The United States has a new president. With a new administration comes a new look at age-old policy platforms. The question of how the administration will address the ongoing climate crisis looms large on the agenda; Gen-Z, climate lobbyists and progressive congressmen and women alike have ensured the magnitude of this issue is understood and addressed.
Climate change is not a new issue; in fact, studies have shown that climate change began as early as the Industrial Revolution—over 200 years ago. That being said, the evident effects of climate change are relatively new: massive fires destroying thousands of acres across the globe from Australia to Western United States, melting ice caps, rising sea levels and flooding of coastal cities like Venice, Italy.
As these crises amplify, there is also increased awareness of how the climate crisis intersects with issues of race and class. Environmental racism often affects minorities. As we transition to clean energy, middle-class laborers will suffer the brunt of job losses; the rich will continue to make a profit, while the poor feel direct effects of climate change.
The Impact of Trump’s Presidential Term on Climate Policy
Obama first ran for election in 2008, when climate change wasn’t the pertinent issue it is today. Throughout his tenure as president, he produced multiple action plans in an effort to combat climate change, some of which included the All-of-the-Above Energy Strategy, in 2012, The President’s Climate Action Plan, in 2013, and the Clean Power Plan in 2015. In his last few months as president, under Obama’s leadership, the United States formally joined the Paris Climate Agreement.
While certainly not perfect, President Obama’s intentions were true, and the election of Donald Trump was detrimental to all the climate change combating efforts led by his predecessor.
Trump centered his 2016 campaign on deregulation policies for large corporations and a business-friendly model. His vision came to fruition almost immediately after being inaugurated; within ten days, Trump had signed an executive order claiming that “for every new regulation put in place, two had to be eliminated.”
He used this executive order to roll back numerous pro-environment policies in favor of pro-fossil-fuel policies. In 2017, Trump withdrew the United States from the Paris Climate Agreement, leaving the United States as one of the seven countries that hadn’t ratified the agreement. Trump also lifted bans on oil and gas exploration on previously nationally protected lands.
Trump’s actions were obviously anti-climate and pro-business, making clear his intentions to uplift large corporations at the cost of the environment.
Had the US elected an actual president the past four years rather than a fascist, argumentative toddler, we could have built upon Obama’s policies. While Obama’s policies wouldn’t have necessarily eradicated climate change, perhaps we’d be in a better position than we are in right now.
What this leaves the new presidency with is a complicated combination of rolling back Trump’s executive orders, reinstating pro-climate policies, navigating a polarized political climate where scientific fact is seen as controversial, and managing competing interests in climate policy solutions.
The Divide in Climate Policy Solutions
Even as we move towards climate solutions, there are divides between lobbyists, companies, and policymakers. There seem to be two major camps when it comes to climate solutions: climate lobbyists who believe in aggressive action to prevent increasing the global temperature and those who support a slower transition away from fossil fuels.
Prominent climate lobbyist group BlueGreen Alliance combines labor unions and environmentalists to advocate for a slow shift to zero carbon emission by 2050 while maintaining a thriving workforce. At first glance, BlueGreen seems unparalleled in its ability to combine progress towards a clean environment while minimizing job losses.
However, BlueGreen Alliance has seemingly overlooked aspects of the climate crisis that disproportionately affect BIPOC communities, while grassroots organizations prioritize these issues. For one, BlueGreen avoided condemning either of the pipeline projects, both of which directly affect Indigenous peoples as well as the environment.
Secondly, they have supported and encouraged the usage of carbon capture technologies, which not only increase the cost of energy for lower-income minorities but also do nothing for global warming.
The Dakota Access and Keystone XL Pipelines
The two main pipelines up for debate are in the midwest: the Dakota Access Pipeline and the Keystone XL Pipeline. Both of them negatively affect Indigenous historical heritage sites in North Dakota. More importantly, tribal leaders did not grant permission for the projects, a direct contravention against the National Historic Preservation Act.
One of Biden’s first acts in office was to reverse Trump’s order granting permission to build this pipeline. Had the Keystone XL Pipeline been built, it would have started in Albert, Canada, and distributed tar sand oil: a more coercive type of oil, with an increased likelihood of leaking and spilling into the surrounding land, ultimately resulting in an increase in fossil fuel emissions.
Whereas BlueGreen Alliance has chosen not to position themselves for or against the pipeline, grassroots climate organizations, such as the Sunrise Movement, have spoken out condemning pipeline projects.
The Sunrise Movement stated, “We condemn the actions of the Canadian government, which should honor its recognition of Wet’suwet’en sovereignty over their territories and not the greed of billionaire CEOs.”
Another grassroots organization, Friends of the Earth, took an active stance against the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, taking to the streets with protestors, ultimately preventing its construction. Both groups have also condemned carbon capture technologies as a way to combat fossil fuel usage.
The Carbon Capture Controversy
Carbon capture—the act of either sucking carbon from the atmosphere after it has been emitted or capturing it before it has been emitted—does nothing to decrease our dependency on carbon as a source of energy. Carbon capture is anything but a way to produce clean renewable energy. Rather, it’s a performative cover-up that allows corporations, states and presidents alike to claim they’re clean energy users and pro-climate, while continuing to use fossil fuels.
Multiple progressive climate groups including the Sunrise Movement, Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace have expressed their clear dissent with carbon capture technologies; in the words of prominent climate activist Greta Thunberg, “[public officials] rely on my generation sucking hundreds of billions of tons of your CO2 out of the air with technologies that barely exist.”
Thunberg makes a fair point: there are currently only nineteen carbon-capturing facilities around the world. There are multiple reasons for this, but perhaps the most important is the lack of incentive for said carbon capture technologies. Carbon capture is viewed by many as a gamble. Without monetary incentives or clear benefits to the planet, the technology is a dubious one.
