The political pendulum of US climate policy

Illustration of a pendulum swinging in front of a glacial scene, with trees burning in the distance.
Aishwarya Jayadeep/Senior Staff

Related Posts

The election of Joe Biden as president will change the direction of the political pendulum in the United States and, more specifically, the country’s attitude toward climate change.

For decades, the United States has reliably oscillated between climate action and inaction.

In 1998, during Bill Clinton’s presidency, the United States joined other countries in the commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions through the Kyoto Protocol — a simple first step to tackle climate change.

But after George W. Bush won the presidency in 2000, it became increasingly clear that the Bush administration had no interest in implementing the protocol. Many U.S. scientists at the time were pressed to adapt their scholarship on climate change to suit the Bush administration’s skepticism.

After Bush came Barack Obama in 2008. The Obama administration tried to convince the world that the United States was back on track to help fight worsening climate change. The Paris Agreement was established in 2015, and the United States became one of its signatories in 2016.

The Paris Agreement is an ambitious effort to deal with climate change and adapt to its impacts, setting a long-term goal to limit global temperature increase and charting a new path for global collaboration on climate action.

When Obama’s term ended in 2016, Donald Trump assumed the presidency. Early in his tenure, Trump announced that the United States would no longer play a role in the mitigation efforts of the Paris Agreement, signaling the eventual formal withdrawal of the country from the treaty in November. On Nov. 4, the United States became the first country to formally withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Throughout his presidency, Trump has outwardly deemed climate change a hoax. According to researchers from Columbia Law School, he has made 159 climate-related decisions since he took office that have reduced environmental protection or promoted fossil fuel use.

Moreover, it appears he has continued to ignore data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s national climate assessment, which determined that climate change is expected to inflict increasing damage on American infrastructure and property, as well as hinder economic growth.

Biden has said the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement once he takes office. He has also vowed that the country will once again help lead the world in addressing the climate emergency, sharing his plans for a clean energy revolution centered on environmental justice.

This back-and-forth story on climate action is likely to continue after Biden’s time in the White House is over. But this unreliability has made the United States lose credibility in the eyes of the world, particularly given the urgency with which climate change must be addressed on a global scale.

Biden can restore many environmental protections that Trump removed, but much of the damage that has been done to the natural world is irreversible.

More tropical storms hit land during the 2020 hurricane season than in any other period in U.S. history. This fall, California saw some of the largest and most destructive wildfires in the history of the state, and other states, such as Colorado, were also hit hard by fires of historical magnitude. By September, the United States had accumulated more than a billion dollars’ worth of damage from climate disasters — already a record for one year, with four months to go in 2020.

Under the Trump administration, many changes regarding the country’s climate and environmental policies have been made using executive power. Biden can do the same, taking steps toward climate change mitigation and environmental justice by reversing any or all of the executive orders Trump has signed.

Still, this reversal of executive orders by Biden will perpetuate the pendulum-like nature of environmental policies, undoing what a past leader has done but making little forward progress.

As climate change worsens, a lack of climate action becomes even more costly: Given the current conditions, a year of inaction during the Trump administration will lead to far greater consequences than a year wasted during previous administrations.

The United States must make substantial and sustained efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and support regional initiatives for climate adaptation and resilience. One of the most powerful ways to do this would be to establish a livable climate as falling within the bounds of constitutional rights in the United States, which could be a hard bargain in Congress.

But demographics are also changing in the United States. Millennial and Generation Z Republicans are now more likely than their GOP elders — by a margin of 29% to 16% — to believe human activity has played a large role in worsening climate change. Young Republicans are also far more likely to believe the federal government is failing to significantly address the climate crisis and that the United States should work to develop alternative, sustainable energy sources.

As public opinion slowly begins to shift, Biden must be able to harness broadening bipartisan support for a strong climate change agenda. Then, crucially, he must use this momentum to enact tangible, powerful and irreversible policies that will protect the environment and break the United States from its climate hypnosis.

Alek Karci Kurniawan is an international law researcher specializing in international climate change law and policy.