Joe Biden and Climate: Cause for Cautious Optimism


The victory of the Democratic candidate, Joe Biden, in the American presidential elections is the most important development in global climate policies since the Paris climate agreement was drafted in late 2015. Who steers the US climate agenda and how matters a great deal to the rest of the world, and not just because the US is currently the planet’s second-largest polluter in terms of carbon dioxide emissions.

Celebrations of Biden's victory

Even more pertinently for the moral obligation of the US to take resolute climate action, the country is the single biggest global polluter in historical terms – according to Our World in Data, the US is singlehandedly responsible for a full 25 % of global CO2 emissions since 1751 (the EU is not that far behind, together the EU28 countries have caused 22% of all emissions to date).

The severity (or even existence) of anthropogenic climate change and what the appropriate US response to it should be was arguably the biggest differences between the Trump and Biden campaigns. On a range of other substantive issues, such as foreign trade and transatlantic relations, the greatest disagreements between the two candidates were in form rather than in substance. However, on climate the division could not be starker – throughout his term Trump has produced a number of statements, ranging from misleading to outright false, in which he has doubted the human contribution to climate change.

Claiming that the Paris agreement hurt the American economy, Trump announced in 2017 that the US would be the first nation to withdraw from it – a move that ironically enough took effect only on November 4, 2020, the day after the Presidential elections. Trump has also repeatedly stonewalled formal discussions of climate change in influential international policy fora including the G7 and G20 meetings.

Trump’s disregard for environmental protection was not reserved only for US foreign relations. In his four years in office, Trump has also debilitated the Environmental Protection Agency (the federal domestic environmental watchdog), promoted resurrection of the US coal industry, especially in the Appalachian region, and opened up large areas of American protected federal land for oil and gas mining operations, including in the pristine Arctic Wildlife Refuge regions of Alaska.

In this light, it would seem that for anyone who cares about keeping the global temperature rise within a manageable range of magnitude (between 2 and 1.5 °C, depending on one’s ambition), the news of Trump’s electoral loss alone would be a reason to breathe a deep sigh of relief. Yet Biden’s complex, comprehensive climate policy proposals and campaign pledges make him much more than just “not Trump.”

To better understand the sheer significance of Biden’s victory for the future of global climate policies, it is therefore worth analyzing the President-elect’s campaign rhetoric and the steps he has taken since his election victory – in particular the appointment of John Kerry as his “climate czar.” Taken together, these outline the ambitious promise that Joe Biden’s incoming administration holds for US climate policies. However, Biden and his team will face formidable domestic challenges in implementing these ideas; the most notable of these will be the closely-divided US Senate and Trump’s legacy of conservative judicial appointments throughout all levels of the American court system.

Not Quite the Green New Deal, but Close

Joe Biden revealed an ambitious climate agenda during his campaign. Many, but not all, of his policy proposals were loaned directly from the Green New Deal, which is a broader policy framework envisioning society-wide sustainable transformation tabled by American grassroot progressive organizations and young Democratic politicians on the left of the party, such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The scope and ambition of Biden’s climate policy package underscores the seriousness with which the former Vice-President views the issue. Among his main climate targets are achieving a carbon-free electricity grid in the US by 2035 (currently, some two thirds of US electricity production comes from natural gas and coal sources) and to have a zero-carbon US economy by 2050, no small feat given that presently four-fifths of US domestic energy consumption and production comes from fossil fuels.

To achieve these ambitious goals, Biden has earmarked a slew of federal investment schemes totaling $2 trillion. These investments follow three core priorities – standards, investments and justice – drawn directly from the Green New Deal framework: “stringent standards to accelerate decarbonization in key sectors like electricity, buildings, and transportation; large-scale, job-creating public investments in clean energy projects, green infrastructure, and vulnerable communities; and an overall focus on justice, such that the communities most at risk, from either climate change or the clean energy transition, receive the most assistance.”

The  emphasis of Biden’s domestic environmental proposals on justice reveals the clear influence of the new Democratic left and shows the President-elect reaching out to this often young segment of his electorate. The sums involved in this redistribution are far from marginal – Biden’s plan promises to channel 40 % of federal green investments to communities particularly vulnerable to the impacts of climate change (such as increased floods, droughts or wildfires).

Biden, true to Bill Clinton’s dictum that American citizens care most about their own economic situations, firmly connects his environmental ambitions to his plans to reinvigorate the American economy, especially its industrial sector. Thus, Biden hopes to use the leverage of federal spending to promote American production of green technologies (e.g., solar panels, wastewater treatment components, or hybrid/electric cars) that will in turn generate new blue-collar jobs in the US. To achieve this, Biden is unashamedly honest about relying on import tariffs to protect the US green industry from imports from the EU and Asia.

