Although the Biden administration has taken steps to address climate change, US policymakers and elites are split on the issue's threat level.
On June 1, 2017, former President Donald Trump announced the withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate agreement. Due to UN regulations, the withdrawal was not formalized until November 4, 2020. Seventy-nine days later, the newly inaugurated President Joe Biden signed an executive order recommitting the United States to the agreement. The re-entry took effect on Friday, February 19. The goal of the agreement is to prevent the global average temperature from warming beyond the point of catastrophe, which is defined as “well below” a 2°C (3.6°F) increase compared to pre-industrial levels.
The results of a January-February 2021 Chicago Council Survey show that there is a partisan divide among the American public on whether the United States should participate in the agreement. While 85 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of Independents say the United States should participate, just one third of Republicans agree (34%).
But what do US foreign policy experts, opinion leaders, and policymakers think of climate issues? A Chicago Council Survey of elite opinions demonstrated a partisan divide among those who see climate change as a critical threat. Conducted from August 3 to September 9, 2020—before the beginning of the Biden administration—the survey asked more than 900 US executive branch officials, congressional staff, think tank scholars, university professors, journalists, and interest group representatives what their views were on current, key foreign policy issues. Among elites, nine in ten Democrats (91%), but just 16 percent of Republicans, answered that it was indeed a critical threat. Among Independent elites, 68 percent said that it was a critical threat.
Beliefs about the importance of climate change are also reflected in elites’ opinions about whether the United States will take measures to address the issue. Asked whether or not they thought it was likely there would be major efforts by the United States to address climate change in the next two years, Republicans were split evenly with 50 percent saying that it’s likely and 50 percent saying that it’s unlikely. On the other side of the aisle, the majority of Democrats (79%), as well as two-thirds of Independents (67%), thought that it was likely the United States would make an effort to address climate change in the next two years.
Amongst those who said there would likely be major efforts by the United States to address the issue of climate change in the next two years, a majority across partisan lines think it is unlikely these efforts would be bipartisan (83% Republicans, 82% Democrats, 84% Independents).
While American foreign policy elites are split on the threat of climate change, as well as the likelihood of undertaking major efforts to combat climate change, the Biden administration has shown that it is ready to take steps to enact policy addressing climate change. And, despite differing views on the issue, Republicans have just unveiled their first climate plan, perhaps signaling a change to the way the party approaches climate change.
Overall, rejoining the Paris Agreement was an essential step to beginning the United States’ efforts to improve its engagement with climate change issues, but broader Congressional efforts will be necessary to fully improve the nation’s environmental policy.