By Lucy Jordan, GLOBUS Deputy Editor
At the dawn of the new decade, the stage was being readied for the 2020 US Presidential Election to set a different kind of precedent. The race was to be a first of its kind in US history: a climate election. Despite Trump’s administration having rolled back American environmental protections to near-skeletal form, as of 2020, two-thirds of the American electorate were found to think the government needed to do more to address the climate crisis. So, with electoral favour for progressive climate policy at record highs, and public support emerging from both sides of the aisle, this year’s election was prepped to set the climate centre-stage.
This was until “2020” happened. As the US surged ahead as one of the world’s greatest Covid-19 casualties, followed by spiralling economic crises, environmental campaigners were forced to seek refuge behind 12-inch screens. Climate change was quickly forced to take a backseat to the prodigious issues of healthcare and the economy. Despite this, however, the Democratic Presidential nominee, Joe Biden, and his running mate, Kamala Harris, continue to position the climate as among one of the central issues of their campaign. Yet, how much would things really change under a Biden-Harris presidential administration? And, do they really stand any chance at getting there?
Climate change had managed to carve its place as one of the most salient issues of the election. The Pew Research Centre found that a staggering 79% of the electorate were found to support the development of alternative energy sources, despite Trump’s impassioned advocacy for coal. President Trump has never kept his animosity for climate science and environmental protection a secret. His scepticism for established science, alongside a contempt of government regulation, has led Trump spending much of his presidency offering any number of weird and wonderful proclamations as to why climate change is a scientific hoax.
The ways in which the Trump administration have dismantled decade-old protective environmental infrastructure, however, has been far more covert. Having reversed almost all Obama era regulations, including the most recent roll back of methane regulation from oil and gas fields, and the opening of the Alaskan Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to fossil fuel development. Trump’s manifesto, in consequence, rests heavily on the ailing of historic fossil fuel industries struggling under renewable and natural gas competition.
Joe Biden, on the other hand, was neither the strongest nor the weakest proponent for environmental reform during the primary Democratic debates. Having won the nomination, Biden collaborated with his more radical, populist opponent, Bernie Sanders, to win over distrustful youth voters – the “climate left” – who hold no complacency on the radical and urgent policies they demand in return for their vote. Biden began the creation of a number of policy task forces, co-chaired by long-time climate advocate, John Kerry, and the Democratic ‘Green New Deal’ champion, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He also quickly announced a fossil fuel phaseout target set for 2035, with the overall target for net-zero emissions following behind in 2050.
Regardless, despite the divisions unveiling within his own party, Biden still needs to placate the worries of the more moderate electorate – the “blue collar” workers that Trump appealed to so successfully in 2016. Drawing from Trump’s industrial American sentiment, and his cachet of sharp, catchy slogans, Biden unveiled the ‘Build Back Better’ initiative: a $2 trillion greens jobs programme founded upon expansive energy investments and an overhaul of public infrastructure. Granted, far less favourable for its own line of headgear, ‘Build Back Better’ promises to both invigorate the economy and protect the environment in one fell swoop. The initiative, however, has been criticised by many as taking a heavy political risk amidst the country’s current economic downturn, as well as being immensely ambitious when contrasted against America’s infamous history of climate scepticism.
However, can Biden manage to maneuverer such lofty goals through the gridlock of government? During his vice-presidency under Barack Obama, Democratic attempts at forming a cap-and-trade system to reduce emission levels were blocked by the Republican senate and proved too politically toxic. Many also remain questioning of Biden’s ardour to champion such a radical platform, with the US export-import bank were found to have financed over $34 billion worth of fossil fuel projects abroad under the Obama-Biden administration, with the US becoming the largest crude oil exporter in the world as late as 2018. Heather Zichal, Biden’s climate advisor and former board member of natural gas producer, Cheniere Energy, also headed an interagency group under Obama to encourage “unconventional” oil and gas development – an initiative which eventually allowed Shell to begin Arctic drilling. Finally, Biden’s campaign Co-Chair, Cedric Richmond, has been found to have amongst the most pro-fossil fuel voting record of any congressional democrat, having previously voted in favour of projects such as the expansion of offshore drilling, and the construction of the Keystone XL pipeline.
His running mate, however, Kamala Harris, described ironically both as a moderate and a radical leftist depending on her critic, fell to the left of Biden on environmental issues in her own presidential bid. In an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Harris decried crimes against the environment as those against the ‘poor and disenfranchised’, evocative of her advocacy for racial justice in tackling the climate crisis. With the election taking place upon a backdrop of ruptured race relations following the recent death of George Floyd, Harris’ unification of justice at the intersect of race and the environment may be a rallying cry for many, potentially disillusioned, voters apathetic to Biden’s changeable record.
Yet, in face of Trump’s hard-headed repudiation for environmental efforts, the question may not be whose environmental policy does one prefer, but does one view it necessary in the first instance? We will have to wait until November to find out, in an election assured to make history – even if for all the wrong reasons.