Joe Biden’s US election victory has been hailed as a significant turning point in US policy on everything from racial injustice to the Covid-19 pandemic. But there are few areas where the president-elect differs from his predecessor more than climate change, a topic that was seen as a key election issue. After four years of environmental policy rollbacks, support for fossil fuels and retreat from the international community under Donald Trump, many now hope the president-elect and vice president-elect Kamala Harris will encourage the US to be a climate leader. There has been extensive media coverage in the US and around the world examining how the new administration will tackle climate change. Below, Carbon Brief summarises how Biden’s win has been covered in the context of climate change.
How will a Biden presidency impact climate action?
Biden’s win came after an intense few days of speculation during which votes were counted in a handful of tightly contested states. Vox was one of the first outlets to report Biden to be the winner, based on an announcement by election analysts at Decision Desk, which concluded on 6 November that the Democrat had won in Pennsylvania, thus securing the required 270 electoral votes. The US-based news outlet was quick to emphasise Biden’s climate pledges, noting he had committed to a “massive spending programme” to address it. Other news desks and television networks called the election result as the weekend progressed, with the Associated Press (AP) making a call on 7 November. It subsequently covered Biden’s victory speech, in which he declared a desire “not to divide, but to unify”. In the full speech, of which Vox published a transcript, Biden said the US had been called upon “to marshal the forces of science and forces of hope in the great battles of our time”, including “the battle to save our planet by getting climate under control”. In its coverage, Climate Home News said that “Biden is heading to the White House with a promise to overturn four years of US retreat on climate action”. It noted that he had been elected on “the most ambitious climate platform ever presented by a presidential candidate”, including $2tn of clean energy spending.
The article also stated that Biden will govern with Kamala Harris as his vice president, who has “a track record of suing oil companies as former attorney general of California”. The Biden-Harris transition team has already published its climate plan on its new website. Bloomberg said that, for the first time in history, Biden could take a “clear climate mandate” into the White House, with “robust popular support for climate action, borne out in polling data and election results from a hard-fought campaign”.
Climate Action Tracker released new analysis following Biden’s victory that was picked up by many outlets, including the Guardian. It concluded that, if the president-elect’s plans come to fruition, the result “could reduce global heating by about 0.1C, bringing the goals of the Paris Agreement ‘within striking distance’”. One of the key action proposed by Biden in his platform (the US term for a manifesto) was re-joining the Paris Agreement – and Axios examined the need for the US to update its climate pledge when it does so: “Given the long odds of moving a big climate bill through congress, Biden’s diplomatic leverage will depend on showing other policies will breathe life into the new pledge… Options include stimulus provisions; tariffs on carbon-intensive goods.”
Writing for Foreign Policy, Jason Bordoff noted that re-joining the Paris Agreement “is necessary, but far from sufficient”. He proposed various other measures, including collaboration on clean energy trade and innovation, leading an agreement to curb methane emissions and finalising another to phase down hydrofluorocarbons. A piece in the New York Times put forward nine actions the Biden administration could take to address climate early on, noting that the “first 100 days of the Biden administration are likely to see a flurry of executive actions on climate change”. Among these proposals were making climate action part of Covid-19 relief, signing executive orders to cut emissions and revising rules on fossil fuel production. The Los Angeles Times highlighted the importance of reinstating “tough nationwide rules for auto emissions and mileage standards that were put in place under the Obama administration”. The Boston Globe published a comment piece by Dr Leah Stokes from the University of California, Santa Barbara, who said: “With Joe Biden and Kamala Harris running the executive branch, we can ensure that government spending is greened across the board.”
A Twitter thread by Politico journalist Mike Grunwald attracted many replies from experts suggesting potential climate action that could happen “right away”. Another focus identified by veteran US climate scientist Ben Santer in an open letter to Biden in Scientific American is restoring public trust in science and scientists after four years of the Trump administration: “You must rebuild public trust in the scientific impartiality of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Department of Energy, the Centers for Disease Control and many other federal agencies with scientific remits.”
According to InsideClimate News, climate activists in the US have already said they will “push the new president for aggressive action on climate” where necessary. Adam Vaughan in New Scientist noted that in the TV debates Biden said he would “transition from the oil industry” and “promised to end new drill leases for public land and water, which would have a big impact offshore”. However, Biden has drawn criticism from some in the climate community for not coming out firmly enough against fracking. A piece in Forbes by Michael Lynch concluded that, despite pressure from the “progressive/left” of the Democratic party, “on the big questions that affect the petroleum industry – fracking, pipeline construction, carbon taxes – the administration seems unlikely to act to their detriment, at least initially”. The Independent reported that while the Trump team has refused to cooperate, Biden has announced his transition teams, including the people overseeing transfer of power at federal environmental and energy agencies. The piece noted that the transition “may be a bumpy one”, as some team members have histories of publicly condemning and even launching lawsuits against the current administration over its rollbacks of environmental regulations. The New York Times included more details of Biden’s team.
