Biden Inauguration Day: What Next for the Environment?

Dr Martin J Hodson

Four years ago, on 20th January 2017, we were in Wells, Somerset, on the last day of our post-Christmas break. I had written JRI briefing paper number 32, “Donald Trump, the Environment and the Church” in the preceding weeks, and we planned to release it on the day of the inauguration. I had primed the JRI Administrator, Karen Vincent, to get the briefing on to our website, and then send out a global email to all our subscribers that morning. Meanwhile, I launched all of the JRI social media. It was not exactly a holiday, but it was an unusual day. The briefing paper proved to be our most popular ever, and we sold huge numbers of printed copies at meetings throughout the next year. Margot spent the day in Yeovil and visiting her mother. She returned in the early afternoon, and we decided that rather than watch Trump’s inauguration on our cottage television we would go to listen to Vespers at Wells Cathedral, just a short walk down the road from us. When we returned from the service we heard that Trump’s associates had already moved to take down everything about climate change from the White House website. We knew it was going to be a rough four years for the environment, and so it has proved.

President Joe Biden

Today, Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States. It is fair to say that environmentalists and scientists around the world have breathed a collective sigh of relief now that has happened. Things will surely now improve with regards to United States environmental policy. We should not expect too much, too quickly, though. We have to remember that President Biden is starting his presidency at an unprecedented time. He is in the middle of a major pandemic that has been disastrously handled by his predecessor. This is causing a major economic downturn, which is likely to get worse. The United States is more divided than ever, with the possibility of armed uprisings happening anywhere in the country. Many Republicans were convinced by Trump that the election was stolen from them. The early part of Biden’s presidency will be overshadowed by the Trump impeachment trial. It is probably the most difficult situation any President has faced. So moving forward on the environment and climate change will need to be fitted into this very difficult context.

Three weeks after the US election, I wrote an initial assessment of the likely moves of a Biden administration on the environment. I noted the key appointment of John Kerry as a special presidential envoy on climate change. He will have a major role in the negotiations leading up to the COP26 meeting in Glasgow in November this year. Another important person will be Gina McCarthy, the former Environmental Protection Agency administrator who will head a new White House Office of Climate Policy. She will mostly concentrate on domestic policy for cutting emissions. Biden’s designated team is full of relevant experience. Former Vice President, Al Gore, tweeted on the 19th December, “President-elect Biden has assembled not only an “A” team to lead his climate agenda forward, but an “A+” team! Each appointee is ready on Day 1 to take on the urgent, existential threat of the climate crisis, while creating millions of new jobs & protecting frontline communities.”

There are a number of things President Biden will be able to do by executive action. We will undoubtedly see the United States re-join the Paris Agreement very quickly. It is pretty definite that Biden will block the highly controversial Keystone XL pipeline once again. This time it will almost certainly kill the project for good, as in four years it will probably be highly uneconomic against renewable technologies. But ideally, President Biden will need to pass legislation through Congress, and that could prove more problematic.

One of the potential roadblocks in the way of climate change legislation that I mentioned in my November blog was removed when the Democrats won both the run-off elections in Georgia for the Senate. This means that the Democrats and Republicans each have 50 senators. In the event of a tied vote in the Senate the Vice President, Kamala Harris, will have the casting vote. However, the problem with this wafer-thin majority is that it only takes one Democrat to not agree with an item of legislation and it will fail to pass.

But today is a day of hope, and we all wish Joe Biden, Kamala Harris and their colleagues well. We pray that their time in office will see meaningful action on climate change and the other pressing environmental issues that face the world. I had always intended to produce a briefing paper on Biden and the environment for today. But all of the uncertainties of the weeks since the US election, and the terrible insurrection at the Capitol building on the 6th January, have delayed those plans. I think it is sensible now to wait a few weeks, let things settle down a bit, and then produce a detailed analysis. I have already collected quite a number of articles on Pinterest, and no doubt there will be more coming soon. So watch this space!

Dr Martin J. Hodson

Operations Director, JRI

Image: Royalty-free Shutterstock stock photo ID: 1638697639. 2020 presidential candidate Joe Biden, speaks during an event on Thursday, November 14 at Los Angeles Trade–Technical College, in Los Angeles, Calif. Los Angeles, CA, USA by Yasamin Jafari Tehrani.