While voting will always carry a great degree of subjectivity, objective measures are also important. Here’s are the measures environmental scientists hope to see from the future US president.
First thing’s first: take science seriously
The US presidential election is probably the most followed political event. It’s so consequential that it affects not only the US, but the entire world. Naturally, researchers both inside the US and out are closely following the event.
Understandably, the first thing climate scientists want is for the US president to take climate change seriously.
“Data and science speaks for itself. There is no dearth of data which show that climate change has impacted our natural environment, weather patterns, health and economy. It is time to act. We have to make alternative choices which are greener, healthier and environmentally friendly,” says Chandana Mitra, Associate Professor in the Department of Geosciences at Auburn University, in a brief for SciLine (all quotes presented in the article are from the same brief).
Linda Shi, PhD, Assistant Professor at the Cornell University Department of City and Regional Planning, agrees: a climate plan is absolutely mandatory.
“Climate change is redrawing the landscape of areas suitable for human habitation. The U.S. National Climate Assessment and innumerable other reports have clearly outlined the past and future costs and risks of climate change – economically, fiscally, environmentally, socially. As with COVID-19, what we do not have is any semblance of a plan that is coherent, cohesive, collective, and commensurate to the scale of climate risks and impacts.”
The US is currently in limbo: President Donald Trump has started the process to leave the Paris Agreement, a global deal aimed at stopping emissions (the US would become the only country in the world to leave the agreement). Meanwhile, candidate Joe Biden has vowed to rejoin the Paris Agreement if he wins the election.
What’s in a climate plan
So what would be in such a plan? Angel Hsu, Assistant Professor at the Department of Public Policy/Energy, Environment and Ecology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, emphasizes that the need is pressing and cannot be delayed. The main goal: decarbonization.
“The science on climate change is clear—we need to halve global greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and fully decarbonize by 2050 if we have any hope of avoiding the most dangerous effects of climate change, including sea-level rise, extreme temperatures, drought, floods, and other impacts. Because two-thirds of our global climate emissions come from our energy system, the number one thing candidates’ plans should be doing is having a clear plan for how they’re going to shift the U.S. energy system away from fossil fuels. We simply cannot reach the goal of decarbonization if we’re still burning fossil fuels, including natural gas.”
Indeed, numerous studies have shown that we can only stop climate change if we stop burning fossil fuels — but that’s only the first step. We need structural, systemic changes in society, argues Mitra.
“Less deforestation, creating more green spaces; more efficient fuel, trapping renewable energy like wind, solar and waves; electric vehicles; climate change education and awareness, all of these will help us slow and eventually stall the climate change wheel, leaving behind a better world for the future generations.”
The fiscal policies also need to be ambitious, emphasizes Hsu. Technology and personal motivation can only get you so far, but they can’t end climate change on their own. For that, we need proper policy.
“We need candidates that will put in the hard work to specify broad policies like carbon taxes, removal of fossil fuel subsidies, fiscal incentives for renewable electricity consumption, that will rapidly shift the nation’s energy system away from polluting fossil fuels.”
President Trump has not currently put forth a coherent climate plan, and it’s doubtful whether he will. Throughout his administration, climate has been of minimum priority, with the President dismantling existing environmental and climate protections rather than establishing new ones. Joe Biden has released a climate plan that received mixed opinions — while some praised it, others felt it wasn’t nearly ambitious enough, falling short on matters such as fracking.
Driving towards a sustainable future
Prior to the pandemic, the transportation sector was on the cusp of a revolution (in Europe, the pace is more accelerated), but the way things are now, there are many questions that remain. Will our society move more from home, will we be more prepared to walk and bike, or will we continue to be so auto-focused? Again, researchers want to see a candidate with a vision for sustainable transportation.
“Public policy and investments in both physical and digital infrastructure have the potential to shape these outcomes. While the impacts are uncertain, vehicle automation will likely change traditional transportation behaviors, which have been around for decades. While vehicle automation could help bridge first mile/last mile connections and fill service gaps, it could also contribute to increased vehicle use and congestion. Policies will likely be needed to encourage the sustainable adoption of these emerging technologies,” notes Susan Shaheen, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Co-Director at the Transportation Sustainability Research Center, University of California, Berkeley
Several countries (most notably in Europe) have already announced the phase-out of non-electric cars over the next decade or two. The US is still lagging behind, and it’s also lagging behind in other regards such as carpooling and mass transit. In addition to a phase out of non-electric cars, there are also challenges regarding infrastructure and
“Safe, efficient, and reliable transportation infrastructure is critical to the national economy as well as Americans’ quality of life. Our national transportation infrastructure needs a major update to ensure travel safety, environmental sustainability, and economic growth,” says Yinhai Wang, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at University of Washington.
“Transportation is the second largest category of American household spending, accounting for 17.4% or $811 per month in 2017. On average, rural households spent 8% more in transportation than urban households. Fuel and motor oil purchases accounted for 23.6% of transportation expenditures or $290 billion in the US, and the traffic congestion resulting from the cars using that fuel cost the US economy nearly $87 billion in 2018 due to lost productivity.”
Both candidates have addressed transportation. President Trump has focused on building new highways and infrastructure projects at the expense of public transportation (Trump himself has advocated cuts in public transportation, both on the road and on the railway). At the same time, Trump has been an opponent of electric cars, nixing existing efficiency and sustainability standards. Joe Biden has addressed the need to reduce transportation emissions and is seen by most analysts as a boon for electric cars. Biden’s plan also addresses mass transit, offering less funds for highways and more funds for cities over 100,000 people to set up quality public transportation.
What about agriculture?
Here too, there is much work to be done. The US is the world’s largest agricultural exporter and has a long history of agricultural innovation and progress.
The challenges are intense and clearly laid out by existing science, says Lewis Ziska, Associate Professor of Environmental Health Science at Columbia University.
“With respect to climate change and U.S. agriculture, current research suggests two primary challenges. The first is an increased risk of physical disruption; extreme changes such as drought, spring flooding, or derechos that can increase crop losses and disrupt normal farm operations. The second challenge is biological. As the climate changes, pest (weeds, insects, disease) distribution will also change posing new risks for crop production and pest management.”
But if there are challenges, there are also opportunities, adds Ziska, but there is a pressing need for more research, as our understanding of how climate change affects agriculture is still lagging.
“If, for example, warmer weather results in a longer frost-free season, how can crop selection and management be optimized to exploit that change? If extreme events (precipitation) are more likely, can alternate practices, such as cover crops be used to limit soil erosion or improve soil health?”
Both candidates have addressed the need to support the country agriculture, though in different ways.
Biden sees this as a cog in his larger environment plan, while Trump has offered plenty of support to farmers in the form of handouts. Under Trump, direct farm aid has more than doubled, with a largely hands-off approach, without any environmental constraints.
Ultimately, it’s clear that the two candidates have very different takes on climate. Whether or not that will be important in the upcoming elections remains to be seen.