Politics Stands in the Way of a Green America

Politics Stands in the Way of a Green America

This Post was submitted by Climate Scorecard United States Country Manager Nathan Holman

Background

In the first six months of his presidency, President Biden has made substantial progress undoing the damaging environmental policies of the Trump administration. The new President has re-instated science experts on review boards, reneged the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline and stopped the licensing of oil and gas activities in the Arctic, among other environmental successes.

However, the most highly anticipated item on Biden’s environmental agenda has been the rejoining of the Paris Agreement. In April 2021, during Biden’s Earth Day summit, the USA submitted its nationally determined contribution (NDC) to the Paris Agreement, officially rejoining the global cause to address climate change. The federal government committed to reducing emissions by 50-52% below 2005 levels by 2030 and achieving net zero emissions by 2050. Generally, these commitments have been well received, but delivering on them will not be easy. This article outlines one of the greatest obstacles facing the USA in achieving its new climate goals: politics.

Political Resistance Stands in the Way

To achieve a 50% reduction in emissions by 2030, The USA needs to act fast – very fast. Ultimately, political resistance to climate action and spending stand in the way. Insufficient climate action from past leaders means that time is not on America’s side. In addition, current political resistance means ambitious, continued action is unlikely.

While the USA has more time to achieve its 2050 goal, back-tracking looms as a massive threat to climate change mitigation, as Republicans continue to deny the need for intervention.

Why This Matters

Biden’s plan for achieving the 2030 target appears to rely heavily on changes to infrastructure, including charging stations for electric vehicles, a green power grid and updates to buildings. However, infrastructure does not change overnight. Completing this slate of transformations in less than a decade will require significant upfront spending from the government, which will not appeal to the Republican party. These expenditures can be approved without Republican support through a process called “budget reconciliation,” which only requires a simple majority in the Senate. However, Biden will need the support of every Democratic senator to make this happen. Given the time crunch, any compromise on the ambitious spending that is needed could derail the path to 50% emissions reductions by 2030.

Achieving the 2030 and 2050 goals will require a continued effort over the next several decades. Unfortunately, a polarized political landscape makes that continued effort an unlikely scenario. If climate-focused incentives are stripped back and reinstated in step with the federal election cycle, long-term progress is not promising. The same is true for infrastructure projects, agricultural projects and other policies that are essential for making the USA’s goals a reality.

Finally, federal politics is not the whole story. Individual states maintain jurisdiction over myriad topics related to reducing emissions. The difference between “red states” and “blue states” can mean the difference between “states that address climate change” and “states that do not.” The federal government can only do so much without buy-in from state governments and a lack of cohesion between the two political parties poses a threat to delivering on long-term climate commitments.

A Way Forward

The political barriers will not be easily overcome, but there is hope. In the short-term, Biden’s plans can be approved without bipartisan support. Ambitious spending on infrastructure and tax incentives could go a long way toward achieving the USA’s 2030 goal.

To avoid future administrations backtracking on the progress of the current administration, the goals set out in the USA’s nationally determined contribution can be written into law. While this would not be altogether irreversible, it would be more difficult to undo and undermine the country’s long-term vision for climate change mitigation.

Buy-in from state governments will be an important piece of the puzzle and some states and municipalities are setting a great example. The city of Boston is already implementing a creative financing structure to fund green innovations, which comes with an economic benefit to the city and improved aesthetics. As more cities show growth and prosperity based on climate-related policies, the green movement may become more and more attractive to state governments.

Who to Contact

To help the USA overcome these political barriers, Americans can ensure their voice is heard by contacting their local representatives. The following link contains a list of US senators by state, as well as contact and party information: https://www.senate.gov/senators/senators-contact.htm.

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