Without delving into the consistently mucky and recently chaotic world of US politics, one major change that will come with the new administration is the USA’s pledge to combat climate change.
As one of the world’s biggest polluters, oil producers and indulgers of a less-than-totally-frugal lifestyle, any slight change in the United States’ environmental policies or strategies can have a big impact on our planet and affect everyone who lives on it. So when a more significant change is on the cards, the consequences, both positive and negative, can be cataclysmic.
As the country undertakes the (almost) peaceful transition of power to the new administration, we’re going to take a look at what that might mean for the health of our planet. Firstly, we’re going to run through environmental impacts under the current President and then analyse what might happen over the next four to eight years given the President elect’s existing stances and actionable promises.
Where Are We Now?
It’s no secret that America has somewhat back-tracked on its efforts and commitments to our environment – ahem, “beautiful, clean coal” – since Obama’s plethora of green policy offerings. Unfortunately, of the many positive changes and potential pledges previously delivered, the current President has unraveled many, creating a dangerous landscape for unregulated pollution, hazardous waste dumping, extreme resource extraction and destruction of natural landscapes.
His stance may best be summed up by a decision relatively early into the single-term office when, in December 2017, Climate Change was dropped from the list of National Security Threats. This delisting meant less Department of Defense research funding and a nationalistic viewpoint on the potential impacts of wildfires, droughts, hurricanes, and other natural disasters.
This sentiment is reflected in the reduced size and influence of the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). Due to their diminished prosecuting powers, criminal prosecutions are at a 30-year low, and many violations that would have been prosecuted in the past are now being negotiated with companies, opening the doors to a relaxed attitude to unlawful pollution.
Landscape And Nature
On the country’s famed areas of nature and wildlife, some are under protection of National Park or National Monument status. Ratifications pertaining to the creation or changing of National Parks are controlled and approved only by Congress, however, National Monuments can be created – or as said by the President, dismantled – by executive order. Sadly, such was the case for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah, which were reduced and opened for mining and drilling companies in 2017.
Further still, the President issued an executive order that called for a 30 percent increase in logging on public lands. The decision was billed as wildfire prevention, though environmental groups say it ignores the role climate change plays in starting wildfires. Such decrees have had devastating impacts for indigenous peoples and tribal land.
Wildlife Under Threat
Alongside native populations, America’s wildlife has been put at risk. In late 2017, a controversial reinterpretation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act meant that companies installing large wind turbines, constructing power lines, or leaving oil exposed are no longer violating the Migratory Bird Treaty Act if their activities kill birds.
In July 2018, the government announced its intention to change the way the Endangered Species Act is administered, saying more weight would be put on economic considerations when designating an endangered animal’s habitat.
Certain species seem to have been unfairly lined up in the cross hairs. The uniquely American sage grouse, a bird resembling a turkey with spiky feathers, has become the face of the debate between land developers and conservationists. In both 2017 and 2018, the Department of Interior eased restrictions on activities like mining and drilling that had been restricted to protect the endangered bird.
It’s not just the animals that share the land that have been impacted. Five companies were approved to use seismic air gun blasts to search for underwater oil and gas deposits. Debate over the deafening blasts stem from concerns that they disorient marine mammals that use sonar to communicate and kill plankton. The blasts were shot down by the Bureau of Energy Management in 2017 but approved after NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) found they would not violate the Marine Mammal Protection Act.
Amazingly, something so essential to all life hasn’t even found its protection secured. Water, a resource so vital, there’s no question that its purity and access must be preserved, has been threatened. In 2017, the EPA was ordered to formally review what waters fell under the jurisdiction of the EPA and Army Corps of Engineers according to the 1972 Clean Water Act. The proposed change narrowed the definition of what’s considered a federally protected river or wetland.
As climate change accelerates, we’ve seen, and will continue to see, more and more natural disasters, extreme weather conditions and the ever ticking clock of rising sea levels. Which is why it was quite shocking to see that in August 2017, the President revoked an Obama-era executive order that required federally funded projects to factor rising sea levels into construction.
The Air We Breathe
Perhaps the most striking area of concern is the recent positions on clean air. Where Obama made strides in the right direction, it’s almost been a personal vendetta of the current President to undo this progress.
Under the Obama administration’s fuel economy targets, cars made after 2012 would, on average, have to get 54 miles per gallon by 2025. In August 2018, the Department of Transportation and EPA capped that target at 34 miles per gallon by 2021.
Under the Affordable Clean Energy rule issued in August 2018, states were given more power over regulating emissions. In states like California, that means regulations would likely be stricter, whereas states that produce fossil fuels are likely to weaken regulations. The following month, the EPA announced they would relax rules around releasing methane flares, inspecting equipment, and repairing leaks.
