The Biden Administration has an ambitious agenda for stepping up action to cope with global warming but there are hurdles in the way
The Trump Administration, an unmitigated disaster for the fight to save the environment, has been defenestrated. Thanking the heavens for that, however, will not be enough. Wise leadership, massive allocation of funds and unflagging political will are needed at the global level to undo the damage done during the last four years and step up action to cope with global warming, which can wipe out humankind.
Two questions arise here. How deep is President Joe Biden’s commitment to fight global warming? What kind of hurdles will his administration have to overcome? As to the first, he has declared that climate change poses an “existential threat to the planet”. He has been called a “climate change pioneer” who believes that people have a moral and economic imperative to address the issue. He has a $2 trillion clean energy plan, and is on record as stating before assuming his current office that, as the President, he would ensure that the US achieved a 100 per cent clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050. As clearly a part of this goal, he wants to make the US power grid carbon neutral by 2035.
His commitment is reflected in his track record. In 1986, he introduced one of the first climate Bills in the US Congress. In 1998, he played a critical role in the enactment of the Tropical Forest Conservation Act, which allowed the US to reach agreements with foreign Governments to conserve tropical forests in exchange for debt relief. As chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2001-2003 and 2007-2009), he organised several hearings on climate change and garnered support for a number of non-binding resolutions on the issue.
As the President, he is making climate change the central issue of his administration and the subject of a two-pronged approach to combat it. The first is the establishment of a formidable administrative infrastructure; the second is the conceptualisation of the problem in all its dimensions and appointment of competent and dedicated people to cope with it.
He has already made progress with the second. In November 2020, not long after winning the presidential election, he named John Kerry, who was the Secretary of State in the Obama Administration and a principal architect of the Paris Agreement on Climate Change (December 2015), as his special presidential envoy for climate change. He has set up a White House office of domestic climate change policy to coordinate the implementation of his climate agenda. Indeed, as the President, he has gathered the largest team of climate change experts ever assembled at the White House. More, on the anvil is a national climate task force comprising 21 Government agency leaders, and an environmental justice inter-agency council to address racial and economic inequities exacerbated by climate change and air and water pollution.
President Biden has already taken certain important steps. On his first day in office, the paperwork for the US’ return to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change was completed. He revoked the permission granted to the TC Energy Corporation to construct the Keystone XL Oil pipeline for brining oil from Alberta, Canada, to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico. The Obama Administration had denied permission to it in 2015 for the severe damage it would cause to the environment but the Trump dispensation had allowed it to proceed. Also, according to a White House statement, Biden was directing the Department of Interior to pause all oil and gas drilling leases on federal land and water and, as far as possible, launch a review of the existing energy leases. Besides these and other measures related to his domestic climate agenda in the works, his administration is giving a hard look at the environmentally harmful measures taken by the US Environment Protection Agency during Trump’s tenure. Many of them will be up for scrapping.
In a reversal of the Trump Administration’s policy of turning away from the world on the climate change issue, a White House statement has said that the US should “exercise global leadership” in advancing the Paris Agreements objectives. Clearly, combating climate change is a mission with President Biden, which is encouraging given the enormous power and resources the US commands. Nevertheless, tall hurdles remain in the way. The fossil fuel industry lobby will fiercely oppose his policies restricting drilling and oil use conducing to global warming, and will seek to mobilise senators and representatives to derail his plans.
Second, his steps have been taken through executive orders. These can be revised by a future President just as he is doing in respect of Trump’s measures. For permanence he needs legislation, which will require careful navigation through the Senate and the House of Representatives where Democrats have a thin majority. Finally, he has to successfully counter the criticism that measures to protect the environment will mean job loss. He has doubtless emphasised the potential for jobs in new industries producing clean energy and research organisations supporting the latter. But then employment must actually follow.
(The author is Consulting Editor, The Pioneer. The views expressed are personal.)