2020 Election Will Be Crucial in Determining Whether We Avoid a Climate Catastrophe

Here’s a look at how the U.S.’s future climate regulation will look under Biden versus another four years of Trump.

Renee Cho
October 29, 2020
image of earth from space
Photo: NASA

The ability of humans to live safely and comfortably as we have for centuries is on the November ballot. We are already experiencing increased flooding; sea level rise as the ice caps continue to melt; slower and stronger hurricanes; more intense wildfires, including in the Amazon and the Arctic; drought and water scarcity; and the dying of coral reefs. The World Bank predicted these climate impacts could force 100 million more people into extreme poverty by 2030.

The next 10 years are critical because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has warned that the planet could warm 1.5˚C above pre-industrial levels by 2030. Overshooting 1.5˚C could precipitate disastrous climate impacts, potentially sending us over tipping points that would hasten more warming and send Earth into an irreversible “hothouse” state.

To avert this catastrophic future and keep the global temperature rise to 1.5˚C, we must cut CO2 emissions 45 percent from 2010 levels by 2030, and reach net zero by 2050. What happens in the next few years will determine our fate, which makes the outcome of the U.S.’s November 3 presidential election critically important.

“The 1.5˚C temperature target is very difficult to achieve right now, although it is theoretically possible,” Michael Gerrard, director of the Sabin Center for Climate Law at Columbia University has said. “If Trump is re-elected, I think it goes into the realm of physical impossibility. We’d have to wait another four years for another election to try to rectify that. But by then, a lot more fossil fuel infrastructure will have been locked in and a lot more greenhouse gases will have gone into the atmosphere. So, it would be very bad news for the climate indeed.”

What are our options?

Donald Trump’s plan

donald trump
Photo: Gage Skidmore

President Trump, who does not acknowledge the role of human activity in climate change, does not have a plan to combat climate change, though he claims to champion clean water and clean air. In 2017, he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris Agreement, making the U.S. the lone country to renege. The U.S. withdrawal becomes official on November 4, one day after Election Day. Since the U.S withdrew, some countries, such as Australia, Saudi Arabia, Brazil and Russia have done little to cut their emissions.

Trump’s goal is to ensure U.S. energy independence. To achieve this, his administration has supported domestic fossil fuel production and rolled back many environmental regulations that it considers burdensome to the fossil fuel industry.

According to the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, Trump has taken 163 actions to roll back climate mitigation and adaptation measures. He rescinded the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, which was expected to cut power sector emissions 32 percent by 2030, relative to 2005, replacing it with the Affordable Clean Energy rule. Because the replacement does not set limits for emissions, it will lead to more emissions and air pollution, which the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) itself has projected could result in 1,400 additional premature deaths. He has weakened regulations  limiting methane emissions from oil and gas production on federal lands, and the requirement to report methane emissions. The Environmental Defense Fund estimated that this could result in an increase of five million metric tons of methane emissions each year. Methane is a greenhouse gas that, over 20 years, traps more than 84 times more heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide does.

Domestic bills to phase down hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs)—potent greenhouse gases used in air conditioners and refrigerants—are being discussed in the Senate and House of Representatives, but the Trump administration has not ratified the Kigali Amendment to the Montreal Protocol, which would require countries to set targets to cut their use of HFCs.

Trump signed an executive order to join the global One Trillion Trees Initiative, a World Economic Forum proposal to slow deforestation and climate change. And he has allotted $900 million a year to the Land and Conservation Fund and $9.5 billion over five years for land conservation as part of the Great American Outdoors Act. But he has also opened U.S. waters and public lands to oil and gas drilling, including national monument land in Utah and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge; he allowed logging and road construction on nine million acres of Alaska’s Tongas National Forest; and attempted to ease the pipeline permitting process.

Trump has loosened fuel economy standards for vehicles for model years 2021 through 2026; they now only need to increase fuel economy by 1.5 percent a year instead of the Obama rule’s 5 percent a year. In addition, he has moved to revoke California’s waiver—its right to determine its own more stringent fuel economy standards, which are followed by 14 states and the District of Columbia.

Trump issued an executive action to speed reviews of infrastructure projects under the National Environmental Policy Act, Clean Water Act, and Endangered Species Act. He claims that the loosening of these rules will save money because it limits environmental reviews of major federal infrastructure projects such as highways, power plants and pipelines, and speeds their completion.

