Science first!

C&I Issue 2, 2021

Read time: 3 mins

Neil Eisberg | Editor

After all the tumult and turmoil, the new US administration has hit the ground running – with a focus on science and a bold list of targets for its first 100 days.

On the day of his inauguration, President Joseph Biden signed a whole slew of executive orders, reversing many legislative actions of the previous administration. Top of the list was to return the US to the Paris Climate Change Accord, followed by a decision to return the US to the World Health Organization (WHO).

President Biden has described climate change as a national security issue and announced a target of net-zero emissions by 2050, including a pledge to replace the federal fleet of 650,000 vehicles with electric models, a suspension of new oil and gas drilling on federal land, a doubling of off-shore wind power by 2020 and a cancellation of the Keystone XL oil pipeline project from Canada to Nebraska. So far there have been no announcements about the future for coal mining or fracking. President Biden has emphasised that these changes are designed to ensure that new jobs will be created to replace those lost in the move away from fossil fuels.

During subsequent days, President Biden signed more executive orders, covering reviews of existing regulations, such as the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), along with plans to restart the Affordable Care Act, so-called Obamacare. He has also raised the role of science through appointments in his administration. ‘Science will always be a the forefront of my administration,’ he said; echoed by VP Kamala Harris saying: ‘We are going to make sure the US once again leads the way in science and innovation.’

President Biden has also admonished the out-going administration for its approach to the Covid pandemic and immediately tightened up rules covering the use of face masks and similar personal protection equipment (PPE), starting with the White House. There have, however, been concerns expressed about a lack of PPE unless the US Congress approves President Biden’s pandemic rescue finance package.

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit the US hard with over 425,000 deaths. The roll-out of Covid vaccines has also been haphazard, although President Biden has said his administration is looking to purchase 200m additional doses, which would allow 300m US citizens to be fully vaccinated by the end of the summer.

Experts believe the 100m reported Covid cases diagnosed globally so far most likely underestimates the true number of cases, given the lack of adequate testing and contact tracing in many countries, including the US. Likewise, the number of deaths — more than 2m people worldwide, including those in the US — is also probably much higher than officially reported.

Given the Biden administration’s focus on science and its impact on the major risks and issues currently facing the US, it was timely that the World Economic Forum (WEF) unveiled its latest risk forecast: The Global Risks Report 2021, just before the President’s inauguration, and also the annual WEF Davos Economic Forum.

Number one on the risk list relates to pandemics and other infectious diseases, followed by climate change and the impact on weather due to failure to take action.

Climate change’s importance as a major issue around the world was shown by the results of the Peoples’ Climate Vote, the world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion. Published in late January 2021 and covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, the survey includes over 500,000 people under the age of 18, a key constituency on climate change that is typically unable to vote in regular elections. 

Detailed results will be shared with governments around the world by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which organised the innovative poll with the University of Oxford in the UK. In many participating countries, it is the first time that large-scale polling of public opinion has ever been conducted on the topic of climate change. In the survey, respondents were asked if climate change was a global emergency and whether they supported 18 key climate policies across six action areas: economy, energy, transport, food & farms, nature and protecting people.

Results show that people often want broad climate policies beyond those currently proposed. For example, in eight of the ten survey countries with the highest emissions from the power sector, majorities backed more renewable energy. In four out of the five countries with the highest emissions from land-use change and enough data on policy preferences, there was majority support for conserving forests and land. Nine out of ten of the countries with the most urbanised populations backed more use of clean electric cars and buses, or bicycles.

Other popular policies were conserving forests and land (54% of public support), more solar, wind and renewable power (53%), adopting climate-friendly farming techniques (52%) and investing more in green businesses and jobs (50%).

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