11 november 2020

Joe Biden's Novel Approach to Climate Change Could Side-Step a Divided Congress

By Justin Worland, Time Magazine, November 11, 2020

This year’s string of climate catastrophes is hard to miss. During the 2020 presidential campaign, more named tropical storms made landfall in one U.S. hurricane season than ever before. For the first time this century, a single wildfire burned more than one million acres in the lower 48 states. By September, the country had tied the record for the most billion-dollar weather and climate disasters in one year, with four months still to go before 2021.

As the country burned and flooded, Joe Biden leaned into climate change more than any other general-election presidential contender in U.S. history. Now, even as he faces the possibility of a divided Congress, Biden is expected to place reducing greenhouse-gas emissions close to the center of his presidency, incorporating the issue into policy-making decisions across his Administration.

“It’s what we do in housing, what we do in transportation, what we do in the State Department, what we do in the Commerce Department, what we do in the Justice Department,” says Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist who joined the Biden campaign to help craft climate policy, after dropping out of the presidential primary. The ultimate form Biden’s climate policy takes will not only dictate the future of U.S. emissions but also shape the 21st century geopolitical and economic landscape and help determine whether the world can stave off the worst effects of catastrophic climate change.

Climate takes center stage

While campaigning, Biden repeatedly labeled climate change as one of four urgent crises—alongside the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic collapse and racial justice. Those issues were the only four listed on the Biden transition website in the hours after the election was called in his favor. By using the nation’s emission-reduction program as a means to address each of those challenges, the future Biden Administration is poised to place climate change at the center of U.S. politics.

Among its many planks, the Biden campaign’s platform called for creating one million new jobs in the auto industry and electric-vehicle supply chain; spending billions on research and development of clean-energy technology; and supporting farmers who rethink agricultural production. “It’s not just an environmental plan or a climate plan,” says William K. Reilly, who served as Environmental Protection Agency administrator under George H.W. Bush. “It is very significantly connected to an industrialization and economic development plan, an infrastructure plan created as a result of a new energy economy.”

Still, campaign plans are wish lists subject to changes, whether that’s watering down or straight-up dismissal by the political process. Indeed, the Biden Administration will face challenges implementing its agenda given the makeup of the Senate, where Democrats will have a slim majority in their best-case scenario. That reality may foreclose some of the party’s biggest ambitions.

But analysts nonetheless believe a significant stimulus bill—which may be on the docket for early next year—could offer a vehicle for getting climate priorities through Congress. Stimulus measures can attract lawmakers with funds for states and districts, and many Republicans, who might otherwise vote against a new regulatory program, may support spending to buttress the economy. Crucially, the stimulus could serve as a Trojan Horse of sorts, allowing climate provisions to pass portrayed primarily as economic measures to garner GOP support.

Beyond stimulus spending, policy experts expect the new Administration to look to federal agencies to implement a vast climate agenda. On the campaign trail, Biden called for the U.S. electric grid to be carbon-free by 2035, and to eliminate the nation’s entire carbon footprint by 2050, affecting everything from airplanes to cement. A range of policies would support those targets, including restoring the 100-plus climate and environmental regulations the Trump Administration has undone on everything from vehicle-emissions standards to methane emissions. The President-elect has also promised to rejoin the Paris Agreement immediately upon taking office. (On Nov. 4, Trump officially left the landmark 2015 emission-reducing pact that nearly 200 countries have agreed to follow.)

Climate policy won’t just come from the obvious agencies — think of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy — that have crafted climate rules in the past. Indeed, the possibility of a divided Congress will likely make an all-of-government approach to climate regulation even more important as Biden looks to address warming despite limited congressional appetite. Biden is expected to consider everything from using federal procurement dollars to advance low-emissions vehicles to creating new rules on how major companies assess climate risk, both of which he can do fairly quickly without Congress. Other key policies he may enact without legislative approval include limits on fossil fuel production on public lands, directives to prioritize environmental justice considerations and a range of efficiency and emissions standards.


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