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Biden’s Climate Change Plans Can Quickly Raise the Bar

But the question is whether change will be enough to meet the challenge

A practice called flaring in which excess methane is burned remains a serious environmental threat but it's something that incoming President Biden could change—at least on public lands. Photo courtesy FracTracker Alliance / CC BY-NC-ND / Flickr.

The day Joe Biden becomes president, he can start taking actions that can help slow climate change. The question is whether he can match the magnitude of the challenge.

If his administration focuses only on what is politically possible and fails to build a coordinated response that also addresses the social and economic ramifications of both climate change and the U.S. policy response, it is unlikely to succeed.

I have spent much of my career working on responses to climate change internationally and in Washington. I have seen the quiet efforts across political parties, even when the rhetoric was heated. There is room for effective climate actions, particularly as heat waves, wildfires and extreme weather make the risks of global warming tangible and the costs of renewable energy fall. A coordinated strategy will be crucial to go beyond symbolic actions and bring about transformative change.

Starting on day one

Let’s first take a look at what Biden can do quickly, without having to rely on what’s likely to be a divided Congress.

Biden has already pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. With an executive order and some wrangling with the United Nations, that will happen fairly quickly. But the agreement is only a promise by nations worldwide to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions driving climate change.

To start moving the country back toward its obligations under the Paris Agreement, Biden can recertify the waiver that allows California to implement its fuel economy and zero-emissions vehicle standards. The Trump administration had revoked it. California is a big state, and its actions are followed by others, which puts pressure on the auto industry to meet higher standards nationwide.

In a similar way, Biden can direct government agencies to power their buildings and vehicles with renewable energy.

The administration can also limit climate-warming greenhouse emissions by regulating activities like the flaring of methane on public lands. The Trump administration rolled back a large number of climate and environmental regulations over the past four years.

There are even legislative actions that could get through a divided Congress, such as funding for clean energy technology.

The big job: Transformational change

That’s the easy part. The hard part is catalyzing the transformational changes needed to slow global warming and protect the climate our economy was built on.

The last five years have been the hottest on record, and 2020 is on pace to join them. Meeting the Paris Agreement’s goals for keeping global warming in check will require reworking how we generate and transmit energy and overhauling how we grow food in ways that reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Biden has pledged to lay the groundwork for 100% clean energy by 2050, including investing hundreds of billions of dollars in technologies and industries that can lower emissions and create jobs. His ideas for transforming food systems have been less concrete.

The new administration will have to walk a tightrope. It can’t risk spending down its political capital on actions that are possible but don’t amount to much. It also has to recognize the risk of public backlash to anything that might raise costs, be labeled “socialism” by opponents or leave part of the country harmed.

Transformative solutions will have to address both the benefits and the costs, and provide a path to a healthy future for those facing the greatest losses. That means, for example, not just ending coal burning, a significant contributor to climate change, but also helping communities and workers transition from coal mining to new jobs and economic drivers that are healthier for the environment.

What needs to happen first

One of the big challenges—and the place where Biden needs to start—is the lack of understanding of systemic risks, opportunities and costs of both climate actions and inaction.

Right now, there is no federal agency tasked with developing a systemic understanding of climate change impacts across society.

An existing executive branch entity, such as the Council on Environmental Quality or the U.S. Global Change Research Program, could convene a task force of political staff, academics and civil society to assess climate policy proposals, identify the benefits and costs and then advise the administration. Working across agencies, the task force would be positioned to look at the entire system and identify the wider effects of proposed policies or actions and how they might interact. Similar entities, such as the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office and Congressional Research Service, are already central to policymaking.

Their work will have to move fast. The very nature of complex systems means the task force will provide advice on climate actions under uncertainty.

Aligning the possible and the transformational is the challenging work of politics, and this is where Biden’s 47 years in Washington and reputation for working across the aisle are invaluable.

It will be extraordinarily challenging work to match an extraordinary challenge. It is also necessary if the Biden administration, headed by a man who called himself a transition candidate, wants to leave his country and the world better than they found it.


Edward Carr is professor and director of International Development, Community, and Environment at Clark University. This post originally appeared at The Conversation and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

17 Comments

  1. Jason S. | | #1

    It's odd to me that the foremost proposed solutions are to triple down on renewables, regulate flaring, overhaul how we grow food and make every vehicle electric, given that "[The Biden administration] can’t risk spending down its political capital on actions that are possible but don’t amount to much". None of these get at the root problem, and they'll all face the nearly impenetrable partisan wall.

    No mention of a carbon tax to level the field? And no mention of incentivizing energy efficiency measures or reducing waste, something that can and should be non-partisan? It is effective, far-reaching and doesn't play favorites with who's providing the energy or how it's generated or whether we all need to drive Tesla or go vegan or presuppose that we can collect enough California sun to sequester all the literal methane-offgassing bull excrement in the country.

    ...Agreed on rejoining the Paris climate accord bit, but I'm sorry not much else.

    1. John Clark | | #2

      Well on the bright side Biden can at least do one thing and that's withdraw the govt's case (If there's one pending) against California. The author of the article isn't aware that it doesn't matter what the current Administration said/did regarding the California exception because the exception is written into the act itself.

