It’s hard to overstate the joy of the environmental community when Joe Biden ascended to the White House. In place of a man who called climate change a hoax, he had someone who saw global warming for the grave threat it poses, and who spoke, at its inauguration, of the duty of world to answer “a cry of survival“that“ comes from the planet itself. ”This attracted someone who saw government regulations not as“ job killers ”but as appropriate levers for cleaner air and water. attracted someone who saw public lands not as a resource to be exploited by commercial interests, but as a gift of nature to future generations. A worthy guardian, in short, of the environmental ethics of Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, and someone who would spend billions of dollars to make it all happen.
We are now halfway through Mr. Biden’s first year. How did he do it? Put simply, given the deep ideological divide in Congress, he has accomplished much more than his talkative left-wing critics of his party credit him with, but still well below his own hopes.
These hopes were high. Unlike his predecessor, Biden took seriously the scientific consensus that the world must prevent greenhouse gas emissions from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels in order to avoid irreversible planetary damage – including, but not limited to, death of coral reefs, sea level rise, drought, famine, forest fires and floods. Mr Biden has pledged to halve U.S. emissions by 2030, phase out fossil fuel emissions from power plants by 2035, and eliminate all greenhouse gas emissions. in the middle of the century, which is pretty much what scientists recommend for the whole world.
That, in turn, would require a very different energy landscape – massive investments in wind and solar power, a rebuilt power grid, millions of electric vehicles. In recent weeks, the odds of this happening on the scale required seemed slim as Congress and the White House fought over an infrastructure bill. The bill contains useful climate-related provisions, including money for charging stations for electric cars and communities that wanted to fortify themselves against climate-related disasters. It was less than Mr. Biden wanted, but his critics reacted as if there was nothing at all, sending protesters to the White House and Capitol Hill. “No climate, no deal,” they said – and accused the White House of “climate denial”.
“Democrats are once again throwing the climate justice movement under the bus,” declared Friends of the Earth last month. Barely.
Good news arrived last Wednesday: The White House and the Main Democrats agreed in principle to a $ 3.5 trillion budget that includes many of the important climate provisions that were not included in the draft. infrastructure law. The package is just a plan. Individual committees will make legislative recommendations which will then be consolidated into a giant budget reconciliation bill. If properly crafted, the budget reconciliation measures can be approved with just 51 votes, avoiding Republican obstruction and providing a political path not only for Mr Biden’s climate policies, but also for a range of costly programs involving healthcare. health, education and immigration.
The package contains two key climate provisions. One is billions of tax incentives for electric cars and renewable energy sources like wind and solar. The other is a national clean electricity standard, a mandate that requires electric utilities to regularly reduce their emissions. Unanswered so far, this is what this standard should look like. Moderates believe the standard should be technologically neutral, allowing utilities to use not only wind and solar power, but also nuclear power as well as a technique known as carbon capture and sequestration, which removes harmful greenhouse gases and bury them in the ground. However, many climate activists, the very ones who hugged Mr Biden, reflexively hate nuclear power, despite being carbon-free, and they vehemently argue that carbon capture simply throws away a lifeline for fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. In short, another fight is brewing.
In any accounting of Mr. Biden’s environmental record, the climate negotiations, with their big ambitions and big numbers, take center stage. But other important initiatives are worth mentioning. In May, for example, in response to a directive from Congress, the Environmental Protection Agency offers regulating hydrofluorocarbons, man-made chemicals used in refrigeration and air conditioners that are several times more powerful than carbon dioxide at warming the planet. Earlier this year, Congress voted to reinstate an Obama-era rule designed to reduce emissions of methane, another potent greenhouse gas, from new boreholes. Mr Biden aims to go further, asking his EPA administrator to write new rules in the coming months requiring oil and gas companies to monitor methane leaks from existing drilling sites.
The administration is also expected to reinstate Obama-era rules imposing reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (vehicles are now the biggest source emissions from global warming), then start working on even more ambitious rules that could force automakers to switch more quickly to a largely electric fleet.
Also noteworthy is the attention of the Biden administration to what are loosely referred to as “nature-based” approaches to climate change, which also have the salutary side effect of preserving precious landscapes and d ” help endangered species. Climate scientists have long argued that the world cannot meet its increasingly ambitious climate goals without the help of forests, fields and oceans. Home Secretary Deb Haaland emphatically said during the April online summit with world leaders that “achieving net zero by 2050 will not be possible without nature”, by which she meant the extraordinary ability forests, farmlands and oceans to capture and store large amounts of carbon. of the atmosphere.
With that in mind, Mr Biden unveiled in May an ambitious conservation program which, despite its hokey name (“America the Beautiful“), would align the United States with more than 50 other countries that have pledged to work to preserve 30% of the world’s land and oceans in their natural or near-nature state by 2030. (At present, about 12% of the United States’ landmass and 26% of its ocean waters enjoy some level of official protection.) In what could be seen as a down payment on that pledge, Biden on Thursday reinstated the environmental protection of Tongass. National Forest in Alaska, one of the largest intact temperate rainforests in the world that is not only home to an astonishing variety of wildlife, but is also a vital sink for carbon dioxide emissions.
The environmental community is eagerly awaiting what they hope will be Mr Biden’s official endorsement of Ms Haaland’s recommendation to restore protections to three sprawling national monuments, protections Mr Trump removed as part of his four-year campaign. years to plunder the public domain in the service of a badly engendered strategy of “energy domination”. The three monuments include Grand Staircase Escalante and Bears Ears, established respectively by Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, both in Utah and both significantly reduced in size by Mr. Trump; and the northeastern canyons and seamounts off the New England coast, created by Mr. Obama, which Mr. Trump opened to commercial fishing.
Saving these monuments will also provide Mr. Biden with an important educational moment. The legal basis for establishing them is the little-known Antiquities Act, one of President Theodore Roosevelt’s many environmental legacies, which gives presidents the unilateral power to set aside endangered land and sea areas when it becomes clear that the danger is imminent and one that Congress is unlikely to act on. Mr. Roosevelt created 18 national monuments as part of the protection of 230 million acres of public land, and subsequent presidents have added to the inventory.
Along with her distinguished pedigree, the act will be important in achieving the conservation goals of the 30×30 Preservation Effort. The law has critics in Congress who believe that protecting public lands is their sole responsibility. Mr Biden should take the opportunity to educate the public on his importance and legitimacy.