The Rhodium Group, an independent research provider, has estimated that as a result of the Trump rollbacks already in place, U.S. emissions will increase by 1.8 gigatons by 2035, an amount equal to almost one-third of all U.S. emissions in 2019. Total U.S. emissions will be 3 percent higher in 2035 than they would have been under the Obama regulations.

The Sabin Center’s Romany Webb, associate research scholar, and Daniel Metzger, postdoctoral research scholar, identified policy objectives that Trump is expected to advance if re-elected. Continuing his support for fossil fuels, he would open more federal land and the continental shelf to oil and gas drilling and loosen regulations for operating there.

The Trump Department of Energy has already weakened energy efficiency standards for light bulbs, which is projected to increase carbon emissions by 34 million metric tons by 2025. In a second Trump term, the administration might also cut energy efficiency standards for appliances. Other possible proposals include weakening regulations on greenhouse gas emissions from landfills, reducing penalties on carmakers that don’t meet fuel economy standards, and limiting the ability of states to take actions against climate change that are more aggressive than those of the federal government.

Trump is expected to continue to reduce the role of science in decision-making by agencies. One proposal for rules developed under the Clean Air Act would limit the consideration of co-benefits—often pollution reduction, which impacts public health—when conducting cost-benefit analyses of new agency rules.

To ensure that the U.S. continues to rely on fossil fuels, the Department of Energy has earmarked $72 million for research into carbon capture technologies, of which $21 million was allocated for direct air capture. Trump will also likely promote nuclear energy over renewable energy.

Adapting to climate change

A $16 billion program overseen by Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development will help states prepare for natural disasters, although when the rules were announced, there was no mention of climate change or global warming. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) will spend $500 million, with more to come, to relocate communities from flood zones.

If the Republicans hold onto Congress, Trump’s overall plans are expected to create 11.2 million jobs during his second term, according to Moody’s Analytics.

Legal considerations

Many of Trump’s actions have been stymied in the courts. The Institute for Policy Integrity at the New York University School of Law found that the Trump administration has lost 87 percent of the challenges to all (not just environmental) of its deregulation efforts. Some of the major environmental rule changes that are currently being challenged in court include the Affordable Clean Energy Rule, methane emissions rules, the fuel efficiency standard and the California waiver. If Trump is re-elected, the Department of Justice will no doubt vigorously defend these cases; in addition, the administration would likely revisit environmental rule changes that courts have struck down and revamp them to try to get them right.

Joe Biden’s plan

joe biden in front of american flag
Photo: Gage Skidmore

Joe Biden knows climate change is an existential threat to our future. One of his priorities as president would be to rejoin the Paris climate agreement and encourage countries to make their climate goals more ambitious. This is key because all countries are expected to submit their ramped-up climate goals by the end of this year, and U.S. leadership could motivate other countries to set more ambitious targets.

Biden has unveiled a plan of $2 trillion to be spent over four years to both help the economy recover from the pandemic and deal with climate change by expanding the use of clean energy and cutting fossil fuel emissions. He aims to make the power sector emissions-free by 2035 and reach net-zero before 2050. To achieve this, he would establish an enforcement mechanism that requires emitters to pay the cost of their carbon polluting and could conceivably institute a carbon tax.

Biden has promised to immediately issue executive actions to limit methane emissions for new and existing oil and gas projects, and develop new fuel-economy and energy efficiency standards.

He would end new oil and gas drilling, including fracking, on federal lands. While he does not support a ban on fracking, he would regulate its methane emissions.

Biden would incentivize utilities and developers to build new renewable energy power plants. Because he wants all new U.S. cars and trucks to be electric by 2035, he would encourage the adoption of electric vehicles through tax credits, provide incentives for automakers to produce electric vehicles, and establish a federal procurement program for clean energy and zero-emission vehicles.

A Biden administration would invest $400 billion to research and develop clean tech such as battery storage, new nuclear reactors and carbon capture. Biden will also push the agriculture sector to employ practices that remove CO2 from the air and store it in the soil.

Biden would upgrade infrastructure, including railroads, mass transit, roads, bridges, and the electrical grid, and by 2030, build 500,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles nationwide.

His goal is to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings by 50 percent by 2035; this entails making four million buildings more energy efficient, and weatherizing two million homes. To achieve this, he will offer incentives for retrofits that involve appliance electrification, efficiency, and clean energy.