      The Paris climate accord is just window dressing and unenforceable.

      1. Jason S. | | #3

        It's a goal at least, enforceable only by way of shame. This explains why it held no appeal to the current lame duck administration.

      2. Bryan Coplin | | #4

        The Paris Climate Accord lacks direct enforcement mechanisms, but I disagree that it is unenforceable.

        Given that Biden explicitly ran on rejoining the Paris Climate Accord and addressing climate change, one could (and should, moving forward) argue that voters held the current administration accountable by failing to live up to international agreements. Is that not a consequence?

        Window dressing is only an accurate dismissal if signatories do not act in good faith to implement policy to meet their obligations. While your assessment looks more true than not at this stage, there is real movement internationally to bring emissions in line.

        The EU emissions trading system is explicitly linked to meeting the Paris agreement, and companies that fall short are compelled to purchase emission allowances and/or carbon offsets. Whether that is the best enforcement mechanism and the efficacy of allowances/offsets generally are certainly up for debate, but there are consequences for exceeding emissions targets, and emissions from covered industries has fallen 35% in the last 15 years.

        1. John Clark | | #6

          @Bryan,

          I understand what you're saying, but like all non-binding programs all it takes is a global recession to put the bureaucrats in Brussels to the test.

          1. Bryan Coplin | | #9

            In the current global recession, the EU is doubling down on climate change mitigation, not backsliding.

  2. Doug McEvers | | #5

    Landowners can play a large role as part of the solution to climate change. Soil carbon sequestration is really the talk right now, this is a guide in measurement.

    https://soilcarboncoalition.org/files/MeasuringSoilCarbonChange.pdf

    From the paper;

    Governments and corporations demand predictions today, much as people demanded
    astrological forecasts in the Middle Ages. But the best way to predict the future is to create it.

    The photo is from our 1993, 160 acre Tallgrass Prairie restoration.

  3. Peter L | | #7

    Whatever change Biden will bring is going to be much better than what the current administration was doing. Now that the orange clown is leaving, there will be greener pastures :)

    1. Jason S. | | #8

      The author would offer us photovoltaic, windmill-covered pastures with fewer cattle in lieu of the 'green'.

    2. Trevor Chadwick | | #10

      more political bullshit.. really GBA...
      Can we start with a few facts and a little historical background on some of these bogus claims??
      Paris climate agreement is feelgood crap, that does little more than move money around the globe..
      The US is already meeting or beating the paris goals without sending billions of $$$ overseas. Even if we weren't we aren't the problem anyway, china and the third world are the real polluters..
      Wildfires are at historicaly low numbers in plenty of places, including BC.
      They are increasing close to people, because typically liberal "environmentalist" morons with no idea what is required to maintain the forests are making the rules in blue left coast states.
      Current wildfires are just a fraction of what was seen in the 20's-40's..

      https://qph.fs.quoracdn.net/main-qimg-ef231420e1cc77b843278a3ea0f0f002

      1. Bryan Coplin | | #12

        Any discussion of China and developing economies around the world as “the problem” needs to acknowledge the following:

        • The United States still has the highest emissions on a per-capita basis in the world.
        • It is disingenuous to complain about emissions today without taking responsibility for emissions to date, almost all of which are from the West, particularly the United States and the UK.

        “Sending billions overseas” is to help developing countries/economies to realize the benefits of industrialization without going through the dirty half of an Environmental Kuznets Curve—essentially rich nations subsidizing poorer nations skipping coal and building clean infrastructure and economies. That strikes me as both a good investment, as well as the ethical thing to do. YMMV.

        1. user_6851391 | | #13

          On a per capita basis, the US is down the list. Pretty much all middle eastern countries are worse, as are Canada and Australia, and even Trinidad and Tobago. See worldometers.info.

  4. CarsonB | | #11

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions
    Good to see new steps taken, but aren't we largely on track to meet the original paris accord goal of 25% reductions by 2025 anyway? It seems we are near a 20% reduction already without even trying at the national level. By Amdahls law, only focusing on a diminishing percentage of global emissions seems short sighted. Perhaps a reduction of global emissions could be tied to an American manufacturing push? Seems like it could appease both sides while reducing transportation.

  5. user_6851391 | | #14

    Raising costs, and leaving part of the country harmed are hallmarks of socialism. Call it what it is.

    1. Tyler Keniston | | #15

      feel better user? That socialism punching bag is getting a workout these days eh?

      1. user_6851391 | | #16

        Not enough, apparently.

  6. Ryan Shanahan | | #17

    "Right now, there is no federal agency tasked with developing a systemic understanding of climate change impacts across society." While the new Climate Czar is not an agency I do believe the idea is to address this point head on, no?

    I'm surprised this article makes no mention of federal fossil fuel subsidies. I believe the 2016 democratic platform included the removal of these subsidies but the 2020 democratic platform eliminated that idea. This seems like another obvious first step. We could either eliminate the subsidies, or better yet, reappropriate them to renewable energy sources / infrastructure...

    Lastly, I have to put in a plug for a slogan that I'm hoping can take off as the next "reduce, reuse, recycle"... The future is: efficient, electric, and renewable.

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