For the first time, a holder of the world’s most powerful elected office is treating climate change as the existential challenge that it is.
Joe Biden will not have an easy time rapidly transitioning the United States to a clean economy, as he has promised with highly ambitious targets such as a clean power grid by 2035. The new President’s path to doing so is rife with hurdles: a Congress in which Republicans can still block lots of legislative efforts, a judiciary dotted with Donald Trump’s appointments and the prioritization that COVID-19 will require in Mr. Biden’s early months on the job.
But the flurry of executive orders Mr. Biden issued as he began his presidency this week, the manner in which he is structuring his administration and the massive investments that he is promising are already sending a signal that should reverberate in political backrooms and executive boardrooms around the globe.
It’s not just that he is willing to ruffle some feathers with domestic policy decisions that hurt fossil fuel interests foreign and domestic – as Canadians understandably frustrated by his abrupt cancellation of the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline can attest.
Under Mr. Trump, other world leaders who prioritized greenhouse gas reduction did so in spite of Washington, and climate deniers were given comfort.
Now, the White House will not only join the effort, but wield its moral authority to expedite it in a way that it hasn’t even under previous Democratic occupants. And that could not come at a more pivotal time, as countries prepare a postpandemic economic rebuild, in the same year that their leaders will meet to set new emissions-reduction targets to replace those in the Paris Agreement.
The pressure will be especially acute in Canada, which tends to judge itself against its behemoth neighbour. For the past four years, Mr. Trump’s complete disinterest made Prime Minister Justin Trudeau the continental leader on climate policy. If anything, Mr. Trudeau had to be concerned about hurting Canada’s competitive position by moving too quickly.
Now he may need to worry about keeping pace, not least to avoid this country’s burgeoning clean-technology sectors from being left behind.
And politicians of all stripes, as well as leaders of industries resistant to the climate transition, need to take note of who, in particular, is leading the U.S. into this new era of action: a President who, over the course of his long career, has built a reputation not as an activist, but as a cautious pragmatist who adapts to the world’s shifting demands and expectations.
Consider the comparison not with Mr. Trump, who set an extraordinarily low bar to clear for climate action, but with Barack Obama.
Also a pragmatist, but generally perceived to have more modern sensibilities, Mr. Obama managed to include a decent assortment of clean-energy measures in his Great Recession stimulus package shortly after taking office in 2009. But his administration did not make climate a central focus in its early days, with health care and other priorities topping it, and the U.S. oil and gas sector boomed under his watch. Only later, in his second term, did Mr. Obama start to aggressively use executive action to impose new environmental rules.
Mr. Biden took that sort of action within hours of his inauguration. His initial climate orders largely involve instructing government agencies to reinstate environmental policies that Mr. Trump gutted. And they do so with great urgency in timelines and strong hints of instituting measures more ambitious than the ones previously in place.
Moreover, while the Keystone XL cancellation got the most attention in Canada, many of the other moves stand to have repercussions in this country as well, hinting at their far-reaching consequence.
Among them are new fuel-efficiency requirements for vehicles, which Mr. Biden has asked government agencies to determine by July of this year, after Mr. Trump weakened them. That stands to cause automakers to immediately start attaching a higher priority to improving the environmental performance of their North American fleets. It will be a welcome development in Ottawa, which has long aligned with Washington on vehicle regulation owing to the auto sector’s cross-border integration.
More indicative of the peer pressure Mr. Biden will exert on other governments may be his demand for new methane emission regulations by September.
Back in the Obama era, all three North American countries set a target of reducing leaks of the highly potent greenhouse gas (primarily from the fossil fuel sector) by 40 per cent to 45 per cent by 2025. The U.S. has recently made no serious effort to meet that goal, as Mr. Trump softened Mr. Obama’s stringent inspection and enforcement rules for new oil and gas operations.
But Mr. Biden’s order not only suggests that those rules will be reinstated; it also calls for new methane rules for older facilities, which is more contentious with the industry.
That could ultimately mean U.S. methane reductions beyond 50 per cent. If so, it will push the federal government here – which so far has been able to coast on coming closer to the initial targets than the Americans, but is on pace to fall well short of them – to do likewise if it wants to keep Canadian oil and gas competitive.
But perhaps most telling of the comprehensiveness with which Mr. Biden intends to approach the climate fight is his rapid re-establishment of something called the “social cost of carbon.” It’s a way of putting a price on damages caused by emissions, then factoring that into the cost-benefit analysis for all government regulations.
Established by Mr. Obama, the metric was reduced under Mr. Trump to the point of being meaningless. Now Mr. Biden has ordered a new interim version of it within a month, and a final version of it within a year, with all signs pointing to a much higher figure, and thus a formula for more stringent environmental rules of all forms.
That, too, has relevance for Canada, because Ottawa has a policy of factoring the Washington-made number into its own regulatory decisions.
What is also striking about the social cost plan is who is tasked with working on it immediately, despite all the other things on the new administration’s plate: a group led by top economic and budgetary advisers to the President, and featuring senior representatives of pretty much every government department.
That’s just one of the many indications of Mr. Biden’s whole-of-government approach to a climate fight that, until recently, tended to be hived off to officials specifically tasked with matters environmental.
Another is that, based on their records of service or their confirmation hearings, many of the new President’s key cabinet appointees – such as Jennifer Granholm at Energy, and Pete Buttigieg at Transportation – have been chosen in large part for their perceived ability to advance climate-friendly policy. Similarly, the White House’s top staff ranks are now filled with people considered strong on the issue.
Many other countries’ governments might point out that they’ve already gone that holistic route, before the U.S. has gotten around to it. They include Mr. Trudeau’s, with the Prime Minister’s recent mandate letters underscoring that he expects climate considerations to enter into most of his ministers’ thinking.
It would be extremely fair for allies in the climate fight to chafe at the Americans suddenly trying to position themselves at the front of the pack. They could reasonably adopt a wait-and-see attitude toward whether Mr. Biden is able to steer a green spending package through Congress that, if not quite his promised US$2-trillion, is at least able to match the hundreds of billions of dollars being committed by European countries. Or cut into the lead that China, despite an extremely mixed environmental record, has built in clean-tech development. Or, in Canada’s case, whether the U.S. can make up for its lack of a national carbon tax with equivalent policies.
Welcome though it may be that Mr. Biden has already signed his country back into the Paris Agreement, his aspiration of shaping the new global accord to replace it – including through the high-profile appointment of John Kerry as his climate envoy, and plans for a U.S.-led summit in the coming months – will more easily be met if he quickly shows signs of overcoming his domestic obstacles.
But the reality is that, diminished as America’s international reputation may be after four years of Mr. Trump, the climate fight won’t be won without Washington’s buy-in. The planet needs U.S. economic might, industrial ingenuity and consumer power. And it needs the bully pulpit that only one politician in the world enjoys.
That the new President intends to use his platform that way should encourage long-suffering climate advocates.
So, too, should the fact that it’s not some environmental radical who has lucked into the Oval Office, but an elderly member of the political establishment who has typically moved with the centre of the political spectrum. The takeaway for everyone else should be that if they can’t keep up with Mr. Biden in reorienting the economy, they’re going to be left behind.
The Globe and Mail
Adam Radwanski writes about the policy and politics of climate change for The Globe and Mail.
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