Biden’s green agenda

22 January 2021

In the first of a three part series, Alexander Perry considers the implications of the Biden presidency for climate action

Alexander Perry

President Biden’s proposed environmental policies are some of the boldest in US history, and formed a conspicuous cornerstone of his election campaign. After initial criticism during the Democratic Party primaries that his proposed actions were too vague and not as far-reaching as those proposed by other candidates that supported the Green New Deal (GND) resolution put forwards by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ed Markey at the start of 2019 (including both candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) the campaign reworked its policies with hopes of appealing to both doubtful activists within the party and to moderate Republicans who shared some of their concerns. With the double victory in the recent Georgia Senate runoff elections, the Democrats now control both houses of Congress (albeit narrowly), which will give the Biden administration a much-needed edge in pushing through reforming legislation, including with an eye to undoing some of the actions undertaken by the Trump presidency in the field of climate action.

At a first glance, the “Biden Plan” is bulked up by a well-rounded roster of five overarching policies that brook little disagreement as to their green-tinted vision. Broadly summarised, they are: the establishment of 100% clean energy usage and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050; investment in resilient infrastructure and green jobs; the US acting as a world leader in addressing climate threats; addressing the unequal distribution of risk associated with climate change; and ensuring that communities affected by a transition to green energy production are not excluded from social and economic benefits. These policies are proposed to be funded over a decade by a combination of federal, state, and private investments totalling over $6.7 trillion, a sum contributed to by reversing Trump-era corporate tax cuts, tightening tax loopholes, and ending federal fossil fuel subsidies.

The 2050 target is far from unique to the Biden plan, and represents the upper limit of what many climate scientists deem acceptable as a time-frame within which meaningful policies to tackle the climate crisis must be enacted. Indeed, the mid-century mark is often considered to be lacking in urgency, and is often amenable to conservatives and is likely to diffuse public recognition of possibly the greatest threat facing the planet. This is reflective, however, of the strain of thought that is pervasive within liberal regimes when the topic of climate change is raised. The very real threats that we face (many of which have already dramatically manifested) are downplayed and their solutions have been written off as utopian, unfeasible, or undesirable by both individuals and organisations with a vested interest in maintaining business as usual. What’s more, the spectre of ‘ecosocialism’ is often wheeled out as a straw man upon which to pin accusations of the inevitable loss of property, loss of liberty, and an unreasonable expectation of sacrifice that urgent climate action would entail. As James O’Connor notes, while material-energy use may become more efficient and waste management more streamlined, most green projects within a capitalist framework will have profit-making as their central drive: this tendency will ultimately cause tensions if the later stages of the Biden plan come to fruition.[1]

The plan itself, while ambitious in certain regards (such as proposing to end subsidies for oil and gas firms and to convene a pioneering international climate conference within the first 100 days of President Biden’s first term in office) still retains an overall appearance that appeals to both Democrats and sceptical Republicans. Left-leaning progressive Democrats who support Markey and Ocasio-Cortez’s GND resolution will likely support many of the plan’s features, reasoning that, while falling short of the more radical aspects of the resolution, the Biden plan will at least offer an acceptable foundation from which to propose further legislation. As a form of realpolitik, the moderately-left-of-centre approach is more likely to make constructive headway than radical suggestions that rankle with staunch libertarian ideals, especially within Republican ranks. In the true fashion of the American tradition of entrepreneurship and personal liberty, there is likely to be significant emphasis on the role of the private sector for R&D purposes and for funding. This being said, the pledge to do away with fossil fuel subsidies by itself represents a rebuke against private profits that challenges a practice that has been associated with the US since its foundation.

As such, it seems likely that the greatest resistance to Biden’s green energy goals will likely come from within the energy sector itself. Estimated to have comprised almost 8% of US GDP in 2015, the fossil fuel lobby rewarded Trump for three years of slackened regulation, extensive tax cuts, and the loosening Obama-era restrictions on emissions, oil drilling safety standards, and Arctic oil exploration, by making substantial donations to Trump’s re-election campaign. Biden’s pledge to end fossil fuel subsidies the US will hardly be accepted without considerable protest from these energy giants. Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has perhaps most bluntly summed up the mandate of oil and gas companies with his brief foray into teleology during his time as ExxonMobil’s CEO, stating that “My philosophy is to make money. If I can drill and make money, then that’s what I want to do.” While companies such as the Danish offshore wind giant Ørsted A/S have shown that a successful transition to renewable energy is possible, the more uncertain nature of maintaining a robust portfolio has meant that most investment in green energy by these entities has been tokenistic at best (with only 1% of the combined “big oil” budget spent on green energy projects in 2018), and aimed at subverting the ends of the green movement at worst: interest in renewables is certainly increasing with every passing year, but not nearly at the speed required to translate into effective combative measures.

The industry is, first and foremost, an organism concerned with self-propagation, but one concerned with primarily near-term profits. As proven reserves of oil and gas in the US are still substantial, these profits could continue to be eked out with existing practices for at least another few decades, and any movement towards renewable energy therefore comes primarily as a result of external pressures. The climate denialism that characterised the pro-fossil Trump cabinet was a symptom of this: the repeated assertions that all is well denoted not of a refutation of scientific fact, but a fear of what it entailed, namely the ultimate incompatibility of the fossil fuel industry with the necessary measures for the mitigation of climate change. By denying the industry one of their cushiest perks, the Biden plan adds to the pressure for corporations to go green. President Biden might not be calling for the dismantling of the fossil fuel industry – a move that is widely considered to be necessary in order to meet net-zero targets – but ending subsidies is nevertheless a step along this path, and a step in the right direction.

[1]   James O’Connor, Natural Causes: Essays in Ecological Marxism (The Guildford Press, New York: 1997), 235, 240.

For the next part in this series click here.