Biden throws floundering global climate action a lifeline

The article below appeared earlier this month in the Business Post. One crucial first step in tackling the climate crisis is for politicians to say ‘no’ to dirty money from the powerful fossil fuel lobby (who notoriously have spent freely in recent decades to spread denial and disinformation about climate science). In the lead-in to the election, Biden made all the right noises, though there has been dismay at his recent appointment of a senior adviser with a long track record of taking money from oil, gas and chemical industry interests. Still, given his monumental achievement in freeing the US (at least for now) from the grip of authoritarianism, there is good reason to cut the incoming president some slack in sorting out his new team.

FOR A LIFE-LONG centrist, Joe Biden’s climate agenda is surprisingly radical. And there was no clearer statement of intent than his campaign’s outright refusal to accept funding “from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.”

Tangling with the US fossil fuel industry is a high-risk strategy. In the 2018 US mid-term elections, the industry flooded $84 million in funding for Congressional races, with almost all the cash going to candidates opposed to environmental regulation. Far more money will have been spent this year.

Then, in the final presidential debate, Biden went further than any other candidate in history, when he stated bluntly: “I would transition away from the oil industry, yes… this industry pollutes significantly and it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time.”

Donald Trump pounced on what was seen as a potentially fatal gaffe, playing up the perceived threat to jobs in swing states, Pennsylvania and Texas, both major fossil fuel producers. Biden held his nerve, and, more importantly, went on to flip Pennsylvania.

Biden’s progressive $2 trillion ‘Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution’ aims to put the US on the path to 100 per cent clean energy and net zero emissions by 2050.  Part of his plan is to end domestic fossil fuel subsidies, while using US influence to push for a worldwide ban.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), globally, fossil fuel subsidies are actually increasing, and their associated ‘negative externalities’, such as public heath, environmental and climate impacts, amounted to a staggering $5.3 trillion in 2015 alone.

Under new leadership, Biden proposes that the US can be “the world’s clean energy superpower”, with millions of jobs in sunrise renewable energy industries delivering a post-Covid boost towards US economic recovery. China today outspends the US by a ratio of 3:1 on clean energy investment, a gap Biden is determined to bridge and close this decade.

If this all sounds too progressive to be true, Biden has a powerful ally on climate action from an unlikely quarter: the US military. In early 2019, the Department of Defense warned that climate change posed a “national security issue”, both in terms of its direct negative impacts on military assets such as bases and in worsening regional and global political destabilisation.

The US military defines climate change as a “threat multiplier”, one that magnifies geopolitical and extreme weather-related risks worldwide. In response, Biden has committed to designating climate change as a national security priority.

While Trump and his science-denying administration had completely disengaged the US from global climate diplomacy, most notably the Paris Agreement, as well as scrapping Obama era environmental rules such as the Clean Power Act, these were done by a series of presidential executive orders, which Biden has already committed to immediately reversing.

Determined to restore US leadership on the international stage, Biden commits in his first 100 days to convening a summit of major carbon-emitting nations to pressure them to commit to more ambitious national emissions targets in line with the science, and to extend these to global shipping and aviation.

Among the earliest major environmental initiatives on the Biden agenda are to block oil and gas leasing on federal lands. He has also committed to reversing Trump era moves to weaken emissions standards for the electricity and transport sectors.

Actions like these can be pushed through via presidential executive orders, but risk being challenged in the increasingly conservative US courts.

That’s the easy bit. After that, it’s a distinctly uphill climb, given that Republicans are likely to regain control of the US Senate and will be keen to stymie the new president at every turn.

What is likely to remain elusive for Biden is the implementation of wide-ranging climate legislation. That would require firm control of Congress, which is unlikely to happen this side of the 2022 mid-term elections.

Biden was vice-president in 2009 when Barack Obama used up much of his political capital steering the Affordable Care Act into law. By the time he tried to enact comprehensive climate legislation in 2010, the opportunity was lost.

While Biden has been in national politics for five decades and previously showed limited interest in climate as a political issue, as the situation has grown graver in recent years, his thinking has clearly shifted towards far more transformative action.

The fact that climate impacts disproportionately affect people of colour and poorer communities has also coloured Biden’s view, framing it as a social justice issue as much as a scientific one.

While the coal industry-funded Kentucky senator, Mitch McConnell is likely to trip Biden up in the Senate, the incoming president, in the words of one energy lobbyist, “gets the racket” and knows how to build alliances on Capitol Hill like few others.

And, where Obama failed a decade ago, the crucial tail-wind that Biden now enjoys is that the US public is today far more concerned about climate impacts than it was back then. A recent study found that 26 per cent of Americans were “alarmed” about climate change, with a further 28 per cent “concerned”.

Notably, the number of “alarmed” Americans has more than doubled in just the last five years, as extreme weather events, from record-smashing fires, heatwaves, droughts and hurricane activity have all ratcheted upwards.

Behind the Trumpian rhetoric and partisan flag-waving, in reality, fewer than one in five Americans are actually “dismissive” or even “doubtful” about climate change. The ultimate test of the Biden presidency will be whether he can parlay this new-found awareness into concrete action.

  • John Gibbons is an environmental writer and commentator and co-author of the Routledge Handbook of Environmental Journalism



ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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