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President-elect Joe Biden speaks about climate change and the wildfires on the West Coast in Wilmington, Delaware, on September 14.
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How Joe Biden plans to use executive powers to fight climate change

10 ways Biden plans to fight climate change, with or without Congress.

Umair Irfan is a correspondent at Vox writing about climate change, Covid-19, and energy policy. Irfan is also a regular contributor to the radio program Science Friday. Prior to Vox, he was a reporter for ClimateWire at E&E News.

Democrats have won control of the Senate, thanks to two tight Tuesday runoff races in Georgia.

With the Senate question largely resolved, President-elect Joe Biden can now start to focus on policy, including his ambitious agenda to deal with climate change, which calls for an aggressive shift to clean energy, carbon neutrality by the middle of the century, and massive federal investment to drive these changes. Contrast that with President Donald Trump, who put forth no plan to deal with climate change and actively undermined existing policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.

Biden is also likely to undo most, if not all, of Trump’s environmental rollbacks with his executive powers. Trump has repealed or weakened 125 environmental regulations, like protections for endangered species and environmental risk assessments for infrastructure. Trump has also opened protected wilderness for fossil fuel development and logging.

Some of the most notable rollbacks are of rules seeking to cut greenhouse gases, like the Clean Power Plan, energy efficiency standards, and fuel economy regulations for cars and trucks. Many of these rollbacks are also tied down in ongoing lawsuits across state and federal courts that may take months to resolve.

President Trump put forth no plan to deal with climate change and actively undermined existing policies to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Just untangling this mess alone may end up keeping Biden’s hands full. “It’s not just flipping the dial and going from Trump back to Obama,” said Barry Rabe, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan who studies environmental policy, told Vox in November. “It could actually take much of an entire term in office to reverse that reversal.”

And without drastic action soon, greenhouse gases will continue to increase in the atmosphere, the planet will continue to heat up, the most vulnerable will suffer, and disasters worsened by climate change will extract an increasingly dear toll from the US economy.

Biden’s most ambitious ideas — particularly using $1.7 trillion in government money — require Congress to go along. And as Vox’s Ella Nilsen writes, even though Vice President-elect Kamala Harris can be the tie-breaker for simple majority votes in the Senate once she takes office, “Passing Democratic bills will be extremely difficult in a 50-50 Senate. It will be tough to even pass broad bipartisan bills.”

There’s a lot a president can do from the White House without Capitol Hill, however. The questions are how quickly the head of government can get these things done and how much of what gets done will last through another administration.

Biden has a strong list of executive actions to pursue on climate change

Even if Biden were to reverse Trump’s policies on climate change, that would only get the US back to where it was four years ago. At that point, US greenhouse gas emissions were flat and the country was not on track to meet its climate change goals under the Paris climate agreement.

To make up for lost time and to advance, the US needs more policies to limit greenhouse gases and facilitate the shift to clean energy.

However, as David Roberts explained, it’s unlikely that Biden would be able to pass this agenda through Congress as part of a Green New Deal-type package. Congressional Republicans like Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell have already dropped hints that they plan to stymie Biden’s agenda when he takes the White House, and most bills will have to clear a 60-vote supermajority in the Senate.

That means a more piecemeal approach may be needed.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will likely lead Senate Republicans in blocking President-elect Biden’s climate agenda.
Jon Cherry/Getty Images

Some of these tactics could include stricter efficiency standards for appliances, more stringent fuel economy rules for vehicles, and appointing members of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission who factor climate change into energy policy, according to Ann Carlson, a professor of environmental law at the University of California Los Angeles, in an email.

The Biden campaign seems to have realized this as well. One of the climate policy survey questions Vox posed to the Biden campaign was about how Biden plans to use the powers of the presidency to put points on the board.

Campaign press secretary Jamal Brown told us that Biden has come up with at least 10 executive actions to pursue off the bat:

  • Requiring aggressive methane pollution limits for new oil and gas operations.
  • Using the federal government procurement system — which spends $500 billion every year — to drive toward 100 percent clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles.
  • Ensuring that all US government installations, buildings, and facilities are more efficient and climate-ready, harnessing the purchasing power and supply chains to drive innovation.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation — the fastest growing source of US climate pollution — by preserving and implementing the existing Clean Air Act, and developing rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100 percent of new light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified and annual improvements are made for heavy-duty vehicles.
  • Doubling down on the liquid fuels of the future, which make agriculture a key part of the solution to climate change. Advanced biofuels, made with materials like switchgrass and algae, can create jobs and new solutions to reduce emissions in planes, oceangoing vessels, and more.
  • Saving consumers money and reducing emissions through new, aggressive appliance and building efficiency standards.
  • Committing that every federal infrastructure investment should reduce climate pollution, and require any federal permitting decision to consider the effects of greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.
  • Requiring public companies to disclose climate risks and the greenhouse gas emissions in their operations and supply chains.
  • Protecting biodiversity, slowing extinction rates and helping leverage natural climate solutions by conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030.
  • Protecting America’s natural treasures by permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other areas impacted by President Trump’s attacks on federal lands and waters, establishing national parks and monuments that reflect America’s natural heritage, banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters, modifying royalties to account for climate costs, and establishing targeted programs to enhance reforestation and develop renewables on federal lands and waters, with the goal of doubling offshore wind by 2030.

