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Biden’s Climate Change Policy: A Radical Shift From the Trump Era 

Three questions to Maya Kandel

INTERVIEW - 9 March 2021

President Joe Biden has called climate change the number one issue facing humanity, and has staffed his team with more people concerned about climate and environment policies than any American president before. Considered by some as "the first climate president", he is moving rapidly to address these issues. Beyond rejoining the Paris Agreement on Climate change on his first day in office, real action will come when Joe Biden moves forward with plans to reinstate and strengthen Obama-era regulations, repealed by the Trump administration, on the three main sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions: vehicles, power plants and methane leaks from oil and gas drilling wells. Maya Kandel, historian and expert on US foreign policy, shares her insights on "the most ambitious and comprehensive plan ever proposed" on climate change, and how Joe Biden can reverse the dynamics of his predecessor on this urgent issue. 

Donald Trump reversed or canceled the most important policies of the Obama administration regarding climate and the environment. What can be expected from the new Biden administration in terms of climate and environmental policy? Will the Clean Power Plan be revived? What are your views on the major aspects of the Biden climate plan? 

Since the 1990s, the world has grown used to US reversals on climate policy and diplomacy, with each change of the presidency. On climate more than on any other issue, Trump sought to erase Obama's legacy, internationally - by pulling the US out of the Paris Climate Accord - and domestically, by systematically eliminating his predecessor's regulations. Meanwhile, fossil fuels continued to benefit from favorable measures at all levels, consistent with the 2017 National Security Strategy objective of "energy supremacy". The Washington Post (as well as Dissent and Nature) called Biden "the first climate president". In July 2020, he presented an extremely ambitious $2 trillion climate plan, with commitments to a "clean energy revolution," an ambitious infrastructure plan, as well as broader proposals inspired by Alexandria Occasio-Cortez's Green New Deal, including the fight against American economic, social and racial inequalities at the heart of a broader transformative ambition. 

The project has been described as "the most ambitious and comprehensive plan ever proposed" by the climate scientist Michael Mann. It includes many components - beyond renewable energy incentives - in infrastructure, agriculture, transportation, finance, defense, and power grid renovation. The new administration must also review the numerous Trump administration decisions dismantling Obama era regulations, update projected regulations to reduce GHG emissions, and tackle two of the major sources of GHG emissions: power plants and methane leaks from oil and gas extraction. But the Clean Power Plan will not be reactivated, even though it emerged from its legal slump at the end of January 2021. The targets established a 2020 deadline and have essentially been achieved, thanks to the drop in the price of gas, a fossil fuel much less polluting than coal and oil. Here, it is the market that made it possible to achieve Obama's ambitions, despite Trump - who failed to "make coal great again" because coal simply was no longer competitive in the face of the abundance of cheap American gas.

The project has been described as "the most ambitious and comprehensive plan ever proposed" by the climate scientist Michael Mann. 

A similar logic applies to what constitutes the largest CO2 emissions source in the United States: vehicle pollution. The case is emblematic: the Obama administration put in place tight regulations, which Trump removed. But the market has evolved since then. The auto industry, which had fought against Obama regulations and embraced Trump, is now converting to an all-electric production. This is the case of General Motors, which announced last month an all-electric production and the end of production of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035. This market development could be a major source of results for the Biden administration, given the difficulties to be expected for binding regulation in Congress and the Supreme Court.

The major challenge for the Biden administration is to guarantee the sustainability of its climate plan. It is the only way to restore American credibility on climate issues and reach the ambitious goals announced by Biden during the campaign. Ideally, it would act through legislation and regulations, but a major push and perhaps the best asset will come from private companies and the evolution of the market, driven in large part by the pressure of public opinion and civil society, which will make things as irreversible as an act of Congress. Other important actions will be regulations regarding extraction on federal lands; and standards and norms adopted at the state levels, following the example of California.

Support for decisions at the city and state levels will be decisive. On that level, climate action has remained ambitious during the past four years, despite Trump. But a major challenge remains in the South and Midwestern states, starting with those which are most dependent on fossil fuels: Texas, West Virginia, Wyoming, North Dakota, Oklahoma... Most are also Republican strongholds. We could see a dynamic opposite to that prevailing under Trump at the federal vs. state level. Mostly, there is a risk of a growing geographical polarization on climate legislations, with a "two countries" dynamic similar to what seems to be happening for legislation on digital issues. 

The Trump administration had chosen to ignore its own report, established by 13 federal agencies, on the consequences of climate change for the American territory, population, public health and economy, predicting in particular a 10% contraction of the US economy if nothing was done by the end of the century. But climate skepticism or outright denial remains an essential marker of the American cultural wars, making ambitious legislation very nearly impossible to pass in Congress. 

