Biden could face a ‘Green divide’ if he wins the US election

Former US vice president Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement if he wins the presidency.
Former US vice president Joe Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement if he wins the presidency. © Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

While the US election still hangs in the balance, a win by Democrat Joe Biden comes with the promise of the US rejoining the Paris climate agreement, as he has vowed to do on his first day in office. But doing so risks widening the divide not only between disaffected Donald Trump voters who want to protect traditional jobs in oil and gas but from progressives within his own party pushing for a Green New Deal.   


As the vote count continued after one of the most bitterly contested US presidential elections, the United States became the first country to withdraw from the international UN climate pledge known as the Paris Agreement.

Joe Biden criticised the move and vowed to make climate a priority.

"Today, the Trump Administration officially left the Paris Climate Agreement. And in exactly 77 days, a Biden Administration will rejoin it," tweeted Biden, who would take the presidential oath of office on January 20.

Biden, if he wins the presidential race, would be able to sign a decree to return to the pact, adding the US to 187 other countries already signed up to the accord. Whichever way the election goes, it could make or break international climate change policy, particularly as the US is the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases behind China.

Biden, for his part, has also proposed a $1.7-trillion plan that is focused on clean energy, green jobs and with a goal of carbon-free electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. The plan shifts the country’s course away from the Trump trajectory that has strongly backed the fossil-fuel industry, given more oxygen to theories espoused by climate-change deniers and scaled back environmental protections.

Signing the Paris pact could also help steer the global conversation on climate change and reassert the US role as a global leader.

May Boeve, executive director of the California-based global environmental advocacy group, said in an interview with USA Today that a lack of US leadership on climate in the long term jeopardises other areas of global cooperation, such as trade and human rights. 

“Whatever the final result of the election, don’t count the United States out," she said. "There are millions of Americans who reject this regression, are committed to climate justice, and are demanding that the U.S. ... uphold the goals of Paris and go beyond."

But getting there will have its challenges.

Not only will the US need to restore its international standing on climate change, but possibly even more challenging for Biden will be wrestling with dissenting progressives and climate-change activists that want to do more, and quickly.

Progressives on the left were less than captivated by Biden’s stance on climate and preferred to back Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Youth-led climate-change activists the Sunrise Movement – who were behind the Green New Deal and who gained the support of congressional Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats – awarded Biden an “F” grade for his climate plan and said they would hold him to account by running a “multi-month campaign” to make climate change a priority.

Credibility gap at home 

The vanguard of Green New Deal advocates is buoyed by a generation of first-time voters, like the Sunrise movement, that is intent on pushing for more radical reform. They want rapid decarbonisation and a ban on oil and gas production.

They have criticised former vice president Biden for a deficit of policy details on tackling climate change.

From within the party’s centre, where Biden coalesced his support, the Democrats have been treading a delicate course trying both to appease voices demanding an urgent rollout of reforms while being cautious not to stir up alarm over jobs by advocating shifts that could disrupt the country’s oil and gas industry.

In one of the televised debates with Trump, the former vice president said he was for a “transition” away from the oil industry in favour of renewable energy but later clarified his statement by saying he would stop government funds from flowing to the oil industry.

“We’re not going to get rid of fossil fuels. We’re going to get rid of subsidies for fossil fuels,” he said.

Biden will no doubt need to commit to a massive economic stimulus and creating jobs in renewable industries. He may, however, be hamstrung by a Congress unwilling to support major reform that could impact the oil and gas industry at a time when the economy is already being battered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The United States has become the world’s largest oil and gas producer and the industry reportedly employs up to 10 million Americans

Dean Baker, from the Washington, DC-based Center for Economic and Policy Research, said in an interview with FRANCE 24 that he believed that Biden, and not Trump, had a clearer path to economic recovery.

“Having a Green New Deal and promoting clean energy... would meet the real needs of large segments of the population and provide a clear path for recovery.”

Fanning flames of economic rivalry

During his presidency, Trump fanned the flames of economic rivalry in a smouldering trade war that centred on accusations made by the president that China “took advantage” of the US on trade, blaming China for taking manufacturing and technology jobs away from Americans.

It is a narrative that continued to resonate with Americans worried about job losses and was reflected in voting trends this election. Many of the nation’s economically marginalised and traditional working-class voters failed to back Biden in sufficient numbers to achieve what pundits dubbed the “Blue wave”, a Democratic sweep.  

But stoking fears of job losses caused by a transition into greener energies was a narrative that ran counter to the economic reality under Trump. Despite the president’s efforts to revive the coal industry, more capacity was retired under his presidency than during former president Barack Obama’s second term while renewable energy hit record highs in production and consumption in 2019.

'Explosion in fracking'

Biden has yet to reveal the details of what a climate change policy that includes a transition to renewables would look like. He supports natural gas, driven by hydraulic fracturing or “fracking”, which accounts for 35 percent of US energy production, despite stern opposition from climate change activists. Biden has defended his support for the fuel as a “bridge” to renewables and said he would not ban fracking.

According to Baker, the US has seen “an explosion of fracking in large parts of the country, certainly in Pennsylvania”, adding that “for better or worse” it was also the policy of the Obama administration.  

“They were also supportive of fracking. The difference is Biden and Obama wanted some regulation of that, whereas Trump has said, 'Do what you want',” Baker told FRANCE 24.

Though when the time comes to cross the bridge away from fracking, Biden will need to build trust with other international allies, including China. The US is dependent on China for minerals, some of which are essential for renewables like solar and wind power.

“We can’t just push them (China) around,” Mr Baker said. “We have to figure out if you want serious relations with China what are the key issues that we should be upset about and we’ll have to make concessions. I’ve seen zero evidence of what Trump wants to do except pick a fight. And we can’t do that with China,” he said.

If the US once again signs the Paris pact, it will need to catch up to other nations who have already pledged and begun to cut emissions and move towards carbon neutrality.

South Korea and Japan, Britain and the EU are all part of a “growing coalition of nations committed to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050”, said UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric, pointing to signs of progress in an interview with AFP.

China, too, has announced it would set its own net-zero targets.  

In an interview with the New York Times, Todd Stern, who served as climate change envoy under Obama, said that the US would first need to prioritise climate change action on the domestic side. “We have to demonstrate that this really is a very high priority and that the new president is moving full speed ahead.”

Whatever inroads his administration may make on global cooperation for the environment, Biden will face a tough battle to push through climate change reforms at home. Republicans look likely to keep control of the Senate – and with that, action on climate change remains in their hands.

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