In his first weeks in office, President Biden has rejoined the Paris Agreement, halted work on the Keystone XL pipeline and instituted the “30 by 30” plan to increase nationwide conservation efforts. The Red & Black spoke to members of the UGA and Athens communities to discuss the new environmental policies, the potential for local impact and what residents can do in the community to combat the climate crisis.
Jesse Abrams is a professor of natural resource policy and sustainability in the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry & Natural Resources. Justin Merrifield is the Director of Conservation for the Athens Land Trust. Rachel Fischer is a UGA fourth-year astrophysics major and president of both the UGA Conservation Society and UGA Ocean Initiative.
The Red & Black: What can we reasonably expect of the environmental policies the administration has enacted thus far?
Abrams: I think we're likely to see Biden sort of undo Trump's undoing. I think it’s important that the rubber hits the road in terms of actually making changes to our carbon budget as a nation. And that might be tougher, but there are plenty of things that Biden can do. And he's already announced some of them. Putting what's likely to be the last nail in the coffin of the Keystone XL pipeline is one of those actions. He's talked about, essentially electrifying the federal vehicle fleet, putting at least a temporary moratorium on oil and gas leasing on federal lands. So, there are plenty of things that Biden can accomplish through executive action, that could help reach some of those goals. … There are probably some wins that Biden can get done through Congress, but it's not going to be a cakewalk.
The Red & Black: Do you think the administration is going far enough in the fight against climate change?
Merrifield: I think that these are great efforts. The “30 by 30 plan” is the one I have dug into the closest because it is the one that most directly affects the work that I do, and I think it’s a great start. I think it’s a great platform for us to be a part of. I am withholding ultimate judgement until I see what the rollout is going to look like, and how they’re prioritizing the efforts.
Fischer: I would say yes. I think it’s really difficult for a new administration to make so many implementations and make a lot of change at first. I think it’s definitely something that needs to be a little bit gradual to not hurt the economy. … I think he’s definitely doing a great job of recognizing that there’s a really strong connection between the economy and the environment and society. … I think it’ll be really exciting to see how his administration is going to tackle these huge global issues.
The Red & Black: What can UGA students and Athens residents expect to see change as a result of the new administration’s environmental policies?
Abrams: I would say that at the end of the day, that the U.S. is still a federal system, meaning states still have a lot of power. And so even as we see some potentially significant changes in some parts of the country, that doesn't mean that it's going to be even across the entire nation. And so I think what we see here is probably just as likely to depend on decisions that are made at the state level as they are at the national level. Beyond that, I think it's hard to say.
Merrifield: I don’t know what we can expect, but what I would like to see is increasing incentives for private landowners to join in on [the 30 by 30 plan]. If [the administration is] looking to do this purely at a federal level, purely with public lands, I don’t think it will succeed. ... I would like to see an increase in the farm bill to work on protecting farm lands. We’ve all got to eat and somebody’s got to grow that food. Especially here in the state of Georgia, farm land is disappearing quickly. So, focusing on protecting those areas would be a fantastic step in that direction. And I would like to see some of the efforts bear in mind racial justice issues and environmental justice issues as well because a lot of the time, the most disadvantaged communities are the ones that are bearing the largest brunt for environmental degradation.
The Red & Black: What can UGA students and Athens residents do to be allies in the fight against climate change?
Fischer: I think there’s so much. I think a lot of it is educating others through outreach and community service, really spreading awareness about environmental issues and encouraging others to become advocates for the environment and write letters to your representatives and asking them to do better.
Merrifield: I think the most important thing that any of us can do is to just get out and enjoy the outside. … I think one of the coolest things about Athens is the amount of public forest and trails that are just dropped right in the middle of the city that anybody can go out and explore. I think it’s incredibly important to know what we’re trying to protect and so get out and enjoy parks and enjoy forests and streams and rivers because if Athens residents, if UGA students don’t see the value in protecting lands and conserving nature, then we’re just kind of Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the hill.