From America first to good first: why Biden could be a silver lining for hampered US climate progress

Hours after being inaugurated as the President of the United States, Joe Biden fulfilled his campaigning promise by rejoining the Paris Agreement. The reentry officially took effect on February 19, backed by several other executive orders safeguarding its sound implementation.

Biden signing the documents (Photo by Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

The Paris Agreement was signed in 2015, aiming at keeping average global temperature from rising no more than 2 degree Celsius and desirably 1.5 degree Celsius compared to pre-industrial levels, so as to slow down the catastrophic climate change. It appeals to countries to determine their own emission-reducing goals, namely nationally determined contributions (NDCs) every five years, together with reporting detailed policy designs on how to reach their goals respectively. Although specific pre-industrial baselines are still left to the hands of scholars employing various models of analysis, this united effort certainly shows a global determination. 

Originally there were 196 signatories to the agreement, including the US, who involved immensely and dedicatedly in its formation and architecture. Nevertheless, the US officially withdrew from the global endeavor in 2019, after former President Donald Trump initiated the process in 2017. The act is understandable taking into considerations of Trump’s energy policies, but the criticism from the academia appears to be fiercely loud: “We’ve lost a lot of credibility over the last four years”, said Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University during a Columbia University webinar.

Denying the factual climate change, Trump’s administration has campaigned for US energy independence and security by championing fossil fuel industry, regardless of the climate crisis and pollution. Thus the US citizens has consequently seen a rapid growth in oil and gas production, as well as frequent hurricanes and deadly wildfires. According to Center for Western Priorities, a conservation organization, the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has offered more than 26 million acres of federal lands for oil and gas leases purposes during Trump’s presidency, in a price as low as $2 per acre.

The world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases cannot be disregarded by any climate action, and President Biden’s determination in a full reentry does boost the confidence for a promising climate protection scheme. Although plans from the Democratic representatives like the Green New Deal still face probable obstruction in the Senate, President Biden could certainly choose some strategic approach. 

Executive actions seem feasible to bypass the bipartisan obstacle in the Congress. In addition to the reentry order, President Biden also signs executive orders demanding agencies to review administrative actions taken place in the past four years; actions labelled as inconsistent with current climate schemes are likely to be suspended or revoked. President Biden also temporarily halts granting fossil fuel leases on federal land and waters, eliminating possibilities for opportunist leases applications from desperate traditional energy companies.

A fracking well in Texas Aaron M. Sprecher/Associated Press

Besides, President Biden also intends to coordinate joint climate efforts from all federal agencies, directing them to prioritize environmental justice. For example, the Department of Education could grant more funding to scientific research on solutions to the climate crisis or building greener school facilities. If school buses are to be powered by clean energy instead, school transportation could enjoy recommendations from the Department of Transportation. To smooth the coordination in this respect, new apparatus like White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy has also been established. Foreign policy enjoys similar due attention, as President Biden intends to hold an early Leaders’ Climate Summit ahead of the 26th UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties.

So far President Biden has pledged to cut to zero the US carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, and to make the country carbon-neutral by mid-century. The goals are indeed ambitious, but were President Biden to reestablish US in the strenuous fight against climate change, he would eventually have to use the Congress power to create sustainable, enforceable legislations.   

Still, executive actions up to this point are not escapism, rather, they exhibit enthusiastic and preliminary trials from a country seeking to shoulder its meant responsibility de novo. The global good needs urgent treatment, but good cause deserves some wait.

About the author

Meixi Guo is a journalist in SRP’s Writing and Interviewing Program. She is a graduate student studying international law. She is interested in environment issues, law and education.

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