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Opinion: The true test of Biden will be his handling of climate change

Rory McNab says President-elect Joe Biden’s climate policies are ambitious, but if Georgia doesn’t go in the Democrats’ favour, he could be up against it.

Rory McNab

WHEN JOE BIDEN assumes office in 17 days his administration’s immediate focus will be on dealing with the exigencies of the coronavirus pandemic. However, his presidency will almost certainly come to be defined by his handling of another, more existential crisis: climate change.

Biden’s $2tn plan to decarbonise the American economy, outlined in his ‘Build Back Better’ campaign manifesto, has been hailed as the most ambitious set of climate policies ever embraced by a US President. Though somewhat surprising, this marks a significant turnaround for a politician often regarded as moderate to a fault.

At the outset of his presidential campaign, Biden’s climate policies were deemed largely inferior to those of some of the more progressive Democratic candidates. However, after Bernie Sanders conceded the Democratic nomination to Joe Biden in April 2020, the two campaigns began collaborating to create a more progressive policy platform.

Developing a more ambitious stance on tackling climate change was deemed essential to galvanising youth support for Biden in order to defeat Trump.

As such, the progressive climate agenda ultimately arrived at by Biden’s team, which placed an emphasis on green job creation, was seen as providing a climate platform that – while far from perfect – could unite the support of both progressives and moderates within the Democrats.

Primarily focused on domestic policy, the aims of Biden’s climate policy ambitions can be broadly broken into three categories: regulation, green investment, and climate justice and equality.

Regulation

One of the first acts Biden has pledged to do as president is to have the United States rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Throughout his manifesto, there are repeated references to the importance of preventing a global temperature increase of more than 1.5C – the threshold outlined by the 2016 treaty.

The aims of the agreement provide the context for Biden’s twin approach toward mass decarbonisation of the US economy.

In July, Biden’s campaign unveiled a proposal that would see American electricity generation reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2035. This would involve significant transitions away from coal, oil, and natural gas which together generate some 65% of the United States’ domestic electricity, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

In conjunction with this, Biden has also reiterated a commitment to work toward the Paris Climate Agreement’s main aim of having domestic carbon emissions reach net-zero by 2050.

Such a radical shift will require significant regulatory oversight and the creation of both incentives and punitive taxes to accelerate change within the energy industry in particular and the economy at large.

As the fastest-growing source of climate pollution within the United States, transport has been singled out in particular and his administration will seek to introduce strict fuel-efficiency standards.

Central to these ambitions is the creation of an enforcement mechanism which will recognise the obligation for polluters to bear the costs of pollution, particularly within the existing fossil fuel energy sector.

Rather than focusing on regressively expanding carbon taxes for individuals, his climate policies attempt to embrace a systemic philosophy which will seek to ultimately apportion responsibility to corporations and industries.

Green investment

Biden’s general approach to tackling climate change can perhaps be best understood through his pledge toward an unprecedented investment in green energy and infrastructure, totalling some $2tn.

The president-elect’s style of politics is markedly different from an ideologue like Bernie Sanders. Throughout Biden’s career, he has proved malleable in adapting his views to those of the shifting Democratic party. However, one of the few constants of his political philosophy has been a commitment to the Keynesian idea of using government investment to act as a driver of job growth.

Much like certain aspects of the Green New Deal, Biden’s $2tn spending plan seeks to instigate an economic shift toward green innovation, in areas such as energy generation, construction, agriculture, and car manufacturing, by leading development through government spending.

The goal is to rapidly create a demand for thousands of high-skilled, well-paying jobs by embarking on projects such as:

  • The wide-scale retro-fitting of government buildings to make them more energy-efficient
  • The development of climate-friendly road infrastructure such as creating 500,00 electric charging ports for cars by 2030
  • Developing greener and more extensive public transport solutions in towns and cities

The goal of this $2tn dollar spending plan is to fundamentally wed the idea of future economic progress to decarbonisation and to overturn the lingering misconception that green economies come at the cost of economic deflation.

Environmental justice

Incorporated in both of the above ideas, but deserving of distinct attention is Biden’s commitment toward environmental justice. The impacts of industrial and ecological pollution have traditionally disproportionately impacted minority communities within America.

A prime example of this is the water-contamination crisis in the town of Flint, Michigan – a predominantly African-American town – through the mid-2010s. Due to prolonged financial problems in the municipality, a decision was made to start sourcing the town’s drinking water from the Flint River rather than from a controlled water source.

