Climate as an Answer to America’s Problems
David LevaïFellow for International Climate Policy and Diplomacy at the UN Foundation
Right after he took office on January 20th, the new American President, Joe Biden, wanted to make clear that responding to the climate crisis would be one of his administration’s priorities. Identified during his campaign as one of the four crises that will shape America’s present and future 1 , he made it the subject of its first official speech. The day after the presidential election, even while the outcome was still uncertain, the Democratic Democrat candidate denounced the American withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, which had gone into effect on November 4th. He promised a return, without fanfare, 77 days later, which he carried out through his first presidential signature on January 20, 2021, effective as of February 19th.
Beyond its symbolism, the United States’ return to the Paris Agreement marks a revival of multilateral cooperation on climate, which had suffered under tensions exacerbated by the election of Donald Trump four years before. Seizing this moment offered the opportunity to demonstrate how well prepared the Administration was to lead the country on the road to carbon neutrality: through successive appointments, speeches from members of the government, and instructions given to government agencies, the Biden team intends to show that it is not only aware of what is at stake and the forces at play, but also that it is prepared to take up the challenge at both the national and international levels in order to ambitiously respond to and meet expectations. It remains to be seen whether the President is ready to invest his political capital in this.
With this initial display and an avalanche of new promises, the United States is already attempting to catch up. China had caused surprise by announcing in September 2020 its intention to reach carbon neutrality by 2060, one decade after the European Union, at a moment when the United States was still denying reality. At that time, the Democratic candidate was already displaying ambitious intentions — to make U.S. electricity production carbon neutral by 2035 and its entire economy carbon neutral by 2050 — following a trajectory parallel to the European Union’s. Since then, these plans have been confirmed by the new President in a new climate contribution (NDC) 2 which was drawn up in record time and deemed both ambitious and realistic, as well as a multi-year plan for international public funding. 3
Thus, on April 22, 2021, five years to the day after the signing of the Paris Agreement on the podium of the United Nations in New York in front of President Hollande and the Secretary General then, Ban Ki Moon, the new American president wanted to make his mark by organizing the first Leaders Summit on Climate, exclusively dedicated to the climate crisis. Among the forty countries invited were the world’s seventeen leading economic powers. But the spotlight was on Washington as Joe Biden presented new American commitments for 2030. The national effort will live up to the expectations of civil society as it aims to reduce GHG emissions by 50% to 52% compared to 2005. It is a victory for activists and an undeniable success for the United States.
The same day, a new climate financing plan ordered by the White House was unveiled. Despite a clear political will, in a political context that is not very conducive to international financing, the plan’s content is disappointing. The announced amounts of 5.7 billion dollars per year by 2024 are far from what is needed to catch up with European leaders (UK, DE, FR) who will have quadrupled their financing in the ten years between 2015 and 2025. 4 How credible are American pronouncements if their elected officials are unable to mobilize the necessary resources?
None of the United States’ partners have forgotten the back-and-forth of the last decades 5 and America’s frequent reversals during the political changeover in Washington. If American climate ambitions leave some partners sceptical, many want to believe in the political will of President Biden. The Congress, that the President needs to legislate, is strongly divided, and even if a majority of Americans want more federal action on climate 6 , the issue remains highly polarized 7 . Given this situation, how can Joe Biden convince people that his good intentions are sustainable and that he will be able to set America on a path towards carbon neutrality beyond his first term? The main question that Democrats will have to answer quickly if they hope to restore American climate leadership is how to make it an issue that Americans care about in the long term?
Making climate the new frontier for public action
Joe Biden aims to anchor climate at the center of American policy. He hopes to solidify climate action through reshaping policymakers’ profiles and changing government processes.
Some American commentators have expressed surprise at the green transformation of the radically centrist candidate Biden into the deeply progressive President Biden. Each of the more than 20 Democratic candidates during the primary campaign had made the climate crisis a central part of their campaign, some even making it the top priority for public action.
While the climate issue was absent from Hillary Clinton’s campaign in 2016, in just a few years it has become the cornerstone in the fight for new rights and social justice. Faced with the constant dismantling of environmental regulations in the Trump era 8 , climate action has become a rallying cry of progressives. Political polarization has made it a clear message for the Democratic camp that all of its representatives have embraced, including the most moderate of them, Joe Biden. Once the primaries were over, the Democrats had to come together and develop a policy agenda within the Unity Task Force that could win popular support 9 . Climate was the first focus, and it was John Kerry (from the Biden camp) and the progressive icon, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (from the Sanders camp), who forged a common vision in which the fight against the climate crisis would be a catalyst for greater social justice.
