Simon Wilson: Will Joe Biden save the world from climate catastrophe?


Good ol’ Joe Biden re-signed America up to the Paris Accord on his first day in office. He “shuttered” the Keystone KL pipeline and created a new Civilian Climate Corps to work on environmental projects.

He announced a whole-of-government commitment that “every federal infrastructure investment” would have to “reduce climate pollution” and called a virtual Earth Day Summit for April 22.

There’s a big new UN climate conference scheduled for November in Glasgow, but Smokin’ Joe didn’t want to wait that long. His summit is intended to prompt countries everywhere to upgrade their commitments for 2030, ahead of Glasgow.

Biden wants the US to become the leader of international climate action. And so he should. The most powerful industrial nation on Earth, the country that has benefited the most from greenhouse gas emissions, has a duty now to do more than most to lead the world back from the brink.

So now we’re all ridin’ with Biden. It’s business time! All of that. Is he doing enough?

He’s just released his US$2.25 trillion infrastructure “recovery plan”, which includes a massive commitment to electric vehicles, a national clean power standard and a range of tax credits and subsidies designed to turn corporate America green. Or at least pay it to become more greenish.

The Wall St Journal calls it a “Green New Deal in disguise”, although Green New Dealers like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have begged to differ. “This is not nearly enough,” she tweeted. “The important context here is that it’s $2.25T spread out over 10 years. For context, the Covid package was $1.9T for this year *alone,* with some provisions lasting two years. Needs to be way bigger.”

The irony of the corporate incentives, several commentators have noted, is that Biden will be paying some companies to do what they’re already doing. The Centre for Biological Diversity calls those incentives “gimmicky subsidies” and laments that oil and gas drilling is not being closed down more quickly.

Indeed, while Biden closed Keystone, he has not closed the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL), the focus of those famous protests led by the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in 2016 and 2017. But DAPL is operating in violation of federal law and the courts may shut it down for him.

Biden has also resisted calls, so far, for the US to adopt a big new 2030 emissions target of its own. He should commit to a 50 per cent reduction, say 300 leading American businesses, including Apple, Google, Microsoft and Coca-Cola.

Biden says he will announce America’s target – its Nationally Determined Contribution, or NDC – before his Earth Day summit.

New Zealand’s own NDC target was set in 2015 by the National-led Government. It’s to reduce emissions by 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030, which is not enough for us to do our share to keep planetary warming below 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.

That 1.5 degree mark, remember, according to the scientific consensus, is the point beyond which the impacts of climate change may become too great to manage.

Prime Minister Ardern has said several times said the Government will revise the NDC and is committed to the 1.5 degree target.

The tragedy of America is that it is one of the few countries left where there is not a consensus on climate change. Few countries are doing enough, but in most of them, including New Zealand, the major parties are travelling in roughly the same direction. Changing the government will probably not destroy years of work.

In America, though, Republicans would turn back the clock if they got the chance. Pew Centre research suggests only 34 per cent of “modern” Republicans and a mere 15 per cent of “conservative” Republicans believe human-made climate change is underway. An incredibly small 11 per cent of conservative Republicans believe scientists even understand climate change well.

Donald Trump remains the leader of his party. That’s disputed by the likes of Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell, but McConnell’s own views on the climate crisis are hardly any better than Trump’s. McConnell denied it had human causes right up till December last year.

Republicans are already busy trying to tear down Biden’s new bill. All that spending on modern technology, alternative energies and community resilience, they say, it’s not infrastructure at all.

Biden has been good responding to that. His message was that the world has changed and America has historically been good at making the most of it when that happens.

“Two hundred years ago,” he said, trains weren’t ‘traditional’ infrastructure either, until America made a choice to lay down tracks across the country. Highways weren’t ‘traditional’ infrastructure until we allowed ourselves to imagine that roads could connect our nation across state lines. The idea of infrastructure has always evolved to meet the aspirations of the American people and their needs, and it’s evolving again today.”

That’s a great idea. In this country, the road construction industry has done its best to monopolise the concept of “infrastructure”, and that, unfortunately, has derailed billions of dollars of the Government’s Covid rebuild spending.

Biden’s task, therefore, is to bed in an effective programme of climate action before the Republicans get a chance to undo it. And that means bedding in not just the steps to reduce emissions, but the culture shift that means they will be widely accepted.

Having cleaner air and better water will help, if it’s done without imposing financial hardship on ordinary people. Most of all, creating new jobs will help.

Climate action is jobs creation. More people are employed in Texas now in renewable energy than they are in fossil fuels extraction.

The point is still not well grasped by the New Zealand Government, despite the $1.1 billion commitment to create 11,000 green jobs in last year’s budget. How about 50,000?

Instead, terrified of upsetting a section of the driving public, the Government has retained a roading spend that stops other options being developed and will lead, in Auckland at least, to higher emissions.

Biden’s declaration that all infrastructure spending must lower emissions is nowhere to be found in the official policies and practices of our Government.

What a thing, to watch the American Administration being more progressive than our own.

Biden’s task is not merely to save the world. He also has to save America.

Nearly two-thirds of the US is now in a “moderate to exceptional drought”. In the last three years, wildfires in California have killed nearly 3000 people and caused $250 billion worth of damages. Last year broke all the records; this year is expected to be even worse.

A 2020 paper in Science magazine suggested the Midwest and West could be in the early years of the worst “megadrought” on the North America continent for 1200 years.

It’s all hands to the pump, or not, as the case may be. The Southern Nevada Water Authority has proposed a ban on maintaining ornamental lawns.

In Las Vegas, that means, the grass on median strips and outside buildings will not be watered any more.

After a decade of drought, Nevada is confronting the consequences of using a staggering quarter of all its non-agricultural water for “home and business lawn and garden irrigation”.

Environmentalists say the ban should extend to private yards. Some are brave enough to mention the state’s thousands of golf courses.

It all helps, and it’s not just about the water. The Air Resources Board in California reports that a petrol-powered lawn mower produces as many “smog-forming emissions” as 40 new cars. In some cities, you can get a subsidy to trade up to electric.

“America, eh. Saving the world one ornamental lawn at a time. Because somebody has to.”

• This story is part of the Herald’s contribution to Covering Climate Now, an international campaign by more than 400 media organisations, which this week highlights our responses to climate change ahead of a US-led world leaders summit on April 22. To read more of our coverage go

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