The polluted river water leached lead from the city’s derelict pipe-system, resulting in thousands of people being exposed to dangerously high levels of lead, a potent neurotoxin, through their drinking water, causing a widespread public health crisis.

Particular focus will be given to ensuring that corporations and industries responsible for such egregious pollution in minority communities will be financially responsible for redressing these issues.

Furthermore, tranches of the $2tn structural investment fund will be apportioned to create employment in green industries and improve environmental standards specifically in minority communities.

Despite Biden’s proselytising of the ultimate economic benefits that a shift toward a cleaner economy will bring, it is undeniable that decarbonisation will cost some Americans their jobs.

The decline of domestic coal production, a concern leveraged by Trump campaign in the 2016 election, will by necessity continue in order for the US to have an energy sector with net-zero emissions by 2035.

As such, part of the development fund will be assigned to help communities reliant on polluting industries, such as coal-mining as part of the transition toward developing alternative, greener local economies.

The snags

While the politics of climate change have traditionally been heavily split along partisan lines, there are signs that this is changing. A recent Pew poll showed that 52% of Republicans born after 1981, compared to 31% of Baby Boomers, believed that climate change posed an existential threat requiring greater government intervention.

Unfortunately, this shifting attitude among certain Republican demographics is not necessarily representative of House Republicans.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has all but pledged to act as an obstructive force when Biden takes office. Long opposed to the idea of “big government” spending, McConnell will push back against any large scale green investment programmes.

As for increasing regulations for heavily polluting industries like oil, and coal – industries with well-entrenched lobbying ties to Republicans – it’s nearly inconceivable for any such large-scale reforms to pass in a Republican-controlled Senate.

The forthcoming two Senate elections in Georgia, which could hand control of the Senate to Democrats, will therefore prove crucial to setting the Democrats’ agenda on climate. Failure to win both seats will likely force many of Biden’s more ambitious climate policies off the table.

However, even if Democrats secure both seats in Georgia, and attain a Senate majority, there is the distinct possibility that McConnell will have Republicans filibuster those climate policies they perceive as most egregious, thus ensuring that they are never passed.

To mitigate against this possibility, Biden’s transition team have looked to see how far their climate agenda can be pushed through using both the annual $5oobn federal procurement budget and executive orders as a means to somewhat circumvent an obstreperous Congress.

Given the levels of attrition anticipated from Republicans, Biden has shifted part of his focus toward the international stage.

An international approach

One of the first nominations Joe Biden proposed for his cabinet was to appoint John Kerry to the newly-created position of ‘climate envoy’.

While John Kerry may not be primarily known for his track record on climate, the former Secretary of State signed the Paris Climate Agreement on behalf of the United States in 2016 and was indeed central to its drafting in late 2015.

As such, by picking a politician as experienced and internationally well-regarded as Kerry, Biden is showing a determination to swiftly reintegrate the United States into the international polity.

The damage to America’s international reputation during the Trump presidency was profound. The self-serving nationalism and focus on callous isolationism which defined much of Trump’s philosophy toward international politics created something of a vacuum in international power dynamics.

Kerry’s appointment illustrates Biden’s commitment toward swiftly repairing this damage. Tackling climate change presents a challenge beyond the scope of any one nation’s political powers and, perhaps aware of the legislative roadblocks in this regard that may lie ahead domestically, Biden seems determined to position the United States at the forefront of international climate diplomacy.

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The recent announcement that the US will host a special international climate summit within the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency exemplifies this ambition.

What the future holds

Biden’s agenda on climate is imperfect. There are numerous legitimate criticisms that can be levelled against it: there is no proposed ban on fracking; many dislike the prominence given to the development of small-scale nuclear power instead of focusing primarily on wind and solar energy, and it projects a perhaps unrealistic role for as-yet unproven carbon capture technologies in achieving its goals of decarbonisation. Yet it is important to look at the broader picture.

The severity and unprecedented threat posed by climate change always open up any concrete policy proposals to the understandable criticism that they ‘don’t go far enough’.

However, Biden’s agenda, if successfully implemented in their entirety, would see the United States fulfil its obligations within the Paris Climate Agreement. After suffering through four years of wilful denialism under President Trump, the significance of this progress should not be understated.

Biden’s plans to tackle climate change provide cause for cautious optimism. Though of course, should the Democrats fail to secure both seats in Georgia, the outlook becomes far less positive.

Rory McNab is a journalist, editor and writer living in Dublin whose work focuses on politics, pop culture and satire.  

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