Climate Change has been a significant, if not the most significant challenge faced by mankind in the 21st century. Overwhelming scientific evidence suggests that failure to execute expedient measures may result in irreversible and destructive changes to the earth's climate. Sadly, every policy decision, regardless of scientific consensus, has always been intertwined in the inextricable mess of politics.
The role of USA
USA, the self-proclaimed guardian of the free world, probably had a lot to offer in guiding everyone out of this labyrinth. Much to everyone's dismay, the USA did the exact opposite. Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement, practically jeopardising the entire treaty. This is one of the reasons why everyone was eagerly waiting for the results of the 2020 US Presidential election.
Finally on November 7, the Associated Press called the US Presidential race in favour of the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden. Even though the incumbent President claimed voter fraud since before election night and filed lawsuits in all of the battleground states, it appears Biden will eventually be inaugurated on January 20, 2021.
With Trump potentially out of the Oval Office, it is time to take a hard look at the prospects of a Joe Biden presidency in terms of climate change.
Paris Climate Agreement
Joe Biden has promised that he will apply to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement on his first day in office. Once the formal application has been submitted, the US can reenter the agreement after 30 days.
During the Obama presidency, the USA vowed to reduce their carbon emission between 26% and 28% from their 2005 levels by 2025. However, the country is nowhere near meeting these goals. On top of this, the Trump presidency rolled back more than 70 environmental regulations, halting any meaningful progress.
That means, Biden will not only have to come up with an updated version of the goals set by the Obama administration, but also counteract the regression that was initiated by the Trump administration.
The $2 trillion Climate Plan
Biden's ambition to lead the global powers in the fight against climate change depend heavily on how he manages the crisis at home. In order to do so, the President-elect proposed a 2 trillion dollar climate plan and pledged to achieve zero net emission by 2050. On face value, this proposal can be considered the most progressive climate action proposal in US history.
However, achieving a net zero emission requires emission to be countervailed by an equivalent amount of absorption by the environment. In order to realise this, the US must drastically reduce its carbon emission as well as adopt measures (e.g.; plant trees) to counterbalance the remaining excretion.
According to Biden's proposal, the electricity sector will also become emission free by 2035. His plan includes promises to develop a net-zero emission standard for all new commercial buildings by 2030. He wants to invest more on environment-friendly public transports like electric vehicles and provide incentives to those who trade up to cleaner vehicles.
In addition, his plan will supposedly create additional jobs for construction workers, engineers and scientists as well as rejuvenate the renewable energy sector (e.g., solar and wind). He also wants to allot 40% of the benefits from clean energy and infrastructure spending towards communities disenfranchised by climate policies.
That being said, election promises often do not see the light of day during the actual presidency for multiple reasons. Bureaucratic red tape, uncooperative Senate, influences from big money donors and sheer lack of goodwill are some of the major ones. Progressives fear that a Biden presidency may suffer from similar issues.
For starters, Biden's plan shies away from addressing most of the major issues like fracking in private land or regulating the fossil fuel industry. Fossil fuel industries are responsible for more than 70% of all carbon emissions in the US. Fracking in private land constitutes 90% of all fracking and may have disastrous consequences for the environment. Both of these groups employ millions of Americans and their lobbyists hold a great deal of agency in any form of negotiations. Such influence can be detrimental in introducing efficacious policies.
In terms of cabinet nominations, most of the pro-establishment centrist pundits welcomed the introduction of John Kerry as the Presidential envoy for climate because of his vast experience in dealing with pertinent issues. He famously pushed for the Paris Climate accord and has ample experience in this regard. However, the effectiveness of his nomination may not automatically translate into effective domestic climate action.
Firstly, John Kerry is a pro-establishment politician and therefore, will not pick a fight with fossil fuel giants. On top of this, several of Joe Biden's informal advisors on climate policies like: Heather Zichal, Jason Bordoff are veterans from the Obama administration.
During the Obama era, they adopted the 'all of the above' policy and embraced the fossil fuel as well as commercial fracking industry while publicly trumpeting commitments to clean energy. They also oversaw the disastrous BP oil spill and violent suppression of the Dakota Access pipeline protests. Then most of them went on to work for oil and gas companies and other think tanks funded by these companies. There exists a clear conflict of interest and a conflict that cannot be ignored. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the progressives are so distrustful of Biden's promises on climate action.
A divided Senate
Until recently, the Republicans controlled the Senate, led by Senator Mitch McConnell. Mitch McConnel is infamous for shooting down stimulus bills despite a rampant pandemic. One can only assume what his reaction would be to a 2 trillion USD climate bill.
However, Raphael Warnock and George Ossof, both Democrats won the two runoff elections in Georgia giving them the control of the senate, albeit by a very slim margin. That is, the Democrats now control both the senate and the house of representatives. Chuck Schumer will become Senate Majority Leader with Nancy Palocy as the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
It would nevertheless be foolish to assume that the path for Biden to achieve his goals would become merrier. Firstly because, similar circumstances were present during the Obama era as well and he failed to achieve much, except through executive orders.
Secondly, a lot of democrats may not vote for such ambitious climate change plans in fear of losing their constituency to a republican during the next election cycle. Finally, Mitch Mcconnel, Lindsey Graham and other republicans may have lost, but they will remain vigilant against the new President, just like they did during the certification of Joe Biden. Some of them even endorsed Donald Trump's claims of voter fraud.
However, there is a silver lining as well.
Some Republicans over the years have shown concerns for the climate and willingness to work against catastrophic changes in the climate. In September, the Senate passed a bipartisan bill that cut down on the usage of HCFCs, a prominent family of greenhouse gases.
In the same month, they also passed a bill titled- Bipartisan Wildlife Conservation Act, with a view to improving conservation of endangered species and preserving vital ecosystems. Joe Biden is also famous for his role as a man who can find the middle ground.
To say the least, it would be interesting to see how a Biden administration deals with an increasingly polarised political landscape.
What about the Supreme Court?
In the worst case scenario where the Senate blocks every bill, the President often gets around with executive orders. However, executive orders themselves are subject to legal challenges in the Supreme Court. For instance, Barack Obama wanted to pass the 'Clean Power Plan' which was then blocked by the Supreme Court.
That means, any Joe Biden climate proposal will also be subjected to similar challenges from the Supreme Court. On top of that, a conservative leaning supreme court may add salt to the wound.
While proposals from Joe Biden sound promising and progressive, these promises need to be followed through. However, significant contingencies may leave the craggy road ahead difficult to surmount. Such challenges may come from the fossil fuel industry, the fracking industry, a divided senate or a conservative leaning supreme court. Biden will have to overcome all of these obstacles in order to pursue any fruitful climate policies. Only time will tell what Joe Biden can do to make our planet a safer place to live in. For the time being however, the world can rejoice in its return to normalcy.