In many ways, this is the perfect first thing for a newly inaugurated Democratic President to do: It can be done at the stroke of a pen; it pleases all his own supporters; it sends the right signals internationally, especially in Europe; and it will have next to no practical impact whatsoever:
President Biden: "We're going to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord as of today." pic.twitter.com/HLhBATQaoG
— Breaking News (@BreakingNews) January 20, 2021
Why, you ask, does it have no practical effect?
That’s relatively simple. The Accords themselves are little more than targets. By signing up to the Accords, you’re saying “these are the targets for carbon emissions that our country intends to hit”.
But there are two problems:
First, The President has the power, obviously, to say “these are the targets I would like the US to hit”, but he has very little practical power to enact the kind of policy changes required in order to hit those targets. For example, he cannot pass a Carbon Tax without the support of the Senate, and the US House of Representatives. Neither body, we can safely say, is likely to pass such a measure.
The same goes for pretty much all of the other policies he might seek to implement: Some of his key supporters in Congress, like Joe Manchin from West Virginia, and Bob Casey in Pennsylvania, represent States that rely heavily on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas. They may well love Joe Biden, but love for their own seats will make them very unlikely to vote for any meaningful climate action.
So if Climate Change policy is your thing, it’s a bit of a hollow victory.
The other problem, incidentally, is that the Paris Agreement has no enforcement measures. When the Irish Government, for example, signs up to dopey (or much needed, take your pick) climate measures in the European Union, it also agrees to be fined, or otherwise sanctioned, if it does not honour the agreement. That’s not true of Paris. If and when (hint: “when”) the US misses its Paris targets, the consequences for the USA will be practically zero.
When Trump pulled out of Paris, it was a largely symbolic gesture about the kind of President he intended to be, and who his audience was. Biden’s going back into them for much the same reasons.
You might well argue, incidentally, that Trump’s approach was more honest. Since the US has no practical intention of actually hitting the Paris goals, what’s the point in pretending? But at least under Biden, they won’t be the only country pretending. Here’s National Geographic, who are very concerned about the issue, lamenting global hypocrisy on the issue last year:
The majority of the carbon emission reduction pledges for 2030 that 184 countries made under the Paris Agreement aren’t nearly enough to keep global warming well below 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit (2 degrees Celsius). Some countries won’t achieve their pledges, and some of the world’s largest carbon emitters will continue to increase their emissions, according to a panel of world-class climate scientists.
Amongst the biggest laggards: The US, Russia, and China. In other words, the three largest and most powerful countries on earth.
The good news, though, is that the Gambia and Sierra Leone are doing very well – but only because under the Paris Accords, they’re actually allowed to increase their emissions on account of being poor, and what have you.
Biden, in fairness to him, did propose a major Climate Change reform package – a toned down version of the so-called “Green New Deal”, during the campaign. But most observers agree that, for the reasons explained above, he’s simply not going to get that passed.
What he can do, mostly, is what he’s already done. There’ll also be executive orders cancelling oil pipelines, and blocking any expansion of drilling for oil, or fracking for gas. But those orders aren’t likely to reverse the emissions trend, and are more likely to drive up oil and gas prices for regular Americans, without doing much on emissions.
In the end, his problem is the same as the problems faced by politicians right across the west: Doing stuff on the Climate is remarkably popular on paper, but voters don’t like it when it actually affects their neighbourhoods, or their jobs.
It’s a lot like trying to build new housing for the homeless in Ireland. Oh, we’re all in favour of it, all right. Just not next door to us, thank you very much.