Biden’s victory: a paradigm shift in global environmental climate action?
On the 4th of November 2020 the United States, the world’s second biggest emitter of heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide, officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement, potentially acting as a hindrance to the rest of the world’s achievement of the goals. This thus represented a weakening of the developments to mitigate climate change, following detrimental policies enacted by the Trump anti-science administration, such as the dismantling of numerous regulations targeting methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and the erosion of both the Clean Air Act and the Endangered Species Act .
This departure is nevertheless short-lived, as Biden has reaffirmed the commitment to rejoining the Paris Agreement, thereby signalling a 180-degree turn on climate change. In light of the four years in which Trump stalled environmental protection, the victory of Democrat Joe Biden constitutes a win (and a ‘relief’) for global climate action. Remarkably, Biden’s plan to address climate change and its effects is the most progressive policy agenda of any Democrat in recent history. Environmental justice policies will hence be prioritised like never before, which could have widespread ramifications for infrastructure permitting and climate policy.
Biden put forward a $2 trillion plan to fight climate change with a target of net-zero emissions by 2050. Dr Andrew Steer, president and CEO of US environmental group the World Resources Institute (WRI), said there was “not a minute to lose” for the Biden administration to begin work on building a ground-breaking, low-carbon economy characterised by solutions simultaneously improving health, driving economic growth, reducing dangerous emissions and tackling all forms of injustices. “In his first 100 days, Biden can set a new course by expediting the energy transition and by restoring rules and regulations that protect public health and the environment. Biden should work with Congress to take action through economic recovery packages and the budget process that will enhance climate resilience, reduce emissions, and expand clean energy”, said Steer.
President Trump has persistently ignited multi-layered conflicts, whilst actively undermining democracy and climate action. In the words of former Vice-President Al Gore, “President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris have an unprecedented opportunity to reassert American leadership on climate and seize upon the enormous benefits of a clean energy economy. In doing so, Joe Biden can help to heal the divisions in our country, greatly improve our health, and provide the presidential leadership we need to eradicate the virus, end the recession, and repair the deep, enduring wounds of structural and institutional racism and injustice”.
The civil unrest that erupted in 2020 has accentuated even further the deep-rooted injustices that are so deeply entrenched in law enforcement, the legal system and society at large. The protests against systemic racism have served as a driving force bringing to the fore an overlooked reality harming the non-white population: environmental racism. The anthropogenic impacts on the environment disproportionately affect poor and marginalised areas: black, brown and indigenous communities suffer from greater environmental injustices as their neighbourhoods are burdened by a number of hazards, such as the establishment of toxic chemical plants, garbage dumps, and other sources of environmental pollution.
The incommensurate environmental burden placed on communities of colour is detrimental to their health, for instance, threatening their ability to breath. Scientific data proves that the burden of air pollution is not shared evenly in the United States: in 2018, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reported that “minority populations such as Hispanic and non-Hispanic black populations have higher exposures than non-Hispanic white populations, thus contributing to adverse health risk in non-white populations”. According to the 2019 study carried out by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), “pollution inequity is driven by differences among racial-ethnic groups in both exposure and the consumption that leads to the exposure”. Blacks and Hispanics experience 56 percent and 63 percent, respectively, more pollution than their consumption would generate. Nevertheless, over 14,3 million people of colour live in areas under high levels of pollution due to decades of residential segregation and racial injustice. The statistics provide evidence for what advocates call environmental racism. “These findings confirm what most grassroots environmental justice leaders have known for decades, whites are dumping their pollution on poor people and people of color”, said Robert Bullard, known as the ‘the father of environmental justice’.
A new form of grassroots environmental activism, centred on securing environmental justice for communities of colour, has emerged. Environmental justice is the movement’s response to environmental racism. Characterised by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies,” environmental justice intersects with energy infrastructure permitting and climate policies. Biden is set to revise and “reinvigorate” Clinton’s executive order and accompanying memorandum that in 1994 directed federal agencies to address environmental justice in minority and low-income communities under the National Environmental Policy Act. Environmental justice advocates have thus expressed hope that Biden will undo Trump administration policies that have hurt low-income and other disadvantaged communities.
Importantly, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the Climate Equity Act, legislation to ensure that the United States government centres communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis in policy related to climate and the environment. Harris co-sponsored another bill that would strengthen laws under the 1964 Civil Rights Act to protect poorer communities from industrial pollution. Fundamentally, Biden’s “plan to secure environmental justice and equitable economic opportunity” represents a step forward to the achievement of racial justice, and concomitantly of climate justice. The policy will “hold corporate polluters responsible for rampant pollution that creates the types of underlying conditions that are contributing to the disproportionate rates of illness, hospitalization, and death from COVID-19 among Black, Latino, and Native Americans. That means officials setting policy must be accountable to the people and communities they serve, not to polluters and corporations”.
The world is at a tipping point in the fight to solve the climate crisis: following four (interminable) years under an administration that, inter alia, supported unobstructed growth of the fossil fuel industry and resurrected the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipeline projects, Biden’s more rigid stance on the environmental issue marks a ‘paradigm shift’ in terms of environmental protection. Global solidarity is a central tenet of environmental action, therefore the return of the U.S. to the environmental arena, and its signalling of climate as a top priority of the agenda, means that other countries, such as Brazil, would be forced to follow suit. Furthermore, this entails that the vacuum left by the Trump administration in the realm of environmental governance would be remedied. Biden’s victory can be acknowledged as a turning point in global efforts to mitigate the environmental crisis, as his climate plan pledges to tackle climate change whilst prioritising environmental justice and equity.
Written by Keila McFarland Dias