You’re pushing a boulder up a steep hill when suddenly you lose your footing and get knocked back a few steps. Just getting back to where you were already will feel like a significant accomplishment.
This is what the Biden administration’s redirection of US climate policy feels like for environmentalists: Years ago, the Obama administration kickstarted a new era in which the United States claimed a leadership role in global climate governance (though some might argue this role was limited in practice). Then Trump came to power and immediately set about scaling back climate action. For environmentalists, this was a tremendous setback. The Trump administration withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement, rolled back over 100 environmental regulations, and offered their outspoken support for the dirtiest industry out there – coal! Now, having spent just 100 days in office, the Biden administration has put the US back on track. Yet while some environmentalists see Biden’s approach to climate mitigation as transformational, others believe it still falls short of what is necessary.
Both of these interpretations are correct: Relative to the Trump setback, Biden’s approach to climate is transformational. Yet, in the context of the United States’ historical responsibility for causing climate change, and the relative capacity the US has to lead the world in emissions reductions, one could argue it still has much more room for improvement.
Let us briefly review some of the Biden administration’s accomplishments on the climate file over the first 100 days. On Day One alone, Biden signalled his administration’s intention to foreground climate change (and climate justice) by rejoining the Paris Agreement and cancelling the Keystone XL pipeline. These were undoubtedly welcome policy reversals – but they were just that – reversals of Trump administration decisions. In essence, these Day One decision merely brought the US back to where it was in 2016 on those two files. Since then, the Biden administration set for itself a more ambitious greenhouse gas reduction target; convened 40 world leaders for a global (and low-carbon, one might add!) virtual summit on climate change; and introduced an ambitious national infrastructure plan which includes a widely-lauded ‘Clean Electricity Standard’ (which mandates all power generation in the US to be carbon-free by 2035).
Biden’s many steps forward on the climate file seem transformational, and in a way, they are. The Clean Electricity Standard, for instance, could wipe out a quarter of the United States’ greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions (that’s equivalent to nearly 4% of global emissions!) and also catalyze emissions reductions in other sectors. Yet here’s the rub: Climate mitigation requires transformational policies such as the Clean Electricity Standard. We simply will not achieve ambitious climate targets – even existing moderately ambitious targets – without transformational-scale change. Biden should thus be given credit for bringing the US back on a pre-existing path of climate leadership. But by the same token, Biden could be criticized for… putting the US back on that previous moderate path!
While environmental groups have undoubtedly breathed a sigh of relief for the return of a government that understands climate change as the urgent challenge it is, some have outlined ways that Biden must go further. I highlight three of these friendly criticisms here: First, despite overtly stating its intention to bring about climate justice, environmental groups have not held back from identifying loopholes and exceptions, perhaps most notably calling out the Biden administration for its failure to meaningfully engage Indigenous opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline project in Minnesota.
Second, while the US has introduced a more ambitious GHG reduction target (now seeking to reduce GHG emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030), that target would still place the US way beyond its “fair share” of the remaining carbon budget available for keeping within 1.5C of warming. In other words, if all other countries are as equally ambitious on the climate file like the US, the world would blow past the international community’s climate mitigation goal. Third, while the Biden administration has sought to reposition itself as a climate leader, it’s still not performing up to its relative capacity. That is, one would hope the world’s wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world to be the first advanced economy to reach Net Zero emissions, but the current pledges show the US to be behind both the UK and European Union on that front.
In the end, the US government’s redirection of climate policy under Biden is a welcome one by most environmentalists. The sense that something transformative is occurring is partly due to the relative ineptitude of the Trump administration on climate change and partly because anything less than transformative policy changes will cause the US to fall short on its climate mitigation objectives.