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Rutgers professors discuss climate change, Biden Administration's approach

The Biden Administration has already shown concern for climate change by supporting better protection of larger areas of land, as well as having each department in the federal government connected to climate change in some way. – Photo by Kai Boggild (distributed via

Pamela McElwee and Karen O’Neill, associate professors in the Department of Human Ecology, discussed the topic of climate change, why they feel it is important and how President Joseph R. Biden Jr. might respond to this issue compared to the previous administration.

“There's a huge number of things that can be done, essentially we've been on pause or even backtracked the last four years unfortunately so the Biden Administration has their work cut out for them,” McElwee said.

For the climate crisis response, it is supposed to be a partnership between the federal government and states, McElwee said, the federal government has been, over the past four years, absent or detrimental. 

She said the Trump Administration tried to revoke California’s authority under the Clean Air Act to set higher fuel emissions on cars.

“The U.S. is currently responsible for (approximately) 15 percent of global emissions so we're the second largest emitter by country after China but we're one of the top emitters if we just look per capita,” McElwee said. 

“(The Paris Agreement is) symbolically important because it provides a sense of the Biden Administration's overall commitment to the issue that also provides a sense of their willingness to work with international partners on it, but it's just a first step,” McElwee said.

Rejoining the Paris Agreement obligates the U.S. to issue plans to meet goals, she said. The Paris Agreement states that the countries of the world should try to keep global emissions below 2 degrees Celsius and aim for no more than 1.5 degrees, she said.

“Even hitting that goal does not make climate risk go away, it just keeps it from being worse than it could be,” McElwee said.

Currently, if all pledges were implemented, she said the expected warming is approximately 3 degrees Celsius.

McElwee said that at today’s 1 degree Celsius of warming, small island nations are experiencing sea level rise, and places like Australia and the Western U.S. are experiencing devastating wildfires.

Even if we are able to hold to a 1.5 degree Celsius temperature target, she said we will have to come up with solutions to address climate risks. These solutions may include sea walls or levee systems, she said.

“There's tremendous science capacity in the federal government,” McElwee said. “Unfortunately it's been hollowed out a bit over the last four years.”

The Biden Administration is working to address the climate crisis by having each department in the federal government have a connection to climate, McElwee said.

Most of these departments receive their authority through rulemaking, which are open to comments from the public, McElwee said.

“We’re still super limited by what you can pass through Congress, and we have been for decades,” O’Neill said.

She said two positions were appointed in the Biden Administration: Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry and Climate Coordinator Gina McCarthy. Both of these positions focus on what federal agencies can do specifically in terms of climate change, she said.

O’Neill said that Kerry can negotiate with tools less formal than a treaty, such as favorable trade deals. When it comes to actual treaties that the U.S. must negotiate, such as trade policies, environmental concerns could be built in, she said.

What they have to do anytime you sign on to an (international) agreement is you have to go home and pass the laws into your domestic laws … and the U.S. is very bad at that, we have a long history of not joining important treaties,O’Neill said.

She said one example of this is not joining the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which works to regulate ocean usage, according to the United Nations website.

There have been very few major environmental laws since the 1990s, O’Neill said. For environmental laws in general, she said every major environmental law has gone to court. Congress made laws that blocked the ability of the president and executive agencies to make rules on their own. 

O’Neill said the timing of executive orders also matters, as former President Barack Obama had lined up several executive orders that did not take effect in time and were overturned by former President Donald J. Trump.

One of these overturned orders was the Keystone XL Pipeline, she said. Before Biden took office, a lot of people were reducing their support for Keystone — banks were not loaning and the oil processing was not cost effective, O’Neill said.

McElwee said the Biden Administration has already been supportive of better protection for larger areas of land.

Land is important not only due to biodiversity, but also carbon absorption, she said. Parks in urban areas also tend to be cooler, which can help reduce the heat in cities that can otherwise get quite hot and cause health risks.

“If we can do a better job of land management in green space and access to nature that all is going to help us in the climate fight as well,” McElwee said.

The Trump Administration had set rules, such as the Waters of the United States, allowing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to build projects without considering the implications of water flowing elsewhere, she said.

“The U.S. and Trump rolled back the idea that the waterway over here is connected to a waterway over there,” O'Neill said.

As of 2019, approximately 1 million species were potentially at risk of extinction, she said. This is unprecedented, as is the climate crisis, and there are many intersections between the two.

“We need to make a situation where there are enough people who can win economically from doing environmentally proactive things,” O’Neill said.

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