Many have celebrated Joe Biden’s win in the US presidential election as a major turning point in the battle to save the world from climate catastrophe. The liberal media have been Biden’s main advocates. For example, a 12 November editorial in the Guardian argued: “Joe Biden’s win will make a big difference to international efforts to deal with the climate emergency”. Others have pointed to impressive-sounding campaign promises, such as a commitment to spend US$2 trillion over four years to build “sustainable infrastructure and an equitable clean energy future”.
For the climate movement to fall for this would be a disaster. When you look beneath the surface at the detail of Biden’s promises, the difference between him and Trump appears more a matter of presentation than of policy content. Biden may not be an outright climate change denier like Trump, but this, in fact, is what makes him uniquely dangerous. By creating the impression of progress, a Biden administration could much more effectively “greenwash” the destructive status quo, taking the momentum away from the climate movement at a crucial moment in the fight for a sustainable future.
The world needs much bigger changes, and much more quickly, than anything Biden is proposing. The infrastructure investment is spread across a long list of projects that have little do to with his pledge to transition US electricity to zero net carbon emissions. Projects include rebuilding roads, rail, aviation, ports, bridges, water systems and universal broadband.
The investment plan commits to projects necessary for an energy transition. But the funding will be spread thin, even if the proposals get through the Congress. Can it meet his pledge to de-carbonise the power sector by 2035? It will not come close. Recent analysis by the energy research firm Wood Mackenzie estimates that $4.5 trillion would be needed to transition US electricity to renewables. But Biden has not committed to any emission cuts in his first term. None. Zilch. That is, unless you count committing to “a milestone target no later than the end of his first term”, as his policy website says.
In recent weeks, Biden has ruled out banning fracking, which accounts for almost all new US natural gas production. Yet an energy transition is impossible without transitioning away from natural gas. A 2019 paper published in the journal Nature, titled “Committed emissions from existing energy infrastructure jeopardize 1.5 degree climate target”, found that the total committed carbon emissions from existing and planned fossil infrastructure is more than double the maximum amount required to stay within the Paris Agreement carbon budget (the total amount of carbon that can be released to hold global warming below 2°C). And this is a conservative figure, as it does not include emissions from agriculture, logging and land use. No matter how many trillions are invested in natural gas and crude oil reserves, large portions of it will need to be abandoned—a fact Biden clearly refuses to accept by encouraging even more investment.
Biden’s motivation to continue natural gas production has little to do with carbon emissions. It has a lot to do with his commitment to a profitable fossil fuel sector. His true intentions are visible to those who are looking.
Young climate activists in the Sunrise Movement reached 3.5 million young votes in swing states during the presidential election campaign. In response, Biden has appointed Cedric Richmond as White House public engagement officer, where he is expected to serve as a liaison “with the businesses community and climate change activists”. Richmond, a congressional representative, received $341,000 from donors in the oil and gas industry, the fifth highest donation total among House Democrats. This fossil fuel industry ally has a record of voting with Republicans against restrictions on fracking. Biden’s appointment of Richmond hints that behind a green PR campaign, dirty deals are already being made.
But assume for a moment that Biden follows through on his carbon reduction pledges. His commitment to de-carbonising US electricity production by 2035 will not come close to honouring the US Paris Agreement pledge, which is a 26-28 percent emissions cut by 2025. Even if, miraculously, Biden and his successor(s) were to de-carbonise US electricity production by 2035—a 27 percent cut in national emissions—it would be ten years behind schedule.
Now assume that Biden improves his emission reduction pledges and commits the US to the 2015 Paris Agreement. This would still not avoid a climate disaster. Climate Action Tracker, a scientific analysis that follows government climate action, estimates that if all global governments committed to the US Paris pledge, global warming would still reach four degrees by 2100. As detailed in Mark Lynas’ new book Our Final Warming, the Paris Agreement may deliver a three-degree warmer world as soon as 2050.
What would this climate disaster look like? A 2020 scientific paper titled Future of the Human Climate Niche found that, with three degrees of warming, 3.5 billion people would be living in regions with a mean annual temperature akin to the Sahara desert today. This scenario would cause global mass wildlife extinctions and ruin billions of human lives.
Biden’s climate policy is not a major turning point. It is a continuation of a violent assault on Earth’s biodiversity, on billions of young people alive today and on the sustainability of our planet. Biden hopes to do what Trump was no good at: demobilising the climate movement by convincing activists that he is on our side. The environmental movement must not get swept up in distant Paris Agreement pledges and net-zero 2050 national targets.
The 2019 IPCC report, titled Global Warming of 1.5 degrees, insists that we need to keep the globe from warming by 1.5 degrees. This can be done only through global emissions cuts of 7.6 percent annually, starting now. Another recent IPCC report, 1.5 degrees, says that this energy transition demands “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”.
Resting our hopes in Biden is a recipe for disaster. The global climate movement must fight to change the system itself.