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US election: How will a Trump or Biden presidency affect the fight against climate change?

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By David Walsh
The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming, USA.
The Dave Johnson coal-fired power plant is silhouetted against the morning sun in Glenrock, Wyoming, USA.   -   Copyright  J. David Ake/Associated Press
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It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the planet just now. With scientists warning a rise of just 1.5-2 degrees celsius would destroy habitats and ecosystems, precipitate the extinction of scores of species as well as causing widespread human displacement due to droughts and flooding, it has become startlingly clear that the climate crisis will become an existential threat for much of the world’s population.

As with a plethora of pressing election issues, incumbent President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden are night and day when it comes to their stances on climate change.

With evidence suggesting the US has been the biggest net carbon polluter in the world since 1750, pressure is mounting on the country to show leadership on the issue.

The world is holding its breath for the outcome of the November 3 elections. But what will it mean for the planet’s climate and the environment as a whole if either of the two men are successful in being elected to the most powerful office in the world?

A second Trump term

On the face of it, it is hard to compare and contrast policies because Trump does not have a coherent climate agenda beyond negating the attempts to reverse climate change in favour of big business and fossil fuels companies.

In the four years since being elected to the US presidency, and even before, Trump has disparaged the work of scientists and scientific fact when it comes to the climate and the environment. "It used to not be climate change. It used to be global warming. That wasn't working too well, 'cause it was getting too cold all over the place," Trump was quoted as saying in 2017.

As well as pouring cold water on scientific evidence, Trump has followed his words with actions, not least with the withdrawal of the US from the landmark climate accords known as the Paris Agreement. As one of the flagship achievements of his predecessor Barack Obama, who helped bring China to the table with 195 other countries to sign the accords, Trump has argued it represented a bad deal for the US. During his administration, Trump indicated he would be open to renegotiating the agreement "on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers,” or starting afresh.

With the US set to officially withdraw from the agreement on November 4, the day after the election, it's unclear at this stage which aspects Trump would be looking to renegotiate or how he hopes to get a better deal. In response to the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the agreement, many US states and cities have responded with their own climate commitments to plug the gap left by the country’s exit. Either way, without the US involved, the impetus to push to meet global emissions targets is likely to wane.

So, what happens if Trump wins? The likelihood is that more Obama-era environmental protections - many of which Trump deemed to be "job-killing regulations" - will be axed. In his first term, Trump rolled back 100 environmental and public health regulations of which the majority were put in place by the Obama administration, including the Clean Power Plan to curb emissions from power plants and stricter fuel economy standards. There are still some in place that Trump tried to rescind but which were successfully challenged in court, like the rules on limiting methane emissions from oil and gas operations on public land, which are now likely to face renewed attention.

Also facing increased jeopardy are the great swathes of the US national park system which Trump has been opened to development and exploitation for natural resources. Obama preserved 260 million acres of federal land; by contrast, Trump has lifted such protections across the country.

In advance of the November elections, Trump green-lit plans to open vast areas of Arctic Alaska - home to endangered species like polar bears - to offshore oil and gas drilling operations for the first time. The latest victim is Alaska’s Tongass Forest, America's largest national forest described as “the lungs of the country” and one of its last remaining untouched wildernesses. Tongass has been safeguarded since 2001 but its centuries-old forests now face the threat of deforestation by logging concerns, despite public support for its continued protection.

A Biden administration

The differences between the candidates, particularly on climate change is stark. While Republicans are running for the White House this year without an official programme for government, the Democrats are campaigning on specific policy ideas, including those which would address the climate crisis.

As if to emphasise the basic differences between the two candidates in the remaining days before the election, Biden simply tweeted. “I believe climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Donald Trump doesn’t even think it exists. It’s that simple, folks.” To many American voters, it will certainly seem like that.

In contrast to his rival, Biden has put forward detailed plans on how any potential administration of his would deal with the climate crisis.

As a first, symbolic gesture to the US’ allies and the rest of the world, Biden has committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement as swiftly as possible after the country officially leaves. Secondly, it is likely that Biden, the former Vice President under Obama, would look to restore protections and elaborate on policies in place under Trump’s predecessor. In order to do so, Biden has promised to spend $2 trillion (€1.7 trillion) on tackling the crisis with the ultimate goal of the US reaching net-carbon emissions by 2050.

I believe climate change is an existential threat to humanity. Donald Trump doesn’t even think it exists. It’s that simple, folks.
Joe Biden
Former Vice President and Democratic presidential nominee

While he hasn’t committed to the Green New Deal, a plan put forward by progressives in the Democratic Party following the 2018 midterm elections, it is unlikely Biden will be unable to resist calls to deliver significant progress on the climate issue. When pressed in the first presidential debate on September 30, Biden flip-flopped three times on his support for the Green New Deal, finally stating that he supports “the Biden plan, which is different than what [Trump] calls the radical Green New Deal.”

While it is not the firm commitment many activists were looking for, environmentalists see the Democratic nominee’s platform as a step in the right direction. Evan Weber, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, tweeted: “The Biden Green Deal is not a bad deal, it’s not the plan we have, but it’s a damn good start.”

While the Green New Deal goes further with its social welfare policies, both Biden’s plan and the arguably more progressive proposal aim to wean the US off its dependence on fossil fuels, including coal, oil and fracking. This alone is contentious in certain states, including swing state Pennsylvania, which rely heavily on jobs in the energy sector, particularly fracking. While as a candidate in the Democratic primaries he made conflicting claims on what he planned to do in regard to fossil fuels, Biden has been keen to quash any anxieties, claiming he would protect public lands and waters from new oil and gas exploration but has not said he would ban fracking outright.

Highlights of his plan including making the energy sector carbon-neutral by 2035, as well as improving construction standards for new homes and commercial buildings to ensure net-zero emissions, building 1.5 million sustainable homes, introducing tax incentives to create green energy jobs and the modernisation of the country's infrastructure and transportation networks to cut emissions and create jobs.