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Northwestern Buffett Institute for Global Affairs

Prospects for U.S. and Global Climate Action with a Biden Administration

Many are hopeful that Joe Biden’s presidency will quickly restore federal climate change measures and catalyze substantial new efforts, such as a "green new deal." Many also hope for the United States to play a leadership role in fueling far-reaching international cooperation around climate change. Are those expectations warranted or unrealistic? What can we expect from the new administration?  A panel of Northwestern University political science, environment, and economics experts came together for a Northwestern Roberta Buffett Institute for Global Affairs webinar to discuss these questions and more. Here are four key takeaways:

More work needs to be done to get the American Public on board with comprehensive climate action. While most are aware that there is a significant partisan divide in the U.S. regarding climate change, only about 28 percent of Americans think climate change regulation and spending should be a top priority. Likewise, “there has been little to no movement amongst Republicans in terms of swaying their interest in acting on climate change,” said Northwestern Professor of Political Science Mary McGrath. While it’s true that Democrats tend to be keener to take action, “less than half of democrats consider it to be a very high priority.” Ultimately though, if public opinion is going to be swayed, then “Republican leadership is critical,” McGrath said. “People listen closely to what their ‘trusted sources’ say, and those differ across party lines.”

Even without broad public support, there are numerous actions that the Biden Administration can immediately take.  “With control of exactly 50 seats in the Senate, the Democrats cannot afford a single defection on any legislation,” said Northwestern Pritzker School of Law Professor, Michael Barsa. Rather, it would be more advantageous for Biden to focus on agency actions that could address transportation and electricity considerations, two of the biggest sources of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Immediate actions that could be taken include raising the “efficiency standards for vehicles as well as the standards for soot, mercury and other toxic materials,” Barsa said. Biden can also “restrict oil and gas leasing as well as coal mining on federal land, without congressional approval, promote solar and wind development on federal land, require the use of renewables to power federal buildings, and streamline offshore wind approvals,” Barsa added.

Although climate policy under Trump was disastrous, the reality is that the U.S. has never really been a leader in combating climate change.  The willingness of previous presidencies to address climate change has been “lukewarm at best,” argues Northwestern Associate Professor of Economics Mar Reguant. Yet, “the return of the U.S. to engagement with climate change efforts is essential to any chance at effective global climate policy, as well as a chance of the U.S. maintaining some semblance of world leadership,” she said. 

In many ways, the EU is better positioned to take the lead on driving global climate policy. “While there is mixed support for climate policy in the US, the conversations in Europe are far less timid,” Reguant said. “In the EU, there is broad support for climate policy and the disagreements lie in what exactly those policies should look like.” Even so, Reguant notes that both the U.S. and EU need to assume a shared set of responsibilities and cooperation efforts that extend far beyond what is outlined in the Paris Accord in order to achieve the greatest impact.

While progress has been made in the global shift toward renewable energy, there is still considerable room for improvement. “Over the past 20 years we have seen a steady increase in the global production of renewable energy, as well as a decrease in price for solar and wind power technology, but production levels are still far below international targets set for 2030 and 2050,” said Northwestern University in Qatar Assistant Professor Anto Mohsin.

Mohsin also pointed to Indonesia as a case study for the complicated reality facing many countries on the ground. “Although Indonesia is a country with abundant renewable resources, it has struggled to prioritize increased renewable energy generation,” said Mohsin.  Indonesia’s capital, Jakarta, is one of the fastest sinking cities in the world and there are already plans to move the capital further inland due to rising sea levels. The case of Jakarta is just one example of the complicated reality and alternative adaption strategies that many countries are forced to adopt. Even so, Mohsin sees reason for cautious optimism. “Indonesia’s current president recently launched a huge electric infrastructure project….and due to the country’s geographic considerations, it still has the potential to become a global renewable energy leader,” he said.

This webinar is part of Northwestern Buffett’s "Building Sustainable Futures: Global Challenges and Possibilities" webinar series, which focuses on a different United Nations Sustainable Development Goal (UN SDG) each quarter. Webinars in Winter 2021 focus on SDG 13: Climate Action, spotlighting how effective approaches to combating climate change action require unprecedented global cooperation and integration of scientific knowledge. Winter 2021 webinars are co-sponsored by the Institute for Sustainability and Energy at Northwestern (ISEN) and sustainNU.