2020 Presidential Election: Climate Change Special

By Reed Shapiro

In an election where the voting populace is so deeply divided, many people have made up their minds about which candidate they are supporting. For some, however, the decision to re-elect Donald Trump, or to eschew the incumbent President for Joe Biden hangs in the balance.

A number of familiar issues, like the economy and American competitiveness, national security, and social unrest are all factors for those still making their decisions, however, for really the first time, the issue of climate is also on the ballot. While often given the shortest shrift, each candidates’ climate platforms have broader reaching implications on the economy domestically, US competitiveness abroad, our national security and much more.

Rather than simply make a blatant and blanket endorsement of Joe Biden’s climate plan, this article focuses on Donald Trump’s current record and Joe Biden’s proposed plans, and what a continuation of the Trump Administrations’ policy trajectory, or an injection of a Biden Administration’s trajectory would likely do for the US and the American people from an economic, health, and global leadership perspective. How each candidate acts—or counteracts—on climate has very real linkages the issues that we care about so deeply.

The Trump Administration has rolled back, by some counts, over 150 laws and regulations. Yet, a number of critical Trump agenda items, like lowering methane emissions standards for oil and gas, and the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline, have been blocked by federal judges, some of which are the President’s appointees. According to the Institute for Policy Integrity, only about 16% of President Trump’s court cases to deregulate environmental policies have been successful. Nevertheless, experts on climate law suggest in this New York Times article, that if the Trump administration gets a second term, they are likely to take their time where they were hasty before, and are likely to get more roll-backs and deregulations approved by federal judges. The Trump Administration has still gotten policy through, like lifting the bar on the right of the US government to lease federal land in the Arctic out for oil and gas development.

On the subject of policy cuts and interventions, while President Trump is abhorred by Democrats for deregulation and putting the global carbon budget in jeopardy, Joe Biden’s plan to transition away from fossil fuels is touted by Republicans as a death sentence for the US economy. Biden is against fracking on federal lands, which is of little consequence, as most fracking only happens on privately owned land. However, Biden does plan an end to the $20 billion+ in annual subsidies the US grants to fossil fuel industries. Conversely, President Trump has made every indication that fossil fuels are to be the backbone of American energy independence and dominance in terms of being a leading exporter of oil. As is pointed out below, an outright abolishment of all fossil fuels is not feasible within the next four years, but this outlook changes within 10 and 15 years, strictly from an economic perspective.

When it comes to what the candidates will do, as opposed to what they will undo, the President has stated an intent to have the cleanest air and most pristine waters as goals and targets for the environment, although a number of hits on the Columbia Climate Deregulation Tracker suggest otherwise. Searches for ‘air’ and ‘water’ on the platform show over 15 policies related to weakening, and in some cases, prohibiting more ambitious air or water standards at a State level. Former Vice President Biden has put forth a plan to achieve net-zero emissions from energy and the grid by 2035, and to be a carbon neutral economy by 2050. The policy has a $2 trillion price tag over 10 years, and posits that the money to pay for it will come from a reversal of the Trump tax codes. According to Biden’s climate section on the campaign website, the shift in the Tax codes facilitated the transfer of trillions of dollars in stock buybacks that did not necessarily benefit the average American worker. It is from these corporate coffers that the funding for energy transition and infrastructure will come. Ally of the Trump Administration’s efforts, Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt cites that, “it makes no sense that we would be placing additional regulatory burdens on our vital industries which…. do not consider economic impact.” The general Republican schtick with Biden’s plan is that putting that policy (‘regulation’) into place means more cost to businesses, and less ability for businesses to pay average American salaries, and therefore less jobs.

However, it may end up being the case that deregulation and artificial subsidy hold-outs to keep failing industries in business may do the opposite and hurt American workers and energy competitiveness not long after this next term. When it comes to economic impact, the energy landscape is rapidly changing, and a business-as-usual or bust strategy is now even rubbing against predictions of organizations like the International Energy Agency, who just a few years ago were predicting oil dominance well out past 2030. Their 2020 energy outlook update, while conceding that it will still take oil some time to reduce in global demand, states that coal is all but dead, and solar will become the dominant form of energy, followed by on and off-shore wind before 2030. The economics of energy are shifting, and with “sharp cost reductions over the past decade, solar PV is consistently cheaper than new coal- or gas fired power plants in most countries, and solar projects now offer some of the lowest cost electricity ever seen.”

The simple reality is that doubling down on fossil fuel subsidies and not aligning with the most economic energy choices will leave American energy companies uncompetitive abroad as these trends continue and accelerate. Prolonging the evolution of burgeoning renewable industries will leave American energy workers unprepared to transfer skills out from dying ones. On the flipside of this coin, a perfect execution of Biden’s climate plan would deliver an estimated 10,000 jobs over the 10-year period, according to the campaigns climate-labor fact sheet. Even if Trump wins the election there is evidence that natural gas extraction yields are falling many years before expected. This article in Bloomberg Green mentions how renewables are likely to strip natural gas of it’s energy dominance in the US by as early as 2028, and where they are already beating traditional energy sources.

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The bottom line for the Trump Administration, should it check all of its’ boxes on deregulation, is an expected excess of about 1.8 billion metric tonnes of carbon will be emitted in excess—a total larger than the energy emissions from Germany, Britain, and Canada in one year. That doesn’t mean much to many people so long as they can keep their lights on. However, the loosening of policies that make up those excess emissions also correspond to particulate emissions, not just greenhouse gas emissions (that is, solid pollution, as opposed to warming gasses). According to a study out of the University of Minnesota last spring, particulate emissions kill about 107,000 Americans a year, at a price tag of $886 billion dollars in health costs to the US and American people. Much of this cost is borne by populations in dense urban areas close to energy and agricultural waste facilities—poor, urban, underserved, often minority populations, although tens of thousands of deaths in rural populations are attributed to particulate pollution as well. The cost of a 10-year $2 trillion climate bill gets matched by pollution death costs in just over 2 ¼ years. If these costs are left unabated over the same 10-year period we’re looking at a $8.8 trillion cost to society—in life, let alone jobs. If you account for the extra 1.8 billion tonnes of CO2e a perfectly executed Trump agenda adds on to the 6.6 billion tonnes the US already emits as of 2018—a 21% increase in national emissions—it is likely that the cost of emissions to society will also increase.

This is a free country so everyone may do as they please, but from an economic viability standpoint when it comes to energy competitiveness, from a cost to society and loss of life perspective with regard to human health, Joe Biden’s plan, while perhaps not the holy grail, will at least give America a fighting chance once fossil-fuels become uncompetitive economically over the next decade.