Biden would invest more in communities of color and ensure that solutions to environmental issues are developed through an inclusive, community-driven process.

To protect biodiversity, slow extinction rates, and draw on natural climate mitigation processes, Biden aims to conserve 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.

Moody’s Analytics estimates that if the Democrats sweep Congress, Biden’s overall economic plan will create 7.4 million more jobs than Trump’s, based on the candidates’ campaign proposals.

Adapting to climate change

Beyond modernizing infrastructure, Biden will develop regional climate resilience plans in conjunction with universities and national labs to prepare for climate impacts. He will invite innovators to help design zoning and building codes that enable communities to better deal with natural disasters. In addition, any new federal infrastructure funding will have to take climate change into consideration to ensure that buildings, water, transportation, and energy infrastructure can withstand the impacts of climate change.

Legal considerations

The Sabin Center’s Romany Webb said that, to reverse any Trump administration rollbacks that have already been finalized, the Biden administration would have to start over in the regulatory process. “For example, for the replacement for the Clean Power Plan, the Biden administration has to go to a new regulatory process.” The process for an agency like the EPA to issue regulations or change regulations and get them finalized entails first putting out a proposal and asking for public comment on it; after it accepts public comment, and reviews all the comments, it can then move to a final proposal. By contrast, for regulatory rollbacks that have not been finalized, “The Biden administration could just choose not to finalize them. And we’d be left with those pre-existing regulations that the Trump administration was trying to get rid of,” Webb said.

To deal with Trump’s attempted rollback of rules that are being challenged in court but are in early stages, the Department of Justice under Biden could go to the court and ask to have the case held in “abeyance”—put on hold. Biden could then ask that the rule be returned to the agency that issued it for review, and the agency would be in a position to write new more stringent regulations. “A Biden administration could go further, filling in those regulatory gaps that were left at the end of the Obama administration and that the Trump administration has not done anything about,” said Webb.

Ultimately, to achieve his ambitious climate goals, Biden will need a Democratic Congress to pass legislation that is less susceptible to reversal by legal challenges. According to the New York Times, Biden will likely try to incorporate climate actions into legislation with more bi-partisan support, such as an economic recovery bill. To facilitate climate legislation, however, a Democratic Congress might need to get rid of the filibuster, which allows any senator to block action on a bill unless 60 senators agree to end debate. If a Republican Congress thwarts Biden, he has promised to use executive actions; however, the risk of using administrative executive actions to address climate change is that they can be undone by the next Republican administration, said Webb. This is what happened to Obama’s efforts to mitigate climate change.

What difference in climate could we see?

While cutting carbon emissions now is essential to saving human lives and natural ecosystems in the short and long term, it’s important to understand that even with strong measures, we likely won’t see temperatures drop for decades.

Because of the COVID-19 lockdowns, CO2 emissions in the first half of this year dropped an unprecedented 8.8 percent from the same period in 2019 and as much as 17 percent in April. Many have wondered if this decrease would make a difference in global temperatures. Unfortunately, because of the amount of CO2 already in the atmosphere, it will not.

Galen McKinley, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, said, “Changes in emissions that are being discussed right now will not substantially reduce climate change through 2030. If we were to stop all emissions right now, which is not feasible, we could likely stabilize the temperature at the current level by 2030.“

That’s because although emissions cuts would lead to less heat being absorbed, it might take decades before any temperature reduction could be measured as the climate responds so slowly to changes in emissions. We might not see any decrease in global temperatures before 2035, according to a recent study by Norway’s Center for International Climate Research, which analyzed the effect of immediately implementing drastic measures to slash all greenhouse gas emissions, black carbon and other pollutants. The researchers stressed that this does not mean, however, that the cuts in emissions would not be working. Over the long term, they would still make a difference in reducing the severity of climate impacts.

“Since to cut off all CO2 emissions immediately is not feasible, we must plan for adaptation to change in addition to committing to mitigation,” said McKinley. “The mitigation we do today will have substantial impact on climate past 2050, and can prevent catastrophic changes via warming and sea level rise in the second half of this century. In other words, the mitigation we do now is in the interest of keeping Earth in a state where our children and grandchildren can continue to live using the infrastructure that we and our parents and grandparents have built.”