If you pay any attention to the environmental news, you’ll know that the biggest headlines this week have gone to the incoming Biden administration. Days into his presidency, Joe Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement and set a whole series of climate policies in motion. Climate change is back on the agenda in the United States – and the world breathes a sigh of relief.
As a reminder, there is no scenario in which the world prevents catastrophic climate change with the United States sitting on the sidelines. This matters to all of us.
The top line announcements this week are a commitment to a carbon-free power sector by 2035, and net zero by 2050. This is on par for current levels of ambition around the world (and here’s how I think activists can use a target even if they consider it inadequate.)
What impresses me though is the holistic approach that the administration has taken from the start. Biden’s team is using language that we don’t see from politicians in Britain, and that we can learn from. Here are some examples:
- A commitment to scientific integrity – Right in the first sentence, the White House briefing mentions “restoring scientific integrity”. A specific executive order has been signed to “protect scientists from political interference”. It’s addressing the systemic suppression of science over the last few years, but I like the idea of publicly committing the government to the science and not constantly tiptoeing around the sceptics in the back row.
- Foreign policy – Climate policies have global effects, and so all climate policy needs to be viewed with a eye on international responsibilities. Biden’s approach “clearly establishes climate considerations as an essential element of U.S. foreign policy and national security.”
- Equity – “delivering environmental justice” is right there in the subtitle of the briefing. That includes supporting former mining communities, focusing on areas that live with higher rates of pollution, and those that are most vulnerable to climate change. There are specific iniatives to ensure that the benefits of climate programmes flow to those who need them most. Environmental and climate justice is basically an unknown concept in British politics.
- The whole of government – Here in Britain there are entire departments that carry on as if climate change doesn’t exist (here’s looking at you, Department of Transport). A commitment to work across every department is vital if emissions are going to come down in every sector.
- Stop doing the dumb stuff – The US intends to stop drilling for more oil and gas on federal lands, and end fossil fuel subsidies. The Conservative government, by contrast, has legally mandated that Britain maximise fossil fuel extraction from the North Sea, and continues to offer a buffet of government support to the industry.
This is all a signal of intent from a very new government. Ultimately they will need to be judged on delivery. Of course it could go further. There are elements that are missing and there are huge obstacles in the way of this climate programme, including the competing priorities of a global pandemic and its attendant economic damage.
Nevertheless, as declarations of intent go, this is a powerful reset for America’s participation in struggle against climate change. And what I’m struck by is how the Biden administration wants to address climate change, the starting assumptions and priorities. This is not just about plugging in technologies to satisfy the maths of reducing emissions. It’s about people and lives well lived, and truth, and justice. I will be watching with interest.