New political climate: Biden prioritizes rejoining Paris Agreement

In a welcome development for the environmental movement, President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement, placing climate change front-and-center in his policy priorities. This follows the United States’ withdrawal from the agreement, which took effect earlier this month.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the United States remains the world’s second-largest carbon dioxide emitter and the number one historical emitter. The average American’s carbon footprint is twice that of a Chinese or European Union citizen and eight times that of an Indian citizen.

Assistant Professor Aaron Fox in the Department of Plant Science said, “The fact that we will be switching from a president who has downplayed climate science, called climate change a hoax and has even tried to suppress climate change science in his own administration to a president who has promised to make the climate catastrophe a number one issue is huge.”

The Cal Poly Community joined an L.A. climate protest in Pershing Square, Oct. 2019. (Courtesy of Steven Everett)

The only countries that signed but never adopted the agreement are Angola, Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, South Sudan, Turkey and Yemen. The United States is the only country to adopt and then withdraw from the agreement.

The Paris Agreement is, in essence, an honor system as there are no economic penalties for failing to regularly report its contributions to mitigate global warming. No mechanism forces a country to set a specific emissions target by a certain date, but each target should go beyond previously set targets.
Of possibly greater significance will be Biden’s plans to commit to zero net emissions by 2050, with measurable milestones along the way. Many of these he can do by signing executive orders and using existing Environmental Protection Agency laws such as the Clean Air Act to regulate greenhouse gases for example.

Dean Kubani, a lecturer in the John T. Lyle Center for Regenerative Studies, however, is concerned Biden will not be able to accomplish very much to reduce greenhouse gas emissions with executive action alone.

“In order to meet the emissions reduction goals of the Paris Agreement he will need to develop a national emissions reduction plan that is adopted by Congress and then vigorously implement it,” said Kubani. “In our divided political climate, that is likely to prove very difficult to do.”

The agreement’s mission is to cut global carbon dioxide emissions by 7.6% every year for the next decade to meet its global average temperature of 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Agriculture Research Institute Executive Director David Still, also sees political division as a barrier to progress. After coming off a divisive election, tensions may need to smooth over in order to work together on policies to shape the country’s collective future.

(Courtesy of Steven Everett)

“The big problem we have is that we need bipartisan agreement to enact long-lasting
legislation,” said Still. “Otherwise, any gains will be quickly erased as they have over the last
four years when a different administration wins the presidency.”

Assistant Professor James J.A. Blair in the Geography and Anthropology Department relayed the
importance of grassroots environmental movements that use collective action at the local level to
effect change.

“Going forward, it will be critical to not only make technocratic commitments through grasstops
alliances that promote incremental change, but also to take grassroots movements for climate
justice seriously,” said Blair.

“This will require the new administration to stop subsidizing fossil fuels,” added Blair. “It also
means that we need to continue supporting movements to keep it in the ground, through just and
sustainable solutions at the local or regional scale of state and city governments, indigenous
peoples, universities and communities.”

Biden’s plan for a “Clean Energy Revolution” goes beyond recommitting to the Paris
Agreement. He plans to lead an effort to motivate every major country to ramp up the ambition
of their domestic climate targets to address the climate emergency.

“I am sure they will try to devise a multi-decade, multi-generational strategy that will give us and
the world our best hope for mitigating global warming,” added Still. “We have irretrievably lost
our more benign climate and the best we can do going forward is to contain the damage.”

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