By Abbie McGrath
January 20th saw a huge, collective sigh of relief across the globe. Trump was finally out, the transition of power went surprisingly smoothly and Biden’s inaugural address spoke of unity and the victory of democracy. For the rest of his first day in office, the new President would tackle a towering stack of executive orders, two of which offered environmental hope – rejoining the Paris climate agreement and the scrapping of the Keystone XL pipeline. A good start. But what else does the Biden administration have planned to fight climate change? And will it be enough to counteract the four years of damage left by Trump?
After his inauguration in 2017, Trump swiftly began the dismantling of US climate policy, signing an executive order advancing the Keystone Pipeline XL just four days in. The next month, he installed a well-known climate-change denier, Scott Pruitt, as head of the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In March, another executive order saw the rescinding of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, an initiative for states to limit their CO2 emissions from existing power plants. And of course, most famously, he withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Agreement. By October 2020, he had reversed 100 environmental regulations in total.
Arguably the worst thing he has done has been to promote climate denial, which cannot simply be undone by an executive order. When the President himself says “No, no, I don’t believe it” regarding the 2018 US National Climate Assessment and removes references to climate change from government websites, it’s something of a bad example. It is no wonder, then, that the US has one of the highest percentage of climate change deniers in the world, third only behind Indonesia and Saudi Arabia.
It’s therefore fair to say climate change has been America’s Sisyphean Task, but Biden has at least got the boulder rolling back up the hill by re-entering the Paris Climate Agreement and stopping Keystone XL. With another executive order signed on the 27th January detailing the US’ plans to tackle climate change, let’s have a closer look at what this administration has planned.
Biden’s Executive Order on Tackling the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad outlines seven key steps he has directed his Administration to put in place. These are outlined below, but a more comprehensive summary can be found on the Whitehouse website, here.
The climate crisis is to be centred in U.S. foreign policy and national security:
- This will involve the development of the US’ emission reduction target, in line with the Paris Agreement, and a climate finance plan. The US also intends to restore its status as global influencer, in hopes to implement the Paris Climate Agreement’s objectives of net-zero global emissions by the mid-century.
Tackling the climate crisis will have a whole government approach:
- This will be initiated by the establishment of the White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy and the National Climate Task Force.
The Federal Government is to lead by example:
- The Federal Government will pause new oil and gas leases on federal lands or offshore waters and review those currently in use. They will also eliminate federal fossil-fuel subsidies and adopt carbon-free electricity and zero-emission vehicles in all federal agencies. The purchases of these are to be ‘Made in America’ in order to fuel green job creation. Also included is a plan to double offshore wind energy by 2030, increase public access to climate information and provide support for national adaptations.
A move to green infrastructure:
- This will be approached by ensuring every federal infrastructure investment reduces climate pollution and accelerates clean energy.
Conservation, agriculture and reforestation is to be advanced:
- This includes a goal to preserve 30% of land by 2030, through the establishment of the Civilian Climate Corps Initiative to create jobs in conservation and reforestation. It also highlights plans to work with farmers to encourage adoption of climate-smart agricultural practices.
Support will be provided to energy-dependent communities:
- This will involve the establishment of an Interagency Working Group on Coal and Power Plant Communities and Economic Revitalization, which will support the communities as coal and power plant usage decreases. It will also include efforts to reduce emissions of toxic substances and greenhouse gases in these communities to prevent environmental damage and protect public health and safety.
There will be a focus on environmental justice and economic opportunity:
- This is centred on tackling the disproportionate health, environmental and economic effects of climate change on disadvantaged communities. It will be supported by the establishment of the White House Environmental Justice Interagency Council and the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council to prioritise environmental justice. A key initiative is Justice40, which aims to deliver 40% of overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities.
An Ambitious Climate Plan
So far, these goals have been championed by the media, labelling it the most ambitious climate plan of any US president. They’ve also made a lot of people angry, such as Republican Senator Ted Cruz who bizarrely tweeted that Biden is “more interested in the views of the citizens of Paris than in the jobs of the citizens of Pittsburgh”. Likewise, Texas governor Greg Abbott has threatened to sue Biden over his policies, while the Western Energy Alliance has already filed a federal lawsuit over the pause on oil and gas leasing on federal lands. Take this as a good sign – if big oil and those in its pockets are angry, you’re probably doing something right.
Ambition alone, however, doesn’t say much when looking at the grand-scheme of US climate action; even before Trump’s presidency, it was notoriously underwhelming. His climate policy is therefore approached cynically by some, who highlight the USA’s track record of disparity between climate goals and what has actually been achieved.
There are also concerns that some aspects of Biden’s climate policy are lacking. For example, he has explicitly stated that he has no intention of banning fracking, the controversial technique of natural gas extraction. Fracking is not only non-renewable, but brings fears of methane leaks, air pollution and water contamination to nearby communities. He also hasn’t yet responded to democratic calls to declare a National Climate Emergency, which is being pushed by progressive sweethearts Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Doing so would give him more power to combat climate change, but it also risks ostracising Republicans even further, something that Biden – who has emphasised the importance of unity – would be wary of doing.
Indeed, with his executive orders at risk of being reversed by a future Administration, trying to reclaim some unity between the two parties will be more imperative than ever. Biden will need to ensure that stable climate legislation is put in place, which will require the support of both Congress and the Senate. With the Senate split evenly between Democrat and Republican, it will be interesting to see if he can succeed. Or, if he will simply add to the Senate’s long-list of rejected climate bills.
Time will therefore tell whether Biden’s ambition evolves into transformative action. Until then, let’s enjoy this moment of relief.
Graphic courtesy of Alice Eaves.