Few images captured the mood of climate activists last week more vividly than a video posted to Twitter of Christiana Figueres, one of the architects of the Paris Agreement, jubilantly dancing in circles after receiving word that outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump had lost his bid for reelection. With the victory of Joe Biden, the U.S. is now poised to rejoin the agreement, and for the first time since 2017 will be not be led by a climate science denier.
Biden’s climate agenda, which has been described as the most ambitious of any presidential candidate in U.S. history, is balm for advocates who have struggled to move the global agenda forward without the participation of one of the world’s leading carbon emitters.
But challenges loom ahead: Biden is likely to be governing with a conservative Republican Senate that will curtail his options in Congress, giving him a narrow rope to walk between the demands of progressives in his own party and the limitations imposed on him by his political opponents.
Still, analysts say his election represents the best chance in years to decarbonize the U.S. economy, and will provide a desperately needed shot in the arm for international efforts to slow climate change.
“Anyone who cares about the climate crisis is now breathing a huge sigh of relief,” Helen Mountford, vice president of climate and economics at the World Resources Institute (WRI), told reporters in a press call on Nov. 10. “The U.S. is officially back in the game.”
While it may prove difficult to pass sweeping climate legislation, Biden will have other tools at his disposal. His campaign has already promised to implement 10 executive orders on the day he takes office, including limits on methane emissions from oil and gas extraction, tighter regulations on fuel standards for vehicles, and a ban on fossil fuel extraction on public lands.
Biden will also have wide leeway in aligning U.S. foreign policy with his climate agenda. One of the central promises he made during his campaign was to immediately rejoin the Paris Agreement, which will require the establishment of new benchmark goals for U.S. emissions reductions by 2030.
Environmental advocates say policies already adopted by states and cities across the country should help the Biden administration aim high.
“We would recommend that a 45-50% reduction in emissions over 2005 would be an appropriate and very doable goal to have,” said Andrew Steer, CEO of WRI.
Biden has also promised to reestablish U.S. contributions to the Green Climate Fund, a pool of donor financing meant to help developing countries adapt to and prepare for the impacts of climate change. Last year, 27 countries pledged nearly $10 billion to the fund, and expectations are high that the U.S will soon pay the $2 billion still outstanding from the last pledge it made in 2014.
Throughout his presidency, Donald Trump proposed federal budgets that included deep cuts to foreign aid that would have imperiled USAID programs designed to support conservation of forests and wildlife across the world. The cuts were repeatedly rejected by Congress, but a Biden administration will almost certainly leave those programs intact.
After another summer of raging fires in the Amazon, Biden has also indicated that he will take a much tougher stance against Brazil’s government than the Trump administration did, offering $20 billion in support for rainforest protection and threatening “significant economic consequences” if President Jair Bolsonaro fails to curb deforestation.
Bolsonaro hit back on Nov. 10, promising to defend Brazil’s sovereignty over the Amazon with “gunpowder” if necessary, setting the stage for what will likely be contentious relations with the incoming Biden administration.
On the domestic front, advocates say they hope Biden will be able to find common ground with Republican lawmakers on issues like regulation of climate-killing hydrofluorocarbon emissions and proposals to plant millions of new trees.
“The prospects of a deal are not as dim as people think it is,” said Paula DiPerna, special adviser to the Climate Disclosure Project. “It’s a 50-state nation, and everybody is afraid of these wild storms. Look at Florida being knocked off its feet constantly now, and Louisiana.”
One of Biden’s top priorities will be a stimulus package meant to address the deepening economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, which could also represent an opportunity to transition the U.S. toward renewable energy and other green infrastructure.
“The evidence is now pretty overwhelming that you actually do get more jobs, better jobs and an income boost from the very first year if you invest in a green recovery rather than a dirty, polluting recovery where you lock in the old,” Mountford said.
That focus on jobs may be just what’s needed to build broad, bipartisan support for decarbonization.
“I think that the good thing that Biden seems to be able to do, which has been missing for a very long time is to really highlight the job creation impacts of dealing with climate change,” DiPerna said.
The stakes are high for Biden to sell an ambitious climate agenda to the U.S. public, and there isn’t much room to get it wrong. Global carbon emissions hit an all-time high in 2019, and scientists warn that time is running out to keep warming below 1.5° Celsius (2.7° Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels.
Given the scale of the problem, not all advocates believe Biden’s approach goes far enough.
“Some of his plan relies on magical techno-fixes, like he wants to invest heavily in carbon capture and storage along with negative emissions technology, so he does lean into that,” said Karen Orenstein, director of the climate and energy program at Friends of the Earth U.S. “And that’s also because it maintains the status quo, which is incompatible with averting the climate crisis.”
But while Biden wasn’t the first choice of the climate justice movement, Orenstein said she’s encouraged by his pledges to direct support toward vulnerable communities and begin a just transition away from fossil fuels. Despite bad memories of progressive climate activists being largely shut out of the Obama administration, she described Biden as a “breath of fresh air” in comparison to Trump.
“I feel like we have someone we can push. And we can make progress,” she said.