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It marks a swift repudiation of the policies and principles staked out by former president Donald Trump, who disregarded the warnings of climate scientists and enacted policies that boosted the short-term interests of the fossil fuel industry. Arguing that liberal environmentalism threatened American jobs, Trump scoffed at international efforts such as the Paris agreement and rolled back dozens of U.S. environmental regulations implemented by his predecessors. Now, per the calculations of my colleagues, Biden has already overturned 10 of these Trump administration rollbacks and is targeting more than 60 others.
“It’s not time for small measures,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday, detailing his actions. “We have to be bold.”
The same day, John F. Kerry, the former secretary of state now serving as Biden’s special climate envoy, addressed the World Economic Forum’s virtual gathering of global policymakers and business elites. “We know we’ve wasted four years in which we were inexcusably absent,” Kerry said, describing the climate crisis as a “war” that “we’re losing.”
That declaration is in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s point of view. To Biden’s predecessor, climate change was a “hoax” from China. Taking political action to reckon with a warming planet was, to Trump, simply a path to ruining American business and being played the fool by cynical rivals overseas. When confronted about his climate change denialism, Trump would respond with non sequiturs about air pollution and water quality.
But Trump was a global outlier, perhaps alongside Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Most mainstream right-wing political parties in the West accept the science behind climate change and support policies that seek to curb man-made carbon emissions into the atmosphere. Major U.S. corporations, including even some fossil fuel companies, outflanked the Trump administration in making their own commitments toward sustainability and global emissions targets. Last week, General Motors, one of the United States’ biggest car companies, announced it would stop making gasoline-powered vehicles by the middle of the next decade.
There’s reason to believe that Trump’s departure from the White House could see the end of a certain phase of climate politics. “The Trump years may well have been the death rattle of influential denialism,” noted the Guardian. “The American public’s concern over the climate crisis is at record levels, with even a majority of Republican voters supporting government intervention in the wake of a year of unprecedented wildfires and hurricanes that cost hundreds of lives and tens of billions of dollars.”
But there are plenty of battles to come. Republican lawmakers, state officials and fossil fuel lobbyists are mobilizing to challenge Biden on various fronts. “From an oil patch in Alaska to state capitals to the halls of Congress, the industries and their allies are aiming to slow Biden’s unprecedented push for climate action and keep profits from fossil fuels flowing,” wrote my colleagues, Juliet Eilperin and Brady Dennis. “Republican attorneys general from six states wrote to the new president, warning him not to overstep his authority. GOP lawmakers attacked his executive orders as ‘job killers.’ And the petroleum industry revived television ads promoting drilling on federal lands.”
The Biden administration’s broad response is that their ambitious $2 trillion climate plan will create millions of new renewable energy and clean tech jobs. “People have been in pain long enough,” said Gina McCarthy, Biden’s new domestic climate adviser, to reporters. “We are not going to ask for sacrifice. If we fail to win the heart of middle America, we will lose.”
“It is now cheaper to deal with the crisis of climate than it is to ignore it,” Kerry told reporters last week, pointing to the mounting sums of taxpayers dollars spent by the government in the wake of hurricanes, wildfires and other natural disasters. “We’re spending more money, folks. We’re just not doing it smart. We’re not doing it in a way that would actually sustain us for the long term.” He separately also described the moment as “an unprecedented wealth creation opportunity.”
"2021 can be a breakthrough year for climate: the new US administration and the EU have a real opportunity, through a ‘global net zero coalition’, to remove some of the key bottlenecks in the global path to climate neutrality." | Opinion by @Tagliapietra_S https://t.co/HpcBLCYeOY— Bruegel (@Bruegel_org) January 28, 2021
On the world stage, analysts see an emerging green-tech race involving the United States, China and the European Union. Even with the United States back in the Paris climate agreement, there’s plenty of room for friction with other powers. Biden officials have already stated that Beijing’s pledge to decarbonize China’s economy by 2060 was insufficient given that other major emitters have set similar targets for 2050.
Whatever the politics, scientists are adamant that massive steps need to be taken now. “The climate cares about chemistry, not commitments,” said Kate Marvel, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and Columbia University, to The Post’s Energy 202. “While it’s great to see bold targets, ultimately the only thing that will prevent worst-case climate scenarios are large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”
But they are more optimistic given the change of leadership in the White House. “When you get to base camp, you absolutely should stop and celebrate,” Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, told my colleagues, likening the challenge now to climbing Mount Everest. “Right now, we’re at base camp. We can see the peak of the mountain.”