As Biden begins his first 100 days in office, environmentalists around the world are watching closely.
On the campaign trail, Biden pledged his support for ambitious climate action. The “Biden Plan” aims for 100% clean energy and net-zero emissions by 2050, improving climate-adaptive infrastructure, leading the international charge to fight climate change, opposing environmental injustice, and rolling back Trump-era tax incentives that promote the use of fossil fuels and deregulate industry.
This ambitious climate plan does not go as far as the Green New Deal proposed by some more progressive Democratic members of congress, but many goals of these proposals overlap, such as achieving 100% clean energy in the next 10-15 years.
However, questions remain about the extent to which Biden’s plans in office will mirror the ambitious campaign standards.
On his first day in office, Biden took strong steps to counteract anti-environmental executive actions by his predecessor. Notably, President Biden immediately rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement, signaling the United States’ support of international climate action. This agreement signed by nearly 200 nations aims to reduce emissions and keep the planet’s average temperature increase to within 2 ºC of pre-industrial levels. With the United States emitting the second most CO2, their commitment to this agreement is vital to its success.
However, simply rejoining the agreement is not as promising as it may seem. The agreement has no enforcement mechanism to keep member countries in line with the agreement. Essentially, if the United States upped their emissions drastically after signing it, there would be no agreement-based consequences. This means that rejoining could, in theory, be an executive gesture without any weight behind it.
Additionally, the Paris Agreement’s goals still give room for warming that will have devastating consequences. Even if warming is kept within the current target of 2ºC, scientists for the International Panel on Climate Change argue that the consequences will be severe. All areas of Earth will experience more intense and frequent weather events, as well as extreme environmental degradation that threatens to destabilize entire ecosystems. Though more ambitious, keeping warming within 1.5ºC of pre-industrial levels would mitigate these dangers. A global temperature increase of 2º would even raise sea levels enough to submerge the Maldives, according to their president. In order to avert the worst impacts of climate change, it is unquestionably necessary to keep the planet far below a 2º increase.
But keeping the planet below 2º becomes nearly impossible if countries continue failing to keep their commitments.
A 2017 study revealed that all major industrialized countries are far from their pledged reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Three of the four countries with the greatest emissions have seen increases since 2016. In 2018, China’s emissions rose by 1.6%, the USA saw a bump by 2.5%, and India’s emissions jumped up by 5.5%. To stay true to their pledged reductions, bold action is needed.
Even if the United States and all other signatories were to meet their commitments, it would not be enough to satisfy the pact’s goals. The global temperature increase would be a devastating 3.2 ºC. To truly keep changes within 2º, a 1.3-3.1% emissions would need to decrease every year between 2010 and 2050. To stay below 1.5º, that reduction must be a dramatic 7.6%.
Many advocates for radical climate action from Biden are disappointed with some of his early cabinet picks. Cedric Richmond, appointed to lead the Office of Public Engagement, faced public backlash for his campaign donations from oil and gas corporations. These fossil fuel donations in the pocket of Richmond are especially concerning given that his Louisiana congressional jurisdiction included “Cancer Alley.”
On this 85 mile stretch of the Mississippi River, about 150 fossil fuel and petrochemical factories are in operation, emitting exceptionally high amounts of toxic airborne pollutants. The area surrounding the Denka/DuPont plant is 700 times more likely to contract cancer from air pollution than the rest of the nation. The people living in Cancer Alley are predominantly African American and from low income households. The toxic air they breathe every day makes Richmond’s district one of the worst examples of environmental injustice in the United States. The Biden Plan pledged to fight environmental injustice. But even before stepping into office, Biden selected a senior advisor who continuously took massive donations from the very fossil fuel industry fostering toxic air and dismal life expectancies in his jurisdiction.
Biden campaigned on a platform of climate action. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement shows good faith, but the administration must do more to uphold their campaign promises, rather than offset them. The United States must not only meet but surpass its climate targets set in the agreement, and set environmental action and protection into law. The bicameral Democratic congressional majority and executive power means Biden voters will expect concrete change.
Affectively intervening will likely be costly. But climate inaction will be far more expensive in the long run.
The United States has already felt both the financial and human cost of the increased intensity of hurricanes. Hurricane Harvey alone cost $125 billion when it struck the Texas coast in 2017. That same year, two other major hurricanes (Irma and Maria) added a combined $168.8 billion to the cost. Over the last decade, there have been over 119 separate billion-dollar hurricanes in the United States. As the climate changes, these hurricanes will only get more intense, inflicting more and more damage.
And hurricanes aren’t the only costs of climate change. Rising sea levels threaten properties near coastlines. Ocean acidification increasingly decimates shellfish catch and other marine fishing. Extreme droughts force countries and states to invest millions more into adaptation efforts than mitigation would cost them.
Every year that mitigation is delayed, however, damages rise by 0.6 trillion in US dollars. This means that the United States, as a major emission source, must make changes now.
Biden can hold true to his word on climate and the environment by subsidizing clean energy, expanding the fossil fuel extraction moratorium to include all public lands and waters of the United States, and appointing people who truly care about stopping climate change to positions of power across the executive branch and beyond. With the United States as one of the largest sources of emissions in the world, international cooperation on this issue will require Biden to lead the change.
For Biden to truly keep his word on climate, he will need to back his Paris signature up with resolute climate action and policy that goes beyond just what the agreement suggests.