Could Joe Biden's election signal a turnaround in climate politics?
A green New Deal?
Klassekampen, 13 November 2020
Last Wednesday, while the world was anxiously following the results of the US elections, those same United States quietly left the Paris Agreement. It is one of the many messes after four years of Trump that Joe Biden will have to clean up. As if the pandemic, social inequality and intense divisions among the American population weren't enough. Is saving the climate one bridge too far, or will we still get the turnaround that the world so desperately needs?
At least, intentions look good. Biden wants to spend 2 trillion dollars over the next four years to make the US economy greener. He wants to do this by investing heavily in public transport, by electrifying the car industry, and by making homes energy efficient. The energy sector has to be climate neutral by 2035, and the entire economy by 2050. With this, Biden hopes to break an impasse in US climate policy that has persisted for more than 20 years.
While the United States was a major factor behind the Kyoto Protocol in the late 1990s, and Vice President Al Gore signed the climate treaty, there was strong opposition in the Republican-dominated Senate. Bill Clinton couldn't possibly get it ratified. His successor, George W. Bush, immediately referred it to the trash, after which eight years of inaction followed.
But there was also too little progress under Biden's former boss. Obama refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol because it didn't ask enough from poorer countries such as China and India – which by the way was an argument Bush also used. Instead, efforts were made for a new treaty, but the negotiations in Copenhagen in late 2009 turned into a catastrophic failure due to disagreements between poor and rich countries. Obviously, it didn't help that the US government used its intelligence agencies to spy on all other delegations, as Edward Snowden later revealed. After this debacle, it took six long years before the Paris Agreement ended up as the solution, but by then it was too late for America. The US ratified the treaty four days before Trump was elected president, and with that, it didn't take long before they were on the way out again.
The obvious conclusion is that the Democrats are trying to save the climate, while Republican successors try to block this as soon as possible. But this framing is too simplistic. Under Obama, America grew into the largest oil producer in the world, something he likes to take credit for. In practice, this was mainly due to a high oil price that made new technologies, such as fracking, profitable. Joe Biden recently said that he doesn't want a ban on fracking. It is no coincidence that the state of Pennsylvania, which brought him the victory, has been the scene of an explosive growth in fracking in the last decade. Reluctance to regulate the oil industry is not just a Republican problem, so it is wise to approach Biden's climate plans with healthy skepticism.
Biden's climate plans should be met with a healthy dose of skepticism
Still, I have hope that the mistakes of the past will not be repeated. Biden wants to remove the subsidies for the oil industry, which means that fracking will become unprofitable by itself. In doing so, the financial incentive is put in the right place, and this avoids the mistake that Emmanuel Macron made. When he introduced an increase in gasoline prices as a climate measure, he shielded the oil companies and put the financial burden on the general population. The resentment caused by this, not in the least among people struggling to make a living, led to the yellow vest movement.
Similar mistakes have been made in America: the closure of the coal mines and the decline of the auto industry have not been compensated with new jobs, leading many to turn to Trump. Repeating that mistake, by passing the burden of climate policy on to the American people, is a guarantee that Democrats will lose the next election and a continuation of the climate deadlock. It is therefore unsurprising that Biden presents his climate plan mainly as a jobs plan. He stresses the need for the millions of jobs that will be created to, for example, install solar panels, insulate buildings and electrify the car industry. Only this kind of plan, which benefits people and not makes them poorer, has a chance of surviving more than one election cycle.
Obviously, the climate problem will not be solved immediately if only the US becomes climate neutral, but the US is a financial, technological and cultural superpower with an enormous influence on the rest of the world. A successful US social-based climate plan can set the tone for climate policy around the world and accelerate it. So there is still hope that after 20 years of broken promises, the international climate goals will finally become a reality. Better late than never.
This text originally appeared in Klassekampen on 13 November 2020