What does a Biden presidency mean for climate?

Donald Trump's final days in power marked an extraordinary new low in US politics. With the now twice impeached ex-President finally out of the White House, what does a Biden presidency mean for climate, anti-racism and international co-operation? Head of Politics, Dave Timms, assesses.
  Published:  25 Nov 2020    |      Last updated:  20 Jan 2021    |      4 minute read

There’s no denying that the White House under Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be vastly different to the past four years. But simply not being Donald Trump – welcome as that is – won’t stop climate breakdown, nor will it solve the social justice issues in the US or the world’s many critical problems.  So, what can we hope to expect from a Biden-Harris administration on these issues?

Climate

One of Donald Trump’s first acts as President was to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement. One of Joe Biden’s first acts is to re-join.

The Paris Agreement aims to stop dangerous levels of climate change and prevent lives being destroyed by extreme weather. It’s also known as the Paris Climate Accord, Paris Climate Agreement and Paris Climate Deal.

World leaders shook on the text during the Paris climate talks in December 2015. The signing was a historic moment. 195 delegates agreeing for the first time to take collective action to combat climate change.

It officially came into force on 4 November 2016. So far, 158 parties have ratified the deal. These include the UK, EU, US, China and India. However, President Trump is pulling the US out of the deal.

Signatories agree to keep the global temperature rise well below 2°C – and pursue efforts to limit it to 1.5°: the temperature that gives us the best chance of limiting impacts to levels that people and nature can cope with. We’ve already hit over 1° of warming, leading to melting sea-ice, 50° heatwaves and flooding.

The Agreement also compels nations to address the loss and damage caused by climate impacts. And it commits finance to help developing countries tackle and adapt to climate change.

Although re-joining the Paris Agreement is a positive first step, it's tempered by the US's poor climate record at home and abroad. Biden will have his work cut out if he’s to transform the US into the global leader on climate that it needs to be.

Joe Biden

Increase support back home. Biden has signalled an intent to persuade the world’s biggest countries to ramp up their ambitions on reducing carbon emissions, but to look credible he'll need to increase support and ambition for a greener future among the broader US electorate, and ensure a just transition for the workers in the US's substantial coal, oil and gas industries.

Be an ally. The US, under both Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, was hardly an ally of the poorest countries in climate negotiations – despite the image it likes to project. Like the UK, the US owes much of its wealth to coal, oil and gas-fuelled industrialisation, yet fails to pay its fair share towards the climate crisis and continues to invest in fossil fuel projects abroad, to the detriment of poorer countries like Mozambique. The US is also notorious in the UN climate talks for blocking the requests of countries most impacted by climate breakdown. Biden's record on climate won't just rely on domestic action, but on whether he positions the US as a true global ally to countries who have contributed the least to the crisis.

Match ambition to emissions. During his campaign, Biden pledged a US target of net zero emissions by 2050. Big targets like this signal that the end of fossil fuels is approaching. But as the world’s largest economy, and responsible for more historical carbon emissions than any country on earth, it's likely a 2050 target doesn’t go fast or hard enough to mitigate the damage caused by the country's carbon-dependent culture.

Trade

Before summer 2020, the UK and US were on track to sign a new, post-Brexit trade agreement. It now looks like the new administration will choose to partially renegotiate the deal, at the very least.

The obvious area for improvement is around climate action. Whereas Trump's team banned mention of the term "climate change" in negotiations, Biden supports the inclusion of commitments to cut greenhouse gas emissions in trade deals. Biden has signalled that he'd work to end US funding of fossil fuel extraction abroad, and said that he'll tax imports in proportion to their climate impacts. Together, these policies could help to cut the direct climate impact of a future trade deal, and support the UK to take more ambitious action too.

However, it's not all good news. Friend of the Earth on both sides of the Atlantic campaigned against the last proposed US-EU trade deal, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as we were worried the TTIP would threaten the environment, our rights and our democracy. The change of presidency does little to quell our concerns about what a US/ UK deal might look like now we're out of the EU.

 Under successive administrations the US has maintained lower standards than the UK on a range of environmental and animal welfare issues, mainly due to the massive political power of US corporations. Biden hasn’t yet shown signs of being prepared to set out a new course, and seems to share Trump’s focus on protecting and promoting US businesses. So, pressure for the UK to accept imports of beef fed with hormones and antibiotics, crops produced with banned pesticides and low-welfare chicken washed in chlorine won’t end under the Democrats. This means we could still see UK food standards undermined by a future trade deal if our government doesn’t take a harder line on these issues.

Crop dusting plane sprays pesticides over a large field on a farm
Credit: Thinkstock

Social justice

After four years of chaos, it's fair to assume the new president will be less divisive. Indeed, Joe Biden’s transition plans have a strong focus on justice – creating good, unionised jobs, righting the wrongs of historic pollution, and listening to marginalised voices.

But perhaps most significantly in a post-Trump America is the new administration’s approach to racism.

Both Joe Biden and vice-president elect Kamala Harris (the first woman and person of colour to hold the position) specifically referenced "systemic racism" during recent acceptance speeches, acknowledging that hate and discrimination go beyond the actions of individuals and are in fact entrenched in the economic and social systems propping up the country. 

Many expect the Biden-Harris administration to be the antithesis of the Trump years, and are hopeful that toxic actions such as the ban on certain Muslim countries, the vilification of the Black Lives Matter movement and the insidious support of white supremacist groups will be consigned to the history books.

The danger is that Trump set the bar for responsible leadership so low, even minimal action may be seen as an improvement. If the new administration is to create a fairer and safer society for all, it must begin by tackling institutional racism in sectors such as law enforcement.

International cooperation

The new president has pledged to restore US global cooperation and leadership, renew focus on longstanding international alliances and turn away from the unilateralism of the Trump administration.

Trump spent his final weeks in the Oval Office leaving as damaging a mark as possible by issuing a number of Executive Orders rolling back on US environmental protection, international agreements and alliances. Biden has vowed to repair as much damage as possible in his first 100 days in office, and we can expect smoother negotiations and a greater level of diplomacy at key moments like the UN climate talks.

These first weeks will be a key indicator of whether a Biden-Harris administration will simply mark a return to the less divisive but far-from-perfect patterns of the pre-Trump era, or signal the start of something much more ambitious. But with toxic Trump now history, a greener, fairer future is at least now a possibility.

The climate crisis is already here.

The climate crisis is already here.

x