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Biden and climate change: what to expect from the President-elect

Published November 24, 2020

Biden and climate change: what to expect from the President-elect

President-elect Joe Biden has a tough road ahead of him when it comes to climate. After all, his term of office must follow an administration that not only called climate change a hoax, but also pulled the nation out of the Paris Agreement and pushed towards more fossil fuel use.

Unlike his Democratic predecessors, Biden is taking a much stronger stance on the issue, pledging to spend $2 trillion on clean energy, as well as taking climate into account when considering other policies, such as the COVID-19 relief package.

“This is the single most comprehensive and ambitious climate plan ever advanced by a major presidential nominee,” said Sam Ricketts, co-founder of Evergreen Action, for The Washington Post.

“It might not be to the extent that climate activists are looking for, but there will be a dramatic change,” adds Jeremy Nicholson, Corporate Affairs Officer at Alfa Energy Group.

One of Biden’s first moves, which he pledges to do on his first day, is to have the US rejoin the Paris Agreement, which it had left the day after the election. This move would help towards Biden’s plans to achieve net zero in the power sector by 2035 and the entire economy by 2050. This week, Biden has also named John Kerry as his climate envoy, who will focus solely on climate change and help move the agenda forward. Kerry had initially signed the Paris Agreement on behalf of the US in 2015.

“The difference between then and now is that the issue of climate change is so much more relevant and personal now. There is a real opportunity here that I think Biden is capturing,” said Gina McCarthy of the Natural Resources Defense Council in a comment for the New York Times.

Biden’s agenda involves subsidizing clean energy to promote its use and creating standards that will encourage businesses to reduce their carbon emissions. Some other plans include making buildings more efficient, investing in electric vehicles, and eliminating fracking on federal land (albeit, according to the BBC, about 90% of fracking in the US is on state or private land).

However, with both a Republican Senate (as of now) and a more conservative Supreme Court, Biden will need to navigate through potential pushbacks from both branches. As such, rather than major legislation, he will have to approach the issue piece by piece.

That all might change come January, with the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia that might turn the Senate blue. As it stands, Biden must contend with Republicans, who tend to stand back from spending money on incentives, and he may have to rely on executive orders—which could falter if brought to litigation in front of the Supreme Court.

Still, as Jason Bordoff, Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, said in an interview with PBS News Hour, “A Biden-Harris administration, even with a Republican Senate, still has existing regulatory authority to use through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from power plants and cars and trucks. There’s still a great deal of executive branch authority that comes in the conduct of foreign policy.”

As the Vox puts it, “Unlike on, say, health care, where divisions are deep and entrenched, climate policy is an area where there is a rough policy alignment forming across the left that Biden could embrace without unduly spooking Congress’s easily startled moderates.”

Compared not only to Trump, but also Obama and Clinton (both of whom took a less urgent stance on climate change, Biden is poised to make drastic moves towards tackling the climate crisis, even with the challenges of the opposing party majorities.

Early on, as part of his campaign and in an attempt to bridge the divide between his more moderate stance and those of more progressive Democrats, Biden worked together with Bernie Sanders to create the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces, one of which was a task force dedicated solely to climate change.

The Unity Task Force on Climate Change was co-chaired by former secretary of state, John Kerry, and congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, both staunch climate advocates. Also among the members were members of Congress Kathy Castor, Donald McEachin, and Conor Lamb; former EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy; Biden’s long-time adviser Kerry Duggan; environmental justice advocate Catherine Flowers; and Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement a youth-led political movement that advocates for political action on climate change.

Before the task force disbanded in July, it put together a 110-page document of policy recommendations, which it submitted to Biden’s team. These recommendations have helped form some of Biden’s climate plan and pushed some of his earlier targets to more ambitious ones.