In another time this might have prompted the sort of searing national debate over the need to properly tackle climate change that broke out here in Australia, before the rolling catastrophes of 2020 diverted our attention.
But the US is not only battling a pandemic and the consequential economic collapse but relentless civil strife supercharged by a poisonous election campaign.
As a result Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s adoption of what some consider to be the most ambitious climate change action plan ever put forward by a major party of a major nation, has attracted far less attention that it probably deserves.
Washington governor Jay Inslee, one of many on the party’s left who had opposed Biden on environmental grounds and who have now embraced his candidacy, described Biden’s plan as visionary.
“This is not a status quo plan,” he told The New York Times in July. “It is comprehensive. This is not some sort of, ‘Let me just throw a bone to those who care about climate change’.”
At the heart of Biden’s climate change package is a determination to decarbonise the nation’s electricity system by 2035 before reaching net-zero carbon emissions for the entire economy by 2050.
To achieve this Biden would spend US$2 trillion on research for new green technology, new clean infrastructure and retrofitting existing buildings across the nation for energy efficiency.
He would direct all government procurement towards green technology, including electronic vehicles; and fund a Civilian Climate Corp, similar to the Works Progress Administration established as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’, established to help the nation lift itself out of the Great Depression.
By comparison after the 2008 financial crisis the Obama administration secured $90 billion for renewable energy in what is so far the largest single piece of climate change legislation passed in the US.
And Biden’s ambitions go beyond US borders. The plan would see Biden integrate climate policy into US foreign trade and national security strategies. According to policy documents, the US under a Biden presidency would lead an effort to “to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets”.
So significant is the potential for the plan that the global energy research consultancy Wood Mackenzie recently published a paper saying that a Biden loss would end any chance the US has of decarbonising its economy by 2050.
According to its analysis the plan would see “capital investments in renewable energy and energy storage assets top US$2.2 trillion through 2035. Utility-scale solar demand will soar to over 100 GW/yr, while battery storage capacity will surpass 400 GW – nearly 40 per cent of the total installed power generating capacity of the US in 2020. Coal-fired generation will exit the market in its entirety”.
Wood Mackenzie research director Dan Shreve believes the plan is so ambitious that it “teeters between achievable and aspirational but the backing of energy sector giants could tip the balance and once again establish the US as a leader in the fight against climate change”.
Either way, its scope would upend the US energy sector, and players wishing to thrive in it would need to plan for possible partnerships with – and acquisitions of – upstart storage providers, renewable energy developers and green hydrogen technology suppliers, says the Wood Mackenzie paper.
The international implications of the plan are equally significant says Matto Mildenberger, a University of California professor of political science who specialises in climate policy.
He notes that on their own either China, the European Union or the US has the power to drive down technology costs and shift markets through their sheer market size and force. Operating in concert that process accelerates.
So will it happen?
Mildenberger notes that Biden would not only have to win the White House, but Democrats would need to take the Senate, and then Biden would need to make climate change action central to his first-term agenda.
Mildenberger believes that the will within the administration might be there, as the climate change package is as much an economic stimulus policy as it is an environmental one.
The echoes of Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ are no mistake, and much of the plan has been repurposed from the Green New Deal proposed by left-wing congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Indeed one of that plan’s chief architects, Julian Brave NoiseCat, is one of many on the left now backing Biden as a result.
It appears clear that Biden is seeking to use his climate policy as a vehicle to unite his party before the election and tackle compounding social, environmental and economic crises after it.
“When Donald Trump thinks about climate change, the only word he can muster is ‘hoax’,” Biden said in a speech last month. “When I think about climate change, the word I think of is ‘jobs’.”
Mildenberger, who has written at length about global and Australian climate politics, believes that a Biden presidency would immediately change the tone of climate diplomacy because Trump’s lack of action has given cover to interest groups and politicians seeking to derail climate policy around the world.
He says Trump has given the Morrison government “cover” to this end just as the Howard government “hid behind” George W. Bush.
This international reset could prove to be critical as the world prepares for next year’s delayed United Nations climate meeting in Glasgow, known as COP26 (the 26th meeting of the UN Conference of Parties). At that meeting nations are expected to reveal more ambitious emissions reduction goals in keeping with scientific advice on the volume of reductions required to keep global warming to under 2 degrees Celsius.
Australia’s former top climate diplomat, Howard Bamsey, who led negotiations at a number of COPs, says that Australia would already have been under pressure from the UK, which is determined to host a successful meeting. That pressure will only be increased by a climate activist White House.
But he notes that Australia has proved willing to pay a diplomatic price for its recalcitrance on the issue in the past.
Bamsey, now a professor with the Australian National University’s Climate Change Institute, says he does not believe that the world would change suddenly for Scott Morrison should Biden win in November, but that pressure for increased Australian ambition would slowly mount over the year leading up to the Glasgow meeting.
Australia would not only feel pressure to increase its ambition from a Biden White House, should he win, says Bamsey, but from the UK which would be determined to host a successful COP meeting.
Perhaps even more significantly, Mildenberger says that should Biden win there is a chance that China and the US could resume co-operation over the issue, a partnership that was crucial to the success of the Paris agreement. (Bamsey is sceptical on this point.)
But even if all that was to fall into place he is no longer convinced that an orderly decarbonisation of the world’s economy is now possible.
“We needed to act 10 years ago for that,” he says. “But the Biden plan offers real hope that we can prevent the worst of climate change.”
Nick O’Malley is National Environment and Climate Editor for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. He is also a senior writer and a former US correspondent.