Democracy was a winner last week. But the US election result will put pressure on climate laggards, and that includes us.
Joe Biden’s election victory last week was momentous because Donald Trump challenged US democracy. However we might feel about this complicated nation, a challenge to American democracy is a challenge to democracy everywhere.
The Morrison government would have joined other leaders in a sigh of relief at the outcome. But on at least one front, climate action, it won’t be feeling so relaxed. As one of the world’s climate laggards, we will feel the heat from Biden’s win more keenly than most US allies.
Trump won office four years ago because he stood out from the pack of political conformists, a maverick with a whiff of danger about him, and for years many Americans enjoyed the ride. His winning narrative was that he alone could save America from shadowy forces sucking its lifeblood. People wanted to believe that, and they did.
That is, until the virus. Consider this: Australia followed expert public health advice on COVID-19; it has so far suffered 36 deaths for every million of its population. The US did not; there the equivalent figure is 727. The Australian case total for the whole pandemic is exceeded in the US each day – by nearly five times. A day ago, the US total passed 10 million.
As the virus worked its way through the population, Americans began paying greater heed to the word of science. The president ignored the pandemic disaster and tried to hide it, but it became starkly obvious to Americans that their anointed leader was the wrong person for the job.
No-one should underestimate the power of Trump’s charismatic, utterly self-obsessed leadership; nor the sycophancy of dependent politicians; nor the willingness of many to believe his conspiracy theories. After four years in which he ruthlessly exploited and worsened his country’s divisions, in his remaining 10 weeks as president – and beyond – he can continue to do a lot of damage.
But under Biden there will at least be an effort at the top to begin the healing process. And as the pandemic so clearly showed, a necessary part of that must be the resurrection of scientific knowledge as a key informant of government action.
America’s pandemic trauma will be Biden’s launching pad for what will ultimately be the biggest science-based focus of his administration, climate change. That issue more than any other defines the ideological shift that the election will deliver.
Trump has never accepted any part of the now-overwhelming body of evidence that humans, by burning coal, oil and gas, can and are causing global warming and destabilising weather. He has even speculated that the greenhouse warming story was a hoax perpetrated by (of course) China.
A day after the election, Trump’s withdrawal of the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement took formal effect. Biden will bring his country back into that community of 189 nations, including Australia, which seeks to hold global warming to 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial levels.
That’s the easy part. Biden’s $2 trillion climate agenda – mostly aimed at net zero emissions by 2050 through huge investments in clean technologies, including support for developing countries to build their own resilience – was jolted by the Democrat failure to win a Senate majority, although that may be remedied after runoff elections in January.
The president will need Senate support to secure the legislative backbone his climate program will ultimately need. But it should be possible for a seasoned negotiator like Biden to win that support by tying low-carbon reforms to wider social and economic recovery programs. With an ounce of luck, that might include a tax on carbon pollution.
Touting a long personal history of support for climate action, Biden pledged during his presidential campaign to lead “a diplomatic initiative to get every nation to go beyond their initial commitment”. He has indicated that a Biden administration will look to penalise countries that refuse to do anything to lower their carbon emissions.
Australia enjoyed zero pressure from a Trump-led US to ramp up abatement. Noisy fossil-fuel advocates in the Coalition have backed Scott Morrison’s continued refusal to acknowledge the importance of climate action even after our climate-induced Black Summer, and the government has consistently refused to raise 2030 and 2050 Paris targets.
Pressure from across the Pacific will now resume, stronger than ever. Biden’s win owes a lot to climate activists, and the new administration can expect to be held to account on its ambitious plans. From next January, whenever Morrison and energy minister Angus Taylor meet with their US counterparts they can expect awkward questions about beefing up our climate commitment.
Watch this space.