Finally, the United States has a moment to combat climate change.
Over the course of a few years, fighting the climate has grown from a setback to a centerpiece of President Joe Biden's domestic agenda, a crucial part of his economic policy. As a career moderator, Biden is an unlikely proponent of the subject. But with the politics and urgency of climate change, Biden has changed too.
The Biden government officially committed Thursday to reducing America's greenhouse gas emissions by 50 to 52 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. Biden's emissions pledge was to bring the US to net zero emissions by 2050 and bring the American economy to 100 percent clean and renewable energy by 2035.
"Reshaping the energy system was both an essential and a tremendous opportunity," said John Podesta, founder of the Center for American Progress and former climate advisor to President Barack Obama, in a recent interview with Vox. "It has moved from being an environmental problem on the list to the center of its economic project."
At a 2017 Climate March in Washington, DC, progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders (VT) and Jeff Merkley (OR) unveiled a new bill that would allow 100 percent of US energy to be generated from clean and renewable sources by 2050. Four years later, Biden speeds up the timeline significantly.
Public polls by Yale's climate communications program show that a smaller majority of voters believe the US should fight global warming, but the transition to clean energy sources like wind and sun is widespread among all parties. That could be a boon for Biden as he is aggressively selling his US $ 2.25 trillion employment plan to Congress – an employment and infrastructure package that doubles as a climate bill.
There is no doubt that Biden was influenced by young climate activists and other progressives in the Democratic Party who pushed him to accept the Green New Deal and make the climate big. While Biden was careful to separate his plan from the Green New Deal, he has also adopted some of its key tenets. For one thing, Biden recognized the ability to combine his climate aspirations with an optimistic economic message: "When I think of climate change, I think of 'jobs," "Biden said during a campaign speech in July.
No party president has been as deeply involved in fighting climate change, but the hardest part for Biden is yet to come. Although White House officials have insisted they have multiple avenues to cut 2005 emissions in less than a decade, it will be difficult to run Biden's American employment plan through a divided Congress.
Obama's signed climate bill, cap, and trade failed in 2010. And while the Clean Power Plan, Obama's regulatory efforts to reduce emissions, has largely withstood President Donald Trump's efforts to weaken them, the Biden administration is looking to implement something more ambitious.
"This change in policy was driven by a major shift, largely the zeitgeist of climate change," Julian Brave told NoiseCat, vice president of policy and strategy at Data for Progress, in an interview with Vox. "It used to be about how the hell do we get people to care about climate change when it feels so far away."
How the public perception of the climate has changed
Climate change policy – and what to do about it – has changed significantly over the past decade.
Researchers from the Universities of Yale and George Mason collected data for the past 13 years and saw about 12 percent of people who they classified as "alarmed" about the climate and the same number of people who were "dismissive" on the matter. Over the years the numbers have shifted. Those in the alarmed group have grown to about 26 percent (there are an additional 29 percent who consider themselves "concerned" about climate change), while the number in the dismissive category has shrunk to 8 percent.
"The bigger question is whether public engagement for the climate is increasing – and the answer is clearly yes," said Edward Maibach, director of the George Mason University Center for Communication on Climate Change.
At the same time, Maibach and his colleagues found that voters largely support US support for clean energy. In a poll in December, Maibach and his colleagues found that 66 percent of registered voters believe that developing clean energy sources should be a "high" or "very high" priority for the President and Congress. That number was 13 percentage points higher than the number of registered voters who said global warming should be a high or very high priority for the president and Congress, according to the poll. And 72 percent of registered voters were in favor of moving the U.S. economy from fossil fuels to 100 percent clean energy by 2050. (Of course, it should be reiterated that Biden wants to speed up that timeline.)
"While there is clearly a gap between liberals and conservatives in America on climate change, that gap is much smaller when it comes to clean energy and clean energy support," Maibach said. “It is still true that Democrats are far more likely to support an aggressive spin on the clean energy transition. It is also true that a large majority of Republicans support the same thing. "
With the Democrats wholeheartedly understanding the climate as both an environmental and an economic issue, Republican politicians are still trying to articulate the party's position.
