On climate, Biden can do plenty without Congress
BY ANNA M. PHILLIPS
WASHINGTON — Climate change is fueling record-breaking fires, hurricanes and floods. Global emissions of greenhouse gases are returning to pre-pandemic levels. And America — which has emitted more planet-warming gases than any other nation — has just become the only country to quit the Paris climate agreement.
President-elect Joe Biden is a few months away from inheriting a seemingly impossible situation: a country where the majority of people say they are in favor of climate action but where a divided government in Washington will complicate any efforts to do so.
If Republicans keep control of the Senate, then much of the legislation that would be needed to implement Biden’s aggressive plans to tackle climate change would probably be blocked.
But there is a huge amount that Biden can accomplish on his own. Here’s a look at five areas of environmental policy that the next president can change without so much as a phone call to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
One of the most significant steps Biden could take to reduce greenhouse gas emissions would to be reinstate tough nationwide rules for auto emissions and mileage standards that were put in place under the Obama administration and that essentially mirrored regulations in effect in California.
These rules are important because transportation is a top source of planet-warming gases. When they were put in place, they were considered one of the nation’s most successful efforts to combat climate change.
But the Trump administration weakened those rules. Under the Trump regulations, nearly 900 million more tons of carbon dioxide are expected to be released than under the Obama-era standards, a result of less efficient cars burning an additional 78 billion gallons of fuel. The administration also revoked California’s authority to set stricter auto emissions rules than those required by the federal government.
The battle over car emissions was headed for the Supreme Court, where the conservative majority might have decided in favor of the Trump administration.
But Biden has promised to reinstate the Obama standards and make them tougher, expanding them beyond passenger vehicles and SUVs into the most polluting trucks. He’s also likely to grant California a new waiver, allowing it and the 13 other states that have adopted its standards to crack down even more on tailpipe pollution.
The president and whomever he chooses to serve as his Interior secretary will have broad authority to decide what kind of energy development should take place on land owned by the federal government. On this question, Biden has been clear — he has said he would not issue new leases for fracking on federal lands.
Biden could issue a new executive order directing the Interior secretary to halt all oil and gas lease sales and permits. This would not block oil production that’s already taking place, but it would prevent more wells from being drilled and would allow for a gradual transition away from natural gas. The Obama administration used the same strategy to prevent the sale of new coal mining rights.
A Biden Interior Department could also impose new requirements on oil companies operating on federal land, such as a rule mandating the capture of methane from wells and other infrastructure. Methane emissions are a major contributor to global warming and have been rising sharply.
It may also be possible for Biden to unravel some of the leasing that’s been carried out under the Trump administration, which has auctioned off millions of acres of federal land. Federal judges have already intervened in some instances to suspend or void hundreds of leases because of procedural mistakes and legal violations by the Interior Department.
Experts said that a Biden administration could go further by voiding leases that have been issued but where the land hasn’t been developed, or by buying them back.
This could affect the Trump administration plans to auction off more than 4,000 acres of federal land and mineral estate in California this December — the first lease sale in the state since 2012.
Established under the Obama administration, the Clean Power Plan regulated greenhouse gas emissions from power plants, the nation’s second-largest source of planet-warming gas. But in 2019, Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency replaced this plan with a new rule designed to protect the coal industry while backing away from any meaningful emissions reductions.
Whereas the Clean Power Plan was expected to reduce emissions by about 30% by 2030, EPA projections suggest the replacement rule might reduce carbon dioxide emissions by 0.7%, or possibly not at all.
Under a Biden administration, the EPA could repeal the Trump rule without any input from the Senate. But when it comes to replacing it, many environmental advocates are hopeful that the president will decide to go further than simply re-proposing the Clean Power Plan. That’s because the Obama-era plan has been tied up in the courts and there is doubt it could survive a review by a Supreme Court that now has a conservative 6-3 majority.
Instead, advocates hope that Biden’s EPA will propose a more ambitious rule, one that would put the country on a path to meeting the president-elect’s goal of eliminating carbon emissions from the electricity sector by 2035.
Biden has already said he will rejoin the Paris climate agreement, but there’s much more he could do to show the world that the United States is serious about fighting climate change.
A report from Brown University’s Climate Solutions Lab lays out a series of steps that include creating a “climate club” of countries that volunteer to reduce emissions by agreeing to set a minimum price on carbon and penalize high-emitting countries through trade measures such as tariffs.
Another proposal outlined in the report calls for Biden to work with the European Union — the largest importer of natural gas — as well as Canada and Mexico to curb methane emissions.
Some environmental advocates have said that because we are barreling toward catastrophe, Biden should invoke emergency authority to address climate change. This step would be bold — quite possibly bolder than Biden is willing to be — and it would carry major rewards and risks.
