During his speech at the 2020 Democratic National Convention, presidential candidate Joe Biden structured his policy platform on what he termed “four historic crises”. These included the coronavirus pandemic, the resultant collapse of the American economy, systemic racial injustice, and finally, the “undeniable realities and accelerating threats of climate change”.
Biden’s mere acknowledgement of the climate crisis is a step further than President Donald Trump’s engagement with the issue up to this point, who has commonly referred to climate change as a hoax and disregarded scientific evidence saying otherwise since he took office in 2016. As the first presidential and vice presidential debates have demonstrated, the United States’ commitment to sustainability and environmentalism in the future will be decided with the 2020 election. But what will a Biden presidency bring to the battle against global warming, and what might it mean for the planet if Trump is reelected?
Biden’s climate plan
Over the summer Biden released his climate plan, which promises to spend USD$2 trillion over four years to reduce emissions, promote sustainable energy, and create jobs and benefits for low-income and marginalized communities. While many on the left have been skeptical of Biden’s commitment to fighting climate change following his reluctance to embrace the “Green New Deal”, Biden’s perhaps surprisingly ambitious plan has gained traction among staunch environmentalists.
Washington Governor Jay Inslee, a former competitor for the Democratic presidential primary who ran an environmentally based campaign, called the Biden plan “visionary” and “comprehensive”. In addition to its goal of a zero-emissions power sector by 2035 and an initiative to upgrade millions of buildings to meet higher energy efficiency standards, the plan prioritizes job creation and environmental justice. Acknowledging the intersection of climate change and racial injustice, Biden said “environmental policy decisions of the past have failed communities of color”, and that his plan includes the creation of an office of environmental justice in the Justice Department as well as giving 40 percent of the benefits of the new plan back to the disadvantaged communities most impacted by climate change. The plan would be primarily paid for with a 7 percent increase on corporate income taxes, and has drawn criticism from the Trump administration and executives in the fossil fuel industry.
During the first two debates, Trump and Vice President Mike Pence were quick to associate Biden’s plan with the more politically charged Green New Deal and potential detrimental effects to the American energy sector. “More taxes, more regulation, banning fracking, abolishing fossil fuel, crushing American energy and economic surrender to China is a prescription for economic decline,” Pence said. While he admitted that “the climate is changing”, Pence denied to say whether he believed climate change posed a significant threat.
Trump’s climate stance
President Trump has long been an ally to the coal and oil industries, and an opponent of climate activists seeking sustainability. One of his first actions in office was to withdraw the US from the Paris Climate Accords, which held the U.S accountable for achieving the climate goals set in place by the Obama administration. From the beginning of his campaign for the presidency, Trump has consistently claimed that sustainability is at odds with the best interests of American workers, and has focused on “American energy dominance” through tailoring policy to meet the needs of the oil and gas industries.
Trump’s EPA appointments consisted exclusively of former fossil fuel industry executives and lobbyists, who have since shaped environmental policy in their favor. Since taking office, President Trump has continued to deregulate the oil and gas industries and corporate entities in general, and has rolled back environmental protections in favor of the extraction of fossil fuels. According to an analysis by the Rhodium Group, the proposed environmental rollbacks currently on the Trump administration’s table would contribute more carbon into the atmosphere than all of Russia’s annual emissions. Given Pence’s reluctance to even acknowledge the existential threat posed by climate change during his debate against Harris, it’s not hard to imagine what another Trump administration might mean in terms of the American role in the global push to slow the effects of climate change.
A tough battle for climate activists
The recent death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg and subsequent push by Republicans to replace her with conservative Seventh Circuit judge Amy Coney Barrett has serious implications for environmental reform. Given the probability of Barrett’s appointment before the next presidential term, it’s likely that the Supreme Court will be dominated by conservatives for decades. In the event of Biden’s election, this means that any meaningful execution of his aggressive climate change plan will be shot down when conservative states object.
This has happened before– in 2014, the Obama administration attempted to put the Clean Power Plan into place to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30%. The plan was unable to pass in the conservative-ruled Senate, forcing Obama to use the EPA to implement the plan. As a result, 12 conservative states sued the sweeping reforms, and the Supreme Court sided with them and blocked the plan until the end of the Obama administration. For scale, Biden’s plan is three times the magnitude of Obama’s, and whether or not the Senate will be Democratic or Republican remains to be seen. On the other hand, if Trump is reelected, the Supreme Court will be able to approve any of Trump’s deregulations and redactions of environmental laws. The US currently accounts for about 14% of the world’s carbon emissions.
For one of the world’s richest countries to continue to disregard climate initiatives in favor of rapid development could cause a global shift away from sustainability, as has been indicated by recent actions by India and Brazil to embrace coal and fossil fuel.
Little doubt that meaningful climate action in the US finds itself on an extremely precarious precipice with the upcoming election. Alongside all other well-documented choices on offer, whether to continue an extractionist, business-first agenda or integrating climate and environment into the agenda are on the ballot. Here, as with everywhere else, the center ground has become an untenable position, as polarization continues to grip the nation.
For Times Media Mexico
Kieran Hadley in Salt Lake City