Climate change and inequality

1 February 2021

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

Alexander Perry

For the previous article in this series, click here.

As well as taking on fossil giants, the Biden administration will need to be receptive to the needs of communities that depend upon those giants for their livelihood; the plan zeroes in specifically on coal mining communities that will be hit hard by a renewable revolution, but also applies to communities languishing under the legacy of manufacturing and auto decline. While these promises may have contributed to the shift in voting patterns among certain Rust Belt states that never saw the anticipated job surge under the Trump administration, any perceived delay in following through on those promises could lead to a reversal of this allegiance in the mid-terms. In the absence of any concrete proposals, the unions will likely appear more favourable in their promises to safeguard existing jobs in an established industry (however realistic this may be) than the promises of a president-elect to provide good jobs after doing away with existing, community-entrenched ones. One must remember that these communities are not driven by a burning commitment to maintaining the same jobs for the sake of the nature of the jobs themselves; rather, they are driven by the understandable fear of losing employment at all. The transition from employment in the oil and gas industry to that of constructing, maintaining, and operating new installations that function on renewables will create jobs with a similar skill set, but relies upon programs to retrain and assurances that Biden will follow through on his promise to retain benefits and pensions for coal miners and their families. Needless to say, this will also have to be extended to oil and gas workers in the future. For this, engagement with unions is crucial, with the converse being a loss of confidence and a loss of votes come the mid-terms.

Expanding beyond the fossil fuel industry and its dependents, the Biden plan will need to listen to the voices of green groups: expressing strong opposition to certain strategies, 626 environmental organisations are signatories to a 2019 letter to Congress in favour of a Green New Deal (preceding, and a different text to, Markey and Ocasio-Cortez’s GND resolution). Whereas the Markey/Ocasio-Cortez resolution specifically avoids either proposing or proscribing particular technologies in an effort to allow for more widespread support for the resolution, the letter to Congress singles out several in particular: carbon and emissions trading, carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, nuclear power, large-scale hydro power, and biomass energy are emphatically denounced as projects that the signatories oppose. One might be quick to reply that these objections are typical of the utopian, anti-capitalist character that is often ascribed to these groups, but even within the framework of a plan that has no intentions on doing away with market forces, these objections carry weight – this is especially true given that some of these signatories (such as Greenpeace and the Centre for Biological Diversity) are big players within green circles. Carbon trading, for instance, provides an easy way for larger companies to pay for the right to pollute without actually reducing emissions, and has often fallen afoul of double counting practices that vastly exaggerate the benefits of these schemes. Although far from an ideal solution (especially given that sequestration in carbon markets often relies upon the long-term project of planting trees), carbon markets are likely to stay for the foreseeable future in a world governed by liberal ethics: the Biden plan must address this probable reality by ensuring that any US-based markets are run transparently and accountably, through using innovations such as blockchain technology.

Likewise, the Biden administration could go some way to ameliorating fear by green groups that CCS technology will simply provide a smokescreen for business-as-usual by drafting policies that involve CCS in areas aside from scrubbing fossil fuels of their pollutants: although not without their own implementation challenges, bioenergy with carbon capture and storage projects are eminently less harmful than the continued use of oil and gas, and pushing for investment in this area may assuage the fear of green groups that oil and gas will be able to retain their energy stranglehold through an altered image. Even if an overnight shift to renewables were to take place, the plan’s infrastructure goals will inevitably be emissions-heavy: CCS in manufacturing plants will be essential in order to mitigate this. Moreover, direct air capture deployment is a wholly separate notion from CCS utilised in conjunction with energy production, and may find more support than expected – Holly Jean Buck has noted that a great deal of hostility or apathy towards CCS in general comes simply from a lack of propagated understanding of this technology, and this could easily be remedied through public engagement and education.[1]

Like the promise for new infrastructure, the pledge to tackle inequalities is a campaign-trail staple. Although inequalities are most often thought of in reference to developing nations when viewed through the lens of climate change, the US itself is rife with examples of ingrained disparities leading to vastly different experiences devastating events, from the lingering aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the aftershocks of the yearly California wildfires. The impacts of these events are not one-off occurrences brought about by freak weather events, but are symptomatic of deeply entrenched inequalities that manifest as a vastly reduced means to avoid, cope with, and rebuild from climate change threats among poorer and vulnerable communities: they not only highlight these divides as they happen, but also serve to further deepen them. The technologies required and the capacity to tackle these are very much extant – the telling factor in whether this goal is achieved will be the administration’s willingness to engage directly with communities and work to find solutions that address the particular needs of particular places, instead of relying upon non-federal, private actors to plug the gaps. One of the primary mandates of a developed state is to ensure the welfare of its citizens, and as such, the state ought to take a leading role especially in curbing climatic threats. If the Biden plan is truly sincere in its promises to tackle inequalities, the right balance will have to be struck between federal support and local leadership, aimed at assuring a minimum standard of living and a commitment to eliminating any unnecessary risk to threatened communities.

[1]   Holly Jean Buck, After Geoengineering: Climate Tragedy, Repair, and Restoration (Verso, London and New York: 2019), 123-127