build a new climate coalition. It’s called the Green New Deal and he needs to jump aboard it.”
But Paul Bledsoe, a strategic adviser at Progressive Policy Institute and a former Clinton White House climate staff member, praised Mr. Biden for seeking a climate plan that would appeal to working-class Americans. With Congress expected to remain divided no matter who wins the White House, Mr. Bledsoe said developing policies that can actually become law are key.
“Indulging in ideological purity is great until you actually want to solve the problem,” he said.