Hope for a Greener Future?

On January 20, 2021, the United States swore in Joe Biden as its 46th President. With this the world stands on the cusp of what could be a turnaround of the disastrous environmental policies of the Trump presidency. Apart from the U.S. pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the last four years saw a slew of decisions that have reversed decades of positive environmental policies that had ensured protection of public lands, waterbodies and wildlife.

In October 2017, the Clean Power Plan, one of President Obama’s signature environmental policies was rolled back, setting back commitments to cut carbon emissions. Among the many other decisions that will have profound impacts over a long time, the Trump government loosened EPA regulations on toxic air pollution, rescinded methane-flaring rules, weakened fuel-economy rules, narrowed the definition of what is considered a federally protected river or wetland and narrowed pollution safeguards for waterbodies, approved seismic air gun blasts to search for underwater oil and gas deposits, eased restrictions on mining and made it easier to lease public land for the purpose, reduced the territories of  Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante (that was challenged in court) and opened them up for mining, issued an executive order to increase logging in public lands, delisted climate change from national security threats reducing research funding and shrunk the size and influence of the EPA. It also approved the building of the Keystone XL and Dakota Access Pipelines and rolled back fracking regulations.

The last four years also saw an expansion of offshore drilling including authorizing oil and gas leasing on the untouched Arctic National Wildlife Refuge’s coastal plain. Scientists have watched with worry and horror as the Trump administration rejected their recommendations to strengthen air pollution standards for soot and tightening the PM2.5 standard. The government also rolled back rules for prohibiting the hunting of bears, removed protections for Atlantic bluefin tuna, proposed changes to the Endangered Species Act and reinterpreted the Migratory Bird Treaty Act.

In what will be recognized by Indian environmentalists as akin to its own government’s efforts to dilute environmental review processes, the Trump government also proposed speeding up the environmental review process.

The new government has an uphill task ahead to transition to a greener future. Among the 17 executive actions President Joe Biden will sign will be a commitment to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. He will also cancel the Keystone XL pipeline and direct agencies to review and reverse several Trump government actions on the environment. During his presidential campaign, he promised to “move ambitiously to achieve a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035” and “ensure that environmental justice is a key consideration in where, how and with whom we build”.

The next few months and years will be the greatest opportunity to make U.S.A an environmental champion. It is vital that Americans and the world hold President Biden accountable to his promises. As Sarah Fecht wrote in State of the Planet, “Rejoining the Paris agreement is just Step 1; the much harder part will be actually implementing the sweeping changes needed in order to comply with the agreement and hopefully go beyond it.”