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President Biden’s Climate Change Political Strategy

While Democrats have control of the federal government, their control is fragile, and some political analysts are skeptical about their ability to enact the transformative change in climate, social and economic opportunity policies they are seeking. But President Biden’s hard-earned political savvy and the quiet determination of his experienced team should not be underestimated. Biden has managed to piece together a bipartisan trillion-dollar infrastructure bill without taxing the middle class. It will be interesting to see if the bipartisan deal is filibustered by McConnell and crew.  After the deal was crafted, Biden pulled his own surprise by stating that he would only sign it if he also got an even larger spending bill to pay for his other critical priorities. While he walked back that statement later, its impact may linger. As Jonathan Weisman, Emily Cochrane and Jim Tankersley reported in the New York Times last week:

“…almost immediately after reaching the [Infrastructure] breakthrough, Mr. Biden and Democrats offered a giant caveat that could complicate its chances of passage. Both the president and top Democrats said the compromise, which constitutes only a small fraction of the expansive, $4 trillion economic agenda Mr. Biden has proposed, could advance only together with a far larger bill that would pour trillions more into health care, child care, higher education access and climate change programs. That measure, vehemently opposed by Republicans, would be paid for by remaking the tax code to capture the wealth of the superrich and multinational corporations that shift profits and jobs overseas.“If this is the only thing that comes to me, I’m not signing it,” Mr. Biden said of the infrastructure piece. “It’s in tandem.”

The delicacy of the balancing act was reinforced when President Biden went briefly “off script” and appeared to back away from his own hard-earned compromise. The reaction of the senators who had taken a political risk by making a deal and by the White House response to Biden’s “gaffe” provides a graphic illustration of the degree of polarization now present in our nation’s capitol. According to Emily Cochrane, Jim Tankersley and Michael D. Shear of the New York Times:

“With senators leaving Washington on Thursday afternoon for a two-week recess for Fourth of July, it was not until later in the evening that some in the group of negotiators saw Mr. Biden’s comments, which Republicans in particular interpreted as an implicit veto threat. Senators and their staff members began texting and calling one another and the White House. Liberal Democrats scoffed at the Republican frustration and accused their counterparts of looking for an excuse to oppose the deal, even though the Democrats’ pursuit of reconciliation had long been public. On Saturday, Mr. Biden finally acknowledged his mistake as lawmakers and aides signaled they would move forward with writing text and securing support.”

Biden’s team has a difficult and complicated political puzzle to solve. So far, they have shown skill in building political support. Moderates in both parties were given the visible and important infrastructure deal that Biden agreed to last week. If Republicans blow up the deal, they are risking undermining key senators from politically competitive purple states. If they are replaced by Democrats, then future Republican control of the Senate is threatened. If progressive Democrats walk away from the deal, they risk alienating the moderate Democrats they need to secure 50 votes in the Senate for their agenda. Assuming the bipartisan bill passes, then Biden’s team must repeat the feat they accomplished with the COVID stimulus and develop a massive budget-type bill capable of being enacted via budget reconciliation. This will require all 50 Democratic and independent Senators to stick together. They will need a bill that both Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders can agree to.

While some of the funds needed to address climate change are in the infrastructure bill, most will be in the larger budget reconciliation bill that will follow.

Enacting both the trillion-dollar infrastructure bill and the multi-trillion-dollar progressive economic package will require LBJ-style political skill. Fortunately, President Biden’s time in the Senate (from 1973 to 2009) and eight years as vice president appears to have taught him a thing or two. Once famous for his lack of discipline and his tendency to speak before thinking, as president, he has generally been careful and laser-focused on a limited number of priorities. Biden is a seasoned politician and negotiator; he knows he never gets everything he wants. Half a loaf is better than nothing, and often winning the first half creates the base needed to add some of what was lost.

The most important element of Biden’s climate strategy was to connect it to revitalizing the American economy. Our electric grid is old and vulnerable. Hacking and extreme weather have already caused major failures. Since it needs to be rebuilt, why not rebuild it as a smart grid based on renewable energy? Decarbonizing the energy system can create a lower-priced and cheaper form of energy. Rather than taxing carbon and raising energy prices, Biden wants to subsidize renewables and lower energy prices. You don’t need to care about climate change to support an energy system that doesn’t break down and is less expensive to operate. Both Joe Manchin and Bernie Sanders should be able to cut a deal that subsidizes plenty of union construction jobs to rebuild a power grid that lowers the price of energy.

Previous climate initiatives focused on reducing greenhouse gasses by regulating fossil fuel emissions through a carbon tax, command and control regulation, or through a cap-and-trade system. Biden’s policies will work with utilities and other greenhouse gas emitters and help directly fund the transition to renewables. There are emission-reduction targets, but they are coupled with a realistic understanding of the need to help utilities and industry fund the capital costs of the transition. This, by the way, was the same way we funded sewage treatment plants in the 1970s. Eventually, the construction grants were replaced by low-interest loans as municipalities generated the tax base to pay the capital and operating costs of sewage treatment plants. In the case of energy, the fuel costs of a renewable energy grid will be lower than the costs of a fossil fuel-based grid, and therefore the initial federal subsidies will no longer be needed as the price of energy is reduced.

Like Mike Bloomberg’s strategy in his PlaNYC 2030 sustainability plan, Biden’s approach is to integrate environmental policy into economic development and job creation. Biden and his team understand that a clean environment enhances quality of life for everyone, and a federally funded acceleration to a clean environment can help stimulate America’s economy. The Republican strategy of trickle-down by cutting taxes on corporations and wealthy people and hoping they use the new cash to create jobs is replaced by infrastructure and social welfare subsidies paid for by taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations.

The political battle will focus on this fundamental shift in strategy and economic policy. Polling data indicate that Biden’s approach is popular. If Biden can keep his promise to avoid increased taxation on the middle class, it could prove to be a successful political move. The stakeholders or pieces of the political puzzle that must somehow fit together include:

  • Climate activists and environmentalists
  • Union and blue-collar workers seeking employment in construction or manufacturing
  • Moderate senators like Joe Manchin and his supporters — particularly moderate suburbanites
  • Progressive legislators like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders and their supporters
  • Supporters of the Black Lives Matter Movement, feminists and LBGTQ activists.

This coalition must be convinced that a series of partial wins is better than a complete loss. The real test of Joe Biden’s leadership will be the challenge of keeping this disparate group together. A single defection in the Senate blows this group apart. A small faction in the House could do the same thing. The Democrats’ only power lies in their ability to compromise. If they are not united, they have no power to do anything. Biden’s ability to empathize and his experience with legislative give and take are great assets as he approaches this critical test of his presidency. These tests will come just after Labor Day as Congress and the entire country (hopefully) shake off our pandemic blues.

President Biden has connected America’s economic modernization to an effort that could reduce poverty and substantially reduce greenhouse gasses. He has restored the presidency to its traditional symbolic role that includes serving as the national unifier. The American president is the head of government and head of state: he is both king and prime minister. Biden’s approval rating is high, and support for his COVID response is even higher. A president’s first year often provides political opportunities that are never replicated.

For environmentalists, 2021 will be a pivotal year. We have an American president who understands the climate crisis, and both the grave threat and historic opportunity it presents. If America does not play a leadership role in addressing the climate crisis, it is difficult to imagine the rest of the world taking the actions that we need. A great deal rides on the president’s political skill and the talent of his administration’s very experienced senior managers. I believe the strategy is sound. By the end of 2021, we’ll know if it has a chance of becoming a reality.

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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