President Biden has announced a major $2 trillion plan for climate. Can he win over Republican members’ hostility to environmental measures? Besides, is this plan considered as sufficiently ambitious by the American public and civil society, particularly by the younger generations, who are most engaged in the fight against climate change?

The current priority is to pass a first plan to help Americans face the economic difficulties related to the pandemic (Relief). The next plan (Recovery) will come in a second phase, and Biden's appearance before Congress has been postponed for the moment. Regarding public opinion, and elected officials’ positions, things have been changing rather quickly. There is now very broad support for concrete proposals to fight climate change or for renewable energies, as shown by a 2020 Pew study: two-thirds of Americans now believe that the government must do more on climate. Additionally, climate is increasingly the first, or one of the major, concerns of younger voters, Democrat and Republican alike.

But it is also one of the most polarized issues in US politics today. While some Republican elected officials are evolving, especially when they are elected in blue states, or when their state is affected by the consequences of the current acceleration of climate change on the American continent - Florida being the best example -, they continue to reject the Paris Accord as anti-America First. Moreover, they emphasize technological approaches - from carbon capture, carbon removal, to solar geoengineering - addressing the consequences rather than the causes of climate change. Above all, Republicans remain attached to fossil fuels for reasons related to the geography of the vote, the jobs associated with extraction, but also for the defense of the American way of life, still "non-negotiable" as George W. Bush used to say; and they consider American energy supremacy as an essential component of power. These facts make any legislation difficult, especially with the closely divided Congress, and a 50-50 Senate. But there is room for some progress, as shown by the vote in December 2020 of the most ambitious federal law in a decade for investment in renewable technologies, including tens of billions of dollars of investment in solar, wind and batteries, as well as research on carbon capture and storage, and advances in the fight against HFC gases.

These elements still underline a fundamental difference in the American approach, at least in Congress: little emphasis on reducing emissions through energy savings and changing ways of life - the Green New Deal of the American socialist muse AOC remains to the right of a Benoît Hamon in France. The notion of environmental justice is very present, but the perspective is distinct from the philosophy of European political ecology. In this respect, the US seems to be closer to the Chinese approach of climate, especially in geopolitical terms

The notion of environmental justice is very present, but the perspective is distinct from the philosophy of European political ecology.

Biden has announced the US return to the Paris climate Accord, the nomination of John Kerry as Climate special envoy, and a Climate Leader Summit on Earth Day, next April 22: what is at stake internationally for this summit, a few months before the COP26 Glasgow meeting? Will we see progress on the global governance of climate issues? 

The appointment of John Kerry as Special Envoy on Climate has been justly interpreted as an important sign from the new American president. Perhaps more important is the fact that Kerry will sit on the National Security Council, and have a domestic counterpart in Gina McCarthy, who will have perhaps an even more important role to boost US credibility. But the return of the US to the Paris Accord goes beyond issues of international governance.

The impact will depend on three factors. First, the ambition of US engagements, through the Nationally Determined Contributions (NDC), which will be announced ahead of the April 22nd summit, and on which we already have an idea of Biden's commitments regarding carbon neutrality of the electricity sector by 2035, and carbon neutrality of the entire economy in 2050. Second, the credibility of the US comeback, which will depend on domestic decisions and concrete implementation of the Biden climate plan, and on its sustainability at a time of deep polarization, where climate is becoming an "identity issue" for Republicans. Finally, the knock-on effects on the rest of the world: on this point, we have already seen an "anticipatory" effect with the ambitious (and vague, and distant) announcements made by President Xi Jiping in September 2020, with the announced objective of carbon neutrality for China by 2060. 

Beyond the credibility and durability of American commitments, there are two major issues at stake internationally, concerning fossil fuel producing countries (including the US), and the least developed countries, some of which are also the most affected, in a context aggravated by the current pandemic and economic crisis. Regarding China, the real challenge will be to obtain intermediate objectives from Beijing (i.e. before 2060) between now and the Glasgow COP26. Another crucial challenge, made possible by the progress made in this area, will be the verification of countries’ NDC commitments: there is a risk that these announcements will remain just that (30 years of climate diplomacy have seen global GHG emissions increase by more than 60%).

The most crucial issue today has to do with the different geopolitical dynamics emerging between the major emitters, China, the US, the EU, and India: cooperation and competition for influence on the necessary global governance of biodiversity, especially related to oceans or the Amazon (and anticipating other issues linked to geoengineering); fierce economic competition for sectors that represent the economy of the future, on which China has already taken a considerable lead (solar panels, batteries, rare earths, all necessary for renewables); and reconciling these economic and industrial constraints with the pressure of civil society and the decisions of the main economic players.

 

Copyright: Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

 

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