It’s election day! With millions of voters going out to the polls today, climate change is an important topic of discussion. According to a recent survey conducted by Yale University, two in three voters are worried about global warming and would support a revenue-neutral carbon emissions tax to reduce harm to the environment. As the impacts of recent wildfires remain fresh in our minds, it’s no surprise that voters also ranked it the 5th most important issue in the election.1
Here’s a summary of both candidates’ environmental policy, including what they have said and done, and what they plan to do.
Disclaimer: This article is intended for informational purposes only, and Project Planet does not endorse any one candidate in the upcoming election. Regardless of your political views, we encourage you to vote today.
President Trump’s Environmental Record
Let’s start with the good: The Trump administration funded the Plastics Innovation Challenge, a program aimed at improving recycling technology to reduce plastic waste.2 While the President opposes a ban on single-use-plastics, this program may help mitigate some environmental damage caused by plastic waste.
Additionally, under the Trump Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) restored 56 Superfund sites from 2017-2019, accelerating cleanup projects around the country. Superfund sites are identified by the EPA as the most highly toxic areas in the country— often those that are contaminated with hazardous waste or caustic chemicals— for which the EPA plans to conduct cleanup projects. In the first year President Trump took office, former EPA director Scott Pruitt took important steps to reverse the systemic underfunding that hindered the Superfund program for decades. Pruitt went after polluters more aggressively than his predecessors, enforcing the 1980 Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liabilities Act (CERCLA) to require polluting companies responsible for contamination to take accountability and fund remediation efforts in Superfund sites.3
While the President has taken some steps to help the environment, these have been tainted by his consistent efforts to downplay global warming and actively abrogate important climate policies. The Trump Administration slashed the EPA’s budget, meaning that Superfund’s budget today is lower than it has ever been. As a result, the EPA had to table 34 planned cleanup projects. Although the EPA plans to have corporations and responsible parties pick up the slack for polluting, at least a third of all Superfund sites have no known polluter.4 Without sufficient funding from the EPA, several superfund sites will be orphaned.
By far the most notable digression in climate action, however, is President Trump’s plan to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, during which he claimed that climate change is a “hoax.” The 2015 Paris agreement, which sets greenhouse gas emissions limits to prevent global warming from surpassing 2ºC, is signed by 197 countries.5
In 2019 the Trump administration began the formal process to withdraw from the Paris Agreement by November 4, 2020. This is problematic for two reasons. First, climate action is urgent. In a 2ºC hotter world, seas will rise two feet, flooding the homes of 30 million people worldwide by 2055. And, by 2055, 388 million people will face water scarcity and 195 million people will be exposed to severe drought. But we’ll be lucky if the temperature only rises by 2ºC; currently, we are projected to reach a 3º to 4ºC increase in temperature by 2050, even with current regulations in place.6 By deliberately ignoring the increasingly severe effects of climate change, President Trump may be risking the lives of millions of Americans.
The second problem with the United States’ exit from the Paris agreement is that other countries are more likely to follow suit. As the US finalizes plans to withdraw from the accord, Brazil and Turkey have also hinted at leaving the agreement. And, without the $3 billion that former President Obama pledged to helping other nations mitigate the effects of the climate crisis, withdrawal from the agreement will likely affect those abroad as well.7
Biden’s Clean Energy Revolution
Unlike President Trump, former Vice President Biden has outlined a clear environmental plan to reduce emissions and promote climate justice. On his campaign website, Biden outlines his goals for the 2021-2024 term if he wins the election. Not only does he hope to ensure the US reaches a 100% clean energy economy and net-zero emissions by 2050, he also hopes to “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities.” To avoid conflicts of interest, Biden notes that his campaign “will not accept contributions from oil, gas and coal corporations or executives”— an important step towards reducing the influence of fossil fuel corporations on policy outcomes.
