By David Henry, a writer at Forests News (CIFOR)
Three days after the United States officially withdrew from the Paris Agreement on climate change, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden defeated incumbent President Donald Trump in a nail-biting race. The change in leadership will pave the way for the biggest shift in a generation in government efforts to protect the environment and conserve biodiversity, according to media reports.
Biden’s environmental and energy policy revamp includes a $2 trillion climate program, which aims to protect 30 percent of the U.S. lands and water by 2030. This “represents the largest shift in United States science-based biodiversity conservation policy since the Endangered Species Act” of 1973, said Scientific American. On 20 January, when Biden becomes president, he plans to send a letter to the United Nations indicating the world’s largest economy will rejoin the Paris Agreement, according to the New York Times. Such a move would not require ratification by the Senate, which may remain under Republican control.
Biden’s environmental package contains promises to permanently protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, to ban new oil and gas permits on public lands and waters, to set up targeted programs to enhance reforestation and to establish national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage. The president-elect plans to use executive orders to overturn controversial Trump-era deregulation efforts on environment protection and public health, according to the Washington Post.
These measures would complement the Great American Outdoors Act, a bipartisan bill that was signed into law in August 2020. It commits $9.5 billion over five years (2021–2025) to restoring national parks and public lands, while guaranteeing $900 million a year to fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which is paid for by royalty payments from offshore oil and gas drilling in federal waters. Biden has pledged to modify royalties to account for climate costs and to protect other areas impacted under the Trump administration.
“Trump’s decision to open all of Alaska’s Tongass National Forest – our biggest temperate rainforest – to logging is a reminder of how much damage has been done and how much work Biden will have to do just to get us back to where we were,” says Bill McKibben, a co-founder and senior advisor at the international climate campaign 350.org.
Biden’s ambitions are both local and global in scope. As president-elect of the only country that has ever withdrawn from the 197-party Paris Agreement, Biden is promising to lead a major diplomatic drive to raise the ambitions of the member countries’ emission targets and to convene a world summit of leaders on climate change.
In the spirit of the Paris Agreement – which aims to limit global warming to well below 2˚C and pursue efforts to restrict it to 1.5˚C – Biden has set a goal for the United States to achieve a 100 percent clean energy economy and net-zero carbon emissions no later than 2050. While his environmental agenda acknowledges the role of climate change in accelerating species loss and extinction rates, it is light on detail about biodiversity conservation, despite scientific consensus about the urgent need to act to protect the earth’s plant, animal and insect species.
“What is stunning about Biden’s climate platform is that it mentions biodiversity only once in its more than 7,200 words despite a near-global consensus – backed up by decades of some of the most extraordinary, high-caliber scientific research ever done – that biodiversity loss is at the heart of every aspect of adverse environmental change, whether it is warming, sea-level rise, emerging disease, the spread of invasive species, greenhouse gas buildup, and record-breaking droughts, storms, tornadoes, and fires,” says Shahid Naeem, a professor of ecology at Columbia University.
Biden’s path to plan implementation won’t be an easy one. While the Democrats will retain their majority in the House of Representatives in the next Congress, a Republican-dominated Senate would likely hamper the new president’s attempts to enshrine his environmental pledges in law. The Republicans are currently leading the Senate race, though the final tally may be decided by runoff ballots in Georgia in January.
Nevertheless, Biden is expected to rejoin the Paris Agreement by executive order, which President Barack Obama used when the United States entered the climate pact in 2016. Biden could also resort to this instrument of presidential authority to revoke deregulatory orders made under the previous administration and to introduce measures from his own climate platform.
“Working by executive action is not ideal, but there are plenty of pipelines he can help block, and regulations he can reinstate,” McKibben says.
The $2 trillion price tag for Biden’s climate-smart “Build Back Better” platform will be hard to justify to Americans as government spending outpaces revenue and as the coronavirus pandemic exerts extra pressure on public finances, according to Naeem. However, U.S. taxpayers may support it if they believe that the return on investment is extremely high, and if the platform’s vision of prosperity without compromising American values is followed.
“If you are going to build back better, then the first step is to make sure that you have the parts, the tools and the plans in place before starting,” Naeem says. “The parts are the 8.7 million species, the vast majority of which are at risk. The tools are the tens of thousands of scientific principles procured by millions of researchers over decades of extraordinary research. The plan is sustainable development, in which the economy, nature and society are integral to progress.”