Zeus: Trump's out. Biden's president. Now comes the hard part

Day one symbolism will quickly give way to reality of climate, racial justice and political challenges

(David Callaway is founder and Editor-in-Chief of Callaway Climate Insights. He is the former president of the World Editors Forum, Editor-in-Chief of USA Today and MarketWatch, and CEO of TheStreet Inc.)

SAN FRANCISCO (Callaway Climate Insights) — Eight years ago today, I sat in the stands at the Capitol with my wife and best friend and his wife, and watched then-President Barack Obama inaugurated for his second term. The weather was sunny and chilly, like today, as Joe Biden became 46th president of the United States.

For a country founded on principles designed to avoid the trappings of aristocracy, we do sometimes enjoy our pomp and circumstance. And Obama didn’t disappoint. Music soared, flags flapped in the wind and poetry hung in the sky, just like today. The only difference was that in 2012, there were two million people on hand. Today our capital is in lockdown, a symbol of the division, hatred and danger of the past four years. And of the challenge ahead for all of us.

Today we will celebrate as President Biden takes pen to the damage caused to the environment, among other things, by former President Trump. We will begin the process of rejoining the Paris Accord. Begin to block new drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Begin to re-tighten auto emissions standards and begin to revoke the permits for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Most important, Biden will order that climate change and science be considered by every department of government in every regulatory move. Janet Yellen, incoming Secretary of the Treasury, took the lead yesterday when she said in her confirmation hearing that she intended on appointing a very senior official in Treasury to consider climate risks to the financial system.

“A cry for survival comes from the planet itself,” Biden said in his inauguration speech, in his only nod to climate change, tying it to a racial justice problem 400 years old, which “will be deferred no longer.”

The president acknowledged himself that words are not enough to solve these problems. We can expect dozens of executive orders, new regulations and new proposals in the next several weeks, as a plan takes shape to make change through a series of initiatives instead of one giant new law.

This is where the new battle lines will be drawn. By fossil fuel companies committed to a slower transition. Politicians and businesses concerned about losing jobs. And as we’ve already seen even before Biden took office, the inevitable political battle over the cost of these new proposals. Can we really vaccinate the entire country and rebuild the economy with green infrastructure at the same time? Battle line No. 1.

The world spent more than $500 billion for the first time on the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy and electric vehicles in 2020, up 9% even during the pandemic. But that was led by Europe — up more than 50% — and China. The U.S. was lower.

Key to Biden’s challenge will be proposing, and effecting, a program that creates better green jobs and futures for displaced fossil fuel workers. Plugging existing oil wells is not enough. A wholesale retraining has to take place.

Nowhere in the Biden plan, that I can see, is any reference to tackle the problem of plastics manufacturing and disposal, an issue of both emissions and ocean pollution that will require complete overhaul of industries far larger than fossil fuels, from food and beverage to consumer staples.

On day one, as with any new president, we are awash in hope and excitement for the new term. Repairing the damage from the old term is forgotten in the wave of relief at a change in leadership. On day two, it comes back.

Obama started his first term in the economic and jobs hole of the great financial crisis, and spent the entire time — and part of his second term — just recovering from that. As we sat there on Capitol Hill in 2012, we had no idea the impact of that crisis and the recovery from it would have on the next election in 2016.

The forces that brought Trump to Washington are very much still there, as are the realities of joblessness and government overreach that created them. Any efforts to create new programs to fight climate change and racial justice will have to start with them.

When the flags are put away and the music quiets, then the real work begins. Biden will have two years — until the next Congressional election — not four, to execute his plan while trying to heal the country.

For today, at least, investors are giving him the benefit of the doubt. Stocks are up and in particular, renewable energy companies are surging in anticipation. The rebirth of democracy theme is in the air. The messiness of actually governing begins tomorrow.

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