Biden’s green revolution is to be made in America, by Americans, for Americans, chiefly.

The Kerry “Trump Card”

The recently announced appointment of John Kerry as Biden’s “special presidential envoy for climate” constitutes further proof of the attention that the President-elect gives to climate change. John Kerry is a seasoned, widely-respected veteran of the highest echelons of American policy – he served as Senator for 28 years, eventually becoming the chair of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee and sponsoring a large, though ultimately shelved, cap-and-trade bill proposal in the Senate.

Kerry also served as Secretary of State in Obama’s second administration, and it was particularly in this function that he established his bona fides in international climate negotiations. He led the American team in the Paris climate accord negotiations and was, in fact, one of the main architects of the resulting treaty, first of its kind. Additionally, Kerry has committed the US to a number of other international treaties protecting global biodiversity and ocean habitats, among other things. There is little doubt that John Kerry will be able to pick up where he left and build on his past work of multilateral climate negotiations with foreign leaders.

Equally important is John Kerry’s formal status in Biden’s administration. Kerry, in his role as climate czar, will be granted a permanent seat at the National Security Council – the highest forum for national security matters at the disposal of US presidents. This is the first time that an appointee with an explicit climate agenda will have such close, unrestricted access to the President’s innermost security circle. As Kerry himself commented, this is a clear signal that Biden’s administration will treat climate change “as the urgent national security threat it is.” This officially-recognized national security dimension of climate change is significant, as the American public tends to pay more attention to issues clearly labeled as “threats.”

Finally, Biden’s transition team has also hinted at creating a new role in the administration, which would be responsible for coordinating climate policies and an environmental protection agenda within the US. The leader among those tapped for this position is Jay Inslee, the Governor of the state of Washington, who stood out in the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential primary field with his preeminent emphasis on the need for resolute action on climate. Enlisting Inslee for the task of implementing Biden’s domestic agenda would be another strong signal about the climate ambitions of the President-elect.

Rough Seas Ahead

Joe Biden has put forward an extremely ambitious climate agenda, both domestically and internationally, and supported his promises through a key personnel selection. What are the odds, though, of his actually implementing his climate proposals?

The first set of challenges is tied to the polarization of American politics and the close contestation of both chambers of the US Congress. While Democrats will continue to hold a slight majority in the House of Representatives, Republicans currently have a 50-48 majority and are expected to hold their knife-edge advantage even after the two runoff elections in Georgia are held in January. Since the approval of both chambers is needed for bills to become laws, Biden could run into conservative opposition in the Senate to many of his climate proposals. Assuredly, the President can circumvent the Congress altogether by issuing Executive Orders, but this process is somewhat unorthodox and subject to easy revision by subsequent Presidents.

Additionally, were Biden to implement his environmental reforms through unilateral Executive Orders, this practice would likely be fiercely contested by American courts wary of an overreach by the executive branch. The litigation could then end up before the Supreme Court, where traditionally conservative justices hold a 6-3 majority (three of those appointments coming from Trump’s sole term in office alone). There, Biden’s climate agenda could be struck down not because of its substance, but rather because the Supreme Court would consider it “issued without proper authority.”

In this light, Biden’s best strategy is to pursue a path of compromise and to win over a few Republican Senators sympathetic to environmental legislation (Susan Collins and Lisa Murkowski, most notably) by making carefully-targeted concessions. An environmental bill endorsed by both chambers of the US Congress would be far more court-proof than a plain executive order. Yet even this tactic may backfire, as Biden will be under intense pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party, which already views him with suspicion given his age (he will be the oldest American president, after all) and his history of political centrism. Domestically, Biden will clearly have to perform a delicate balancing act to see his environmental pledges enacted.

Internationally, US climate ambitions might run into hurdles as well, even with John Kerry at the helm. Trust between sovereign states takes years to build but can be lost in an instant. This is precisely the most corrosive, lasting damage that Trump’s “America First” policies had on the country’s global standing and reputation. Even if other countries were to trust the sincerity of Biden’s commitment to taking meaningful steps to mitigate climate change, they would not be so certain that whoever wins the 2024 elections would continue to honor these pledges.  

Thus, Biden and Kerry not only have to “roll back the rollbacks” of Trump’s era, a daunting task in itself, they also have to convince both American citizens and the world that their administration’s commitment to fighting climate change will last beyond its own term. We can only hope they will succeed in doing so.