Each refinement of climate science demands more urgent action than the last if we are to prevent complete climate catastrophe. Reductions in net emissions must be made rapidly and on a global scale. However, the policies of individual governments can still make a big difference, especially in a country like the USA. As the producer of over 13% of global CO2 emissions it is the world’s second largest polluter after China, producing almost twice as much CO2 per person. As the most powerful imperialist nation on the planet the approach the US government takes can have enormous influence beyond its own borders. No wonder then, that after four years under the presidency of climate sceptic Donald Trump, there is a desperate hope that Joe Biden will usher in a radical change of direction for US environmental policy.
Trump claimed his “natural instinct for science” led him to question the findings of virtually every climate scientist – that climate change is caused by human activity. He took the US out of the Paris Agreement on emission reduction, leaving it as the only country not signed up. His administration attempted to roll back almost a hundred environmental protections and green lit fossil fuel extraction in national parks and coastal waters. In short, he set the bar so pitifully low that Biden almost can’t help but be an improvement. However, returning to pre-Trump policies will not be sufficient, especially in the light of updated research within the last four years. Will Biden be willing or able take the urgent and decisive steps needed to stop climate catastrophe?
Unlike his predecessor, Biden is talking a good fight on climate change, describing it as the “number one issue facing humanity”. His campaign website describes “the Biden plan for a clean energy revolution and environmental justice” and the need for a “Green New Deal”. While the Biden plan is less ambitious than the green new deal called for by left Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez he has still pledged $2 trillion of investment towards a target of net zero carbon emissions by 2050, saying it will create millions of jobs along the way. However, as with all capitalist politicians, the promises made to win votes won’t necessarily become a reality.
Trump’s environmental vandalism and bonfire of regulations was for the benefit of big businesses, removing obstacles to them making even more profit. Biden represents the interests of exactly that big business class. His presidential campaign garnered donations from over 130 billionaires or their partners, around half of them giving six figure sums. He pledged not to take money from people associated with the fossil fuel industry but actually benefited from almost $1.5 million in such donations, according to the non-partisan research group Center for Responsive Politics. Millions more went to other Democratic Party campaigns. When the drive for profits collides with the needs of the planet then Biden’s support for big business will severely hamstring his environmental promises.
An early indication of Biden’s real approach to the environment can be seen in the names put forward for roles in his administration. One of his first appointments was Cedric Richmond, a congressman from Louisiana who will now become a senior advisor to the president and lead the White House Office of Public Engagement. His responsibilities will include advancing Biden’s climate change policies. The pick has been criticised and called a betrayal by climate activists due to Richmond’s history of large campaign donations from fossil fuel sources and his perceived closeness to the industry. The congressman has also come under fire from his own constituents for failing to engage with them or take action over the issue of air pollution – his district covers seven of the ten most polluted areas in the US.
Also indicative is the appointment of former Secretary of State John Kerry as special envoy for climate. Kerry’s approach to tackling climate change centres on the failed policy of carbon-pricing, creating a market price for pollution. This big-business-friendly approach was the sole focus of an opinion piece he wrote for The Hill since Biden’s election victory, entitled How To Better Tackle Climate Change. There was no mention of a green new deal or of how the new administration would drive a shift to renewable energy. In fact Kerry has a record of supporting a short term expansion of US fossil fuel extraction under Barack Obama’s administration. Overall US oil and gas production grew by 88% during Obama’s eight year tenure in the White House, with Biden as vice president.
Biden promised to return the US to the Paris Agreement on his first day in office. This is the international treaty on climate change agreed in 2015. Reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the agreement signals a marked change in the mood music coming from the new administration. However, it falls well short of what will be necessary to avoid the worst effects of climate change.
The agreement aims to keep global warming to a minimum of a 2 degree Celsius rise above pre-industrial levels. Unfortunately, according to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), even if every commitment made under the Paris Agreement is met then global warming would still reach three degrees, with devastating consequences. Moreover, not a single industrialised country is even on track to meet its commitments. Since the Paris Agreement was first signed it has been discovered that it is not only its implementation that is failing, even its ambition was insufficient. A landmark piece of scientific research published by the IPCC in 2018 shows that we must now be aiming at a maximum rise of 1.5 degrees. Achieving this would require greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 to be around half those pledged under the Paris Agreement. It would also require net zero emissions to be reached before the 2050 deadline pledged by Biden. Returning to the Paris Agreement is a step in the right direction but it does not show that the new US government is going to take the action needed.
The burning of fossil fuels is the largest source of greenhouse gasses from human activity. Embarking on a rapid shift to clean, renewable energy sources will be vital to tackling climate change. The expansion of US fossil fuel production has been driven by a rise in fracking. This is the process of pumping a high pressure water and chemical mix into the ground to break up the rocks below and allow oil or gas to be extracted. It is controversial because it continues reliance on fossil fuels and also due to worries about the contamination of water supplies.
Fracking accounts for a big majority of US oil and gas production and almost all new extraction; it is therefore a key question of American environmental policy. In a boost to the industry and a blow to environmentalists Biden has repeatedly denied that he would ban fracking. He has limited himself to stopping new fracking projects on federal land. As this accounts for less than 10% of current fracking its effect would be very limited.
Unfortunately there are many reasons to temper optimism in Biden’s environmental promises. But any president, no matter how sincere their commitment to tackling climate change, would be severely constricted in what they could achieve on the basis of capitalism. Most of the decisions that govern the economy are not taken in the Oval Office but in the boardrooms of big business. These companies operate to make a profit above all else. They will attempt to frustrate any environmental regulation that hits their bottom line by lobbying and legal action. The unplanned nature of capitalist competition makes it impossible for any government to implement the urgent and sweeping changes that are needed to avoid climate catastrophe. To do so requires a socialist plan of production under the democratic control of the working class.