A Biden win wouldn’t mean a slam-dunk for climate — experts

Source: By Thomas Frank, E&E News reporter • Posted: Sunday, October 18, 2020

Joe Biden would face huge obstacles as president in taking steps to slow climate change because Republicans in states and Congress would move aggressively to stop such efforts, an expert climate panel said yesterday.

Although Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, has proposed an ambitious plan to cut U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, he is almost certain to encounter legal and political opposition that could stymie efforts to enact new laws or adopt new regulations, the experts said.

Biden could follow the path of Presidents Trump and Obama by issuing executive orders and adopting regulations to achieve his climate goals, which include eliminating carbon emissions from the power sector by 2035 and making the United States a net-zero carbon emitter by 2050.

But administrative actions “would almost immediately be challenged by 20 or more Republican attorneys general,” University of Michigan environmental policy expert Barry Rabe said. Legal challenges would be heard in a federal court system filled with more than 200 judges appointed by Trump, he noted.

“The administrative route, in my view, is loaded with challenges,” Rabe said during yesterday’s panel, sponsored by the Brookings Institution, on how this year’s presidential election would affect U.S. climate policy.

Biden’s other option — trying to get Congress to enact climate legislation — also would be difficult because of both Republican opposition and a wide range of demands from Democrats and aligned groups.

“Biden has done something we almost never see from a successful presidential nominee, and that is to reach out to the candidates he just defeated and try to expand that coalition and make adjustments in his policy. But as that coalition expands, how do you go into a legislative framework and get anything done?” Rabe said.

Recalling the first terms of Presidents Obama and Clinton, when Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers in Congress, Rabe said it seemed like “a slam-dunk that climate or environmental legislation was going to pass, and it didn’t.”

“That [legislative] path also is going to be really, really challenging regardless of what exactly goes into that policy package,” Rabe said.

If Biden struggles to implement climate policy — or if Trump wins a second term and continues to roll back climate-related regulations — states, cities, businesses and consumers would continue to lead a growing national movement to fight climate change.

Nathan Hultman, who was on Obama’s climate and energy policy team, noted that 13 states and 165 cities encompassing one-third of the U.S. population have set goals of moving to 100% clean electricity. In addition, one-third of the nation’s public transit agencies have committed to having all public buses run on electricity.

“The ground has been shifting rapidly owing to subnational actions, precipitous clean-energy cost decreases and shifting public opinion,” said Hultman, who is director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Global Sustainability.

“Under a Trump reelection, we would likely see an acceleration of this kind of subnational action. And depending on the election outcomes across the country, particularly the down-ballot [races], a number of additional new leaders could be expanding on these actions, as well,” Hultman added.

Adele Morris, who is Brookings’ policy director for climate and energy economics, said economic forces already have transformed the power sector and negated Trump’s effort to revive the shrinking U.S. coal industry.

Trump vowed as a candidate in 2016 to “bring back coal,” but his promise was based only on undoing Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

“That was a fiction,” Morris said, noting that more than 90% of the decline in coal production and consumption resulted from increasing demand for inexpensive natural gas.

“We’re seeing an acceleration of decline in coal consumption, and that’s without climate policy of any kind,” Morris said.

A major question for Biden if he takes office in January would be the prominence of natural gas and fracking in supplying the nation’s energy.

Biden has stated adamantly that he does not want to ban fracking, which is a major industry in key electoral states such as Pennsylvania. But many Democrats and aligned groups want to eliminate fracking and the use of natural gas, a fossil fuel that emits greenhouse gases.

“That really is the heart of where tensions still remain on the left around Vice President Biden and his commitment to addressing climate change,” said New York Times climate reporter Lisa Friedman.

Fracking opponents originally opposed the process out of concern for its effects on water quality, and now want to “phase out and eliminate natural gas,” said Friedman, a former reporter and editor at E&E News.

Biden has characterized natural gas as a “bridge fuel” that would ease the nation’s transition to renewable energy, Friedman added. “Folks on left say we’ve passed the bridge. That is a fight we’re going to see play out if there is a Biden administration — what role natural gas is going to play.”