All eyes are on the United States in the run up to the 2020 presidential election. The result will impact more than just the lives of U.S. citizens; as the world’s largest producer per capita of CO2 emissions, the fate of our planet rests on the shoulders of American voters today. We weigh up the views of both Trump and Biden, and explore what their election would mean for the climate crisis.
The United States presidential election on Tuesday will see an outcome that will drastically shape the future of not only the country, but the world. As the world’s second largest producer of carbon emissions and first in per capita of fossil CO2 emissions, this election will have an unrivalled impact on the global climate crisis. Despite the ongoing pandemic and economic uncertainty, Americans continue to view climate change as a defining issue. According to Pew Research Center, two-thirds of Americans think their federal government should do more to address the climate crisis. But will it show on their ballot paper?
“An Expensive Hoax”
Known for his controversial use of the social media platform, Donald Trump has taken to Twitter on a number of occasions to post inflammatory statements on climate change. At times, he has been skeptical of climate change and has referred to it on Twitter as “mythical”, “nonexistent”, and “an expensive hoax”. In 2017, Vox.com published a whopping total of 115 of Trump’s tweets in which he expresses climate change skepticism. More recently, Trump has used Twitter to mock 16-year-old climate activist Greta Thunberg.
Trump’s Environmental Record
Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Agreement in 2017 was met with overwhelmingly negative responses from people of all parties in government, as well as businesses, environmentalists and scientists in the United States and internationally. In response to the backlash, Trump stated “the Paris accord will undermine the U.S. economy” and “puts the U.S. at permanent disadvantage”.
Over his four years in the Oval Office, the Trump administration has rolled back 125 environmental regulations aimed to address the globe’s most daunting environmental threat: climate change. (The Washington Post) The Trump administration has steadily loosened restrictions on polluting industries, scrapped protections for endangered wildlife, and undoing the environmental progress of his predecessors.
The administration has accelerated its push to deregulate in the weeks before the election, to ease requirements on power plants that leak waste into waterways, weaken efficiency standards for dishwashers, scale back oversight of mine safety and approve seismic drilling in an Alaska wildlife refuge. On Thursday, the Trump administration approved over 9.3 million acres for logging in Alaska’s Tongass National Forest, one of the world’s largest intact temperate rainforests. The rainforest boasts the highest density of brown bears in North America, and its trees — some of which are 1,000 years old — absorb more carbon than any other forest in the United States.
Trump’s actions have mostly benefited the oil and gas industries, who have lobbied in a republican majority government to cut back on these regulations. In this year’s first presidential debate, when asked about the California forest fires and climate change, Trump blamed the fires on “lack of forest management” — despite evidence that climate change has been a strong factor in the increase in yearly fires. When further questioned on why he decided to roll back regulations on carbon emissions, he stated “it was driving energy prices through the sky”.
“Who would have thought, Trump is the great environmentalist?”
Despite his track record, Trump has attempted a massive rebrand as a “great environmentalist” (self-proclaimed at a recent rally in Florida) in the final stretch of his re-election campaign. Just this week, the current U.S. president created a new “subcabinet” to improve water quality and management, and approved an executive order in support of a plan to plant a trillion trees.
These last-minute actions, plus a handful of statements describing climate change as a serious subject and saying that the environment is “very important to me”, are form Trump’s environmental legacy. However, years of aggressively pushing for expanding the use of oil, gas and coal mean that Trump’s anti-environment reputation is firmly cemented in the psyches of many American voters.
If re-elected, it seems Donald Trump will stay on course for the next 4 years, keeping environmental regulations low while continuing to prop up fossil fuel related industries.
In contrast, Joe Biden has said all the right things with regards to addressing the need for a more sustainable future and has ambitions of reversing actions and cutbacks by Trump. But, if elected, will he follow through with concrete action?
Joe Biden has stated that the United States needs to follow suit with other countries in achieving net zero emissions by 2050 to avoid the worst potential effects of global warming. Joe Biden, a lifelong politician, has long understood the potential threats of the climate crisis and introduced the first-ever climate bills in Congress back in 1986.
In the most recent presidential debate he stated that “the oil industry pollutes significantly” and that “it has to be replaced by renewable energy overtime”. His current plan for a “clean energy revolution”, if elected, will involve expenditure of $1.7 Trillion dollars over the next ten years for a more sustainable America that embraces renewable energy. He plans to pay for it by reversing Donald Trump’s tax cuts for corporations and reducing incentives for tax havens, evasion and outsourcing of profits.
Biden has also stated that he will not accept contributions from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives and will end subsidies for fossil fuels and will see the United States rejoin the Paris accord that Donald Trump famously withdrew the United States from. Some critics see this as ambitious for a country with an increasingly large budget deficit, an attack on corporate America, and the statement has also received pushback from the roughly one million Americans who still work in fossil fuel related industries. Some environmentalists and scientists also do not think his plan is realistic for actually fighting climate change and that it doesn’t truly disrupt the fossil fuel industry.
At the second debate, Trump responded to Joe Biden’s potential energy deal that this expenditure would “tank the economy and cause a depression” as well as the loss of countless jobs. Joe Biden retorted “we are going to be in a position where we can create hard good jobs by making sure the environment is clean and we all are in better shape, we spend billions of dollars now on floods, hurricanes, rising seas, we are in real trouble”. He further referenced the country’s high amount of carbon emissions by stating “we make up 15% of the world’s problem” knowing that if the United States doesn’t act, its carbon emissions impact will directly affect other countries, thus affecting foreign relations.
All Smoke & Mirrors?
While Joe Biden is selling that he is the candidate for climate change, his previous initiatives as a senator would indicate a past that doesn’t match up with current statements. In 2014 as vice president, he helped push forward a $50 million dollar aid package to Ukraine after Russia annexed the Crimean peninsula, a deal that included support for further developing Ukraine’s gas infrastructure. It’s purpose was to help Ukraine become independent from Russian oil. While successful, it saw Ukraine’s expansion of fossil fuel production come at a time when countries around the world need to be restricting emissions, not increasing them.
Even under president Obama, while the Paris climate treaty was signed, production of fossil fuels in the U.S. continued to grow which further led the U.S. to become the largest exporter of crude oil in the world, a subject of which Joe Biden bragged about in a 2016 speech. He has also not officially called for a ban on fracking, and only stated “no new fracking” and “no more drilling on federal lands” during the last debate, something which later had to be clarified by a spokesperson for his campaign noting that he does not officially support a ban on fracking. He noticeably hasn’t responded well to criticism of his attempt to balance the interests of fossil fuels and the climate crisis. While Joe Biden currently has been saying the right things with regards to the climate crisis, actions speak louder than words and only time will tell if he rectifies actions of the past.
Looking to the Future
Regardless of the outcome of the 2020 presidential election, most Americans still expect more from their government when it comes to addressing sustainability and the climate crisis. Joe Biden has made his plans known for a greener future while Donald Trump seems reluctant to change from the status quo in favour of keeping the economy afloat during uncertain times. There may need to be a balance of environment and economy for Americans and government on both sides to want to support the idea of a greener future. People need to be convinced that a sustainable future is profitable in the long run, even if it might not seem worth it up front due to a hefty price tag and potential increase in taxes. Having a net zero plan is one thing, but the journey is long term and the sustainability torch will need to be passed on from president to president if the United States wishes to achieve net zero by 2050. 4 to 8 years progressing and regressing on the issue will only move the country so far in its carbon free journey.
Once the votes are counted, it will be seen if climate change is as big of a deal to voting Americans as studies predict. One thing is certain, the fate of a sustainable future for the United States, and the rest of the world, lies in the hands of the American people today.