“Change your leaders, not your light bulbs.”
Thomas L. Friedman, October 21, 2007, New York Times
While political leadership offers one of the solutions to improving the pressing environmental situation, several politicians are not very keen on opening the perceived “Pandora´s box” of environmental problems. Questions of emissions, climate change, ecology-friendly policies, or overall addressing of the increasingly imminent environmental threat are often omitted from official public policy. Besides, there is a great deal of more attractive topics that guarantee much-needed popularity and voters. However, what goes around comes around and countries are slowly beginning to realize the seriousness and urgency of many “green” questions.
This year´s change in the leadership of the United States makes it almost a perfect example of such a shift in approaching environmental policies. While the office held by Joe Biden´s predecessor was rather ignorant towards the possible security risks of approaching environmental issues recklessly, the current office took the opposite stance. By Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021, environmental policy was allowed to be viewed under the light of a fresh and distinct point of view. Similar to other policy areas, Biden´s attitude towards green questions can be characterized as a “reversal” of the former office´s decisions. The question is, whether after completing his 9th month in office, his visions became reality and whether there are perceptible outcomes of his efforts. Was it mere rhetoric, or is Joe Biden in earnest taking steps towards improving not only American but even global environmental conditions? Does “changing the leaders” have more potential for change than simple “changing of the lightbulbs”?
What Word Was There to Keep?
Analysis of success lies between the promise and realization. When dismantling Joe Biden´s approach towards the environmental matter, the statements and promises made in the early phases of his service, for instance in his inauguration speech, must be carefully appraised. The Climate crisis was mentioned alongside other crucial challenges faced by the United States, implying an assigned urgency to this issue.
“We face an attack on our democracy, and on truth, a raging virus, a stinging inequity, systemic racism, a climate in crisis, America’s role in the world. Any one of these would be enough to challenge us in profound ways. But the fact is we face them all at once, presenting this nation with one of the greatest responsibilities we’ve had. Now we’re going to be tested. Are we going to step up?” (President Biden inauguration speech in full, 2021)
It is rather promising for both the environmental activists and the whole population, when a newly elected president compares the climate crisis, by many reckoned it as a less imminent and less apparent issue, to global pandemic and racism, some of the most visibly threatening menaces. However, his inauguration speech might have on the other hand come as a slight disappointment to some of Biden´s voters, especially those, who paid close attention to his grasp of environmental problems in his campaign. “The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice” was greatly ambitious and more than up and coming. It revolved around the need for a “drastic action” concerning “droughts, rising sea levels, warming temperatures, shrinking snow covers, and ice sheets.”
Biden even conveyed the message of evident failures of his predecessor, caused by a large amount of denial and ignorance. While the plan outlined particularized and concrete promises, such as rejoining the Paris Climate accord, it also moved in the realms of opulent, but broad and unspecified oaths, especially when referring to further global action. Biden provided assurances of American leadership in global environmental actions, undertaking to lead a diplomatic initiative to push every nation to surpass their original commitments and even turned to mention China as the deterrent example. However, the plan did not specify any means of action. Apart from joining the Paris Climate Agreement, the campaign left the imagined Pandora´s box of environmental questions unopened. Reviewing Joe Biden´s actions during the first days of his service might provide a clearer idea of his stance.
Hundred Days for Climate
The first 100 days brought some of Biden´s most penetrative action. His signature to some of the most significant executive acts could be considered a major success for the environmental activists. Keeping his word, Joe Biden rejoined the Paris Agreement, legally binding the United States to for instance limiting the increase of global temperature to preferred 1.5 degrees celsius. Not only did this action embody Biden´s commitments to the environment, it further strengthened the overall collaborative power of all parties involved. A comparable example of early-day commitment would be Biden´s signature to the abolishment of the construction of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline. The construction was most heavily criticized by Indigenous and Black communities, suffering from the air pollution that emerged as a side-effect. Another building block of Biden´s placement of climate action back in the center of all agendas were personnel changes. Jennifer Granholm became the Energy Secretary, Brian Deese was given the role of National Economic Council director. Both Granholm and Deese have significant experience with clean energy or sustainable investment. Their posts were, therefore, given with deliberate intentions to demonstrate Biden´s commitments.
Biden´s administration also did not omit wildlife conservation and ordered a broad review of Donald Trump’s anti-wildlife policies, such as Trump’s removal of gray wolves from the Endangered Species Act or the plunder of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. Through another executive act, Biden also accounts for the temporal shut-off of oil and gas leasing on federal lands and waters. Last but not least, Biden committed to enhancing the role of the National Environmental Policy Act and to the major aim of reaching net-zero greenhouse emissions by 2050. And while this enumeration of some of the major accomplishments in climate and environmental policies could continue, each coin has two sides.
Is It Enough?
