Editor’s Note: John D. Sutter is a CNN contributor and a National Geographic Explorer. He is director of the forthcoming BASELINE series, which is visiting four locations on the front lines of the climate crisis every five years until 2050. Visit the project’s website. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
Linda, a reader in California, wrote to me recently after I invited people to have a dialogue about the looming climate apocalypse. She sent me a question I know many of you have on your minds as US election season nears an end: “Can Biden/Harris make a difference if they are aggressive in putting new [climate change] regulations in place?”
The answer is a clear yes. Voting for the Joe Biden-Kamala Harris ticket – and rejecting President Donald Trump – can be expected to yield actual-tangible results on climate change.
There are limits to those results, to be sure – which is why American voters must also seek out Senate, House and local candidates who support swift action on the climate crisis.
But the 2020 presidential election, in substantive ways, despite all else that is going on in the world, is an election about the climate emergency. There are many issues dividing Biden and Trump, from racial justice to Covid-19. Perhaps no chasm is wider than climate, though.
Biden has a $2 trillion plan to try deal with it.
Trump tweeted about “expensive GLOBAL WARMING bullshit” in 2014 and has pursued policies in line with that dismissive sentiment ever since his election. He can talk about “immaculate air” and call himself an “environmentalist” all he’d like. Trump’s record is clear: he supports the fossil fuel industries that are causing global warming – while trying to confuse people about long-established science. In September, as the western United States burned and temperature records fell, Trump said without evidence that “It’ll start getting cooler.” It won’t; humans already have warmed the planet about 1 degree Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
Linda asked me about Biden’s plans, and I’ll get to that. But I think it’s important to evaluate those plans against the alternative to fully understand them in context.
Trump failed to revive the coal industry as he repeatedly has promised to do, but he has sought to bolster polluting industries like coal, oil and natural gas; he’s touted opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and certain offshore areas to new oil and gas exploration; and he’s tried to relax dozens of environmental rules — 99 by The New York Times’s count.
In short, Trump’s anti-climate policies are disastrous and retrograde.
They further destabilize the atmosphere.
I don’t consider myself a partisan or ideologue but the gap between Trump’s and Biden’s positions on climate is so stark that it must be stated: Your vote is a choice between the potential of doing something substantive on climate and a track record of doing more-than-nothing.
Biden’s climate goals
Yes, there were climate policy experts and advocates who criticized Biden’s climate policies during the Democratic primary. At that point, Biden wasn’t the climate candidate – other politicians, including Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, were leading on this issue. But Biden updated his climate proposals after it became clear he would receive the Democratic nomination.
He proposes two overarching goals that, if achieved, would mean the United States was doing its part to try to limit catastrophic warming that makes storms more dangerous, lengthens the wildfire season, drives mass extinction and displaces people around the world.
The first is achieving net zero emissions in the electric sector by 2035.
The second is net zero US emissions – economy-wide – by 2050.
Those targets are in line with a 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that said global emissions must be cut roughly in half by 2030 and then to net zero by 2050 if the world wants to avoid 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius of warming above pre-industrial levels. That’s a mouthful, I know. But those temperature targets – 1.5 to 2 degrees – are at the heart of international agreements on global warming. Climate change is a matter of degrees. Beyond those levels of warming, everything gets riskier. Five years ago, the Paris Agreement set those temperature targets as the North Star for global climate policy.
The Washington Post wrote that Biden’s climate proposal, taken holistically, is “the most ambitious blueprint released by a major party nominee for president” in US history. I agree.
How he’d get there
Biden has tangible plans for how to work toward those goals.
His $2 trillion proposal calls for creation of millions of jobs in clean energy. (I mention the Green New Deal because David in Ohio asked me about that in the context of Biden’s plans; the details differ but the aims and broad-brush methods are quite similar).
It’s a jobs-plus-climate stimulus plan.
The Biden plan aims to build “zero emission” public transit systems in every US city with more than 100,000 residents. It would seek to retrofit 4 million buildings, making them more energy efficient, and it would build 1.5 million affordable housing units and homes. Biden calls for investment in research and development of clean-energy and battery technologies on a scale that goes beyond NASA’s Apollo program, according to the proposal. And, importantly, Biden aims to spend a sizable portion of this money in “disadvantaged” and vulnerable communities.
And those are just a few examples.
Voting for Biden can make a difference beyond his climate policy goals.
No country can “fix” the climate crisis on its own; however, the United States is cumulatively the largest historical polluter of the atmosphere (US emissions fell an estimated 2% in 2019 but that was largely because of coal’s decline, according to energy analysts).
What this country does matters not just within these borders but also in the global, moral context. The Paris Agreement, after all, is an international experiment in peer pressure. Donald Trump started the process of withdrawing the United States from that climate accord, which makes it easier for countries like China, India and Brazil to shirk responsibility. Biden would re-pledge US support, helping to re-up the ante.
There’s only so much one administration in one country can do. But, as someone who covered the Paris talks, I can tell you that it’s difficult to overstate US leadership on this issue.
Biden also will need to win support in Congress if he hopes to make lasting change. Executive orders can move policy in a certain direction, but they’re subject to reversal and legal challenge. There are ways in which climate must be dealt with outside of the four-year horse race that is US politics. Electing climate-hawks in the House and Senate could help ensure success.
Inside Climate News has a detailed analysis of which Senate races are key for climate policy, focusing particularly on Mississippi, Alaska, Maine, Colorado, Arizona, Alabama, Kansas, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Iowa and Kentucky.
Those races matter. As does the presidential race – hugely so.
Emissions today stay in the atmosphere for generations to come.
Our actions today, then, matter for hundreds of years.
This election is a chance for Americans to send the signal that they’re voting because they’re tired of climate-fueled disasters today; and because they care about that future.