President Biden & the Climate: a year in review

The 1-year mark of Joe Biden’s presidency is fast approaching and as an environmentally-concerned American, this upcoming anniversary has made me curious to dig into Biden’s climate record. President Biden campaigned with a climate-friendly platform and promised to restore the United States’ presence on the international stage for climate policy. So what has actually happened since Biden moved into the White House? Let’s take a look back at some of the key points from the president’s first year. 

Top of the recent political news cycle has been Biden’s $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill that was passed by the United States’ Congress in November. Within this bill is $47 billion for infrastructure resilience upgrades to better handle extreme weather events driven by climate change, and $73 billion for modernizing electrical grids so that these systems can better handle dispersed renewable electricity generation in future.  

The story of this bill provides an interesting snapshot of the current political climate in the US. The bill was passed with bipartisan support, showing a promising shift amongst some Republican lawmakers towards acknowledging the US’s vulnerability to the impacts of climate change and a willingness to invest in antiquated infrastructure (a necessary step for an energy transition). However, the bill fell short of expectations for many in that it does little to address greenhouse gas emissions, something that remains deeply divisive in the US given significant economic interests in oil, gas and coal.  

Although Democratic and Republican lawmakers were able to find common ground in addressing the painful outcomes of climate-change related disasters, the tradeoffs made (on both climate and other issues) to secure bipartisan support for Biden’s infrastructure bill contributed to significant disagreement within the Democratic party. This, in turn, led to intensified debate around the next key piece of Biden legislation that we will look at, the far-reaching, $1.75 trillion “Build Back Better Act”. 

Build Back Better is a separate social safety-net and climate bill that includes substantial tax subsidies for producers and purchasers of wind, solar, or nuclear power alongside provisions for childcare, housing, and the Affordable Care Act. Following tradeoffs to get bipartisan support for the infrastructure bill, Democrats in the House of Representatives decided to push Build Back Better through without Republican support. The Act is currently under scrutiny in the US Senate, however, without a clear Democratic majority and concerns from centrist Democrats about national debt, the bill looks unlikely to pass in its current form. 

Build Back Better includes $555 billion for clean energy and climate-change provisions and this legislation lies at the heart of Biden’s plan for achieving Paris Agreement targets. The bill is an opportunity for pivotal developments in US climate policy and therefore one to keep an eye on in early 2022 as a key determinant of Biden’s larger climate legacy. 

In addition to the large infrastructure and Build Back Better legislation, the Biden-Harris administration released in October a strategic roadmap for the federal government to “measure, disclose, manage and mitigate” climate change risks. This strategy focuses on transforming the government’s climate impact and includes several progressive ideas:

  • The Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) will be recommending mandatory climate risks and opportunities disclosures for public companies; 
  • The Department of Labor has proposed rules for climate change and ESG considerations in government pension investments; and
  • The Office of Management and Budget is proposing amendments to procurement regulations that would require government agencies to prioritize providers with lower greenhouse gas emissions.

With this new strategy, more than 20 government agencies have released plans for climate adaptation and resilience to protect federal investments from negative climate change impacts.  Although there are many progressive ideas in the strategy, it rests largely on the power of executive order which makes it inherently more fragile than legislation that goes through Congress because executive orders are easily overturned following administration changes. Despite this, Biden has not shied away from using executive orders for environmental policy as seen with his decision to rejoin the Paris Agreement on day one in the Oval Office.

Other notable actions during Biden’s first year have included revoking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline which was intended to bring oil from Canada to US refineries. However, Biden has allowed for the Dakota Access Pipeline to proceed during environmental review which has frustrated those looking for consistent policy for moving away from oil dependency. 

Similarly disappointing for environmentalists has been the lack of enforceable progress from the COP26 summit. Although the US is only one member of the group, having strong climate leadership from the US was seen as a hopeful sign leading into COP. The summit did lead to agreements regarding methane emissions, an agreement between China and the US to reduce emissions (considered positive in sentiment but lacking in detail or enforceability), and promises to end deforestation by 2030. However COP once again fell short of expectations for more aggressive and specific commitments for carbon reductions and enforcement mechanisms.

In a look back at some of the key climate-related elements of Biden’s first year in office, it is a mixed picture of progress. There are bright spots, evidence of incremental moves, and strategic changes for the federal government. At the same time, deep disagreements regarding the transition away from fossil fuels and Biden’s desire to “reach across the aisle” to achieve bipartisan support for legislation has contributed to frustration on both ends of the political spectrum and to the current stalemate situation over Build Back Better. This means that close to one year into Biden’s presidency, there has not yet been much significant or enforceable policy change. Looking ahead, I will be keeping an eye out for developments on Build Back Better over the next few months!

Anna Breu has long been fascinated with the unique challenge of creating action around climate change and sustainability, and she holds a degree in Environmental Studies and Psychology from Middlebury College (USA). Anna works as an Associate Director at BTS in London where she focuses on strategy execution and creating change momentum in organizations, skills she likes to use outside work in the context of environmental issues. Anna is particularly focused on the role of her home country – the US – plays on the international stage, and is passionate about the potential of circular economies.

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