Even more worryingly, the EPA was seen to loosen its regulations on toxic air pollution. This regulation revolved around a complicated rule referred to as “once in, always in” or OIAI. Essentially, OIAI said that if a company polluted over the legal limit, they would have to match the lowest levels set by their industry peers and they would have to match them indefinitely. By dropping OIAI, the EPA forces companies to innovate ways to decrease their emissions, but once those lower targets are met, they’re no longer required to keep using those innovations.
One of Obama’s signature green initiatives, the Clean Power Plan, required the energy sector to cut carbon emissions by 32 percent by 2030. However, in October 2017 it was rolled back by the EPA. Among the reasons cited were unfair burdens on the power sector and a “war on coal.”
This brings us on to the most important point, and issue that could bring us back from, or tip the world over, the precipice of irreversible climate change spiralling out of control. I’m talking, of course, about the Paris Climate Agreement. This historic agreement brought together 196 parties at COP 21 in Paris on 12 December 2015 and entered into force on 4 November 2016. It brought about a legally binding international treaty on climate change and commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions for a cleaner and greener future for the whole world.
Its goal is to limit global warming to well below 2, preferably to 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels.
A Landmark Agreement
Without drifting into the flaws of the agreement – the major one being countries only pledged to “try” to limit their impact on the environment – the agreement sent a clear message and unifying statement that governments have a responsibility to check their policies and efforts to combat climate change, that a significant and urgent green revolution was required. Along with the vast majority of the world, the USA and China, who account for almost 40% of global emissions, signed the agreement on April 1st, 2016. Pop champagne, cue Zac Efron singing “We’re All In This Together” and doing a little dance.
That is, until June of 2017, when the President moved to withdraw from the agreement entered by the USA on that April 1st, making an April fool of everyone involved. With this move, America joined the exclusive list of countries that are not part of the Paris Climate Agreement, alongside reputable names such as Iran, Iraq and Libya.
It signalled the USA’s symbolic stepping back from the centre stage of leading the fight against climate change and set the ominous tone for the rest of the President’s term.
With that, we’ll look to the future and see what might change under the new administration. If what the President elect has said is not to be taken simply as hot air, then things are looking good. “Folks, we’re in crisis” and “no time to waste” were his words when he announced his Climate and Energy team who aim to lead an ambitious plan to combat climate change.
It seems that his attitude towards the seriousness of climate change would deem it worthy of re-listing as a National Security Threat, having described climate change as the “existential threat of our time”. He has vowed to make the issue a top priority in an agenda that reverses many Trump administration policies.
Back To The Future
By dipping into the talent pool from his time as Vice President under Obama, it would appear that Joe Biden looks to re-install and broaden many of the policies and ideas they had implemented before. Notably, Environmental lawyer and Obama administration official Brenda Mallory was nominated to run the Council on Environmental Quality. If confirmed, she would be the first African American to hold the position.
Former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm was nominated for the position of energy secretary. In addition, Biden named John Kerry, a former secretary of state and one of the leading architects of the Paris agreement, as his climate envoy.
The Biden transition team said the position would see him “fight climate change full-time”. He is also set to be the first official dedicated to climate change to sit on the National Security Council.
“Just like we need to be a unified nation to respond to Covid-19, we need a unified national response to climate change.”
A New Hope, Again
His concrete pledges are bold, and if worked on, give reason for optimism. Of his key promises, he aims to ensure the U.S. achieves a 100% clean energy economy and reaches net-zero emissions no later than 2050.
To make it possible, Biden plans to reverse the excesses of the current administration’s tax cuts to fund his vision. His climate and environmental justice proposal will make a federal investment of $1.7 trillion over the next ten years, leveraging additional private sector and state and local investments to total to more than $5 trillion.
What’s On The Table?
Policies outlined include requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas operations. Ensuring that all U.S. government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation – the fastest growing source of U.S. climate pollution – by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements for heavy duty vehicles. Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains. As well as a comprehensive list of additional actions needed to contribute to the overall targets.
Team America: World Police
On the world stage, Biden hopes to re-engage on the fight against climate change and take up the mantle of leading the world once again. His first step is to unite back with the rest of the world and will signal this by rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement as soon as he takes office on January 20th. This is a big move, showing strength, intention and commitment. With this, the USA can once again show its leadership and put its vast resources, technologies and capabilities to good use in helping our planet.
Of course, for all of the good intentions, this still remains to be proven and enacted, not least as the world and the USA in particular battles the more immediate threat of the pandemic.
A checkpoint on the horizon of this year will be at the UN Climate Change Conference of Parties (COP26) in Glasgow over the first 2 weeks of November. The COP26 summit will bring parties together to accelerate action towards the goals of the Paris Agreement and the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. With any luck, we’ll see the USA move in the right direction and join the fight against climate change in a truly meaningful way. Watch this space…