Joe Biden’s climate odyssey
Solar Energy– The fight against climate change is one of the pillars of Joe Biden’s presidency. But the Democrat does not govern alone, nor in front of a blank sheet of paper, and the circumstances of the US political landscape have forced him to lower his ambitions and, possibly, to give up the goal of reducing polluting emissions by 50% compared to 2005 over the next decade.
The summer of 2022 seems to want to suggest something to us: that climate change is no longer peeking through a narrow crack, but has opened the door and entered the room, and the furniture in the house, our forests, our waters, our cities, are already prey to its unstoppable effects. Take the United States, for example.
California has been in a record-breaking heat dome for a week. In the capital, Sacramento, it has reached 46.6 degrees Celsius. Its inhabitants shut themselves indoors, taking refuge in the air conditioning. Life came to a standstill and the authorities declared a level 3 alert due to the imminence of blackouts. They worried that there would not be enough electricity to keep the historic heat at bay as forests burned at both ends of the state.
Last Monday, September 5, Labor Day, 42 million Americans were on alert for excessive heat. Especially those living throughout the western panhandle, from Arizona in the south to Oregon in the north.
“The law passed this July will mobilize $370 billion, the largest climate investment in U.S. history.”
These are precisely the circumstances that Joe Biden’s administration highlights when promoting its climate measures. The latest, and one of the most ambitious, is the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), passed at the end of July. A $370 billion law, the largest climate investment in US history, which includes tax incentives to boost solar and wind energy and improve carbon capture mechanisms, the creation of a “green bank” and subsidies to strengthen national infrastructures, among other measures.
However, the United States has a political reality. And that political reality is often stronger than the government’s vision, so climate plans have moved from the imaginary world to the world of legislation: barely and in watered-down form. Halfway through its term, it is already safe to say that the Biden Administration will not be able to meet its goals of a 50% reduction in pollutant emissions by 2030, above 2005 levels. One of its main campaign promises.
“The IRA is an important piece of legislation: it devotes a lot of money to new technology and also invests in projects for communities that have been ignored in the past,” David G. Victor, professor of innovation and public policy at the Center for Global Transformation at the University of California San Diego, tells The Agora. “But it won’t achieve a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030. And I doubt administrative action [decrees] can achieve it. There will be more administrative action in electric power and fuel economy, but, even then, it won’t be plausible to get to that 50%.”
Biden’s environmental policies have had three major obstacles. First, Congress. Technically, Democrats enjoy a razor-thin majority in the Senate, where the 100 seats are split evenly between the two parties. But the country’s vice president, Kamala Harris, is currently speaker of the house. So her vote, if needed, can break that tie.
The problem is that West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin is a Democrat on paper, but he represents a Republican and coal state. If Manchin remains elected, it is because of his established reputation and influence in West Virginia, a state where he has been everything: delegate, state senator, secretary of state, governor and now federal senator. But there are things Manchin can’t do. For example, support environmental measures that his constituents perceive as a threat to their local industries. So Manchin has essentially been the one who has forced the Biden Administration to freeze its plans, reexamine them again and again, and settle for a light version.
The second climatic obstacle is the judiciary; specifically, the Supreme Court, where six of the nine justices have been chosen by conservative presidents; and, three of these six, given the circumstances of retirements and deaths, by Donald Trump. The high court is no friend of regulations or big, expensive state projects. This is America, say the justices, and here they value, above all, the concatenation of private egoisms: an invisible hand that generates freedom, prosperity and technological advances, and that will solve any challenge, including climate, in a decentralized and natural way.
In late June, almost at the same time as the rescission of the law that had protected abortion rights at the federal level for half a century, the high justices struck down the EPA’s ability to place state caps on pollutant emissions from the energy sector. The conservative justices ruled that this authority, granted to the EPA by then-President Barack Obama, belongs to Congress, not the government. They thus undermined one of the most effective tools for reducing emissions and set a precedent that could take more fangs out of the executive branch in the future.
As a result, the consensus is that the United States will not be able to meet the targets announced by Biden, which would also undermine America’s claims to leadership in the climate fight. If the world’s leading power does not make the necessary effort to achieve this reduction, the only way, according to estimates, to avoid the worst consequences of global warming, why would other countries do so? Why would China or India or even the European allies do so?
The third obstacle to climate action, from which, in a sense, the first two emanate, is the state of public opinion. A recent Pew Research Center poll finds that Americans are diametrically divided on Biden’s climate plans. Forty-nine percent say these policies take the country “in the right direction.” Nearly as many, 47%, say the exact opposite. Although climate sensitivity has increased among conservatives in recent years, the differences remain stark.
“Americans are diametrically divided on Biden’s climate plans.”
“There is not much bipartisan consensus on climate change,” says Professor Victor G. David. “The country is politically divided on many issues, and most of the attitudes toward Biden’s climate policies are explained by attitudes toward Biden himself. There is somewhat more consensus on infrastructure spending programs, which can be directed, in part, toward beneficial climate actions. But the IRA illustrates that, even without any bipartisanship, the actions the country can take are quite limited: very much focused on deploying technologies that are already widely known and impose virtually no cost to industry.”
Even so, the US federal government still has considerable resources at its disposal. For example, it can tighten regulations on fossil-fuel-powered cars while incentivizing the production and purchase of electric vehicles. EPA limits can focus on another pollutant, methane, and it is always possible, as this New York Times analysis notes, to organize Democratic energies at the state level, which is where more and more power resides due to conservative court decisions.
The nonprofit agency RMI, which specializes in energy efficiency, estimates that the U.S. government will spend about $500 billion over the next decade on climate technologies and clean energy. The approximate amount of the IRA and the CHIPS Act, passed last year with the aim of reviving American manufacturing industries, with an emphasis on green sectors.
Among the fruits that these policies may eventually bear, the report says, are the development of more sophisticated and longer-lasting batteries and more efficient solar panels. Since the beginning of this century, the U.S. federal bureaucracy has reportedly increased its investment in climate plans 15-fold. A clear sign, despite the many obstacles, of where official priorities are headed.