US Climate Policy Turns 180 Degrees
Gina McCarthy, first Domestic Climate Policy Coordinator.
President Biden with John Kerry, first US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate.
On Nov. 3 the nation faced a momentous environmental choice, though few Americans seemed to realize it. We need to reduce world carbon emission totals 50% by 2030. If we don't, according to the UN International Panel on Climate Change, we have little chance of reaching net-zero in 2050 and avoiding a rise in temperatures beyond 1.5ºC and the catastrophic consequences that would follow. Given American power and influence, and given that Trump proposed to continue his policies of climate denial and obstruction, his reelection could well have put that target out of reach. As eminent climate scientist Michael Mann stated in October, “Another four years of what we’ve seen under Trump, which is to outsource environmental and energy policy to the polluters and dismantle protections put in place by the previous administration, would make that [goal] essentially impossible.”
Trump came within 42,000 votes in three states of winning the Electoral College, but he failed, and Joe Biden is now initiating a 180-degree turn in federal government climate policies. On his first day in office, Biden returned the US to the Paris Agreement and revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline. A week later, with his "climate czars" Gina McCarthy and John Kerry at his side, he announced a number of additional wide-ranging actions, including:
• Halting the new leasing of federal lands and waters for oil and gas drilling
• Ordering a rigorous review of all current leasing
• Proposing that 30% of America’s land and sea be set aside for protected status
• Committing the federal government to purchasing electric vehicles in volume
• Calling for the elimination of subsidies for fossil fuel industries
• Making climate change a national-security priority for the Pentagon
• Establishing offices on “environmental justice” in the Justice and Energy Departments and the EPA
• Reestablishing Obama-era vehicle emission standards
Biden is also proposing a $2 trillion energy plan. It would remake the nation’s energy grid so that it can run on renewables by 2035, build energy-efficient homes and electric cars, and clean up abandoned oil and and gas drilling sites. However, unlike many of his first steps which can be accomplished through executive action, the plan requires Congressional approval, and that’s unlikely, given the current 60 vote requirement in the Senate. Still, Biden can strongly influence corporate and investor decision-making by using his “bully pulpit.” There are already signs that it’s working. GM’s announced on Jan. 28, one day after Biden’s announcement, that it will sell only zero-emission cars by 2035, a remarkable turnaround given its complicity with the Trump administration in weakening Obama fuel-efficiency standards.
If persuasion and incentives are not sufficient, however, and if Democrat holdouts refuse to abolish the filibuster, then Majority Leader Chuck Schumer has suggested that Biden declare a national emergency. That would allow the administration to bypass the Congress, just as Trump did in 2019, when he diverted funding for his border wall. Of course, this would prompt an immediate court challenge, and it seems unlikely to occur in the near future, but it’s a striking indication of the new direction in Washington.
Biden is also initiating action internationally. The US currently contributes only 14% of the world’s total greenhouse emissions. China emits roughly double our total and India half ours, so without their cooperation (and that of other developed countries) the IPCC goals will never be reached. To address this, Biden has named John Kerry as the nation’s first Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. Reporting directly to the president, his first task will be to restore American climate credibility overseas, after four years of official US climate denial and obstruction. Kerry has already made it clear that the US will push the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank to support the goals of the Paris accord. The US Export-Import Bank will no longer fund fossil fuels. Finally, President Biden will host a “climate assembly” on April 22, and at that time will announce new US Paris Agreement carbon reduction goals. This is crucial, since the current national promises worldwide will not reach the goal of 2.0ºC, let alone 1.5ºC. The US example will be crucial if Kerry is going to persuade others to ramp up their commitments.
Cutting world carbon emission totals by 50% in ten years is a herculean, perhaps impossible task, but at least the US is again moving in the right direction.