Climate Change

Biden winning US elections 2020 shows how clean air, climate inaction influence mandate

Joe Biden’s electoral victory proves that democracy can work for science and environmental justice, says Anumita Roychowdhury of CSE

By Anumita Roychowdhury
Published: Monday 09 November 2020

Joe Biden’s electoral victory as the 46th President-elect of the United States of America is a triumph of what Biden himself says: “Forces of science and forces of hope”. This victory has proven that democracy can work for science and environmental justice.

This victory is an electoral mandate against the Tru(a)mpling of environmental safeguards, public health and climate justice. There is a resounding message for the world — green votes count.

When Donald Trump trumpeted in his presidential debate: “Look at India. It’s filthy. The air is filthy” (which was not even an appropriate answer to the question asked on climate change), and claimed US has the cleanest air, his systemic ambush on domestic pollution laws was already disturbingly clear to all.

His conservative economic policies and regressive environmental positioning to consolidate a narrow political base has not worked at the end. 

It is this politics that the world has to understand because public health, climate change and environmental cataclysm have become personal stories of each and every voter across the world. 

Our takeaways

Rolling back environmental laws could not weaken the politics for change: It is important for all to understand this now as global economic slowdown is weakening environmental action.

The Trump era is a testimony of crass use of brute political force to dismantled major climate and environmental policies to give advantage to the fossil fuel industry.

A New York Times analysis, based on research from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School and other sources, has counted more than 60 environmental rules and regulations that were officially reversed or rolled back. Perhaps 34 more would have gone by now if Trump returned.

It was estimated that these rollbacks could increase greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions significantly while causing thousands of extra deaths from poor air quality. 

The list of regressive action is endless — undoing Obama-era fuel economy and GHG standards for passenger cars and light trucks; replacing Clean Power Plan for stricter limits on carbon emissions from coal- and gas-fired power plants; weakening an older rule of limiting toxic emissions from major industrial polluters; discontinuing reporting of methane emissions from oil and gas companies; rejecting calculation of social cost of carbon to estimate economic benefits of reducing carbon dioxide emissions; lowering safeguards for communities against increased pollution from power plants. And so much more. 

Lowering of climate ambition was a bad politics: Trump revoked an Obama executive order that set a goal of cutting the federal government’s GHG emissions by 40 per cent over 10 years.

The final blow came with the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement just before the election results were out. Trump’s politics on climate change remained insular. 

Bottom-up democracy proved to be more powerful than Trump’s assault on the states raising ambition: Trump tried everything to crush California’s power to set tailpipe emissions standards that are stricter than the federal government. He justified this in his presidential debate saying he wanted Americans to buy more cheaper cars.

But California and allied states rejected this and sued the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to stop stripping of California of its authority to set stricter fuel-efficiency standards on cars and trucks sold within its borders.

Trump’s design was subverted when California Air Resources Board and major automakers worked out bilateral agreements to cut vehicle emissions in the state and other states that follow California’s standards, (representing about 40 per cent of the US car market), joined to support the agreements.

This voluntary action riled up Trump who weakened the US standards from 5 per cent annual improvement in fuel efficiency to only 1.5 per cent annual improvement through 2026.

Yet, the bigger message is that despite Trump’s Paris Exit and the open war, the US cities worked towards more advance measures to cut greenhouse gases and other pollution. 

The automobiles industry took sides increasing its business risk now: The Trump era also saw the auto industry divided and taking sides. While a group of carmakers supported and backed the Trump administration on the roll-back of fuel economy standards, another group volunteered to meet California’s tougher standards.

Quite a departure from the usual unified position of industry on climate commitments. But now with the Democrats taking over, this might backfire on the detractors. 

Assault on science does not work: There was deep concern when the Trump administration attempted to weaken the EPA by changing the membership requirements for EPA advisory and science boards allegedly to keep out the most qualified experts and to allow pro-industry placements.

Reportedly, there was even a proposal to limit the ability of individuals and communities to challenge the EPA. This happened when new evidence made a compelling case for tighter clean air benchmark.

For instance, the Journal of the American Medical Association estimated that around 200,000 Americans die every year from air pollution even after meeting the EPA Standards; this requires a national discussion on further tightening of the EPA standards to reduce the burden of diseases. But science was taking a backseat. 

Biden’s promise — hope and the great reversal                  

The new electoral win has brought a lot of excitement. President-elect Biden has promised to undo the damages. He is batting for economy-wide net-zero emissions no later than 2050, backed by legislations, and wants polluters to bear the full cost of climate pollution and stronger push for environmental justice.

His menu of action will push for stronger fuel economy standards, clean energy innovation, aggressive methane pollution limits from oil and gas operations, high ambition for zero emissions and more binding targets for other sectors. This for Biden is the new green deal and scope of more jobs. 

It is, however, too early to predict the level of ambition in the US climate action and the impact of its harder commitments on multilateralism and global climate politics. We will wait and watch. 

But today’s euphoria makes it clear that after this electoral coup in the US, the world cannot remain delusional and complacent about the power of mass aspirations for change for a clean and climate-resilient world. 

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