President Biden’s Climate Pledge: Aspirations Versus Policies

President Biden has pledged to reduce US greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030, and to achieve net zero emissions no later than 2050. This is nothing more than political rhetoric: an aspiration, but not a climate policy. For those who support those announced goals, the president’s pledge, if it has any effect, will hinder actually accomplishing them.

With regard to climate policy, the main problem with President Biden’s declaration is that he has suggested no actual policies that he would promote to reach those goals. The announcement is designed to appeal to those who support reducing greenhouse gas emissions, thereby creating the illusion that he is doing something to further those goals rather than actually doing something. This should reduce any pressure from that group, making it less likely that he will actually implement policies to advance those goals.

Meanwhile, because he has announced no actual policies, there is nothing in what he has said that should spark any opposition. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions is a popular goal, but specific policies that might move toward that goal will prove to be less popular. So, he has avoided announcing any actual policies and instead announced some aspirations.

Another problem with President Biden’s pledge is that even if he serves two full terms as president, the target dates he has set are beyond those two terms. We cannot know whether those aspirations were met until after he leaves office, and any failures to meet them will fall on the watches of the presidents in 2030 and 2050. If the president is going to set goals for policy outcomes, it would seem that they should not extend beyond 2028 in any event. He should set goals for what he will do, not goals for his successors.

While it is disingenuous to announce goals without also announcing specific policies that can move toward those goals, it is good politics. Nobody would be unhappy if those goals were met, although many people would likely be unhappy about specific policies that might further them. What policies? We don’t know, which is why we cannot be unhappy about them.

Some people will mistakenly view the president’s announcement as a climate policy, so it is important to recognize that it is not. It is the announcement of an aspiration with no policies behind it. It is designed to increase his political support from some without reducing his political support from others. It is empty rhetoric.

Should we support the president’s greenhouse gas aspirations? Should we oppose them? That depends on what policies he has in mind to accomplish those goals, and that’s what he hasn’t told us.

Randall G. Holcombe is a Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute, the DeVoe Moore Professor of Economics at Florida State University, and author of the Independent Institute book Liberty in Peril: Democracy and Power in American History.
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