Biden puts green thinking centre of the agenda

On a cold winter day in 2015, Senator James Inhofe, a Republican from the energy producing state of Oklahoma, carried a large snowball onto the Senate floor. At the time he was chairman of the environment committee.

He was also author of the book, The Greatest Hoax: How the Global Warming Conspiracy Threatens Your Future, and here was the evidence. A snowball. “It’s very, very cold out,” he told his colleagues, raising the question: How could a snowball and global warming co-exist?

I cite this little episode to demonstrate how Republicans and Democrats have typically regarded climate change. In large measure, Republicans aren’t convinced of it while Democrats are. How do we know this beyond snowballs? Under former President Donald Trump, environmental policy was aimed at cancelling or weakening standards that had been strengthened by presidents of both parties. Two of Trump’s earliest actions were withdrawing from the Paris climate accord and excising the phrase “climate change” from all federal documents.

Tracking by the Union of Concerned Scientists, a nonpartisan group in Washington, found that Trump loosened more than 190 rules and regulations governing air and water quality, emissions, resource extraction, wildlife protections and scientific integrity — more than twice as many changes in half the time as the 98 under the last Republican president, George W. Bush, who served two terms.

No surprise, then, that President Joe Biden is making U-turns on just about every environmental policy he inherited, starting with rejoining the Paris accord

“Bad, horrible, atrocious — those are the words that come to mind,” said Anita Desikan, a research analyst at the UCS, describing the Trump administration’s approach to science, which was often influenced by politics and scepticism. “It angers me, frustrates me, enrages me, government actions that harm people. Unfortunately that’s the legacy of the Trump administration.”

No surprise, then, that President Joe Biden is making U-turns on just about every environmental policy he inherited, starting with rejoining the Paris accord and replacing political appointees hired to influence science policy. Beyond that, Biden has made climate considerations a vital component of decision-making across the federal government, with an additional mandate that any new policy takes environmental justice into account — like no new energy plants in low-income neighbourhoods.

He also elevated climate change to cabinet-level importance, appointing former Secretary of State John Kerry as special advisor to the president on climate with global responsibilities. His new Secretary of the Interior, Deb Haaland, the first Native American to serve as a cabinet secretary, will spearhead many of the administration’s new climate policies.

From the start, Biden identified specific goals, including setting a target of net-zero carbon emissions by the middle of the century, conserving up to 30 per cent of federal lands and water by 2030, halting any new leasing of federal lands to reduce reliance on fossil fuels, and creating an inter-agency task force to revitalize communities hurt by the decreasing number of jobs in the fossil-fuel industry.

“The United States and the world face a profound climate crisis,” he said in announcing 27 initiatives that put his environment plans into motion. “We have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad in order to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis and to seize the opportunity that tackling climate change presents.”

Just how achievable these goals are depend in large measure on courts and pushback from Republicans, particularly those who favour fossil fuels as more dependable for jobs and energy than renewables.

This is a debate that often spikes after extreme weather events, like hurricanes, floods, heat, wildfires, drought and heavy snow — all of which scientists say are caused by a warming planet. A prime example is the recent winter storm in Texas, a state more accustomed to dealing with heat, floods and hurricanes. Days of snow and sub-freezing temperatures knocked out power to millions of residents, prompting the Republican governor, Greg Abbott, to blame the outage on frozen wind turbines, a pure misdirection. The major culprits were natural gas infrastructure that was not upgraded to withstand extreme winter conditions as officials had recommended a decade earlier and a state electrical grid that operates independent of federal oversight.

Nonetheless, the finger pointing reflects the larger divide between Republicans unwilling to concede that warming incites extreme weather and Democrats who have no doubt. Meanwhile, big business is siding with the Democrats: BP announced it will cut oil production by 40 percent to reach net-zero emissions by 2050. Amazon is buying 100,000 electric-powered vans to reach net-zero by 2040. General Motors has promised to phase out gas-powered vehicles in favour of electric by 2035. Hundreds of other companies, as well as local and state governments, are taking other steps.

