On behalf of the Eco Team I have been asked to write a short article exploring the evolving response to the ongoing climate change crisis and in particular to consider if the recent transfer of power within America to the Democrat Joe Biden represents a significant moment of change in the trajectory of our response to this pressing threat.
It is worth beginning by considering the last seemingly significant global change in our climate response, which was represented by the COP21* (Paris 15) climate agreement, at which, with near unanimity the countries of the world committed to meaningful targets to limit future emissions to keep warming below the 2 degree threshold (considered by many scientists to represent the upper boundary between a much more dangerous and unstable amount of global heating and our current, already changing climate); this link is to the IPCC report on Global Warming of 1.5oC. Following so closely on the awful terrorist atrocity perpetrated in the city a short time before the summit, Paris 15 seemed to represent genuine hope for humanity and a path forwards towards a more stable, sustainable future.
However the years that followed have not lived up to the optimistic expectations that arose from Paris 15, most spectacularly with the abrupt withdrawal of the USA from the agreement under the populist President Donald Trump, who cast doubt on climate science, at times referring to climate change as ‘a hoax’ and pursuing policies in opposition to reducing carbon emissions, including removing information relating to climate change from government websites and seeking to boost oil and gas production. Whilst only one country it is undeniable that the US remains one of the most influential countries on the planet; these actions have set a poor example for others to follow and have in part contributed to the lack lustre action and failure to meet targets in many countries; the recent UK decision to open a new coal mine in Cumbria could potentially be seen in this context (although this is to be reviewed).
To gain a global perspective the independent Climate Action Tracker (see link) monitors the progress of individual countries towards meeting their climate goals and at the time of writing their analysis predicted 2.9oC of warming (i.e. well into the more dangerous, potentially ‘runaway’, phase of climate warming). A multitude of other sources paint the picture that too little is being done to meet targets and that the impacts of warming may be more severe than we realised; for example recent findings suggest sea level rise models are insufficiently sensitive and that up to 25cm of extra sea level rise could occur by 2100 (up to 1.30m relative to today, threatening cities such as New York, Shanghai and Bangkok). A further factor to consider is the argument that Paris 15 was too weak in the first place but that is beyond the remit of this article.
However the election of Joe Biden as the 46th President of the USA is seen by many as a hopeful sign that the response to the climate crisis, particularly within America, is about to become more serious; the BBC reported in November that Biden’s proposed environmental policies are the most ambitious in history, pledging to spend 2 trillion dollars in his first four years to cut US emissions, including through home insulation, investment in public transport and incentives to purchase electric cars (BBC News). Whilst election pledges can often be watered down or even abandoned entirely once a candidate takes office the early signs of the Biden era have so far been refreshingly positive; the tone was set on his very first day with the signing of an executive order to rejoin the Paris 15 climate agreement. Subsequent actions have included stopping the leasing of public lands for future oil and gas extraction and promoting an increase in the use of wind energy, the latter helping to create new jobs in the renewables sector. The positive governmental tone has been matched in some influential parts of the private sector, with the world’s biggest investment fund manager, BlackRock, threatening to divest from companies that do not disclose their plans to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 (Guardian).
It is to be hoped that over the coming months further positive progress is to be made, including the setting of more ambitious carbon reduction targets by the US to act both as mitigation for further climate change and as a clear example to other developed nations to take robust action. It is also to be hoped that more longer term environmental actions can be passed into legislation by the US Congress as opposed to presidential executive orders that are much easier to undo by subsequent administrations. However the recent priority given to meaningful environmental actions in the US can for now be welcomed as a positive, hopeful sign that the changes urgently needed are intensifying and that COP26 in Glasgow this November will mark an acceleration of our efforts to tackle the threats of climate change.