These actions are only a slice of how Biden plans to address climate change, and there may be more. There are also more contentious executive actions Biden could potentially take, like revoking authorization for the Keystone XL pipeline or denying oil and liquefied natural gas export licenses.

However, executive actions alone won’t be enough to bring the US on track to have a carbon neutral economy by 2050. The private sector — power companies, manufacturers, businesses — will also have to act, which may require a combination of incentives, regulations, and advances in technology.

And while climate change is a high priority for Biden, he will also be facing the Covid-19 pandemic and will be shaping the government’s response to the virus that is currently killing over 3,400 Americans every day. Balancing the two crises of Covid-19 and climate change will be a formidable task.

Biden’s domestic climate agenda could end up stalled in the courts, but he can push for more action around the world

The idea behind executive actions is to use authorities under existing laws rather than passing new ones.

However, while executive orders don’t need approval from Congress, they can still be challenged by courts. For example, the Supreme Court in 2016 stepped in to stay the implementation of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants. Trump later repealed the plan and replaced it with a much weaker regulation.

For Biden, the judicial landscape would be even less hospitable than it was for Obama. With a 6-3 Republican majority on the Supreme Court and more than 200 Republican federal judicial appointments over the last four years, lawsuits from states and industries that would be subject to any executive action could bog down forward movement on climate change. But if these actions do survive legal challenges, they become far more durable policies.

One area where Biden does have a lot of room to maneuver on climate change is foreign policy. Biden has already pledged to rejoin the Paris climate agreement as soon as he enters office. From there, Biden wants to use the US’s weight as an economic and diplomatic player to push other countries to do more on climate change.

“He will lead a major diplomatic effort to get every major country to ramp up the ambition of their domestic climate targets, including convening a climate world summit to directly engage the leaders of the major carbon-emitting nations of the world to persuade them to join the United States in making more ambitious national pledges, above and beyond the commitments they have already made,” Brown told Vox.

While the US is the largest historical emitter of greenhouse gases and currently ranks second in emissions behind China, it only comprises 15 percent of humanity’s current emissions output. That means addressing climate change would require nudging other countries to curb their own emissions and shift to clean energy.

There are also other international agreements on issues that touch on climate, like the Montreal Protocol that places limits on hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), a class of potent, heat-trapping gases. The recent legislation to fund the government passed by Congress commits the US government to reducing HFCs by 85 percent from current levels over the next 15 years.

The US can also leverage its power as a major economy to sway the rules of trade, using agreements to hold trading partners accountable for their contributions to climate change.

But here, too, the Covid-19 pandemic looms large. International cooperation will be needed to limit the spread of the disease between countries, and a major international climate meeting has already been postponed due to the pandemic. Many countries are also facing their own economic crises and may push climate change concerns to the back burner.

The good news: Americans are more motivated to tackle climate change than ever

Biden has leaned heavily on his experience as vice president during his campaign, but it’s clear that 2021 will not be like 2009. For instance, there will be an ongoing economic crisis and a raging pandemic to deal with immediately.

On the other hand, when Biden is sworn in, he will be taking the reins of a country that is much more motivated to tackle climate change than his previous turn in government. Addressing climate change continues to rank as a high priority according to polls across the US. Since Trump pulled out of the Paris accord, a coalition of states, cities, and companies have stepped in to enact their own goals to limit greenhouse gases. They’ve also been in the trenches challenging Trump’s rollbacks and building a legal framework for state and local action on climate change.

“For four years, we’ve fought tooth and nail against the Trump Administration’s efforts to dismantle critical protections [for the environment] and reverse hard-fought progress,” said California Attorney General Xavier Becerra in a November 4 statement about the US withdrawing from the Paris accord.

Climate activists project flames and commentary on the side of the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, on October 21.
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for Climate Power 2020

Meanwhile, some of the big industry blocs that have resisted policies around climate change have begun to fracture. In August 2020, five automakers — Volvo, Ford, Honda, BMW, and Volkswagen — reached a deal with the state of California to impose tougher emissions limits on themselves, defying the Trump administration’s efforts to relax those rules.

Some appliance manufacturers have pushed back against Trump’s efforts to relax efficiency standards for appliances like dishwashers. Major power utilities are also betting big on clean energy. For example, Arizona Public Service, the largest power utility in Arizona, committed to producing all of its electricity from carbon-free sources by 2050, despite the fact that the state does not have a mandate to do so. Even major oil companies are starting to grapple with how they will cope in a world where carbon dioxide emissions must be constrained.

These divides could provide an opportunity for Biden to create coalitions that want action on climate change and from there, nudge the holdouts to do more. But such alliances are fragile and it will take finesse to keep such a group from falling apart. “I think Biden can assume that he would have some industry support to work with,” Rabe said. “This would require really careful political work to hold that supportive coalition together.”


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