For the most part, Republicans are no longer the party of utter denial of the climate and recognize a profound change in the electorate. At the same time theirs first plans Fighting climate change will require planting 1 trillion trees around the world and investing in technology to remove carbon from the atmosphere – rather than realigning the American economy to avoid producing carbon at all. And the GOP is sounding the alarm about Biden's decarbonization goals, saying that moving away from fossil fuels will damage the economy.
"I would say there is no overall Republican strategy to tackle the climate crisis where it is," said Joe Bonfiglio, president of the Environmental Defense Action Fund. "What we are seeing now is a party grappling with the need to have climate plans that fit right under the political umbrella of all of the above energy strategies that do not reduce fossil fuel consumption."
The Republicans also disagree with Biden's infrastructure and climate protection, and are releasing their own, narrower plan, which is more concerned with repairing the country's roads and bridges. While Democrats can run Biden's American employment plan without Republican support using an obscure procedural tool called the Senate budget equalization, they have a limited window of time to get politics through Congress and shovels into the ground.
The Biden White House is very aware that Republicans can potentially reverse climate change if they win in the medium term or in the next presidential election. Because of this, it's much more about proposing specific changes that are "difficult to undo," a White House official told Vox.
Many in the energy industry are making progress
In slashing environmental regulations and lowering emissions standards, Trump often referred to his actions as business-friendly.
At the same time, many businesses and utilities were realizing that the economy as a whole was headed towards renewable energy sources, in large part because wind and sun-generated energy has become much cheaper than fossil fuel energy. There are approximately 3 million clean energy workers in America, according to the latest annual employment report by the national bipartisan group E2. Almost three times as many workers are engaged in clean energy as workers in the extraction and production of fossil fuels.
"There is a consensus that the urgency about this has increased and the momentum has been moving for some time," said Mike Boots, executive vice president of Breakthrough Energy. "It is always helpful to have a consistent and lasting policy at the federal level."
The wild swings from Obama to Trump to Biden and the lack of stable federal policies on climate and clean energy have been tough to deal with, experts told Vox.
"Investors like certainty, and they have no certainty at the federal level," Karen Wayland, policy advisor for the Gridwise Alliance power utility coalition group, told Vox. "The utilities have adopted this decarbonization agenda and are planning for the long term." In the Trump years, Wayland added, utilities set "no federal policy goals."
At the same time, a current study by the Rhodium Group noted that while the US does indeed aim to meet the Obama-era emissions targets, it is not only because of the good intentions of American business and industry. The study by the Rhodium Group found that the Covid-19 pandemic, which suddenly brought the economy to a standstill, resulted in a 10.3 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions in the United States in 2020.
"With coronavirus vaccines now on sale, we expect economic activity to pick up again in 2021, but without significant structural changes to the carbon intensity of the US economy, emissions are likely to rise again," the study concluded Rhodium Group. In other words, the federal government cannot rely on companies to do the right thing. It has to set the tone that moves forward.
Biden's promise to modernize the power grid and invest in cleaner energy sources is welcomed by some industry groups and executives, but there are many others who oppose the move. Oil and gas groups aren't happy, and some unions aren't sure what the transition could mean for workers who, on average, have made more of fossil fuel jobs.
The median annual wage for solar photovoltaic installers in 2019 was $ 44,890 according to US dollars Labor Statistics OfficeThe average annual wage for wind turbine technicians was $ 52,910. Comparatively jobs in the field of fossil fuels pay between $ 70,310 and $ 81,460 and tend to be more unionized compared to the emerging clean energy sector.
"To get to where we all want to go, we have to take everyone with us," AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently told Vox. "We can't just throw people off. This is the transition that we have to strive for and I think this government understands that transition."