Under emergency authority, a Biden administration could use military funding to quickly move the country away from coal and gas-powered plants and toward renewable energy. He could also increase the number of electric-vehicle charging stations, require automakers to produce more electric vehicles, and accelerate the expansion of clean-energy technology — all without having to ask Congress to approve new funding.
If this sounds familiar, it might be because Trump declared a national emergency on the border in 2019 in order to access billions of dollars in funding for a border wall.
Climate Home News
With Biden’s Win, Climate Activists See New Potential But Say They’ll ‘Push Where We Need to Push’
Advocacy groups are preparing for the challenges of a likely Republican Senate and planning their next moves.
NOV 8, 2020
Even before Joe Biden won the presidential election on Saturday, climate activists and environmental groups began vowing to push the new president for aggressive action on climate and strategizing for a Biden administration.
“We’ve seen that Biden, in his final debate speech, committed to a transition off of fossil fuels. We’re excited to hold a Biden administration accountable to that promise,” said Emily Southard, a campaign manager with 350 Action. “We’ll push where we need to push.”
But with time running out for avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, every possible action—from local green ballot initiatives to a new federal position of “climate czar” to financial regulatory reforms—is on the advocacy agenda. Already, climate advocates are celebrating a shift in momentum.
“Simply because we have a Republican Senate that isn’t representative of the majority of Americans who want action on climate change, doesn’t mean that things like a Green New Deal aren’t happening already,” Southard said, noting that green ballot initiatives passed in several cities. “The Green New Deal isn’t just a piece of legislation; it’s a vision for an economy that moves us off of fossil fuels. There’s a lot Biden can do, from stopping the Keystone Pipeline to banning fracking on public lands.”
Environmental groups issued a list of actions on climate that the administration can take—without Congress—within days of taking office, including declaring a national climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act.
But flipping the Senate to blue remains a huge priority.
Progressive and youth climate groups are turning their attention to Georgia, where two runoff races in January could determine Senate control. Both 350 Action and the Sunrise Movement have said they will focus on the Georgia races in the coming months. Given activists’ successful track record in boosting some candidates, those efforts could make an important difference in those races and, ultimately, in climate policy.
“They should get out the vote in Georgia because Biden has just shown us what’s possible there,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communications, referring to Biden’s surge in the Republican-leaning state. “That’s what will make climate action possible. Forget the whole question of compromise. That’s not even an option right now. Even if you only want quote-unquote incremental progress, you’re not going to get it without a Democratic senate.”
Youth climate groups say they plan to issue recommendations to the administration for cabinet-level positions, though progressive candidates are likely to face a tough confirmation battle in a Senate likely to be under Republican control.
Saad Amer, an environmental activist and director of the youth voter mobilization organization Plus1Vote, said young people “have the potential to play the highest level of roles in the administration,” and that sustained pressure from youth climate activists could be important in ensuring that potential Biden Cabinet members address climate change with the urgency it demands.
Natalie Mebane, associate director of U.S. policy at 350 Action, suggested that Biden create a youth advisory council to work with federal environmental agencies, giving the youth climate movement a permanent and authoritative voice in the administration.
Young climate activists are also looking ahead to the 2022 and 2024 elections, when Gen Zers will represent even greater portions of the electorate.
“I think Gen Z is really only at the beginning of exercising what can be very substantial power,” said Alex Leichenger, of NextGen America, the advocacy group launched by hedge fund billionaire Tom Steyer.
‘Make the Case About Energy, Not About Climate’
Environmental policy experts also note that innovation and adoption of renewable energy have shifted since the last vigorous policy debates on climate change and, they say, those policy debates should, too.
“The most important consideration now is to realize how dramatically different the playing field is than the last time we had a serious debate on energy and climate, which was 11 years ago,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group. “Back then, battery storage was something for a flashlight. The landscape has completely changed just in that short period of time.”
Cook said that a Biden administration could direct resources toward clean energy research and jobs.
“Make the case about energy, not about climate. It’s just so much easier and you end up in the same place,” Cook added. “I think there’s a new way for the incoming Biden administration to position themselves as agents in the transition that’s already happening, as opposed to forcing the transition through regulatory means and accommodating political interests.”
A first step, many analysts said, would be rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement.
“Get the U.S. back in the agreement and reverse all the Trump attacks on everything climate and environment,” Leiserowitz said. “If nothing else we can restore us back to where we were with the Obama administration.”
Leiserowitz noted that there’s a lot of momentum on climate change through voluntary efforts like We’re Still In, a coalition of governments, companies, academic institutions, faith and tribal groups that have committed to reducing emissions in line with the Paris targets.
“Biden can build on that and invigorate the full-society effort even without passing legislation. He also controls some critical policy-making bodies,” Leiserowitz said. “All of this is not close enough to where we need to go, but it’s certainly a quantum leap better than where we are at the moment.”
Ilana Cohen contributed reporting.