Bloomberg founder and former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg has offered his views on the “bold approach” Biden should take to climate change, emphasising the importance of actions taken independently of Congress and a focus throughout government. A feature in the Washington Post suggested that this is indeed the approach that Biden will take. It cited a “300-page blueprint” put together by former Obama administration officials and experts layingout what the president needs to do beyond reversing Trump administration policies, while “avoiding some of the pitfalls that hampered president Barack Obama”. Among the proposed measures were creating a White House National Climate Council, establishing a “carbon bank” that could pay landowners to store carbon, pushing vehicle electrification through the transport department and developing a Treasury climate policy that promotes emissions cuts through tax, budget and regulatory policies.
The end of the Trump era
Donald Trump’s presidency has been characterised by what Climate Home News referred to as “a four-year assault on environmental protections”, something that many media outlets have emphasised in their coverage of Biden’s victory. The Financial Times said that “president-elect Joe Biden will take office with a plan to adopt tough new climate targets for the US and reverse many of the environmental actions of the Trump administration”. A feature in Nature stated that “scientists the world over are breathing a collective sigh of relief…The new president has the opportunity to reverse four years of anti-science policies –but he has a hard road ahead as he inherits a nation divided.”
The New York Times climate change reporter Coral Davenport reflected on what she calls Trump’s “most profound legacy”, namely his impact on climate change: “President-elect Joseph R Biden Jr will use the next four years to try to restore the environmental policies that his predecessor has methodically blown up.” However, she wrote that while air and water regulations dismantled by the Trump administration could be reversed, restoring “clarity” to ecosystems, the impact of greenhouse gas emissions released into the atmosphere would have a long-lasting impact. BusinessGreen editor James Murray also considered what the end of a Trump presidency would mean for the environment in a piece titled “a victory for the climate”: “And just like that, a modicum of sanity was restored. The world’s most powerful office is set to be held by a dignified man who accepts climate change is the gravest long-term threat faced by human civilisation and a canny politician determined to do something about it.”
What could stand in Biden’s way?
Despite Biden’s success, the positive mood of some of the media commentary has been tempered somewhat by what Climate Home News called the Democrats’ “disappointing performance” in the Senate race. Control of the Senate is expected to come down to two run-offs in the state of Georgia in early January, the news website stated. According to the Washington Post, “some of Biden’s most sweeping programs will encounter stiff resistance from senate Republicans and conservative attorneys general”, specifically referencing his climate plans. Unless the Democrats are successful in Georgia, the president-elect will have to rely on “a combination of executive actions and more-modest congressional deals to advance his agenda,” the newspaper reported. Besides the difficulty of passing any new climate legislation, BuzzFeed noted that a Republican senate “could also drag its feet on confirming key Biden administration officials, including cabinet members and the administrator of the EPA”. A comment piece in the Daily Telegraph by Garry White, titled “Big Oil rejoice, the green revolution has been delayed”, citing the Democrat’s failure to take control of the Senate.
However, not all of the coverage was negative. An article in MIT Technology Review ran through what Biden will and will not be able to do stated: “A Biden administration would also be likely to quickly remove the roster of climate deniers, fossil-fuel lobbyists and oil executives that Trump placed in positions of power throughout federal agencies; end the suppression of scientific reports; and restore the federal government’s reliance on scientists and other experts to make critical decisions on climate change.”
In an article for Bloomberg, Gernot Wagner wrote that it would be important for Biden to approach any Covid-19 economic stimulus packages through a “climate lens” as there will be few other opportunities granted to spend in this way. David Roberts in Vox said that Biden will still be able to make “enormous progress in four years – especially if he is fearless in his use of executive powers, willing to shrug off the inevitable scolding from Republicans and pundits”. He concluded: “Republican climate intransigence is not a problem Biden can solve.” This sentiment was echoed by John Podesta, former climate adviser to Barack Obama, in a piece for Bloomberg, in which he is quoted as saying “we just don’t have enough time” to try and foster bipartisan support on these issues.
What has the international response been?
Biden’s climate platform set out his plan to lead internationally on climate change, stating that he would “lead an effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition” of their targets. In a piece examining how the president-elect plans to tackle climate change, BBC News environment correspondent Matt McGrath emphasised the importance of US leadership in the process of UN climate negotiations. Climate Home News noted that Biden has promised to expose “climate outlaws” – nations that are failing to meet their Paris Agreement commitments or otherwise undermining global climate action. The publication also lists “a number of nations could soon be feeling the heat”, including Australia, Brazil, China and Indonesia. The Independent has a roundup of how world leaders responded to Biden’s victory, noting that many of them emphasised the need for climate action in their messages. Bloomberg journalist Akshat Rathi made a Twitter thread recording such sentiments.
