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  • Safiya Umrani

Biden Wins the Climate Battle, But Not the War

The day he was sworn into office, President Joe Biden began signing executive orders reversing Trump-era policies, several of which involved environmental protections. The biggest change Biden made on an international scale was rejoining the Paris Climate Accords. President Trump formally left the Paris Climate Accord on November 4, 2020. His announcement about plans to withdraw exactly one year prior sent a grim message to the rest of the world - that the U.S. was no longer committed to decreasing its contribution to global warming. While Trump focused on rolling back environmental regulations, Biden’s agenda is far more extensive, arguably more so than President Obama’s efforts. Biden made it clear that tackling climate change was going to be a top priority under his administration by centering it in “U.S. foreign policy and national security considerations,” according to the White House website. The goal is to put the U.S. back on track to being a world leader in the fight against climate change. Many call his plan ambitious and this critique is not unwarranted. To make up for the past four years of inaction, Biden will need trillions in spending, not to mention the support of Congress to pass his legislation. The new carbon-reduction goals under the Paris Climate Accord will also have to be more aggressive than the first. Nevertheless, in spite of these challenges, Biden wants to show the world that the United States is still working towards environmental sustainability. The question is whether Biden’s ambition runs the risk of making empty promises.

Much of the analysis surrounding Biden’s proposals is rooted in the belief that he is only trying to impress world leaders by drawing a stark line between his views and Trump’s. It was no secret to the international community where Trump stood on the issue of climate change and global warming. His environmental protection rollbacks undermined the U.S. as a key player in reducing the global carbon footprint. During his campaign trail back in 2016, his then opponent Hillary Clinton made a point of Donald Trump calling climate change a “concept created by and for the Chinese,” an infamous tweet which he later claimed was just a joke. Ever since his policies seemed to support the widespread belief that he never took climate change seriously. When presented with a government report about the potential impacts of climate change in the U.S., he denied the findings. His supporters internalized Trump’s anti-science beliefs, arguing that the threat of climate change was being greatly exaggerated by the media. A 2019 Pew Research poll of 26 countries found that 59% of US citizens see climate change as a major threat. Though 59% is still a majority, it should also be noted that this means almost half the country doesn’t believe that climate change is an urgent issue.

Trump’s vocal disdain for global warming and the scientific community showed the international community that America, at least for the time being, would not be a reliable player in helping the world’s response to the climate crisis. This belief was solidified when Trump abandoned the Paris Climate Accords agreement, claiming to do so was fulfilling his “solemn duty to America and its citizens.” Trump failed to mention that he would also be pulling the US out of the entire United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. His actions were condemned by international institutions such as the European Union, African Union, UNICEF, foreign governments, French president Emmanuel Macron expressed that that Trump’s decision to withdraw was “an actual mistake, both for the United States and our planet,” while Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the decision “disheartening.” ”Condemnation came from nearly every direction of the globe. By pulling out of the Paris agreement, Trump confirmed that the validity of indisputable scientific data would be questioned under his presidency, and so too was the world’s faith in U.S. environmental leadership. Thus, in trying to undo the fractured image of the United States global leadership, Biden is trying to reestablish climate change as public enemy number one.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement was a huge step for Biden towards gaining back the respect of other world powers. The initial formation of the agreement was a sign of hope after scientists determined that the continuous effects of global warming above 1.5 degrees Celsius would be irreversible. As the second-highest emitter of CO2 in the world, the U.S. has a huge responsibility to lower emissions for the wellbeing of the planet. However, Biden will still need to prove his commitment to agreement guidelines on emissions. The U.S. has now pledged to reach three times that emissions cap by 2030 and was still falling short. National Geographic’s climate action tracker ranked the U.S. as “insufficient,” which fell to “critically insufficient” under Trump. Biden wants to eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from the entire economy by 2050. This would require convincing Congress to spend at least $2 trillion towards green energy alternatives, new technology, and conservation.

Greater demonstration of commitment to the Paris agreement would only be the start. Biden still has to have approved the many environmental regulation laws that were rescinded under Trump. Biden’s addressing of domestic environmental challenges would allow him to more effectively regain the confidence of the global community as a leader on climate change while avoiding charges of hypocrisy by other world leaders. By linking his domestic approach with his larger global strategy, Biden will be better able to lay the foundation for a complete remodeling of the U.S. and world energy sectors.

In this domestic approach, it seems Biden is picking up where former President Obama left off. Obama also tried to push major greenhouse gas regulations through Congress, though nowhere near as vast as Biden’s plans. In his two terms as president, the legislation never left the House floor. Biden’s more ambitious program has called for all federal agencies to obtain clean energy sources, the development of a National Climate Task Force, several new White Offices, and a commitment to a carbon-free power sector by 2035. There is significant doubt about whether Biden could pull it off in the next four years and really establish himself as a leader on climate change solutions.

Whatever the may be in the next four years, it is no secret that the Biden administration aims to re-establish its leadership on climate policy. It plans to lead by example, showing other countries that eco-friendly policies are possible and necessary even in the most industrialized nations. However, Biden’s agenda will take consistent work and unwavering commitment to become reality. The consequences of having a leader who wasn’t dedicated to fighting climate change for just a short period of time did not go unnoticed. The U.S. lost its footing and its credibility on the international stage. Biden may show promise with his ambitious environmental goals, but these claims are not unlike the claims of past presidents. It’s one thing to reverse the Trump-era policies that encourage pollution, but quite another to bring the U.S. to a point where it can eliminate greenhouse gas emissions in less than fifteen years. Biden’s idealistic plans must be supplemented by consistent action to demonstrate the substance of his commitment to environmental reform at home and abroad. Thus, winning the election for Biden was only half the battle in proving the U.S. is once again ready for the mantle of responsibility in the climate conversation.


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