Biden's win sparks hope for international climate change action


Molli Tyldesley looks at how international cooperation on climate change is as important as pressure from below.

Article Image

Image by Vladimir Morozov

By Molli Tyldesley

If the world learned anything as we watched the presidential election unfold, it was that the US is an extremely divided nation. One of the issues that Americans just cannot seem to agree upon is climate change. While President Trump has dubbed climate change a hoax, pulled out of the Paris Agreement and ran on a platform of facilitating the growth of the fossil fuel industry, President-elect Joe Biden has a very different approach to this salient issue.

Although Biden’s climate strategy may not be as radical as the Green New Deal proposed by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, it is still the most ambitious the US has ever seen. Biden has pledged that on the very first day of his presidency, he will utilise his new powers to re-join the Paris Agreement. His administration plans to invest two trillion dollars over the next four years. This will help to upgrade 4 million buildings to be more energy efficient, ensure the electricity industry is carbon-free by 2035, and provide more funding for public transport, electric vehicles and charging ports.

Whether this will be easy for Biden is another question. After an unusual election in which results were not only extremely close, but are still being disputed by the current President, the results of the Senate elections mean the future makeup of the US government remains unclear. As it stands, the Democrats do not have control over the upper house. Republican Senators, especially those who are fiscally conservative, may block Biden’s proposals. This polarising issue could lead to gridlock under a political system which is designed to encourage bipartisanship. However, there is hope! In September, the parties were able to work together to pass the Bipartisan Wildlife Conservation Bill. And having spent six terms as a Senator, Joe Biden understands the workings of the upper house perhaps better than anybody.

Ultimately, politicians serve the people. If Biden is to be effective in making a genuine impact, he needs to explain how his plans for tackling climate change coincide with improving the future prospects and fortunes of the American people. In the post-pandemic world, Americans are understandably worried about the economy and their livelihoods. If Biden can show them that his climate change policies can create jobs and restart the economy, success will be within his grasp.

Public support is not only crucial in the United States, but around the world. Extinction Rebellion recently caused controversy on Remembrance Day in London when they staged a protest at the Cenotaph. Condemned by the Conservative and Labour parties, Extinction Rebellion’s radical protest has put them in danger of alienating the general public and extinguishing any hope they previously had of pressuring the government to act in the face of the climate change emergency. They are in danger of causing environmentalism to become associated with radical far-left, or even anarchist, ideology.

Extinction Rebellion's latest action will have most likely damaged the movement’s ability to appeal to those climate change activists who aren’t particularly keen on extreme action. Instead, the climate change movement is in great need of an organisation or alternative movement that can act as a ‘vehicle’ for those that want to contribute to the cause from all sides of the political spectrum. Building alliances with policymakers and lawmakers will most likely be critical in enacting real change.

Tackling climate change will require a coordinated, comprehensive and worldwide approach. While grassroots organisations like Extinction Rebellion do well in drawing attention to the cause, and while citizens of the world can make a difference through lifestyle changes, it is those who create policy and pass laws that are vital in the fight against climate change. Individuals alone are not enough.

Take being vegan, for example. The University of Oxford research found that a plant-based diet was “the single biggest way” to reduce an individual’s impact on the environment. While there has been a shift towards eating less meat in the UK, meaning all major supermarkets and restaurants now have a plethora of vegan products and options, animal agriculture is still the leading cause of deforestation. And while people are encouraged to stop wasting water and electricity in their homes and workplaces, the Carbon Majors Report revealed that just 25 companies are responsible for over half of global industrial emissions since 1988, the highest-emitting companies being ExxonMobil and Shell. It is unlikely that there will be signs of real change until world leaders across the world unanimously step up.

The UK’s leaders are not ignorant of the climate crisis and the UK has even shown the potential to be at the forefront of the fight against climate change. November 2021 will see the COP26, the world’s 26th annual climate change conference, come to Glasgow. There is no doubt that the UK government recognises that this is an important issue. In the past week, it has been reported that Boris Johnson is expected to bring forward the ban on the sale of new petrol and diesel cards to 2030, a decade sooner than the government’s original plan. Despite Extinction Rebellion’s belief that the government is blind to their cause, it seems there is a promising recognition of the need to be more radical and act quickly.

As time to reverse climate change runs out, the next four years will be pivotal. As leader of the free world, Biden will be extremely influential in this time, and whether he is able to unify his own country will have a significant impact on his ability to tackle climate change. Internationally, the so-called special relationship between the UK and the US has the potential to be at the vanguard of the climate change revolution. It is without a doubt that the size of the challenge will require revolutionary action on the part of both politicians and individual citizens. Biden’s recent electoral success signifies that those in ‘high politics’ are set to rejuvenate a challenge that has been put on hold.