Will Joe Biden be the environment’s best friend? Maybe not, but here’s why he needs to win anyway
On 3 November the United States goes to the polls to elect a President for the next four years. There’s a huge amount at stake, with both Republicans and Democrats going as far as to claim the election is a battle for the “soul of America”. And while of course there are a whole suite of policies for voters to consider when deciding between Donald Trump and Joe, this post will focus on the environment and climate change.
There are two key areas to look at when considering which candidate will be better on the environment and climate change, their record and their policies. So let’s get started.
Donald Trump has only been in elected office for a little under four years, so in terms of a political record on the environment and climate change there isn’t much of one. Something I was surprised to learn though was that in 2009 Trump (and his three adult children) were signatories to a full-page advertisement in the New York Times urging “meaningful and effective measures to control climate change” be taken at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen.
However as his political ambition grew his views changed markedly. In 2012 he tweeted “the concept of global warming was created by and for the Chinese in order to make U.S. manufacturing non-competitive” and during the Republican primaries in 2016 stated he was “not a big believer in man-made climate change”.
In early 2020 Trump asserted “the environment is very important to me”, but his record in office has been nothing short of disastrous. According to the Wilderness Society Action Fund, “throughout his term, the president has stripped protections from wild places that provide critical habitat for many plants and animals, clean water and offer fantastic opportunities for recreation and exploration.” Under Trump the US government has auctioned off millions of acres of public land to the fossil fuel industry, often at rock bottom prices. He has also sought to expand the amount of land available for drilling by removing protections for ecologically sensitive areas like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska.
And despite professing to want the “very cleanest air and cleanest water on the planet” the Trump Administration has reversed, or tried to reverse, almost 100 environmental rules governing clean air, water, wildlife and toxic chemicals. Some of the most significant rollbacks include:
- Weakened Obama-era fuel economy and greenhouse gas standards for passenger cars and light trucks;
- Replaced the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which would have set strict limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants, with a new version that would let states set their own rules;
- Canceled a requirement for oil and gas companies to report methane emissions;
- Repealed rules meant to reduce leaking and venting of powerful greenhouse gases known as hydrofluorocarbons from large refrigeration and air conditioning systems;
- Revoked an Obama executive order that set a goal of cutting the federal government’s greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent over 10 years;
- Scrapped a proposed rule that required mines to prove they could pay to clean up future pollution;
- Weakened the National Environmental Policy Act, one of the country's most significant environmental laws, in order to expedite the approval of public infrastructure projects, such as roads, pipelines and telecommunications networks;
- Changed the way the Endangered Species Act is applied, making it more difficult to protect wildlife from long-term threats posed by climate change.
On climate change Trump’s record is just as poor. On 1 June 2019 he announced the United States’ intention to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, a landmark global agreement reached in 2015 to tackle climate change. The withdrawal will take effect the day after the US election.
After a lot of trawling I found one potential policy success that can be pointed to, albeit coming right at the end of his first term. On 13 October signed an Executive Order establishing the One Trillion Trees Interagency Council, which will be responsible for coordinating the Federal government’s support of the global One Trillion Trees Initiative. The Initiative, as the name suggests, aims to unite and promote reforestation efforts worldwide and is sponsored by the World Economic Forum.
With regards to policy, so far as I can tell Trump’s campaign website has none at all. There is a section called ‘Promises Kept’ which has a page optimistically entitled ‘Energy and Environment’ which essentially trumpets policy successes in supporting the fossil fuel industry.
Joe Biden has been a politician since 1972, when he was elected to the US Senate to represent the state of Delaware. To his credit, Biden did introduce climate change legislation to the Senate in 1986. However rather than a comprehensive plan to tackle climate change, the bill simply called for the president to set up a task force. For the remainder of his Senate career Biden was more focused on judicial and foreign relations issues, and subsequently he served as Vice-President to President Obama. Although that administration compares favourably to Trump’s on the environment and climate change and did engage in multilateral negotiations, the reality is Obama pursued an “all-of-the-above energy strategy” that praised natural gas as a bridge to cleaner fuels and thereby at the very least tacitly endorsing fracking - an industry that causes huge damage to the environment.
As a presidential candidate Biden initially tried to find a middle ground on climate policy, but has found himself pushed further to the left in an effort to unite the Democratic Party. He’s even committed that his campaign won’t accept contributions from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives.
In terms of his policies, the Biden campaign website sets out plans ‘to Tackle the Climate Emergency’, ‘for a Clean Energy Future’, and ‘to Secure Environmental Justice’. In terms of specifics, Biden’s plans aim to:
- Ensure the US achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050
- Recommit the US to the Paris Agreement
- Make a $2 trillion accelerated investment, with a plan to deploy those resources over his first term, in areas like infrastructure, the auto industry, transit, construction, energy, agriculture and conservation
- Establish an Environmental and Climate Justice Division within the U.S. Department of Justice
- Create a National Crisis Strategy to address climate disasters that prioritizes equitable disaster risk reduction and response
To his credit, in the final presidential debate Biden took a more extreme position on fossil fuels than he needed to (and which could cost him in states like Texas and Pennsylvania) when he said he would “transition from the oil industry”, although he walked that back later by claiming that the fossil fuel industry wouldn’t “be gone” until 2050.
Out of interest, I did a quick comparison of Biden’s plans with Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal. Sanders was a rival to Biden for the Democratic nomination and decried by Donald Trump as a “socialist”. Biden has claimed not to support the Green New Deal, although his campaign website acknowledges it as “a crucial framework for meeting the climate challenges we face”. It’s fair to say the Green New Deal went much further, pledging:
- 100 percent renewable energy for electricity and transportation by no later than 2030 and complete decarbonization of the economy by 2050 at latest
- Ending unemployment by creating 20 million jobs needed to solve the climate crisis
- Directly invest an historic $16.3 trillion public investment toward these efforts
- Guarantee five years of a worker’s current salary, housing assistance, job training, health care, pension support, and priority job placement for any displaced worker in the fossil fuel industry
- Declaring climate change a national emergency
- Commit to reducing emissions throughout the world, including providing $200 billion to the Green Climate Fund, rejoining the Paris Agreement, and reasserting the United States’ leadership in the global fight against climate change
- Meeting and exceeding the US’ fair share of global emissions reductions
This may be unfair, but I get the sense that Biden is not a true believer in the environmental cause like Al Gore and has been somewhat forced into his positions by the Democratic base. The words are all there, but if he wins we need action. But in terms of a direct comparison to Trump the decision is a no-brainer. The stakes for the environment and the fight against climate change couldn’t be higher. John Podesta, who advised Barack Obama on climate policy sums it up best:
“It would be pretty much game over for the international system if he’s [Trump] re-elected. China would feel zero pressure to do more and it would dampen ambition around the world. We’d miss the chance to avoid warming at a catastrophic level.”
Cover photo by Ben White