The US election and climate action: two very different scenarios for the future

An unprecedented number of mail-in ballots means we could be in for an uncomfortable wait for the result of the US presidential election. The polls suggest that Joe Biden is the frontrunner, although the race is too close to call in many battleground states. The significance of this election for global efforts to tackle the climate crisis cannot be overstated. This year is set to be the warmest year on record, while this summer saw wildfires ravage California and tropical storms hitting the Gulf Coast. The US has contributed more CO2 emissions than any other country and continues to generate the highest emissions per capita. This election is a pivotal moment. So what do the two possible scenarios have in store?

1. A second Trump term
Donald Trump’s climate scepticism is well established. Elected on promises to strengthen the coal industry, the president withdrew the US from the Paris Climate Accord in 2017, expanded offshore oil and gas drilling, boosted fossil fuel exports and approved the construction of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. He claims tackling climate change and economic recovery cannot go hand in hand, emphasising that his expansion of fossil fuels has created millions of jobs. His proposed budget for 2021 includes drastic reductions in funding for federal agency environment programmes, including a reduction of 26 per cent for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and a whopping 97 per cent for the Land and Water Conservation Fund. Donald Trump’s Supreme Court choice, Amy Coney Barrett, has also come under fire for refusing to state her position on climate change or concede that this would have any bearing on her ability to decide rulings that deal with environmental protections.

It is a great irony that, earlier this year, Trump signed the biggest US land conservation legislation in a generation, the Great American Outdoors Act, which commits billions of dollars to the maintenance of national parks. The passage of this legislation demonstrates that his political approach to the environment is both troubling and complex. What is clear, however, is that he does not see climate change as an urgent threat, will continue to invest in fossil fuels and his platform does not commit to working with the international community on the environment.

As the host of next year’s COP26 climate conference, the UK could face an uphill battle to lead by example as Donald Trump will formally confirm US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. However, a quick UK-US trade deal is likely to be secured, even if this has already raised concerns about controversial imports of chlorine washed chicken and hormone injected beef. Some commentators have even suggested Boris Johnson is waiting until after the election to sign a deal with the EU, given that Donald Trump is unlikely to prioritise a US-EU trade deal over negotiations with the UK.

2. A Biden victory
A Biden presidency would raise hopes of tackling climate change. The former vice president has committed to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement. His manifesto plans include transitioning the economy to 100 per cent clean energy and reaching net zero emissions by 2050. His running mate, Kamala Harris, is a prominent supporter of the Green New Deal, the proposed plan to overhaul US climate legislation, tackling economic inequality and decarbonising the economy simultaneously. In presidential debates, Joe Biden has called the climate crisis an “existential threat” to health, the economy and national security, pledging $1.7 trillion of federal investment in a greener future over the next ten years. Increasingly, he has adopted the language of environmental justice, acknowledging the disproportionate impact of pollution and environmental harms on low income communities of colour and emphasising the need for inclusive, community-driven action. This will be backed up by greater support for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to work more closely with local and tribal leaders in responding to natural disasters.

Progressive commitments aside, Joe Biden is far from the climate hero environmentalists crave. His platform does not include a ban on fracking, or any commitment to pursue a more rapid phase-out of fossil fuels. Much of this comes down to politics and the risk of alienating key voters in the Rust Belt states of the Midwest where fossil fuel industries and exports of heavy manufactured goods remain hugely important.

Clearly, the challenge for him is how to unite a divided nation on an issue that has become increasingly polarised along party lines, unlike the UK. Joe Biden needs the support of a Democrat-controlled Senate to pass ambitious legislation and be able to weather the inevitable pushback from powerful oil lobbies.

On trade, his agenda includes leveraging American power to rally the world’s largest emitters into raising ambitions, banning fossil-fuel subsidies globally, and introducing tariffs on high carbon imports. For the UK, his presidency could mean a much closer alignment on climate ambitions, while at the same time presenting complex uncertainties over the UK’s new trading relationships. He has been an open advocate of strengthening multilateralism, namely by repairing relations with the EU, and he is an opponent of Brexit. As ongoing questions are raised about US responses to breaking the Northern Ireland protocol, this will be a key issue on both sides of the Atlantic. His desire to repair relations with the EU could prove challenging in agreeing a quick UK-US trade deal.

As its national deficit surpasses $3 trillion, and the country grapples with Covid-19, the US faces urgent questions about how it will approach the climate crisis over the next four years and beyond. Equally, the UK faces an imminent recalibration of the so-called Anglo-American ‘special relationship,’ as it negotiates its global position and trading relationships post-Brexit. Boris Johnson’s recent commitments to expand wind power and upcoming environmental legislation have demonstrated that the UK government is beginning to take steps towards realising its climate ambitions. Will the US follow suit?

Green Alliance online event: What does the outcome of the US election mean for climate and nature?
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