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A Climate Perspective: Why We Shouldn’t Celebrate Biden’s Victory

The implications of the November 3rd United States Presidential election will define the future of our planet.  Although the result itself was no surprise except in the leanness of the margin, what will happen next is anything but predictable.

From the perspective of the global climate movement, there was a collective sigh of relief when Pennsylvania finally finished counting and pushed Biden above the magical number of 270 electoral college votes and into the presidency. The United States electoral system is surreal, archaic, convoluted and in need of reform, but this time it delivered a result which didn’t spell a death sentence for the planet.

However, precisely what a President-elect Joe Biden means for the fight for climate justice remains unclear. As others have pointed out before, although Biden won, the Democratic party failed to win the Senate, and although they do have an opportunity to shift the balance to a 50-50 tie with Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker should they win the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January, the simple fact remains that Biden will almost certainly face a hostile legislature once he assumes office.

US Politics

As a young climate activist, I am very used to hearing the politicians utter excuses and platitudes when pressed on their inaction and delaying on the climate crisis. From the moment when Joe Biden became the Democratic nominee, it was clear to me that the sorry old excuses that we’ve been hearing for decades would be trotted out once again after he won. Now, however, Biden will have a legitimate reason to fall back on when he inevitably fails to deliver any true, tangible changes. The fact that the US political arena is neatly divided in two, with one half being occupied by a centre-right, corporate party that kowtows to powerful lobbying interests, and the other half being occupied by a far-right, science-denying party with fascist tendencies, would be macabrely amusing were it not for the fact that the US accounts for nearly 15% of global emissions and 40% of global military spending.  The outsized influence that the US exerts on the world is unavoidable, and I recall what one of my friends said on election night this year.

“You know, it irks me when people say they are ‘following’ the US elections as if it was an interesting sideshow. I’m ‘following’ the elections because the future of the planet, of my life and of my friends lives depend on this election.”

It may seem to be an over-dramatisation to claim that lives will be decided by the results of an election, but they will be and they always have been. We must not lose sight of the fact that politics is above all else about people. Tangible improvements to people’s lives must always be the goal.

Joe Biden isn’t entirely a failure.  His saving grace is that he is better than what the alternative was. And he does have the potential to positively impact climate policy.  Others have already pointed out how his plan for climate action is the most radical of any major US presidential candidate in history, which is more an indictment of the previous major candidates than an endorsement of Biden, but nonetheless it remains possible to find upsides.

For example: Joe Biden is not a climate denier. This already makes him a massive improvement with respect to trusting science and facts when compared to the current resident of the White House.

Joe Biden will rollback Trump-era environmental deregulation. The danger to people’s lives and to the environment from these rollbacks cannot be understated.

Joe Biden has also been adamant that he will rejoin the Paris Agreement. Of course, that is nowhere near enough – even if every single climate action pledge under the accord is met, the world is still set for more than three degrees of warming.

And perhaps this encapsulates what is the core problem with the entire Biden political theory.  At a fundamental level, he represents a return to “normalcy”.  But when normal was already desperately broken, that just won’t cut it.  No one embodies the American establishment more than Biden, a man who has been in politics for the better part of five decades.  Back when he was still running for the Democratic nomination, he told donors that “nothing would fundamentally change”.

And in the field of climate, “normal” is what he will do – he promises a return to the Obama era. The regulations that he will reinstate are nothing more than what was there before, the rejoining of the Paris Agreement is, again, nothing more than a return to the pre-Trump era. The list of executive actions which has been floated to be instated in the first hundred days in office don’t even fully rollback the Trump-era changes.  Also important to remember is that Biden will not ban fracking.

This is why I don’t believe that a Biden administration will result in real change. Some have argued that this won’t be the case because Biden is someone who can be swayed by activism, science and reason.  Let’s not forget though, that for every Sunrise Movement member fighting for a Green New Deal and pleading for the lives of young people, there will also be a corporate lobbyist in a suit with an endless spigot of money who will cajole, threaten and persuade Biden into maintaining the status quo.

This is not to say that there is no hope, or that we should succumb to defeatism. It is imperative that citizens across the globe continue to raise their voices in protest against the arson of the planet and continue to hold elected officials to account. Change IS possible.

But Joe Biden is not an agent of change, and we would do well to remember that.

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