During their time in the opposition, the Democrats laid the groundwork for a new direction, actively working to bring foreign policy and national security specialists closer to the climate community. This effort sought to overcome the Obama administration’s lack of coherence. Despite its national and international climate ambitions, the Obama administration did expand fossil fuels in the United States with the fracking boom while promoting American gas abroad, particularly in Europe, in the face of Russian expansionism.
Through a number of initiatives, such as those led by the National Security Action or the United Nations Foundation 10 , many of the future members of Joe Biden’s foreign policy team have been trained in climate issues, particularly those that fall directly under their diplomatic or security expertise. Now in office, those experts have climate action as their compass, along with security, soft power, or human rights.
This systematic commitment to placing the climate crisis at the heart of every public policy was also evident in the Biden administration’s leadership appointments and their first decisions. Joe Biden was clear from day one: the climate issue requires a comprehensive response in all arrays of government action, from foreign policy to trade, from national security to agriculture, from transportation to fiscal policy. That is what the Americans call “a whole-of-government approach”. Each sector of the US economy must initiate, accelerate, or deepen its transition, and the federal government must act as the catalyst.
Thus, each of President Biden’s top aides, undisputed experts in their fields, have both a strong exposure and sensitivity to climate issues. They intend to better integrate climate in their portfolio. This is natural for positions that are traditionally concerned with steering climate action. Michael Regan was chosen to lead the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a man who occupied this role in the state of North Carolina and is known for his actions in favour of disadvantaged populations, and his emphasis on justice and equity issues. Jennifer Granholm, former governor of Michigan which is home of the automotive industry, was appointed as Secretary of Energy to lead the electric vehicle revolution. Debra Haaland, the first Native American secretary, as head of the Department of the Interior, is responsible for managing and preserving federal lands. These appointments reinforce the idea for both supporters and opponents that these departments will strive to pursue ambitious policies on modernizing the electric grid, transforming the energy mix, or limiting fossil fuel extraction.
At the White House, the President is striking a greener tone with the creation of two special envoy positions, with their own teams, serving in the Cabinet — the equivalent of the French Conseil des Ministres. Two former Obama officials, John Kerry (for international affairs) and Gina McCarthy (for domestic affairs), are now responsible for turning presidential words into action.
However, the most visible difference comes from positions not directly or traditionally linked with climate issues. There have been firm, determined, and unequivocal statements on the threat posed by climate change and the specific role each branch of the government has to play. Both the Secretary of State — Anthony Blinken — and the Director of Intelligence — Avril Haines — stated in their Senate hearings that climate change will be a foreign policy and national security priority. The Secretary of Defence, General Lloyd Austin, has launched an internal review to better assess climate-related risks both to military infrastructure and deployment as well as its potential to increase threats and conflicts. On December 12th, the day of the fifth anniversary of the Paris Agreement, the National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, whose deputy is Jon Finer, a former Chief of Staff for Secretary of State John Kerry, reaffirmed his view that “the climate crisis is a national security crisis for the United States”.
The US Trade Representative, Ambassador Tai, believes that U.S. trade policy must combat climate change and help protect the planet and not the other way round. This would entail ending the export of American fossil fuels, a little revolution. Janet Yellen, Secretary of the Treasury, is building a dedicated team around her, a first in the U.S. treasury. The list is long and includes Brian Deese, champion of green finance and now Director of the National Economic Council (NEC), Pete Buttigieg, unsuccessful candidate in the Democratic primaries and now Secretary of Transportation, and Biden’s own chief of staff, Ron Klain, all of whom have long been sensitive to climate issues.
In its first weeks, the White House aimed at demonstrating its seriousness and level of preparation by tasking all its agencies to launch reviews of ongoing policies and plans to integrate climate issues or constraints more effectively. A presidential order mandated agencies and departments to investigate the issue and to quickly come up with concrete proposals to integrate climate into issues such as foreign policy, defense and national security, export financing, and development assistance. It also mandated the various branches of the U.S. government to use any means at their disposal, from licensing to government contracts. All these efforts are under the responsibility of an intergovernmental task force, led by Gina McCarthy, which meets monthly, whose work is public, and which brings together the heads of twenty-one federal agencies, a first in this country.
