President-Elect Joseph R. Biden!” Peter Stevens

November 12, 2020; Scientific American

The issue of the global climate emergency has been on the US ballot for many years now, and as the nation begins to see more and more climate catastrophes—like the intense wildfires that burned millions of acres in western states throughout 2020 or this year’s record hurricane season—its importance as a political issue continues to grow.

The environment has been a hot-button issue throughout the 2020 election cycle, with 42 percent of voters calling global heating “very important” to them. There’s no doubt that the incoming administration of Joe Biden will seek to reverse many of the Donald Trump administration’s environmental policies. But in recent interviews with Scientific American, six climate scientists identify further steps they think the Biden administration should take to create climate policy with a data-driven, justice lens.

A major challenge for any incoming president is how to work within the situation that their predecessor has left them. In Biden’s case, he’ll not only be up against the ever-increasing effects of global heating, he’ll also have to undo many of the Trump administration’s actions. From pulling the US out of the Paris agreement, to gutting the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), to loosening pollution restrictions, the Trump administration wreaked havoc on attempts to address the climate emergency. Biden, to achieve his administration’s stated goals, will have to act swiftly to reverse Trump-era policies and create a new culture of climate justice.

Daniel Swain, a climate scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles, notes that “President-elect Biden’s publicly released plan to address climate change is, by far, the most ambitious proposed by any American president or president-to-be.”

Unsurprisingly, the scientists interviewed all want to see greater government action to address the climate emergency, although each one has a different area of emphasis. Aradhna Tripati, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, lifts up the need to prioritize low-income communities and communities of color. Constantine Samaras, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, emphasizes greening transportation systems. Kim Cobb, paleo-climatologist and director of the Global Change Program at Georgia Institute of Technology, emphasizes assisting current victims of the climate emergency and building resiliency.

Some of these ideas are part of Biden’s agenda. Biden is attempting to include equity in each of his policy platform planks, including climate change. His platform affirms that low-income communities, especially communities of color, are most likely to experience the adverse effects from the climate emergency and therefore must be considered when creating climate change policy.

Many of the people interviewed are relieved to know that the highest office will be occupied by someone who is willing to address the climate emergency. But those same people also recognize that Biden’s plan is just a starting point.

Marshall Shepherd, director of the atmospheric sciences program at the University of Georgia, notes that most issues on the minds of the average American can be considered through a climate lens. He says that “the economy, health, water, infrastructure, food production, and more” are all interrelated to climate policy.

And climate scientists agree the data show a need for policy centered on equity and justice. Americans who are low-income, homeless, or living in segregated, majority-BIPOC neighborhoods are most likely to become “climate refugees” as natural disasters and environmental pollution increase. This is hardly a theoretical concern. Not so long ago, NPQ, for instance, profiled the case of the Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw Tribe of Louisiana, which has, over the last half century, lost to erosion 98 percent of the land of what was once their Isle de Jean Charles island home, an island that lies a little less about 80 miles southwest of New Orleans.

Farhana Sultana, an environmental research director at Syracuse University, emphasizes the importance of not just considering the needs of these communities, but including neighborhood residents in policy conversations. She says, “Greater engagement with local communities and movements in formulating, implementing and overseeing climate-related work can lead to more transformative outcomes.” Those who are on the ground living the realities of climate change will be key figures in helping the US create a climate justice policy.

Although many climate scientists are optimistic about the potentially positive impact a Biden presidency may have on environmental policy, they also recognize the challenges Biden faces. For one thing, a Republican-controlled Congress could present a major barrier to implementing the sweeping changes needed in the transportation and energy industries. And even if Biden is able to work with Congress on such measures, the US is already behind other nations on climate justice initiatives and will have to work quickly and efficiently to catch up.—Tessa Crisman