On Earth Day, April 22, 2021, President Joe Biden hosted a virtual, two-day climate summit of world leaders to address the global climate crisis. Among the 40 participating political figures were Xi Jinping of China and Vladimir Putin of Russia, whose attendance was uncertain given political tensions with the U.S. Biden used the summit to announce a plan to halve U.S. coal and petroleum use by 2030, a target that has amassed criticisms from some climate activists who desire more ambitious actions to mitigate climate change.
So is Biden’s plan enough? Let’s dive into Biden’s strategies as well as their scientifically predicted consequences to better understand where the U.S. is heading in the green transition.
In a video on Twitter posted on the same day as the summit, climate activist Greta Thunberg shared her thoughts on Biden’s plan to achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, stating that “. . . these insufficient targets are better than nothing, but we cannot be satisfied with something just because it’s better than nothing. We have to go further than that.” Thunberg continued to note that “. . . when you compare our insufficient targets with the overall current best available science, you clearly see a gap.”
Thunberg’s criticisms may well be warranted by the present scientific literature surrounding climate change. In a 2018 report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded that by 2030, CO2 emissions would have to decline by about 45 percent from 2010 levels (reaching net-zero emissions by around 2050) to prevent global warming exceeding 1.5°C. While Biden’s plan is indeed keeping within this timeframe, many activists do not accept a 1.5°C increase in global temperature as a victory over climate change.
Following the IPCC’s report, NASA released a summary in 2019 on the effects that a 1.5°C increase in temperature would have on our environment, including constraints on water availability, extreme weather, droughts, fires, and other natural disasters. According to Biden’s timeline, these dangers would likely remain a reality for decades to come, especially for low-income communities of color, who often live in regions where these hazards are amplified.
Within his first few months in office, President Biden has distinguished the climate crisis as one of his major concerns. Biden signed 30 executive orders during his first three days in office, two of which pertain directly to environmental protection (rejoining of the Paris Agreement and canceling the Keystone XL Pipeline). One of the executive orders also includes a direction for agencies to reverse more than 100 Trump actions on the environment. In the days that followed, Biden signed three more executive orders to “Tackle the Climate Crisis at Home and Abroad, Create Jobs, and Restore Scientific Integrity Across the Federal Government.” Despite these actions, Biden has been exercising caution in his public stance on climate change, emphasizing the importance of keeping jobs for those in industries with high environmental impacts and promising not to place a ban on fracking.
This promise was accompanied by several other more progressive commitments detailed in a speech Biden presented before the signing of executive orders pertaining to climate change. At the signing, Biden promised to build 1.5 million energy-efficient homes, establish Gina McCarthy as the first White House National Climate Advisor, eliminate fossil fuel subsidies, and distribute 40 percent of the benefits from clean energy, water, and waste water investments to communities of color that have been disproportionately impacted by environmental and economic crises.
It is clear that Biden wishes to take action against climate change without constricting the economy, but as we have seen historically, our nation’s economic incentives are rarely compatible with our environmental and social imperatives. Biden is searching for ways to bring these aims closer together by focusing on creating jobs and making investments in emerging green industries, such as electric vehicle manufacturing and renewable energy infrastructure. Commenting on this, Biden envoy John Kerry told the Associated Press that “No one is being asked for a sacrifice. . . . This is an opportunity.” This sentiment appears to be a fitting representation of Biden’s intention to rebrand climate change as an opportunity for economic growth, but his fixation on economic health may lead to more reserved and less effective climate change policies.
The health of our economy is inextricably connected to the health of our planet. President Biden will entertain solutions to improve the environment if and only if they support the short-term economy and create jobs—but what about the opportunities that aren’t economically “profitable” in the short term? By incurring small costs now, we can avoid much greater failures down the line. Even though Biden is reluctant to head down this path, we must keep holding him, businesses, and ourselves responsible to act in the planet’s best interest.