Taken together, these political appointments form a coherent vision: every public policy decision or instrument will have to integrate the climate crisis, respond to it and try to contain it. At the Leaders Climate Summit, hosted (virtually) by Joe Biden on April 22nd — Earth Day — no less than eighteen officials or senior members of the administration spoke. The primary purpose of this show of force was to assure foreign officials of the U.S.’s political will and the credibility of their commitments. This includes the more cynical ones for whom the 2022 midterm elections could put an end to the Biden administration’s ambitions. It was also about reminding Americans that the climate issue is crucial and affirming the transformative ambition of his government. By reshaping the structure and functioning of his Administration in order to integrate the climate issue at all levels of government, Joe Biden hopes to make sure that the efforts already underway continue beyond the end of his term, even in the event of change in political rule.
Climate, a foundation of the political response to middle-class challenges
Ensuring the longevity of political decisions that pave the road to carbon neutrality requires building a solid consensus in the public opinion. Choices to be made in the coming years regarding energy production, transportation, land use, urban expansion, agriculture, or industrial practices will need to be perceived by a majority as beneficial to America and its middle class rather than a necessity for the planet. The Biden Administration’s challenge is to make climate action a major part of the response to the problems that affect all of America and its citizens. It must not only be a vehicle for jobs and growth, but also for social justice racial justice, and equity. Three main areas of focus have been identified: environmental justice, just transition, and jobs.
Environmental impacts often discriminate against the most disadvantaged populations. In the United States, minorities, particularly African Americans and Native Americans, have been victims of endemic air and water pollution at the local level for generations. Environmental justice intends to correct this by paying particular attention to the plight of those who have suffered the most from this damage, as well as how they will be affected by the climate response. It is for this reason that some progressive voices reject the “polluter pays” principle, which would “endorse” certain types of pollution as long as the polluter can pay the final bill, regardless of the social or human costs. That is why there does not exist today widespread support of the idea of a carbon tax among progressive Democrats, even if some, like AOC, admit that it could be part of a range of solutions.
The transition to carbon neutrality implies the transformation of all sectors of the economy, in particular the energy and industrial sectors. Their transformation will have a high cost in terms of employment and certain regions of the United States — such as West Virginia with its coal mines, or Ohio and Pennsylvania with their shale gas wells — will be a victim to this desindustrialisation process. Ensuring a just transition means limiting its harmful effects by massively investing in support and retraining of workers. The prevailing social vision is that blue collar workers should not have to bear the cost of this transition alone, it should be society as a whole, since it is a collective choice.
The two pillars of social and environmental justice are obviously at the heart of the major infrastructure plan presented by the Biden Administration and submitted to Congress. But the White House is seeking to go even further with the American Jobs Act, which has a budget of more than two billion dollars, by making the green transition the answer to the main concern of Americans: ensuring quality jobs that pay decent wages. This plan highlights the opportunities that arise from fully investing in the low-carbon transition. Jobs, economic growth, and innovation will be its foundation.
Joe Biden’s challenge is to demonstrate in less than one term that the transition to a carbon-free economy is the only possible path forward for the United States, and that this path will both bring higher wages and reduce inequalities. The credibility of U.S. commitments is also at stake. The repeated 180° policy shifts by successive administrations over the past twenty years have shown the urgent need to enshrine any progress or new goals into law so that a change in administration does not mean that a President can simply abandon the path that was established.
For certain countries which are major emitters, especially in Europe, the desire to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to determine an acceptable pathway to carbon neutrality has led to major legislation: the European Green Deal (2019/20), the British Climate Change Act (2008), the French Energy Transition and Green Growth Act (2015), and the German Climate Protection Act of 2019, which has just been overturned by the Constitutional Court for not being ambitious enough. We should not expect the same in the United States, i.e. an overarching “climate” plan, covering all sectors while setting binding targets and deadlines. Although it is not called as such, climate action is deeply rooted in the large infrastructure plan that is the American Jobs Act. The semantic shift from climate to infrastructures to jobs illustrates the Democratic strategy of using climate action to address the problems of today’s America, especially for the middle class. The climate approach will allow the modernization of decaying infrastructure, strengthen the reliability and resiliency of the electric grid, create millions of good, decent-paying jobs, reclaim American leadership in innovation, and ensure quality public services.
