Throughout his campaign, President-elect Biden has repeatedly stated that climate change will be at the heart of his administration. Some people may have worried: was he lip service to convince activists and young voters, or was he really going to get there?
If the first actions of the President-elect are any indication, he is clearly committed to this vision.
In his first round of decisions on international and domestic security staffing, President-elect Biden created a new post for John Kerry as the President’s Special Envoy for Climate and placed him on the Security Council national. This means that for the first time there will be a dedicated climate change seat among the top national leaders who make decisions on foreign policy and national security. He has appointed Jake Sullivan, a highly regarded climate hawk, as his new national security adviser. Anthony Blinken, as Secretary of State, will be responsible for making climate change a cornerstone of US foreign policy. And Biden chose Janet Yellen—A co-founder of Climate Leadership Council, a bipartisan group that supports a national carbon price – to be Secretary of the Treasury, a position in which she will exert significant influence in increasing climate risks and opportunities in America’s economic and financial systems.
That’s a lot of climate leadership, and we haven’t even contacted the Department of Energy or the US Environmental Protection Agency yet!
Gone are the days when climate change was a niche issue that could only be discussed behind closed doors. In a matter of weeks, the climate will play a major role in the decision-making process of the US government on national security, economic, humanitarian and other issues vital to US foreign policy.
All of this is good news, as the United States and the world are facing not only the health pandemic and economic turmoil, but the climate crisis as well. We have all seen devastating wildfires in the western United States and a record number of hurricanes in the Atlantic this year. In 2020,54 millionAccording to the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, people around the world have faced climate-related disasters, including forest fires. A COVID-19 vaccine may be on its way soon, but there is no vaccine for climate change.
Biden already has announced that he wanted the United States to join the Paris Agreement. After taking office, he is expected to commit the United States to a net zero carbon goal and will have to come up with a new national climate plan. Importantly, WRI experts suggest that the United States should set an emissions target for 2030 in order to reduce its emissions by at least 45% from 2005 levels. This is both ambitious and feasible.
Our economic understanding of climate action has evolved over the past decade. We have strong evidence that climate policies promote strong and equitable economic growth. Smart action on climate change will increase economic efficiency, stimulate innovation and new technologies, and reduce investment risks. This is why Biden said during the election campaign that when he thinks of climate change he sees jobs. And that’s why many unions and manufacturers have supported the climate plans proposed by Biden.
The administration’s international climate commitments must be supported by national policies at the federal level and with the continued support of U.S. cities, states and businesses. This is an approach we at WRI call climate federalism. As president, Biden will have several tools at his disposal, including through executive actions and in federal agencies, and ideally it can build support from Congress. American cities, states and businesses must stay engaged to spur ambition and push the federal government.
Fortunately, other countries helped fill the void while the US federal government was MIA. The European Union, Japan and South Korea have all recently pledged to achieve net zero emissions by mid-century. China has pledged to do so by 2060. The EU is also on the verge of approving an ambitious 2030 climate target that will help set the pace for others.
There is no doubt that these countries are leading climate action that is in their own best interests. China, for example, is seeking to maintain its leadership position in the global renewable energy and electric vehicle market. Meanwhile, American automakers are stepping up their game. General Motors recently dropped its opposition to California’s clean air standards and set a goal of having 40% of its electric fleet by 2025. Ford is set to deploy an electric version of its iconic Mustang. It is about healthy economic competition that will benefit the planet.
The Paris Agreement, concluded five years ago this month, was based primarily on trust and cooperation. The deal is not as effective as world leaders are. By re-entering the Paris Agreement and setting an ambitious US emissions target, President Biden can boost job growth and increase US competitiveness, while recharging the Accord and encouraging other countries to improve their game.
The benefits of climate action are very clear. Climate diplomacy can help bind countries together, rather than dividing them.
Historically, international partnerships and rivalries have been characterized not only by politics but by relationships. Churchill and Roosevelt. Reagan and Gorbachev. President Biden can form similar bonds, supported by his deep and experienced team who are more than capable of building bridges and finding common ground.
The road ahead will not be easy. The fight against climate change requires decisive changes in economies and personal behavior. It requires global cooperation and action. With the United States returning to the climate race, Biden is positioning his administration as a force for climate diplomacy that can build confidence, improve global stability, and create economic opportunity.
For a new administration that will have to deal with crises on multiple fronts, building international goodwill on climate change is a good place to start.
Andrew Steer is President and CEO of the World Resources Institute.