Updated: Dec 29, 2020
In the wake of the Electoral College officially confirming Joe Biden as President-elect, and with Inauguration Day only a month away, hope is on the horizon for policy addressing the climate crisis.
President-elect Biden has lengthy summaries of his plans on both his campaign and transition websites with several titles including “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice,” “The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future,” and “The Biden-Harris Plan to Create Union Jobs by Tackling the Climate Crisis.” While we can shorten the title to the Biden Climate Plan, we should not shortchange a close examination into its details.
The Biden Climate Plan has five prongs. The first is “Ensure the U.S. Achieves a 100% Clean Energy Economy and Net-Zero Emissions no Later Than 2050.” One interesting element of this section is an emphasis on high-tech solutions to climate change. Biden plans to establish ARPA-C, a climate-centered Advanced Research Projects Agency as well as allocated funding for carbon capture, use, and storage (CCUS) (Biden Climate Plan, Section I).
The second prong is “Build a Stronger, More Resilient Nation.” Here, Biden discusses creating jobs “around climate resilient industries,” working alongside the governors and mayors in their existing efforts to combat climate change and revolutionizing railroad systems with high-speed rail, including an East to West coast railroad (Biden Climate Plan, Section II).
The third section is titled, “Rally the Rest of the World to Address the Grave Climate Threat.” Some highlights from this part are his demand for a worldwide ban on fossil fuel subsidies “with the United States cutting fossil fuel subsidies at home in his first year and redirecting these resources to the historic investment in clean energy infrastructure.” (Biden Climate Plan, Section III). The section also (hypocritically) speaks to holding the rest of the world accountable for failing to keep with climate agreements, promising the U.S. will “[n]ame and shame global climate outlaws,” despite our track record of leaving the Paris Climate Agreement under the Trump administration (Biden Climate Plan, Section III).
Section four, “Stand up to the Abuse of Power by Polluters who Disproportionately Harm Communities of Color and Low-Income Communities” directly recognizes the rampant environmental injustice across the U.S. It addresses Biden’s commitment to safe and clean water for all, the varying water challenges faced by different regions, and the disproportionate impacts that pollution and climate change have on people of color and low-income households. Additionally, the section notes how “Climate change mitigation efforts must consciously protect low-income communities from ‘green gentrification’” (Biden Climate Plan, Section IV).
The final lever to Biden’s Climate plan is to “Fulfill our Obligation to Workers and Communities who Powered our Industrial Revolution and Decades of Economic Growth.” Here Biden makes the important distinction between coal miners and the environmental wrongs of the coal industry. He promises to provide coal miners with their pensions and health benefits and to invest in the coal mining communities that will continue to suffer economically from the transition to cleaner energy sources (Biden Climate Plan, Section V).
Now that we have established the main components of Biden’s Climate Plan, environmental activists may see several problems with it: the need for congressional support, the lack of a carbon tax, the lower sense of urgency than that put forth in the Green New Deal, and the lack of an outright ban on fracking.
Still, there is hope to solve many of these potential problems. Organizations like Citizens’ Climate Lobby are working to increase bipartisan support of climate change legislation and lobby support from Congress for the Energy Innovation and Carbon Dividend Act. While Biden himself does not endorse a tax on carbon emissions, his plan does echo the possibility, stating that he will “Establish an enforcement mechanism to achieve net-zero emissions no later than 2050… based on the principles that polluters must bear the full cost of the carbon pollution they are emitting” (Biden Climate Plan, Section I).
In addition, with or without congressional support, Biden plans to use executive orders to complete baseline goals like reentering the Paris Agreement, reversing Trump’s weakening of the Clean Air Act and other previous environmental regulations, and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. And, there is significant potential for progress throughout many different executive departments and agencies. Environmental journalist Joseph A. Davis lists several to pay attention to: the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Transportation, the Department of Treasury, the Securities and Exchange Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the Department Health and Human Services, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Agriculture (Climate Change Policy Likely To Permeate Executive Under Biden). Action from all these sources would make an impact. Davis’s key criticism is that it will be difficult to coordinate all of these entities; he believes it would be helpful to establish an additional group to coordinate all of the others.
For those fearful that Biden’s plan does not have enough urgency to it, it is slightly reassuring to know that Biden officially considers climate change a severe threat to national security. Among his recent nominees and appointees for national security, positions are Former Secretary of State John Kerry as the Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. He also has a separate section on his transition website dedicated to his recent climate-related nominees and appointees. They are Congresswoman Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior, Former Governor Jennifer Granholm as Secretary of Energy, Michael Regan as EPA Administrator, Brenda Mallory as Chair of the Council on Environmental Quality, Gina McCarthy as National Climate Advisor, and Ali Zaidi as Deputy National Climate Advisor.
While Biden does not promise an outright ban on hydraulic fracturing (fracking) for natural gas, he does promise a fracking ban on federal lands. Two counter arguments in support of Biden’s thinking are that the full ban would not have worked well politically in swing states like our own, Pennsylvania and that we need some fossil fuels for the time being as we build the infrastructure for a completely renewable future. An exciting statistic for that renewable future is that “clean energy portfolios” (CEPs) are projected by the Rocky Mountain Institute to continue to decrease in cost while using new or existing gas plants is projected to increase in cost over time (The Growing Market for Clean Energy Portfolios).
The Biden Climate Plan succeeds in its breadth, as it walks the centerline between bold action and realistic compromise. The shared fear is that compromise will become inaction, and time is of the essence with climate tipping points approaching. Moving forward, we cannot predict exactly what will be able to be accomplished. Successes will take the hard work of increasing awareness, clear education, and activism surrounding climate change. We need to call and write to all of our elected officials while making sure miscommunications do not occur over the significance of the climate crisis. A combination of methods from grassroots activism and political engagement to consumer activism, non-profit work, and cutting-edge legal cases give us a degree of power that is worth acting on.