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How will the US election impact sustainability in the UK?

Dr Alix Dietzel, lecturer in global ethics, and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology, from the University of Bristol, give insight into how Biden’s presidency will change public opinion on climate change and its outcome.

By Francesca Levi, Third Year, Biology

Joe Biden, the 2020 President Elect, has a more progressive environmental plan compared to Donald Trump, yet he has been criticised for not setting tougher climate goals. Dr Alix Dietzel, lecturer in global ethics, and Professor Stephan Lewandowsky, chair in cognitive psychology, from the University of Bristol, give insight into how Biden’s presidency will change public opinion on climate change and its outcome.

Earlier this month, Joe Biden won the race to presidency against the 45th American President Donald Trump. Trump has become well-known for his continuous denial of the scientific consensus on climate change. Throughout his four-year presidency he reversed many Obama-era environmental policies, favoring the country’s oil and gas industries. He even went as far as exiting the 2015 Paris Agreement, an international pledge to limit global temperature rise by 1.5oC. In stark contrast, Biden’s climate plan has been described as the most progressive environment plan ever enacted in the United States.

Joe Biden during his 2020 Presidential Election Campaign | Flickr / Gage Skidmore

Biden’s environment plan has the main aim of achieving net-zero emissions by 2050. Biden also plans to invest $2 trillion in clean energy in order to reach carbon free electricity by 2035. Through this he aims to create one million jobs, improve energy efficiency in buildings, and housing, and promote conservation efforts in the agricultural industry. Other goals include reversing all of Trump’s policies on the environment, such as the previous removal of methane limits on oil and gas operations and re-joining the Paris Agreement.

Dr Dietzel, lecturer in global ethics at the University of Bristol, has stated: ‘The Paris Agreement will benefit from Biden re-joining, because it will make participation universal. It is also the first time the US will be committing to a UNFCCC treaty, since they never joined the Kyoto Protocol. However, under the Paris Agreement, each state submits their own climate plans, and currently these plans are leading us to a world of between 2.2 - 3.4oC rise in global average temperatures (Climate Action Tracker, 2020).

This would be disastrous, thus the Paris Agreement in itself is an inadequate response to the climate change problem. Whether the US is trusted [to upkeep its promises by other countries], will have a lot to do with what climate diplomacy looks like under Biden. It has to be radically different, because historically the US has not done much to help the UNFCCC or the global response to climate change’.

Critics of Biden’s plan have pointed out that, although it is progressive and a huge improvement from current legislation, it is much more moderate than what is necessary. The Green New Deal, a plan to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, introduced in Congress by Alexandra-Ocasio Cortez and Ed Markey, and rejected by the senate, is a much more effective framework for tackling climate change.

Biden has described it as a ‘crucial framework’ and yet his own plan starkly differs from it. Namely, he only aims to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 and pledges not to abolish fracking, due to it providing thousands of jobs in Pennsylvania. Although the president is now a Democrat, Republicans are still likely to hold the Senate, so it is improbable that many green policies will be enacted.

Professor Lewandowsky states that ‘the scientific literature on the pathways required to get to net zero by 2050 shows that it is actually extremely challenging. It means that in a short thirty years you have to transform the entire American economy. In theory it could be done, but given the current political polarised state of the country, it will be very difficult. The reality of doing this in an adversarial environment is very different from doing it in a country where everyone is working together’.

' a short thirty years you have to transform the entire American economy'

In terms of public perception and climate action within the public, both in the US and the UK, professor Lewandowsky and Dr Dietzel had similar thoughts. According to the former: ‘Trump's views have definitely set us back because there has been no real climate leadership in one of the highest emitting countries. It has empowered deniers and fossil fuel industries have continued to be supported. However, there has also been great pushback, from movements including We Are Still In, the school strikes and extinction rebellion. So, it may be that overall, he has not had a massive effect, because the tide seems to be turning in terms of public opinion on climate change’.

Similarly, Prof. Lewandowsky argues that ‘There isn’t a lot of direct effect of Trump’s attitude on the American public overall, but the polarisation along party lines has increased over the last four years. This means that among Republicans climate denial has become like a tribal totem. If you are Republican, you apparently have to be a climate denier. Whereas among Democrats tend to accept the scientific consensus’.

'...among Republicans climate denial has become like a tribal totem'

Although Biden’s victory is a huge step forward for the fight against climate change in the US, how will it affect the environment and sustainability in the UK? Throughout Brexit negotiations concerns have been raised about how a free-trade deal with the US would threaten food safety in the UK. If the UK accepts US imports with lower standards for food and animal welfare, such as the famous ‘chlorinated chicken’, it would potentially jeopardize UK exports to the EU.

With Biden in charge, there are hopes that trading standards will increase. This is due to Biden’s hope that by trading with the UK, which has similar food-safety standards to the EU, doors will open up for further trade with other European countries. However, there is some tension in regard to the trade deal, as Biden is of Irish heritage, and as such has stated that the Good Friday agreement cannot be ‘a casualty of Brexit’. The Good Friday agreement, which brought an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland, agreed on preventing a hard border for trade across Ireland, which may be made to return by a no-deal Brexit.

Professor Lewandowsky explains that ‘Biden will not tolerate anything that jeopardizes peace in Ireland. This will have implications for Brexit, because there will not be a deal unless the UK complies with Good Friday. Regardless of this, America will drive a very hard bargain to try and get access to British markets.

Bristol student responses to the outcome of the US election

Bristol SU election results announced

For the UK to get this trade-deal, they will have to compromise considerably [...] The differences at the level of trade deal will not be massive, they will be subtle. Where there is a huge difference is in Biden’s commitment to Ireland and his views on Brexit compared to those of Trump, but I don’t think this will enter much into the negotiations for a trade deal’.

Aside from trade, Boris Johnson has said that he is looking forward to ‘American global leadership’ when touching on Biden’s plans to cut emissions. Whether Biden will pull through with his plans will truly shine into light at the COP26 climate change conference, which the UK will be hosting next November in Glasgow.

Featured Image: Flickr / Photo News

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