Managing Competing Interests in Climate Policy
The Biden-Harris Administration needs to walk a fine line between aggressive action to slow global warming and ensuring American workers aren’t left in the dust as we transition to a clean energy industry.
It seems, though, that aggressive policy to slow global warming is an unpopular strategy amongst both parties in congress. The debate continues to center around the workforce: the millions of jobs the fossil fuel industry currently provides, the fate of coal miners, job losses, financial hardship, and the economy.
Now, these questions are completely justified: people will lose their jobs. But, only for a moment in time.
What congress continues to fail to mention is the abundance of jobs that will arise as a result of the shift to the clean energy industry. We have already seen over ten millions jobs created in the clean energy sector. The majority of those jobs are in Asia alone: imagine the jobs that would be created in the US if we were to give it a chance.
Being labor union and workers rights heavy, BlueGreen Alliance has outlined seven steps Biden can take to deliver “a clean, thriving, and equitable economy.”
BlueGreen recommends the creation of a “National Manufacturing Strategy,” to monitor investments in infrastructure and the manufacturing sector in the US. They encourage the rejoining of the Paris Climate Agreement, one of Biden’s first actions in office. They also support increasing the COVID-related economic relief package, which is currently on the Democratic agenda. Furthermore, they advocate for bettering the public services sector.
Where BlueGreen Alliance fails, however, is taking into account the intersections of environmental justice. Five of their seven recommendations for Biden are related to economics, but only one point addresses the issue of equality, despite 2020 being littered with thousands of protestors marching for racial justice.
The Sunrise Movement and other grassroots organizations do an impeccable job addressing intersections of environmental justice, however, they do not have a clear outline for how they plan on protecting current fossil fuel industry workers nor how they plan on sustaining a workforce during the transition to clean energy.
In a perfect world, these groups would work together, combining their efforts and interests to create a comprehensive understanding of what the shift to clean energy would look like. BlueGreen Alliance will ensure workers are protected and are being cared for, while grassroots organizations will ensure that low-income minorities, women, and Indigenous communities aren’t left behind.
If these groups were to work in conjunction, the Biden administration would be provided a clear framework for the policies they need to enact and the orders they need to create. However, lobby groups and companies have competing interests.
Moving Forward: Climate Policy Under the Biden-Harris Administration
Joe Biden’s views were seemingly more conservative—for lack of a better word—than those of Obama in 2008. Ten years later, Obama’s views have become outdated, while Biden has been mislabeled as a progressive.
Biden’s “Build Back Better Plan” looks a lot like a return to Obama-era policies, which, as we noted, were all over the place. The Obama-era environmental policies stopped the pipeline build in the midwest but encouraged the pipeline build in the southeast—both of which go through Native land.
It repressed emissions, but encouraged national oil production (increasing fracking by over 80% in eight years). A large chunk of Biden’s climate crisis response plan involves reinstating the Obama-climate policies Trump threw out.
In July, Biden released his initial climate plan: two trillion dollars are to be spent over the course of his first four years in office to create and sustain a clean energy industry. These two trillion dollars are going to a variety of places; from upgrading over 4,000 buildings to be energy efficient, to installing solar panels, wind energy technologies, but also, unfortunately, carbon capture technologies.
Biden’s mission also includes ensuring America has reached a net-zero emissions energy sector by 2050, investing $400 billion to research and innovate clean energy technologies, funding clean energy-efficient public transportation, among other visions.
BlueGreen Alliance endorsed Joe Biden back in August—the first-ever presidential endorsement they’ve given—for his, “ambitious and achievable plans to tackle the pressing issues our nation faces” said Jason Walsh, Executive Director for BlueGreen Alliance. Biden’s national climate plans include worker’s protections, which is probably one of the many reasons BlueGreen Alliance was willing to endorse Biden.
Included in these plans of Biden’s are economic security protections for coal miners, investments into communities most affected by climate change (low-income and/or minority areas that are the most vulnerable to the consequences of climate change are also communities of families, of entrepreneurs and of local businesses).
Climate Lobby Groups and Biden’s Cabinet Nominations
After the confirmation of Biden’s nomination mid-November, climate lobbyists including the aforementioned Sunrise Movement, Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth went to work advocating for their preferred candidates in Biden’s cabinet.
There were wins, but there were also losses. Thanks to advocating from climate lobbyists, Biden did not nominate Obama’s energy secretary, Ernest Moniz, who has known ties to the fossil fuel industry and believes in the continued use of fossil fuels and nuclear energy. On the other hand, Biden nominated Congressman Cedric Richmond—who has ties to the fossil fuel industry—as director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
As the Black Lives Matter movement took over 2020, politicians’ responses to questions regarding racial justice and/or systemic oppression became especially important. During the summer, Trump was quoted calling the BLM protestors “thugs,” and “anarchists,” while he called the rioters at the Capitol “very special.” He’s also refused to bluntly condone white supremacy, only doing so in a convoluted, confusing round-a-bout way.
Biden, on the other hand, has acknowledged our system of hypocrisy and the need for racial and environmental justice. In terms of the Capitol riot, Biden stated that it’s “unacceptable” how “differently” the national terrorists were treated as opposed to the ways BLM protestors.
More specifically, he has acknowledged the disproportionate effects of climate change on minority groups, and as such has formed a climate team that will respond accordingly.
For example, he has nominated Representative Deb Haaland from New Mexico as head of the Department of Interior. As a member of the Laguna Pueblo people Representative Haaland is the first Native American woman to serve as secretary in the history of the United States—a landslide step for minorities left behind under the previous administration.
Biden is currently walking a fine line between aggressive climate action and a slow transition in attempt to appease both progressives and conservatives. However being a moderate doesn’t do anything for the climate—we need aggressive climate change policies to survive.