America's departure from the Paris Agreement will be short and sweet, and with Joe Biden's victory the global consensus on the urgent need for climate action suddenly looks stronger than ever
And just like that, a modicum of sanity was restored. The world's most powerful office is set to be held by a dignified man who accepts climate change is the gravest long term threat faced by human civilisation and a canny politician determined to do something about it. He is poised to replace a disgraced reality TV star who amongst his many, many faults, never understood basic science and economics, was in hock to pollutocrats and petrostates, and was sneeringly, aggressively contemptuous towards anyone who cared about anything other than themselves, be it the environment or their own children's future prospects. An inadequate man-child who, to quote the novelist Dave Eggers, "cannot spell and does not read".
Assuming that the declaration of Biden's victory this afternoon by the main news channels prove accurates, then in exactly 76 days the US will return to the Paris Agreement, ensuring that once again every country on Earth is publicly committed to averting a full scale climate catastrophe and building a global net zero emission economy this century. In signing back up to the accord Biden will recommit to submitting an updated national climate action plan, which will set the US a long term goal to become a net zero emission economy by 2050. As such, the world's three biggest and most influential economies - the US, China, and the EU - will all have clear targets in place to fully decarbonise within a generation.
Ahead of the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Paris Agreement in 2015 the world will be able to reflect that it has gone from a position where no one was talking about full decarbonisation outside of a small group of green policy wonks to a scenario where around two thirds of the world's GDP and over half its emissions are covered by clear and ambitious net zero targets. It's one of those moments when it is acceptable to trot out that old Margaret Mead quote about how you should "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has".
Of course, if this is a time for celebration it is no time for complacency. This remains a hugely dangerous historical moment on multiple levels. Trump's utter amorality and full spectrum recklessness could yet trigger chaos. There is a real risk the anger and division the President has shamelessly stoked, coupled with his psychological inability to accept defeat, could yet unleash actual violence. Even if he is evicted from the Oval Office there will be no repudiation of Trumpism or reckoning in the Republican Party. There are multiple credible scenarios that could see a climate-denying populist returned to the White House once more in four years' time. Even more dystopian timelines are also available over the next few months and beyond.
More broadly, four years on from the Paris Agreement greenhouse gas emissions were rising once again, an upward trend that was only halted by a deadly pandemic. The global economy is deep in the midst of one of the worst crises in over a century and for all the encouraging talk of green recovery packages plenty of countries will still look to reignite carbon intensive development models. The forces that wish to slow and disrupt the clean energy transition remain immensely powerful. Even if countries deliver on their national climate action plans the world will remain on track for around 3C of warming this century - or worse.
And yet, that is why Biden's victory is of such huge - potentially epoch-defining - significance. He has ascended to the Presidency at a time when technological, market, and demographic forces are shifting. Thousands of businesses and investors, including many of the world's most powerful and respected organisations, are committed to delivering net zero emissions. They are emboldened by the emergence of increasingly mature clean technologies that show that such deep decarbonisation is possible. And they are encouraged by overwhelming public appetite globally for both green products and a cleaner, healthier, and fairer way of doing things.
They now have a friend in the most powerful office in the world and he has a friend in them. They can each feed off one another, building the momentum to deploy much needed clean infrastructure at pace and scale.
Meanwhile, those who would oppose this agenda are more marginalised than ever before. It is highly unlikely any other country will now follow the US in exiting the Paris Agreement. Even Vladimir Putin unveiled plans for a more ambitious decarbonisation plan this week, albeit one that falls a long way short of disavowing fossil fuels just yet.
The COP26 Summit in Glasgow now has a drastically increased chance of becoming the celebration of post-Brexit multilateralism that the organisers always hoped for. It could bring the Paris Agreement into full effect, unleash a global wave of net zero strategies, showcase the best of clean tech innovation, and draw a decisive line under the Trumpist experiment with quasi-authoritarian nationalism. There are some countries that will fiercely oppose such a narrative, but the opportunity is now there to turn the 'build back better' agenda into something more than a slogan.
Realists will note that there is no doubt any attempt by a Biden administration to pass sweeping climate legislation will be blocked by Republicans on Capitol Hill. But Democrats also now have four years to further advance and entrench the rapid clean tech progress that is already underway, further normalising the clean energy transition with voters of all persuasions. Biden will pass whatever executive orders and green budgets he can, but more importantly he will provide signals to businesses and investors worldwide that climate action is the defining corporate and public trend of the age. If Donald Trump managed to oversee more US coal plant closures than his predecessor, imagine what a President who actually accepts carbon emissions are a problem could do.
Biden could yet trigger a vocal backlash against climate action stoked by an incandescent Donald Trump, who will surely trample as many norms as an ex-President as he did when in office. But there is also another path forward. Biden ran on the boldest climate platform ever put forward by a Presidential candidate. He made it absolutely central to his offer. He never once shied away from the existential scale of the threat, nor the civilisation-shaping nature of the changes that are required. He even said the US would have to transition away from oil. He did that all while stitching together a broad coalition of young activists, college-educated liberals, people of colour, and white working class voters. And he won.
The Democrats are already conducting a post-mortem over why they did not secure a landslide, with fierce and ill-tempered debates over the extent to which the Party should embrace the priorities of its increasingly vocal left-wing base. But hardly anyone is seriously proposing diluting the climate action pitch. Everyone can see it for the animating, vote-winning priority it has to be.
The Biden presidency could yet founder on the rocks of Republican-intransigence and pandemic-induced disaster. But it could also mark the start of a new era when the combination of clean technologies, economic forces, and ever more terrifying climate impacts make the net zero transition the core component of winning electoral coalitions everywhere. Then sanity would truly be restored - and not a moment too soon.
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