- American voters rejected Trump's climate-change-denial-as-federal-policy approach and showed their commitment to a greener future at the ballot box this month by voting on key state issues.
- The Biden administration promises a return to certain Obama-era climate and energy policies — but it's a far cry from the aggressive action favored by experts and activists.
- Time is running out to prevent a catastrophic climate future.
- Marianne Dhenin is a freelance writer covering social justice, politics, and the Middle East.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
The Trump administration has been a disaster for the environment.
On just his fourth day in office, President Trump signed executive orders reviving the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines after construction on both had been halted, meeting the demands of Indigenous activists and other protestors who argued that the projects had not undergone requisite environmental review and would threaten local water sources and increase carbon emissions. Trump also barred the Environmental Protection Agency from sharing its research with the public less than a week after his inauguration.
Trump later announced the United States' withdrawal from the Paris Agreement. And last month, judges heard arguments in what The New York Times called Trump's "biggest climate rollback" — an attempt to replace Obama-era regulations on planet-warming emissions from coal plants with much weaker rules, which the American Lung Association claims violate the Clean Air Act. Altogether, Trump's rollbacks are estimated to increase carbon pollution in the United States by 1.8 tons between 2020 and 2035.
But on election day, voters rejected Trump's dangerous climate and energy policy reversals and outright climate change denial and showed that they're committed to a greener future. And this backlash didn't just come in the form of the presidential vote.
How Americans voted this year
Voters in Michigan committed to increasing spending on restoration and conservation of public lands with Proposal One, the Use of State and Local Park Funds Amendment, which was backed by a broad coalition of local and national environmental groups, including the National Wildlife Federation and the Nature Conservancy.
Those in Nevada approved Question Six, a constitutional amendment requiring utilities to draw at least 50% of their electricity from renewable resources in the next ten years. Voters passed the amendment not once but twice because, in Nevada, any amendment to the state Constitution has to be approved in two consecutive elections. The success of Question Six means there's now a constitutional amendment and a bill mandating 50% renewables after Governor Steve Sisolak signed SB358 on Earth Day last year.
Even in Louisiana, where Trump garnered nearly 60% of the vote, grassroots organizers prevailed over Big Oil as voters rejected a constitutional amendment that would have saved the oil and natural gas industry billions of dollars.
As in Louisiana, voters elsewhere made clear that they will not be swayed by the fossil fuel industry interfering in their politics and backed candidates committed to climate action.
Candidates who support the Green New Deal, including the original members of the Squad — Reps. Ilhan Omar, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — and others, like Rep. Mike Levin, in swing districts, kept their seats. Young progressives who ran on climate justice platforms also made their mark in places as diverse as the South Bronx — where 29-year-old Amanda Septimo beat out three-decade incumbent Carmen Arroyo for a seat in the New York State Assembly — and Grants Pass, Oregon, a rural Republican stronghold where 28-year-old Vanessa Ogier flipped a seat on the city council.
Will a Biden administration follow suit on climate action?
While voters showed that they are eager for climate action, it is difficult to know if a Biden administration will honor their mandate. Of course, Biden claims he supports "a clean energy revolution and environmental justice." And during his first speech as president-elect, he emphasized the role that his administration would have to play in a "battle to save the climate."
In a speech on the campaign trail in May, Biden boasted that he backed one of the earliest climate bills in US history — which is true! But as Zoya Teirstein wrote for Grist, between Biden's early senate days when he supported the Global Climate Protection Act of 1986 and now, "Biden's most notable climate-related accomplishment was serving as Barack Obama's sidekick for eight years." (And, remember, the Obama administration's climate record isn't perfect either.)
The truth is, Biden's record on climate has had environmentalists worried since he launched his campaign last year. It seems they were right to be concerned. Throughout his campaign, Biden has waffled on the Green New Deal — while his website calls it a "crucial framework for meeting … climate challenges," he said in the first presidential debate that he does not support it. He also spent the last few weeks of his campaign defending fracking, which is perhaps unsurprising considering Biden is being advised on climate policy by bigwigs with connections to the fossil fuel industry. On Tuesday, news broke that Biden had selected Rep. Cedric Richmond, another ally of the oil and gas industry, to lead the Office of Public Engagement and act as a special adviser within his administration, further angering climate activists.
So, what can Americans expect from the 46th President of the United States, who is slated to lead the nation for what could be half of the world's remaining years to prevent an irreversible climate catastrophe? Likely a return to Obama-era policies of regulating emissions and coordinating with other nations (Biden has already promised to re-enter the Paris Agreement).
While that may be leagues better than what Trump has accomplished on climate issues, it is not the kind of decisive action that experts and activists are calling for, nor that Americans voted for in down-ballot races this month.
If Americans want the Biden administration to take aggressive action against climate change, they may need to take their demands from the ballot box out into the street. The young climate activists who have galvanized the climate movement in recent years are already planning on it.
Marianne Dhenin is a freelance writer covering social justice, politics, and the Middle East. She holds a master's degree in human rights law and justice and is earning a doctorate in Middle East history. Follow her on Twitter: @mariannedhe.