On Tuesday, American voters will get the chance to end Donald Trump’s planetary death drive. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Trump administration will go down as one of the most environmentally destructive in modern American history. To illustrate the existential stakes of this election, here’s just a partial summary of Trump’s assault on the climate over the past four years.
Since 2016, the US president has ditched, sidelined or diluted at least 100 Obama-era climate reforms. He has opened up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to fresh drilling initiatives. He has licensed new oil pipeline developments and liquified natural gas terminals. He has gutted the National Environmental Protection Act, which forced the federal government to assess the ecological impact of its policies. He has expanded tax breaks for coal plants, championed fracking, and hobbled the American renewables market. He has muzzled climate scientists and blamed California’s historic wildfires on bad forest management. He has packed the US court system with conservative judges who are instinctively sympathetic to extractive industries. And, of course, he has withdrawn America from the Paris Climate Accords, which aim to limit global warming to no more than 1.5 degrees Celsius by the middle of this century – just enough, in other words, to stave-off something approaching total climactic disaster.
Trump’s contempt for climate science and his manic disregard for the effects of fossil fuel extraction aren’t incidental features of his presidency: the Republican leader is a petro-nationalist who wants to turn America into a global energy superpower, regardless of the environmental consequences. That’s why he appointed Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of ExxonMobil, as his first Secretary of State, imposed sanctions on major oil-producing states like Iran and Venezuela, and even threatened to slap tariffs on Washington’s main ally in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia. Indeed, from day one, Trump’s foreign policy was geared around the interests of America’s increasingly beleaguered oil industry – an industry that, faced with growing competition from renewables and a global energy price war, began shedding jobs long before the coronavirus recession hit.
So what would a second Trump term mean for international efforts to contain the climate crisis? It would mean “game over, really,” one of America’s leading environmental experts, Michael Mann, told The Guardian in October. According to the UN, global greenhouse emissions need to fall by 50 per cent over the next decade if the world is going to avoid a series of “catastrophic” ecological shifts. “Another four years of what we’ve seen under Trump, which is to outsource energy [strategy] to the polluters and dismantle protections … would make that essentially impossible,” Mann said.
Even if Trump loses next week, as the polls suggest he will, reversing the damage caused by his first-term deregulatory blitz will be difficult. Some of his reforms are already being challenged in court. And yet, in addition to being heavily politicized, the wheels of American justice can turn agonizingly slowly. “Can we come back from [what Trump has] done?” Kyla Bennett, a former employee at America’s federal Environmental Protection Agency, told New Republic magazine over the summer. “It’s going to take years. And we will have some permanent losses. I think, personally, there are some things we’ll never come back from.”
There is, however, a glimmer of hope on the horizon. Joe Biden has a surprisingly ambitious plan to decarbonize the US economy. The 77-year old Democrat has pledged to spend at least $1.7 trillion on transitioning America away from fossil fuels and towards cleaner, more sustainable sources of production. If implemented, Biden’s plan – which includes a host of new federal environmental protections, the ‘greening’ of US public infrastructure, and financial incentives for low-carbon manufacturing – would make America a net-zero emitter by 2050.
Biden’s environmental proposals are the most far-reaching of any mainstream presidential candidate, ever, the influential climate journalist Bill McKibben wrote recently. The ex-VP appears “primed to use green energy as a crucial part of the push to rebuild [America’s] pandemic-devastated economy.”
Biden’s platform is also hugely popular with the US electorate. Research conducted by the polling company Data For Progress shows that 53 per cent of American voters want a president who will “aggressively attack” the climate crisis and a further 56 per cent are more not less likely to support a candidate willing to make “historic investments in green energy.” By contrast – and despite the best efforts of oil-drenched Republican lobbyists – climate denialism remains a minority pursuit in America. Just 13 per cent of US citizens dispute the reality of man-made climate change, compared to roughly 70 per cent who accept the role played by human activity in rapidly warming the planet.
Biden was not always so forward-thinking on environmental issues. During the Democratic primary elections, he refused to endorse Bernie Sanders’ Green New Deal and earned a ‘D -’ rating from Greenpeace for his threadbare climate strategy. But his attitude began to shift after he secured the party’s presidential nomination in April. A month later, Biden created a series of policy task-forces dedicated to drawing-up a governing agenda for the Democrats should they eject Trump from the White House in November (and wrench control of the Senate from Mitch McConnell). Two prominent Sanders supporters – socialist Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Varshini Prakash of the grassroots Sunrise Movement – sat on the climate change working group, alongside more established Democrats likes John Kerry. Their influence, together with the overarching urgency of the COVID-19 crisis, is credited with radicalizing Biden’s approach to political reform.
“You have a presidential candidate who essentially staked his career on advocating incremental solutions,” Prakash told the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos in August. “Then he finds himself at this moment where people are fed up with much of the status quo he represents. COVID-19 was the moment that pushed it over the edge, where he recognized if he doesn’t have a way to meet his incrementalism with the level of transformative change that people are crying out for, he’s going to be in deep trouble.”
The challenge for Prakash and Ocasio-Cortez will lie in holding Biden to his climate commitments after the election. Conscious of how radical green politics might play in the shale-rich swing state of Pennsylvania, the former Senator has been vocal in his opposition to a comprehensive fracking ban and, like his predecessor Barack Obama, sees both liquified natural gas and nuclear power as a critical part of America’s response to the climate crisis. His track-record in Congress could be another problem. Over nearly five decades on Capitol Hill, Biden has repeatedly sought to emphasize his ‘bipartisan credentials’ by tacking to the right and striking deals with Republican legislators. This triangulating tendency has implicated Biden in some of the worst policy decisions of the past 40 years, including the Reaganite spending cuts of the 1980s, the Clinton crime bill of the 1990s, and the Iraq War.
The millennial left is acutely conscious of the possibility that, as president, Biden could be tempted to abandon the most ambitious elements of his climate platform in order to bolster his image as a ‘consensual’ national leader. “It will be a privilege to lobby him,” Ocasio-Cortez said in an interview on 26 October. “Young people right now have a very disciplined, activist mindset … They are not here with the intent of voting for their favourite person.”
As if to underscore the significance of this presidential contest, a raft of truly terrifying new climate research has been published over the last few days. Scientists say the Arctic Ocean has started to release frozen methane deposits that will accelerate the pace of global warming; experts at the UN believe the number of natural disasters has doubled since the turn of the millennium; 2020 is set to be the hottest year on record, the World Economic Forum announced.
If Americans opt for a second bout of Trumpism next week, these trends will intensify and the world will have to wait another four years for Washington to change course. Needless to say, our options will be much, much narrower by then. ‘Biden or bust’ isn’t exactly an inspiring political choice, but at this late stage in the climate crisis, it looks like the only one we’ve got.
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