In the third of a three part series, Alexander Perry considers the implications of the Biden presidency for climate action
Calls for engagement with environmental issues have grown louder since climate science broke into the mainstream in the 1980s; however, the current pandemic provides a tough backdrop to work against. With a deficit at a level not seen since the conclusion of WWII, any calls for funding environmental projects will face an uphill struggle against calls for pandemic-related relief packages alone, with the very real possibility that the federal government prioritises the resuscitation of the economy over green projects. Moreover, the troubled relationship between the American public and pseudoscientific misinformation will make efforts to provide unembellished, accurate information about costs and risks essential. Although the pandemic has showcased instances of selfishness, failures to seize the initiative, and the prevalence of conspiratorial rumour, it has also demonstrated the capacity to meet the challenge at short notice. As Andreas Malm has pointed out, elements of “war communism” are visible within the pandemic response at a global level – the rapid mobilisation of people, material, and money for a sudden, relatively short-term issue can be translated into the same mobilisation for a longer-term project. Thus, the Biden plan ought to take note of the successes of such enterprises as rapidly developing, testing, and rolling out vaccines, and learn from the failures of botched PPE acquisition and viral misinformation, in order that they might be applied to the environmental realm. If there is one lesson that we can draw from the pandemic and apply to the Biden plan, it is that science and well-informed public support must be united in order for a smooth, efficient, and efficacious execution.
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn between the success or failure of Biden’s environmental policies and the track record of the Obama administration in this area. Obama’s climate policies have been reviewed with hindsight as coming too late in his presidency to have any meaningful impact, a missed opportunity given the two-house majority during his first two years that would have been ideal for pushing climate legislation through. The failure to capitalise on this advantage, along with the Trump administration’s swift move to establishing US energy independence through fossil fuel usage as a core part of its environmental policy, serve as a vital warning for the Biden plan: policies can be undone, and efforts to mitigate and avoid environmental damage can be reversed. Biden shares the same Congressional majority that Obama did, and so he faces both the short term imperative of swift action while he has the houses behind him and the long term challenge of garnering the public support needed to buoy his plan through to see its goal realised.
While the text of the Biden plan claims credit for galvanising the adoption of the Paris Agreement under a Biden/Obama figurehead, the reality of the agreement is vacuous – no time limits were provided, no legally binding punitive measures put in place, nor any effective mechanisms to quantify commitment to the terms, leading to it being more of a symbolic gesture that fell by the wayside even as big oil companies ignored it. As such, the eye-catching promise to rejoin the agreement is in reality pretty nebulous. If Biden does indeed arrange an international climate conference within his first 100 days in office, any resultant agreement must be immensely more rigorous and binding than previous iterations if any real change is to be effected. With the risk of US hegemony inherent in any commitment to leading the international community, the best thing that the Biden administration can do is not to lead as a general marshalling subordinates, but to lead by example of how green projects can be implemented justly, effectively, and with an eye to helping nations whose capacity for a renewable shift is not fully developed without the usual quid-pro-quo attitude of US foreign policy. In particular, Biden will need to overcome the anti-China rhetoric that emerged particularly in the later years of the Trump administration: as the two largest emitters of CO2 in the world (together comprising over a third of greenhouse emissions in 2019), bilateral China-US cooperation is crucial to avert devastating consequences, and Biden will need to go further than Obama in fostering closer ties with the world’s other influential powers.
Ambitious in its scope, the Biden plan faces tangible obstacles to fulfilling the goals it has set out. Perhaps not as far-reaching as it may be necessary to truly avert climatic disaster, it is nonetheless a step in the right direction. We should not expect extravagantly left-leaning policies from a state that embodies the liberal ethics that underpin contemporary global relations, but if the Biden administration follows through on its promises and ensures that there are measures to keep their legacy in place in a post-Biden presidency, then we may hope that the campaign trail promises will contribute to avoiding a much darker future.