EurActiv reported that the “European Commission and senior EU lawmakers said they stood ready to intensify dialogue with the US on climate change, listing car CO2 limits and green finance among areas where ‘real transatlantic cooperation’ is again possible after the four-year ‘Trump parenthesis’”. In Australia, where the Coalition government led by Scott Morrison has faced criticism for its lack of action to address climate change, several commentators reflected on what Biden’s victory would mean for the nation’s leaders. The Australian Financial Review noted that, while the prime minister was under pressure to set more ambitious emissions targets in light of Biden’s victory, Morrison said he will “hold his ground on climate change policy”.
A piece in the Guardian written by Australian climate scientist Bill Hare described his country as “increasingly isolated as the world heads to net-zero emissions”. Meanwhile, analysis by Aaron Wherry in Canada’s CBC News came under the headline: “The Biden presidency could change the terms of the climate debate in Canada”. The article stated that a potential “second demise” of the Keystone XL pipeline under Biden would “put new pressure” on the Canadian government to address its oil and gas industry. “American action on climate change also would increase pressure on [prime minister Justin] Trudeau’s Liberals to fulfil their own promises – and perhaps even move faster,” the piece added. In “an early sign of Biden’s intent to stitch climate into his foreign policy posture”, Axios reported that Biden had discussed climate change in his first calls with the leaders of the UK, Ireland, France and Germany. The pieces added that Trudeau said after his call with Biden that they were ready to “tackle the challenges and opportunities facing our two countries – including climate change and Covid-19”. The Guardian reported that the Australian prime minister told journalists he had discussed the similarity of the US and Australia’s “policies on emissions reduction technology” on his phone call.
What does Biden’s victory mean for the UK and COP26?
This year’s UN climate summit, COP26, was originally set to coincide with the US election, but ended up being delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The delay has given countries more time to prepare revised climate strategies, not least the UK, where the event is set to take place next year. Matt McGrath for BBC News wrote: “With China, Japan and South Korea having set long-term goals to cut carbon, expectations are rising that the UN’s COP26 climate summit, which convenes in Glasgow in November 2021, may turn out to be a success”. Writing in the Times, James Forsyth – political editor of the Spectator – wrote that “perhaps Britain’s biggest win from a Biden presidency will be greater cooperation over climate change”. UK prime minister Boris Johnson is quoted by AP as saying: “I think now with president Biden in the White House in Washington, we have the real prospect of American global leadership in tackling climate change.” AP described Johnson’s remarks as “an implicit criticism of Trump”.
Several publications focus on the perception that Biden supposedly has a low opinion of the British prime minister due to derogatory remarks he once made about Barack Obama, as well as the idea that climate could be a way of bridging the divide. AFP noted that Biden has described Johnson as “physical and emotional clone” of Trump. According to Emma Gatten, the Daily Telegraph’s environment editor: “Climate change could prove the government’s best in-road to the new Biden administration and help dispel the incoming president’s impression that Boris Johnson is a Trump ‘clone’.” Gatten added that the UK will be hoping to “pull off a diplomatic victory” by securing new commitments on meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement and that Johnson will have to persuade the US that his nation is “still a leader in this arena”. In an analysis of the two nations’ future relationships, Daisy Dunne, the Independent’s climate correspondent, quoted Nick Mabey, the founder of climate thinktank E3G, saying “obviously the UK has the problem of the legacy with the relationship with Trump”. An editorial in the Times echoed these sentiments, noting that the UK government would also need to come forward with an effective climate strategy of its own both to “deepen the transatlantic alliance” and “secure a new global climate deal”. The editorial also noted that the “first test” would be a speech Johnson is set to give on how the government intends to meet its own climate targets: “It is vital that this goes beyond talk of technological moonshots and sets out the hard choices that lie ahead. What is more, a global climate deal will not negotiate itself. If Mr Johnson is to make the most of his diplomatic opportunity he should waste no further time in allocating all the diplomatic resources necessary to ensure that COP26 is a triumph.” The UK’s opposition Labour party has also weighed in on the election’s significance for climate action. According to the Guardian, “Labour is urging the government to seize on Joe Biden’s presidency to redouble Britain’s efforts to tackle the climate crisis by bringing forward a multibillion pound ‘green recovery’ plan in the run-up to next year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow”. The article quoted Ed Milliband, the shadow business secretary and former Labour leader, who said the UK should bring forward its Covid-19 “green recovery” and use the “power of example” in light of Biden’s victory. Current Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian urging the government to “seize the moment” ahead of COP26.