This “American Jobs Project” plans to commit considerable funding over the next eight years to shift the American energy system towards renewable energies in order to reach the goal of completely carbon-free electricity in the next 15 years. $100 billion will be spent to strengthen the electrical grid, accelerate electricity production from renewable energy, and convert jobs in the fossil fuels industry to eliminate methane leaks from old coal mines or oil and gas wells. $174 billion will be used to convert the automobile fleet to electric vehicles, through support for the automobile industry, the deployment of 500,000 charging stations, and the conversion of 20% of school buses (by 2030). As for energy efficiency, which is lacking in American buildings, an additional $213 billion will be mobilized to build or renovate over two million homes and commercial buildings. In addition, to ensure that public spending is consistent with the goal of decarbonizing the economy, the Biden plan seeks to eliminate the tax breaks and subsidies that still benefit fossil fuels industries.
This vast project is not only about increasing the resilience of America’s ageing infrastructure, but also about investing in the workforce. Since he took office, Joe Biden has been driving home a single message: “jobs, jobs, jobs”! The White House’s comprehensive approach, which is applied across all government agencies and departments, aims to provide concrete answers to the concerns of the middle-class such as ensuring quality jobs — meaning jobs that are sustainable, well-paid, and protected or unionized — and reducing inequalities while laying the foundation for a shared vision of a carbon-free tomorrow. Making this connection obvious would allow President Biden to secure the support of a large majority of Americans and to ensure that the transition was permanent. Beyond anchoring the transition in legislation, this is how Joe Biden hopes to show the rest of the world the legitimacy of his approach and the long-term nature of American commitments through popular support — as the Democrats did with the Affordable Care Act (the official name of “Obamacare”) in its time.
In an America traumatized by record unemployment last year — unseen since the Great Depression — the issue of jobs is a unifying theme and a rallying cry that can unite America, helping to make climate action durable. Like China, choosing the path of carbon neutrality to satisfy one’s own interests and ensure one’s economic and trade leadership is a powerful argument for mobilizing all parts of American society.
A renewed American leadership on climate requires actions beyond words. The road is straight, but the slope is steep… and fraught with perils. There is real risk that the legislative branch will curtail the executive branch’s transformative ambitions and ability to act. The latter will still be able to count on grassroots movement within American civil society, those enterprises and communities that are choosing to embark on the path to carbon neutrality. While they contributed to a significant shift in public opinion during the Trump years, these initiatives do not have the necessary scale to transform the American economy without federal support.
The Biden administration has already demonstrated its seriousness and preparedness. Aware that more will be needed to convince its international partners of its capacity to stay the course beyond the next three years, it hopes to offer a vision of America that goes beyond political divisions to make carbon neutrality an unattainable goal.
- Along with the Covid-19 pandemic, the economic crisis and systemic racism.
- The United States’ Nationally Determined Contribution. Reducing Greenhouse Gases in the United States: A 2030 Emissions Target, April 15, 2021.
- U.S. International Climate Finance Plan, White House, April 22, 2021.
- Michael Igoe, “Biden announces US will double climate finance by 2024”, Devex, 22 April 2021.
- The Clinton administration negotiated the Kyoto Agreement in 1997, but the United States never ratified it. America turned away from climate multilateralism during the Bush years (2001-2008) before returning to it under Obama (2009-2016) and signing the Paris Agreement. D. Trump decided to leave it in June 2017. J. Biden re-entered the Paris Agreement in February 2021.
- According to a Pew Research Center study in late 2019, 2/3 of Americans believe the federal government is doing too little to combat the effects of climate change. See Cary Funk & Brian Kennedy, “How Americans see climate change and the environment in 7 charts”, Pew Research Center, 21 April 2020.
- Between 2013 and 2020 the percentage of Americans who consider climate change a threat rose from 40% to 60%. However, the change occurred mainly among Democrats, from 58% to 88%, while the proportion among Republicans went from 22% to 31%.
- More than a hundred environmental regulations have been removed by the Trump Administration – including standards for CO2 emissions from vehicles, methane emissions from the oil industry, and the powerful warming gases HFCs from refrigeration. See Nadja Popovich, Livia Albeck-Ripka and Kendra Pierre-Louis, “The Trump Administration Rolled Back More Than 100 Environmental Rules. Here’s the Full List”, New York Times, 20 January, 2021.
- Biden-Sanders Unity task force recommendations. Combating the climate crisis and pursuing environmental justice, JoeBiden.com, August 2020.
- See Climate in foreign policy project (CFPP), United States Foundation.
To cite the article
David Levaï, Climate as an Answer to America’s Problems, Sep 2021, 47-51.
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