Most Canadians don’t think of Joe Biden as a climate hero. The long-time senator, former vice president, and incoming president has often occupied the centre of the U.S. political spectrum. But this year, after securing the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, Biden did something that astonished those hoping to prevent a climate breakdown.
He announced a bold plan to invest US$2 trillion over four years on a climate plan that would create millions of union jobs rebuilding infrastructure and expanding public transportation. It would upgrade four million buildings and weatherize two million homes, making them far more energy efficient. The overarching goal was to put the country on a path to achieving net-zero greenhouse-gas emissions by 2050 across the entire economy.
“Just as with COVID-19, Donald Trump has denied science and failed to step up in the face of the climate crisis. He has called it a hoax,” the Biden plan states.
One of those expressing glee over the plan was Vancouver lawyer Tim Louis, a Che Guevara–admiring left-wing rabble-rouser and not a typical Biden supporter. What turned this Bernie Sanders fan around was the response of the Sunrise Movement, an influential group of young climate advocates.
“Now the Sunrise Movement has come out very strongly in support of Joe Biden’s bold green economic recovery plan,” Louis wrote on his blog. “They assess it as being more progressive than even Bernie’s climate action plan in 2016.”
Biden has followed through with appointments that have energized some climate activists. He started by naming former secretary of state John Kerry as his climate envoy. Kerry played a key role in negotiating the 2015 Paris Agreement, which aimed to limit the global average temperature increase to 1.5° C above where it stood at the start of the Industrial Revolution.
Seth Klein, the Vancouver-based author of A Good War: Mobilizing Canada for the Climate Emergency, told the Straight by phone that Kerry is a good choice.
“You want someone with real oomph in that role and who clearly gets ‘emergency’,” Klein said. “Kerry communicates ‘emergency’.”
Lindsay Meiman, senior U.S. communications specialist with the climate-justice group 350.org, told the Straight by phone from New York that she’s delighted with the appointment of Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico as interior secretary. If the Senate confirms Haaland, she will become the first Indigenous person in history to hold this position.
“That’s absolutely massive and a huge testament to the Indigenous-led people-power movement that pushed for that nomination,” Meiman said.
Biden’s national climate adviser will be Gina McCarthy, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency in the Barack Obama administration. In early 2020, McCarthy became president and CEO of the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is one of America’s better-known environmental groups.
The deputy national climate adviser is Ali Zaidi, deputy secretary for energy and environment in New York. There, he’s leading efforts to drive investment into climate-friendly areas to boost New York’s economic and environmental resilience.
The Vancouver-born former governor of Michigan, Jennifer Granholm, is awaiting confirmation as the new secretary of energy.
Perhaps most importantly, Biden chose Ron Klain as his chief of staff, who directs, manages, and oversees all policy development, daily operations, and staff activities for the president.
Klain’s wife, Monica Medina, is a lawyer, former principal deputy undersecretary of commerce for oceans and atmosphere, and cocreator of Our Daily Planet, which is an online news platform focusing on climate change.
Keystone XL's bleak future
Meiman noted that a Guardian/Vice poll before the election showed that seven of 10 U.S. voters want the government to take bold climate action.
“Really, Biden has a climate mandate with massive support behind him and his administration—and working to hold them accountable,” she said.
She added that Biden has already committed to stop the Keystone XL pipeline, which will is slated to deliver diluted bitumen from Alberta to the United States.
"This is a zombie pipeline. Not only should they not be built in a pandemic, but there’s no such thing as a safe fossil fuel project," Meiman said.
For his part, Klein acknowledged that the presidential platform was “terrific” and the victory of two Democrats in the recent Georgia Senate races is “incredibly exciting”. But he noted that nobody really knows yet if Biden will deliver on his commitments.
“The Biden approach on climate is substantially better than the Trudeau government’s,” Klein said. “So, really, we are shifting gears massively where we just spent four years with the Canadian climate plan being way ahead of the federal U.S. plan and now they’re leapfrogging ahead of us. And now you’re going to have the Canadian government running a bit to catch up.”
He suggested that this is reflected in Environment and Climate Change Minister Jonathan Wilkinson expressing a willingness to discuss vehicle standards after Biden promised to do so.
This prompted speculation about the possibility of a future ban on internal-combustion engines. That’s something the Liberals didn’t contemplate in their December climate plan.
"Of course, it would be wonderful to get a vehicle mandate, and the real question will be 'what’s that date?' Is it going to be 2040 like B.C.? Or might it be 2025?" Klein said.
"If we had a 2025 vehicle mandated date, meaning by 2025 you will not be able to purchase a new fossil-fuel vehicle, that would be revolutionary. First of all, it communicates and signals that your government understands the emergency."
Responding to a crisis
In A Good War, Klein outlined four markers that demonstrate if a government is willing to address a crisis.
They include a willingness to spend what’s necessary; the creation of new economic institutions to get the job done; the implementation of mandatory measures rather than merely focusing on incentives; and telling the truth.
According to Klein, this happened when Canada mobilized to fight the Second World War. And the Trudeau government is taking similar action in response to COVID-19. But to date, Klein doesn’t think the federal government is hitting any of these markers in connection with the climate crisis.
Biden, on the other hand, appears to be moving further in that direction, hitting a financial target outlined in the 2006 Stern Review on the Economics of Climate Change.
Canada, though, is only spending $5 billion a year, according to Klein, which is 10 times less than Biden on a per capita basis.
Plus, Biden has started telling the truth by saying the fossil-fuel sector will need to be wound down. But it’s unclear yet whether Biden is prepared to create new economic institutions and embrace mandatory measures to curb the release of greenhouse-gas emissions.
“So there’s some clear indication that the U.S. under Biden will be more serious about climate than Justin Trudeau is,” Klein commented. “That said, it will really matter who he puts in key leadership roles.”