It would be rather foolish to blindly accept all the accomplishments without examining them closely. In particular regarding environmental questions, there always tends to be room for improvement. While there is not much to uncover in the Paris Agreement, as its formulations are straightforward and transparent, other executive acts have their flaws. The Keystone XL pipeline construction was halted, but only temporarily. The construction simply bears considerable economic interest which cannot be ignored, especially not by the president. Yet is it not exactly this type of price that states and their leaders must pay when tackling the climate issues? And given the priority allocated to the climate in Biden’s presidential campaign, shouldn’t every other interest give in to the higher principle?
Biden’s accomplishments in wildlife conservation are fundamental, yet, also under his administration, the second-largest wildfire in the history of the United States occurred. The 2021 Dixie Fire in California burned more than 463,000 acres in Northern California, destroying both buildings and wildlife. Besides other aspects, the wildfire was heavily fuelled by the increased global temperature. While the cause of the fire can in no way be connected to Joe Biden´s decisions or outcomes of his policies, there seems to be space for refinement when approaching such natural disasters. Because the wildfire posed a threat to wildlife conservation – an essential part of Joe Biden´s environmental policy, the president devoted significant effort in aiding the affected areas. During the conference with governor Gavin Newson in September 2021, Joe Biden promised $8 billion for wildfire resilience and “every resource available to keep families safe.” As stressed by Thom Porter, leader of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Biden´s act serves as a great starting point, yet, would gladly accept more investment.
While the Dixie Fire was a natural disaster, in short term impossible to prevent, the case of the Tampa Bay accident was on the contrary caused by the human factor. In April 2021, the deserted fertilizer plant located in the area threatened to pollute soil and local water supply, causing the residents of the nearby Piney Point areas to be evacuated. While the regional administration was able to evade the imminent threat, the long-term toxic crisis continues to be a problem. With its long history of air and water pollution, leaks, and environmental disasters, Piney Point was shut after the bankruptcy of its owner. However, the toxic waste of more than five tons of phosphogypsum from decades of phosphate mining still exists and, according to Paola Rosa-Aquino, it is comparable to a “ticking time bomb.” Central Florida, as the center of phosphate production, estimates 1bn tons of phosphogypsum to be housed in stacks of Florida’s landscape, each accompanied by a pond of acidic wastewater.
More than 200 million gallons of contaminated water have hitherto been pumped into Tampa Bay in a disastrous leak. Yet, two stacks with contaminated wastewater remain at Piney Point, posing a vital security threat. Some of the solutions aimed at treatment of the issue include the idea of a well injection, naturally opposed by anyone agriculturally involved. As of the most recent activity an independent third party was appointed by the court to operate the daily administration of the Piney Point, however, safe management does not provide a solution.
Biden´s administration in both of its environmental plans and operations seemingly neglects some of the other cardinal environmental problems. Highlighted by the United Nations Environment Programme Food Waste Index Report of 2021, 1 billion tonnes of food is wasted each year and one-third of all food globally produced is lost or wasted. According to the identical report, the United States takes third place in having the most food waste globally, with annual average household food waste adding up to 59 kg. Joe Biden did commit to building sustainable resilient food systems by for instance USAID announcing “it intends to invest $60 million over five years in new research awards that will contribute critical solutions to reduce food loss and waste…
This includes a $25 million award with an additional $15 million in potential funding to Tufts University to lead the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Food Systems for Nutrition.” Unfortunately, actions in this area, despite their relative straightforwardness, tend to stay in the shadow of other, more dominant environmental policies, such as the clean energy or oil industry matter.
Lastly, when reflecting upon Biden’s campaign in its ambitious views on making the United States world leader in the environmental talks, the position of the federation improved, nonetheless did not reach the heights of the original visions. Focusing on the example with the Republic of China, which in parts of Biden’s campaign was criticized for its environmental footprint, only last month did the two presidents talk about climate change in their first call in seven months. Jen Psaki, White House press secretary specified that “climate…as well as a number of topics were discussed.” This does not even remotely reflect the original urgency of the United States undertaking the lead in a diplomatic initiative to push every nation to surpass their commitments towards climate action.
In conclusion, Joe Biden brought a wind of change in the way the United States approaches environmental questions. The most noticeable change is the overall proactive attitude and assigned urgency to the environment. There is a visible improvement, as Joe Biden commitments reflected in rejoining the Paris Agreement, tackling pollution from the oil industry, personnel changes, or wildlife conservation acts. Unfortunately, such successes were soon balanced by evident limitations, for instance, the funding of wildfire mitigation, the Tampa Bay crisis, unequally distributed attention in secondary environmental issues, and minimal efforts in leading the global environmental diplomatic dialogue. The environmental situation is constantly evolving, yet, the situation in the United States at least, is moving forward in a positive direction. The next possible milestone in the American approach to the environment could be the upcoming 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference, at the end of this month. After all, the United States is slowly but surely coming to the realization that it is more important to change leaders than to change lightbulbs.
Source of the picture: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/01/22/climate/biden-environment.html
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Written by Daniela Monsportova