2 November 2020

The outcome of the US presidential election will profoundly shape the future of climate change action globally, writes Elizabeth Bomberg, Professor of Environmental Politics and member of the Centre for Business, Climate Change and Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh Business School.
Why the US Election Matters for Climate Action

Climate change seldom features as a key issues in US national campaigns. But compared to earlier elections, climate change has featured far more prominently this election cycle, beginning with the primary elections and continuing to election day. The campaign revealed sharp differences between the Republican and Democratic party tickets on issues of climate change and environmental protection.

President Trump has denied the overwhelming scientific consensus on the causes of climate change, and his Administration has taken dramatic, concerted measures to undo previous Administrations’ attempt to address climate change. Trump denied that climate change was fuelling extreme weather disasters such as wildfires in the American West and hurricanes in the East, and suggested temperatures would not continue to rise. In contrast, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his Vice Presidential choice Kamala Harris featured climate change early on in this campaign. Labelling Trump a ‘climate arsonist’, Biden put climate change front and central of his pandemic recovery plans.

Although Trump recently declared to Florida voters he was the ‘Number 1 environmental president’, few citizens agree with Trump’s self-assessment. His lowest public approval is in the area of climate and environment. Democrats targeted this weakness and used this issue to appeal to the elusive youth vote which could be decisive this election. This year, millennials and ‘Generation X’ first time voters will account for over 35 per cent of eligible voters. These young voters are far more likely to support ambitious climate and environmental policies and their links to issues of social and racial justice. They are most likely to oppose Trump’s position, and they overwhelmingly lean Democrat.

But eligible voters don’t always vote, and young people have traditionally been the age demographic least likely to turn out. This election, turnout faces the extra challenges of voting during a pandemic, exacerbated by certain states’ introduction of onerous restrictions supposedly to combat (unfounded) instances of fraud. These restrictions have overwhelmingly affected areas of concentrated populations of people of colour and youth: constituencies far more likely to prioritise issue of climate and justice.

The election will matter for climate change progress, and it will matter a lot.

Even if the issue of climate change will not matter as much as it should in this election campaign, the inverse is unmistakable: the election will matter for climate change progress, and it will matter a lot. Most obvious is the change of presidential leadership. Not because Biden promises radical climate action, but because the current Administration has proven so extraordinarily damaging to climate protection efforts. A Biden victory will enable new executive agency and judicial appointments; under Trump these appointments have had a profound impact on US ability to protect the environment, promote climate change, and exercise global leadership. Biden’s planned economic recovery plan would also benefit the climate: his plan proposes $2 trillion be spent boosting clean energy projects in the transportation, power and building sectors.

This election is not just about the President. Even with a Biden victory, the Administration will need support in Congress if it hopes to enact policies. A putative Biden Administration needs Democrat victories to keep control of the lower House, but also a net gain of seats to secure control of the Senate, currently held by the Republicans. A simple majority won’t ensure smooth passage of bills (given the role of the filibuster and other blocking measures in the Senate), but it would bring changes in committee priorities and leadership which would make a Biden agenda far more likely to move forward.

The climate impact of this election will be felt well beyond the US. In particular, the US will formally leave the UN Paris Climate Agreement on 4 November, the day after the election. If elected, Biden has promised the US will re-join that agreement on his ‘very first day in office’, and fully incorporate climate change into US domestic, foreign and national security strategies. That shift, in both symbolic and practical terms, could mean the US taking a leading role, providing impetus and pressuring other states to work together in the run-up to the crucial UN climate conference to be held here in Scotland in 2021.

If any American wonders if their vote matters in this election, the answer is yes. It matters not just to climate progress in the US, but in the rest of the world as well.

Climate Solutions