Has Biden delivered on climate promises? Analyzing his first year in office

One year into President Joe Biden’s tenure, we’re taking stock of where some of his key campaign commitments stand. Even before taking office, Biden called climate change an existential crisis, and promised to take historic action. Amna Nawaz joins Judy Woodruff for a closer look at what he’s accomplished so far.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    One year into President Biden's tenure, we are taking stock of where some of his key campaign commitments stand.

    Even before taking office, Mr. Biden called climate change an existential crisis, and he promised to take historic action.

    Amna Nawaz joins me now to look at what he has done so far.

    Hello, Amna.

    So, we know this is a huge issue. Tell us how he's delivering on it.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy. It's a massive issue. Climate change is clearly now a climate crisis.

    So, to better assess how President Biden has done in year one to address it, we're going to take a look at four key commitments that he made. And here they are.

    Number one, he has promised to develop a clean energy economy, also to build more resilient communities, to reestablish America's global leadership on this issue, and to work towards environmental justice.

    So, Judy, this is not a comprehensive list but it is illustrative of some of his key commitments.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, let's take these one by one, starting with this clean energy economy.

    How has he done specifically on that?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That's right, Judy.

    Well, it's a massive, ambitious goal, the president's goal of hitting net zero carbon emissions by 2050. And, actually, let's take a look back. Here's how he framed it when he was talking about it in July 2020.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: We also know that transforming the American electrical sector to produce power without producing carbon pollution and electrifying an increased share of our economy will be the greatest spurring of job creation and economic competitiveness in the 21st century.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, we know he has taken some action on this front, and particularly with cars. We know transportation is the single largest source of U.S. emissions.

    But here's specifically what he has done so far. Here's a brief list. He signed in his first week in office an executive order to electrify the entire government vehicle fleet, which is about 650,000 cars. He secured $15 billion in that bipartisan infrastructure package for electric vehicle charging stations and to electrify public transit.

    And just last month, the administration put into place the most ambitious car mileage standards — standards, rather, yet through 2026. But meeting that emissions goal, Judy, a lot of that hinges on this Build Back Better plan moving forward.

    Why? Well, we put that question to Dr. Leah Stokes. She's a professor of climate policy at U.C. Santa Barbara. Here's what she said.

    Leah Stokes, University of California, Santa Barbara: That bill will make it way more affordable for everyday Americans to buy an electric vehicle. And it will also make sure that those electric vehicles are increasingly built in union shops.

    With the Build Back Better Act, we will have a fighting chance to cut carbon pollution at the pace and scale that's necessary and tackle the climate crisis.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, first, Judy, we know that Build Back Better plan has been stalled. Negotiations continue. But experts say, without it, it will be very hard for Biden to meet those emissions goals.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, moving on, what about the impact of climate change on communities? We know last year was, what, one of the worst ever in terms of climate change affecting — and natural disasters.

    How is the president doing in terms of making communities more resilient?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, this is actually a rare area of bipartisan cooperation and work moving forward.

    And that's because the devastation and the damage from all of those frequent extreme weather events is just undeniable, hurricanes and flash floods and wildfires and so on. And so the president has helped to secure funds to help mitigate some of the worst impacts in communities. When you take a look at, that came as part of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, $47 billion going to projects like moving highways out of flood zones, grants for wildfire-prone communities, and water storage in drought-affected areas.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then moving on to the third promise, that is recommitting to global leadership on climate, how has he done there?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, remember, on day one in office, President Biden reentered that Paris climate accord, which, of course, sent a very strong signal.

    But we should remind people it was on the campaign trail that candidate Biden promised to go even further in terms of trying to lower global emissions and demand some of that change, especially from places like China, which is among one of the global leaders in emissions.

    Here's how Biden talked about that back in September of 2020.

  • Joe Biden:

    I will bring us back into the Paris agreement. I will put us back in the business of leading the world on climate change. And I challenge every other country to up the ante on climate commitments.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, Judy, of course, late last year, the president attended that big climate summit in Glasgow. He slammed the Chinese president for not attending.

    And then those two countries, U.S. and China, the world's two biggest polluters, did end up signing an agreement that experts say was very big on ambition, but very, very short on specifics, so a mixed record on that front.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And then, finally, Amna, as you mentioned, the president talked as a candidate about putting equity at the center of all of his policies. How has he done when it comes to equity and the environment and climate change?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Yes, Judy, and the key part here is, studies after study has shown, look, people of color do tend to live and be exposed to higher levels of pollution than any other members of the population.

    And President Biden has made that a central part of his policies. In fact, in Flint, Michigan, before Election Day, he talked about just that.

  • Joe Biden:

    The impacts on climate are — too often fall disproportionately on poor communities and communities of color. We're going to make sure communities benefit from the hundreds of billions of federal investment in infrastructure and climate change.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So, President Biden had pledged $45 billion to replace every single lead pipe in the country. He ended up getting $15 billion in that infrastructure bill, which is less than he wanted, but still way more than previous administrations.

    And we actually asked a man named Reverend Edward Pinkney about that. He's from a town called Benton Harbor in Michigan, where they have been dealing with contaminated water for three years.

    Here's what he said.

  • Rev. Edward Pinkney, Benton Harbor Community Water Council:

    In most cases, by this being really a Black community, we don't get stuff down here.

    I have to applaud the president, because what he has done, he let us know that he's willing, he's willing to do what needs to be done to make sure that the community of color have all the tools they need to be successful.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Now, the reverend says that the EPA officials from the Biden administration have been in touch with his community regularly, in constant communication.

    He says he's happy with the progress now that we know about $3 billion of that 15 billion has been making its way out into the community. And the Biden administration still says they think they can meet that goal to replace those lead pipes within a decade.

    So, Judy, those are some specific examples, but, big picture, it is going to take a lot for President Biden to see through his climate agenda. He's going to need Congress to move forward on the Build Back Better plan. He's going to need the courts not to get in his way.

    And he's going to need to do it quickly, because Republicans have shown little interest in getting this done, if they especially win back control of Congress in the midterms — Judy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So important to go back and look at all of this. It's not in the news every day.

    Amna Nawaz, thanks very much.

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