Climate change in the age of Joe Biden with Daniel Kammen

Illustration of Donald Trump and Joe Biden back to back, with speech bubbles representing different climate policies
Armaan Mumtaz/Senior Staff

In a rare silver lining, the environment seemed to benefit from the onset of lockdowns across the globe. March brought viral news stories about venetian canals clearing, animals reclaiming boulevards and nature bouncing back.

“People were certainly intrigued and amused, and you could see mountains from New Delhi and from Los Angeles that you couldn’t before,” chuckled Daniel Kammen, director of UC Berkeley’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.

In addition to conducting research and teaching at UC Berkeley, Kammen previously served in the U.S. Science Envoy program to the U.S. Department of State, resigning (quite pointedly) after President Donald Trump’s response to the Charlottesville protests.

After taking Kammen’s W100, “Energy and Society” class this semester, I wanted to learn more about what 2020 has meant for the fight against climate change and what he anticipates for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration looking forward.

One of the priorities of Kammen’s lab is tracking greenhouse gas emissions.

“We wrote a big, joint paper with colleagues from around the world in Nature a couple months ago … and recorded that the maximum decline in emissions was pretty hefty, about 10% worldwide,” Kammen explained. 

Of course, that collective sense of security was temporary.

“It does look like that the raw (emission) numbers are back to their pre-COVID levels, unfortunately,” Kammen said.

Environmental policy played a pivotal role in the presidential election season, in which candidates disagreed on the reality of climate change itself. I wondered if the environmental policies of the Biden-Harris platform were truly groundbreaking or if they only appear that way in contrast to Trump’s persistent inaction.

“I think the Biden policies are, in fact, radical. You can argue that Sens. Warren and Sanders might have had initial positions that were more aggressive than the president’s … but the Biden platform is transformative, and to not call it sensibly radical would be wrong,” Kammen said, citing Biden’s unrivaled promise to zero out emissions from the fossil fuel sector by 2035. 

With the prioritization of equity in the Biden-Harris platform, Kammen said the next administration presents “a new landscape in terms of infusing climate and justice throughout government.”

“No president has found a way to say, ‘We’re going to make climate something that not just the (Environmental Protection Agency) and (Department of Energy) think about, it’s going to go across the administration,’ ” Kammen added.

This goal manifests across Biden’s policy platform in pledges to spend 40% of federal investment on infrastructure, clean energy and housing for underserved minority communities, which, Kammen said, surpasses even California’s most ambitious benchmarks.

He champions Biden’s promise that, “emissions reduction is only part of the story; the other part is to make environmental justice a coequal with climate.”

Kammen expanded on his hopes for Biden’s environmental policies in a November op-ed, praising the president-elect’s ability to connect the push for climate protection in the scientific community and the need for climate action to become a social movement. I asked if his belief in Biden’s promises for environmental justice had shifted since that piece.

“I think he is incredibly genuine,” Kammen answered. “We don’t know how people will behave in office yet, but so far, he’s backed it up.”

Kammen also cited Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ co-authorship of the Climate Equity Act of 2020 with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-Bronx, as an example of the progressive legislative pull of the new administration.

Additionally, Kammen expressed his hope that this change of presidential priorities would encourage state-level environmental action.

“California’s always had a very aggressive plan,” Kammen said. “We’re now in a position where 10 states have joined California and have targets of zero-carbon economies by mid-century, so President-elect Biden is working with a much better deck.”

In addition to Biden’s commitments to environmental justice, Kammen was enthusiastic about the announcement of former U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in the new position of special presidential envoy for climate. 

“That’s a seat at the (White House National) Security Council, which is unprecedented,” Kammen said. “To suddenly go from zero to two, a domestic and an international climate czar, that is radical for the United States.”

I asked Kammen if, after his years of government service, he would be interested in serving in the Biden administration.

“We’ll see,” Kammen said. “I’d be interested, but it’s early in their process.”

With that, I asked if those fighting for climate action finally have reason to be optimistic.

“I think we do,” Kammen said. “The pledges that nations have made before the Biden election were putting the world at a 3-degree path. The pledges that have now been made … have put that down by almost a full degree, from 2.9 C to 2.1.”

For all the crises brought by 2020, it seems the clouds are starting to part in the fight for climate justice.

“The last month, essentially, has been a transformation in the global level of optimism. That’s pretty exciting.”

Contact Luke Stiles at [email protected].