Biden’s plan includes investing $1.7 trillion in climate action over the next ten years, largely by reversing the Trump administration’s tax incentives for corporations and ending subsidies on fossil fuels. He plans to leverage the power of the executive branch to sign in by executive order several policies, including, but not limited to:
- More aggressive methane pollution limits for new and existing oil and gas corporations
- Enforcing the Clean Air Act, which sets federal air quality standards to protect human health
- Banning new oil and gas projects on public lands and waters and protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge
- Build the first biofuel plants in the US and bolster carbon capture sequestration and nuclear energy technologies, creating “a new class of well-paying jobs in climate resilient industries”
- Increase Superfund’s budget back to $2.3 billion to support cleanup projects8
- Rejoin the Paris Agreement and push the US, along with the rest of the world, to raise initiative regarding emissions reductions
Amidst his policies to protect the environment, Biden’s plan will also bring a renewed emphasis on environmental justice and the protection of minority populations. Biden hopes to “engage in community-driven approaches to develop solutions for environmental injustices affecting communities of color, low-income, and indigenous communities.” Among several other policies, his plan includes:
- Ensuring access to safe drinking water for all communities
- Prioritizing minority workers in energy jobs through competitive grant programs
- Protecting coal miners by increasing coal companies’ contributions to the black lung benefits program as well as expanding efforts to provide quality health care to coal miners
- Offering “good wages, benefits, and worker protections” in all jobs created as part of his clean energy revolution
- Increasing inclusivity and community engagement in developing environmental policies and solutions9
Critics of Biden’s policy say that it is unrealistic and may harm the environmental movement in the long run. Biden’s plan to eliminate the fossil fuel industry sparked backlash in congressional districts with a large oil industry presence. With many people out of jobs due to the pandemic, the prospect of eliminating even more jobs felt terrifying, even when Biden promised to protect workers and guide transition without job loss. 10 Several Democratic legislators even publicly distanced themselves from Biden’s environmental plan, which may be a game-over issue for progressive environmental policies as a whole. Moreover, because Biden plans to enact several policies through executive orders, it will be easier for the GOP to reverse these policies once Biden leaves office.
On the other side, Biden has been criticized for not doing enough for climate change. His promise not to ban fracking was met with disapproval from more progressive environmentalists. Representative Ocasio-Cortez, a proponent of the Green New Deal, put it simply: “fracking is bad, actually.”11 Not only does fracking pose risks to the environment, it can also affect human health. Fracking can introduce toxic chemicals into nearby water sources,12 and a Harvard University study even showed increased levels of radiation near fracking sites.13 However, it is important to remember that in an election, “pragmatism is expected.” The fracking compromise will appeal to voters in Colorado, Texas, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania, which are critical in determining the outcome of the election.14 If Biden wins the presidency and follows through with his environmental plans, he can still make important strides towards achieving a greener and more sustainable future.
1 Leiserowitz, Anthony, et al. “Politics & Global Warming, November 2019.” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, 23 January 2020, climatecommunication.yale.edu/publications/politics-global-warming-november-2019/2/.
2 “Plastics Innovation Challenge.” Energy.gov, www.energy.gov/plastics-innovation-challenge/plastics-innovation-challenge.
3 Ferry, David. “The One Incredibly Green Thing Donald Trump Has Done.” POLITICO, 7 September 2020, www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/09/07/superfund-activists-donald-trump-minden-wv-400921.
4 Knickmeyer, Ellen. “Trump Calls for Slashing Funding for Toxic Superfund Cleanup.” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 10 February 2020, apnews.com/article/0e7638fc7cf6c0ea165460b689677609 .
5 “Paris Agreement.” Brittanica, 28 October 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Paris-Agreement-2015.
6 Holden, Emily. “What the US exiting the Paris Climate Agreement means.” The Guardian, 27 July 2020. www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/jul/27/us-paris-climate-accord-exit-what-it-means.
7 Leber, Rebecca. “The Other World-Altering Event Happening Next Week.” Mother Jones, 28 October 2020. https://www.motherjones.com/environment/2020/10/the-other-trump-doomsday-scenario/
8 Ferry, David. “The One Incredibly Green Thing Donald Trump Has Done.” POLITICO, 7 September 2020, www.politico.com/news/magazine/2020/09/07/superfund-activists-donald-trump-minden-wv-400921.
9 “Plan for Climate Change and Environmental Justice.” Joe Biden for President: Official Campaign Website, 29 October 2020. joebiden.com/climate-plan/.
10 Halper, Evan and Noah Bierman. Biden’s aggressive climate policy runs into backlash in debate aftermath. LA Times, 23 October 2020. www.latimes.com/politics/story/2020-10-23/bidens-aggressive-climate-policy-backlash.
11 Budryk, Zach. “Ocasio-Cortez responds to Harris on Fracking: It’s ‘bad actually’.”The Hill, 7 October 2020. thehill.com/policy/energy-environment/520121-ocasio-cortez-responds-to-harris-on-fracking-its-bad-actually.
12 “Fracking’s Environmetal Impacts: Water.” Greenpeace. www.greenpeace.org/usa/global-warming/issues/fracking/environmental-impacts-water/.
13 Valdmanis, Richard. “Researchers find elevated radiation near U.S. fracking sites.” Reuters, 13 October 2019. www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-fracking-radiation-idUSKBN26Y29U .
14 Doshi, Tilak. “Biden vs. Trump: The Battle Over American Energy Policy and Its Consequences.” Forbes, 8 August 2020. www.forbes.com/sites/tilakdoshi/2020/08/08/biden-vs-trump-the-battle-over-us-energy-policy-and-its-consequences/?sh=2a88be652bcc.