State of the Planet

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What the Biden Presidency Could Mean for Climate Change

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Photo: jlhervàs/Flickr CC

For the first time, the U.S. has elected a president who plans to make combating climate change a top priority from the very start. President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to begin the process of rejoining the Paris climate agreement on Day 1 of his presidency, and he recognizes the climate crisis as one of the most urgent challenges that humanity faces.

The shift in tone could not be more palpable, or more welcome for those of us who are concerned about the future of our planet and the rising number of people who are harmed by climate change. President Donald Trump doesn’t acknowledge the reality that humans are causing climate change, and he never had a climate plan. Instead, he pulled the U.S. out of the Paris agreement and dismantled environmental regulations.

If Biden intends to keep his promises to tackle climate change, he’ll have his work cut out. Rejoining the Paris agreement is just Step 1; the much harder part will be actually implementing the sweeping changes needed in order to comply with the agreement and hopefully go beyond it.

Biden’s $2 trillion climate plan has been described as one of the most ambitious ever proposed by a major party nominee. The plan focuses on clean energy, climate resilience, environmental justice, and economic growth, and sets a goal of reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. To get there, Biden intends to invest $400 billion over ten years in clean energy research and innovation, including battery technology, carbon capture, small modular nuclear reactors, energy efficiency, and more. Among an extensive variety of measures, the plan would also promote offshore wind power, electric vehicles, and high-speed rail, and hold polluters accountable while protecting people of color and low-income communities. The Biden campaign says these investments would be paid for by ending subsidies for fossil fuels and reversing some of Trump’s tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.

In the midst of trying to move forward on these climate-friendly initiatives, Biden will also need to undo the Trump administration’s environmental regressions. He’ll have his work cut out for him, and he may not be able to depend on Congress to support his lofty goals. If the Republicans continue to control the Senate, passing new legislation on energy and climate could be difficult.

However, President Biden will have a few other tools at his disposal.

For starters, he can immediately begin issuing new executive orders and revoking old ones, according to Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. “That’s a big deal because the executive orders give direction to administrative agencies about how to exercise their discretion and what the priorities are for the administration,” Burger told the New York Times. Executive orders could be used, for example, to restrict offshore oil drilling, preserve wilderness, and require federal agencies to cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve energy efficiency. (The New York Times has a more extensive list of potential executive actions that would help the environment.)

Secondly, working with existing laws does not require congressional approval. Burger pointed out in a blog post that, if federal legislation cannot be passed or doesn’t go far enough, “the Biden administration will need to think through and set in motion regulations that rely on existing statutes to achieve the deep emission reductions the science says we need.” As an example, the post details how the administration could leverage one section of the Clean Air Act to combat climate change.

In an essay for Foreign Policy, Jason Bordoff, founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University, outlined more options for working within existing legislation. He noted that the Biden administration can “use its authority over public lands and waters to expand leasing for renewable energy projects such as offshore wind farms” and “curb agricultural and forestry emissions by rewarding carbon sequestration by farmers, ranchers, and landowners.”

Thirdly, the next president could encourage global progress by putting climate change at the center of foreign policy, Bordoff pointed out in his essay. For example, Biden could work out clean energy trade deals and agreements to curb emissions from coal plants and other polluting industries.

It is worth nothing that although the tools mentioned above can help toward making progress quickly, most could be overturned just as easily by the next president. More lasting and meaningful change would come from working together with Congress to pass new laws that help to curb climate change. And it may be wrong to assume that Senate Republicans wouldn’t be willing to work with Biden on that.

“An increasing number of moderate Republicans—not to mention business groups that often support congressional candidates—have expressed interest in climate proposals such as a carbon tax, which could sharply reduce emissions in the power sector,” Bordoff wrote. “Many Republicans also support subsidies for low-carbon energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power, carbon capture, and investments in energy technology innovation, which could yield enormous economic dividends.”

Biden’s work begins on January 20, and so does the job of holding him accountable to his promises. But ultimately, he alone cannot build a safer, healthier future for this country — that depends on both the Democrats and Republicans, and pressure from the American people. Climate change doesn’t care who is president or who controls the Senate. It is a threat to all of us, and it’s going to take all of us to solve it.

Views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Columbia Climate School, Earth Institute or Columbia University.

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