President-elect Joe Biden vowed to make climate change a priority with plans to get the U.S. back in the Paris Climate Accord on day one of his administration.
But President Trump, in the waning days of his time in office, has installed officials skeptical of climate change in top positions. Meanwhile, the first nine months of 2020 brought a record-tying $16 billion worth of weather disasters to the nation, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Centers for Environmental Information.
Louisiana is still recovering from back to back major hurricanes, which climate scientists link to warming waters caused by human activity such as greenhouse gas emissions. With five named storms hitting the state this year and 3,000 people still displaced from Hurricanes Delta and Laura this fall, Louisiana is feeling some of the worst effects of climate change.
But despite this year’s events, the state still votes for Republican politicians without climate change agendas and heavily relies on the oil and gas industry, says Tegan Wendland, energy and environment reporter at WWNO in New Orleans.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards recently formed a climate task force of scientists and advocates to work toward reaching carbon neutrality by 2050. And the state has one of the country’s most aggressive climate mitigation plans as well as a coastal restoration plan, Wendland says.
Yet Louisiana went red for Trump and reelected Sen. Bill Cassidy, who has criticized Biden for supporting clean energy in TV ads — making the state “a land of contradictions,” she says.
In 2021, Wendland says she wants to dig into the irony that most of the state’s coastal restoration efforts are funded by the oil and gas industry through the BP oil spill settlement and sales of offshore leases.
“We can have some very ambitious climate mitigation plans in place,” she says, “but they're reliant on the continued success of the oil and gas industry.”
Many residents rely on the industry for their livelihood. Conversations around transitioning to green energy and coastal restoration jobs haven’t resulted in a major effort to retrain workers, she says.
With every destructive storm, more people are moving away from the coast to higher ground — leaving behind lower-income people who can’t afford to relocate, Wendland says. The state needs more federal funding to help people leave dangerous, vulnerable areas.
Louisiana's climate refugees are organizing and advocating for themselves, she says, but federal programs such as the National Flood Insurance Program haven’t embraced funding relocation. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Federal Emergency Management Agency are creating multi-billion dollar programs to fund relocation because it’s “inevitable,” she says.
The state received $50 million to relocate people off of Isle de Jean Charles, a small, disappearing island. Though the relocation has been longer and more complicated than anticipated, Wendland hopes the state can create a model for other communities to use in the future.
“I just think of relocation as the ultimate human adaptation,” she says.
The question of relocation is also relevant in Colorado because of wildfires. The state is seeing late-season wildfires this year at a time when residents usually start skiing.
Colorado is still picking up the pieces of October’s “catastrophic” wildfires, says Sam Brasch, climate reporter at Colorado Public Radio in Denver. The records for the first and second-largest wildfires in the state’s history were broken this year.
“All of that really does track back to climate change,” he says. “Climate change is causing droughts and that all adds up to a longer, hotter wildfire season.”
The state is considering how to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the ground in different areas, he says.
Going into 2021, Brasch is trying to understand the political landscape in Colorado, which has turned blue in the last two decades. Biden won big in the state and it’s clear that climate drove people to the polls, Brasch says.
Democrats now hold all statewide political offices and control both chambers of the legislature. Colorado’s new senator, former Democratic Gov. John Hickenlooper, has a mixed reputation with environmental advocates because of his record with fracking, Brasch says.
“But it's a big shift toward Democrats, he says, “and it seems like climate is a winning issue for them.”
Winter snow is now helping put out the state’s record-breaking wildfires. A few hundred structures were destroyed during the final October fire, he says, and how to approach rebuilding is still a big question.
Rebuilding depends on whether the structures were insured or residents’ first homes, Brasch says. And the remaining landscape determines whether developers can prepare for wildfires and build homes in a different way or possibly not at all.
On a national scale, Vox reporter Umair Irfan is looking at the personnel changes Trump is making on his way out of office. The Trump administration wants to move his appointments into career positions so they’ll remain after he leaves, Irfan says.
One of the administration’s targets is the National Climate Assessment, a report mandated by Congress to assess the risks of climate change impacting the country and prompt government action. With more people aligned with the Trump administration’s view on climate change in positions of power, the report would weaken and require less action from the government, he says.
Upon entering office, the Biden administration will also face Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans shooting down his appointments, he says.
Without Congress on his side, Biden has put out a list of executive actions he hopes to take such as limiting methane emissions from public lands. Biden also hopes to use the federal government’s procurement system to purchase clean energy vehicles and other greener alternatives to “move the market,” Irfan says.
The Biden administration also plans to collaborate with state and local governments in places like Louisiana and Colorado, where people know the impacts of climate change first hand, he says.
“While Congress may not be on board, a lot of state and local officials do realize that climate change is a problem,” he says, “and they've built a coalition over the last four years to try to address it.”
This segment aired on November 12, 2020.