Why all this now? Simple. Scientists say time is running out to mitigate even more extreme weather events, and four years of retrenchment under Trump intensified the need to act. Speaking before the United Nations Security Council in February, Kerry warned that failure to respond more aggressively to climate change threatens world peace and security.

Gina McCarthy, Biden’s National Climate Advisor, recently told journalists, “We have to pay attention to science and facts. We recognize that climate change is a catastrophe, but also an unbelievable opportunity to build a future that we really want to have.” Presumably, one with snowballs.

It’s not broken; fix it anyway

In many ways, the 2020 US presidential election was one of the nation’s best. More people voted than ever (155 million) and election officials as well as dozens of courts confirmed the voting lacked any evidence to support Donald Trump’s claims that it was rigged against him. Despite all that, both major parties have been going to extraordinary lengths to change laws that determine who votes, when and how. It is a remarkable spate of action that has raised questions of fairness, bias and racism, boiling down to each party’s one essential calculation for winning: Democrats succeed when greater numbers vote; Republicans fare better with a lower turnout.

More than 40 states are considering hundreds of bills to achieve these disparate goals, according to the Brennan Centre for Justice, a liberal-leaning research organisation in Washington. At the federal level, the Supreme Court will rule later this year on a Republican case to narrow voting access protections for minorities while Congressional Democrats are pushing federal legislation that would restore safeguards for minorities that the Court struck down in 2013, superseding many of the restrictions Republicans are seeking in the states. The urgency for both sides stems from an equally-divided country where the fringes of both parties drive change. As Democrats increase efforts to register more voters, especially minorities, Republicans do what they can to hold the numbers down, mindful of their declining base of white voters. The Brennan Centre found 253 bills in 43 states that would limit voting access, many framed as “election integrity” solutions. Sponsored by Republicans, they’re aimed at eliminating double voting, dead people voting, pets voting, computer error and manipulation of mail-in ballots — many of the issues Trump falsely claimed cost him the election.

Trump was so zealous in his claim of nefarious actions that he filed over 60 lawsuits around the country to throw out votes in states Joe Biden won — in effect, looking to fix problems that existed only on the strength of Trump’s unfounded claims of widespread fraud. Not a single court agreed with him.

“This is all based on a well-debunked lie,” said Eliza Sweren-Becker, an analyst at the Brennan Centre. “It’s very clear these efforts make it harder for people to vote. It all has to do with partisan outcomes and how to get there.”

Not so, say Republicans. A spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee told the Washington Post that the party “remains laser focused on protecting election integrity, and that includes aggressively engaging at the state level on voting laws and litigating as necessary.”

Democrats are fighting back with 704 bills in 43 states that would expand voting access, according to the Brennan Centre. They would support protecting extending voting hours, mail-in voting, same-day registration, ballot drop boxes, Sunday voting and other conveniences. These measures were especially helpful during the pandemic and for people who needed flexibility because of job and home-care responsibilities.

Iowa offers one example of how the battle is playing out. It’s a majority white state where Republicans hold every major office and both legislative chambers, lawmakers want to shorten early voting by nine days and close polls an hour earlier. In New Jersey, a diverse state where Democrats hold power, new measures would create drop boxes, add time for mailing ballots, expand early voting and start the counting of mail-in votes before election day.

Then there’s Georgia, ground zero for suppression efforts. A large turnout of Black voters helped Biden become the first Democrat in decades to win the presidential vote and two Democrats beat incumbent Republicans for Senate seats. The results so rattled Republicans that state lawmakers have introduced a series of measures to rewrite laws that have worked well for years, including one that would narrow the long-standing practice of Sunday voting – which encouraged Blacks to cast ballots after Sunday church services. Critics say that bill, among others, is racist. Another bill would ban giving water to anyone in a long line waiting to vote.

Georgia has been running efficient elections for years, without Republican complaint, said Sweren-Becker. They are only objecting now, she said, because Democrats are winning.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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