As polling almost unanimously (over)predicted, Joe Biden has amassed the electoral votes necessary to become the 46th president of the United States. The outlook for global warming has consequently been upgraded from hopeless to merely very desperate.
Without the Senate, which will likely remain in Republican hands (though control could come down to two runoffs in Georgia), Biden’s power to effect the kind of radical change called for by the Green New Deal will be substantially curtailed. But he will not be powerless — there are expansive parts of his climate agenda that he can drive through executive power alone.
Biden ran on an ambitious climate agenda
As part of the most progressive policy agenda of any Democrat in recent history, Biden ran on an ambitious plan to address climate change and its effects. It promises a suite of standards and incentives to decarbonize electricity, transportation, industry, and other polluting sectors; $2 trillion in investments in clean energy, infrastructure, and community development; and a series of measures to ensure that vulnerable communities — vulnerable to the effects of pollution and climate change, or vulnerable to the transition away from fossil fuels — are protected.
Biden’s three-part focus on standards, investments, and justice (SIJ) reflects a broad alignment in the Democratic Party, from environmental justice and climate groups on the left to moderates in Congress. Climate change has consistently polled as a top concern among Democratic voters this year, not only young and committed Democrats but among wavering Trump voters. It has been a prominent part of the Biden campaign and served as his final pitch in many swing states.
Much of the sweeping climate agenda in the plan requires legislation, which is not going to be possible with Mitch McConnell in charge of the Senate. There is some slim chance Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate can work together to pass more stimulus, or do something on infrastructure (which could include plenty of climate-friendly stuff), but the most likely result is that McConnell continues his strategy of scorched-earth partisan warfare and nothing but essential budget bills pass.
Biden can make climate progress without Congress
But there is an enormous amount that Biden can do with the presidency alone.
He can immediately begin reversing Trump’s massive deregulatory moves, restoring the more than 125 rules Trump has reversed or weakened.
He can instruct the Environmental Protection Agency to develop a more ambitious version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan for the electricity sector, to work toward his goal of net-zero emissions electricity by 2035, and the Department of Transportation to develop, as his plan promises, “rigorous new fuel economy standards aimed at ensuring 100% of new sales for light- and medium-duty vehicles will be electrified.” He can grant California the waiver it needs (which Trump is now in court trying to block) to pursue its own ambitious vehicle standards.
He can end Trump’s oil and gas development bender on public land, reimposing protections and encouraging safe development of renewable energy, and restore the “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) rule to prevent water pollution. He can restore and strengthen the rules on methane leakage from oil and gas operations that Trump rolled back.
One of the most important structural moves Biden can make is to use the powers granted to him by the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation to ensure that the Federal Reserve, and the financial system more broadly, takes climate risk into account, channeling investment away from carbon-intensive projects. (More on how to do that here.)
If he is feeling particularly bold, it is within Biden’s powers to declare climate change a national security emergency, which would give him the power to implement industrial policy directly, boosting the production of electric vehicles, EV charging infrastructure, long-distance electricity transmission lines, solar panels, or other materiel needed to address the emergency.
Perhaps most importantly, Biden can reassure America’s international partners that it is back in the climate game. His foreign policy powers as president are limited only by his ambition. Rejoining the Paris agreement is only the first step.
Beyond that, he could rejoin the World Health Organization and push it to better address climate health risks. He could convene smaller “clubs” of willing nations to hasten the development of key clean energy technologies or develop policies to address environmental migration. He could push forward international agreements around hydrofluorocarbons, deforestation, plastics, or other climate-adjacent issues.
There’s no way around it, though: To implement anything close to what’s needed, to muster the necessary investments and properly protect affected communities, Biden would need Congress. (If Democrats don’t win the Senate in 2020, Democrats have their next chance at a majority in two years, but it’s not a sure bet.) Without it, his climate accomplishments, like Obama’s, will be partial and inadequate.
Republican climate intransigence is not a problem Biden can solve
Biden will have plenty of backseat drivers on the left, convinced that if he’d just made this or that speech, endorsed this or that policy, wooed this or that lawmaker, he could have accomplished everything. But the baseline political fact, for Biden as for Obama, will be the sharp limits drawn by total GOP intransigence.
He can make enormous progress in four years — especially if he is fearless in his use of executive powers, willing to shrug off the inevitable scolding from Republicans and pundits — but there is almost certainly no way for the US to reach the Democrats’ shared goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 if the Republican Party sabotages clean energy policy at every opportunity. The next Trump (which could well be Trump himself) will just undo whatever Biden does, the Obama cycle all over again.
From a broader perspective, it’s just difficult to see how the US can stay on the extremely narrow path to midcentury decarbonization if one of the two major US political parties remains dedicated to defending the interests of fossil fuel companies and opposing anything “the libs” support. No climate plan Democrats ever implement, no matter how bold, can possibly remain immune to swings in government for decades. Republicans will periodically control government.
Biden’s election gives the climate effort a fighting chance, four more years to scrabble and scrape together regulatory and executive actions to goose along the market transition that is already underway, albeit too slowly. But the problem of GOP climate intransigence, born of the party’s institutional ties to fossil fuels, remains to be solved.
Perhaps the party will change in response to the shifting preferences of Republican youth, or a new center-right coalition led by Lincoln Project types, but it is unlikely to be something any Democratic president can engineer. Until it happens, the best Democrats can do is use the power they have when they have it; that will be Biden’s test.