Lauren Craft - Jan 22, 2021

To assume US President-elect Joe Biden can accomplish everything on his climate agenda would be a mistake. To underestimate him would be equally misguided. Biden’s vision embraces everything from carbon neutrality by 2050 to targets for power and transportation. But its success shouldn’t merely be measured in barrels and megawatts. Even if his policy objectives are only partially achieved, given the political and legal hurdles they face, a strong, urgent tone coming from the White House stands to fundamentally alter the international narrative. Insistent signaling from the new president is bound to impact policymaking, investor sentiment and corporate strategies at home and abroad.

Many underestimated President Donald Trump’s agenda for energy dominance, but Trump advanced many of his goals anyway. We can expect the same from Biden. In fact, the incoming president would be swimming with the tide of deepening climate resolve around the world. And he already has a strong team of believers assembled (NE Dec.24'20). “Everything about his hiring decisions since [the election] have shown that his actions are consistent with his words -- climate change really is one of his top priorities,” suggests Ed Maibach, director of the Center for Climate Change Communication at George Mason University outside Washington.

Biden isn’t merely signaling a reversal and deepening of US climate strategy. He’s weaving it into other narratives, as well. “Biden has regularly put climate change in the same ‘crisis’ category as a global pandemic and systemic racism,” says Lachlan Carey, an energy expert at the nonpartisan Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

This, in turn, can be expected to spur engagement and action on many fronts. “The crisis language indicates a long-term commitment that might send a strong enough signal to investors that the clean energy transition is inevitable,” Carey says.

The incoming Biden administration is also embracing the tenets of a growing environmental justice movement, which is urging action on climate change and other environmental threats on the grounds that ethnic minorities are disproportionately impacted. This has “brought a more human and immediate bent to climate rhetoric,” Carey notes.

So, what will come of Biden’s broad appeal for action? For one, policymakers around the globe will take note that a major historical emitter, and still the top oil-consuming nation, is reversing its overall direction of travel. In particular, watch to see how the changing narrative influences individual countries’ climate goals and international talks around a UN carbon pricing framework.

Biden has promised to host a climate summit this year focused on ratcheting up ambition. This could stir up deeper commitments not only from policymakers, but also corporations and investors, in the run-up to UN climate talks in Glasgow late this year. Players including JPMorgan Chase and Occidental Petroleum made strong decarbonization moves last year (NE Nov.5'20). With the international climate narrative gaining strength, expect more commitments of this sort -- and on a deeper level. “Most industries will see their self-interest in this agenda and try to take full advantage of it,” Maibach says.

Tough Terrain to Navigate

Democratic wins in the US Senate last week, which give Biden’s party the narrowest of majorities in the upper chamber, have also changed calculations. That’s not to say Biden has a clear path forward in terms of domestic legislation: While enacting major reforms such as carbon pricing would give his platform staying power, this remains a tall order even if last week’s victories improve the odds.

The president would need to frame his vision as a win for a still-fragile economy, make concessions to Republicans, and work with the centrist wing of his own Democratic party (NE Nov.12'20). Senate Democrats who represent oil- and gas-producing states are unlikely to back legislation that would phase out fossil fuels.

Amid his repeated calls for calm, unity and decency, Biden’s inauguration next week comes at a time of profound polarization, illustrated in the starkest form yet by the violent protests at the US Capitol last week. But the unrest also caused prominent Republicans to distance themselves from Trump in a rare display of bipartisanship.

Time will tell if Biden is able to navigate and tame this rough terrain in a way that delivers lasting domestic reforms. Whatever the case, the change in the narrative can’t be understated. When Biden takes office next week, the climate conversation will change for good -- and not merely on US soil.

Lauren Craft is the editor of EI New Energy and a US policy correspondent with Energy Intelligence. This article originally appeared in EI New Energy.