Here’s what Biden can get done on climate change even without the Senate

Source: By Dino Grandoni, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, November 9, 2020

Many of the most ambitious parts of his sweeping $2 trillion plan for tackling climate change face an enormous uphill battle in Congress. His massive investment plan only stands a chance if his party wins two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January. If that happens, Democrats would have control of both chambers since the incoming vice president, Kamala D. Harris, would be able to break the 50-50 Senate tie. 

The stakes could not be higher. As Biden’s term soon begins, the world faces ever more dangerous and irreversible levels of warming because of the continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from not just the United States but countries around the world.

But as Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears and I report, there is plenty his administration can still get done through a combination of executive actions.

Here is what Biden could get done even if Republicans retain control of the Senate: 

1. Rejoin the Paris climate accord.

Biden’s vow to reinvigorate climate diplomacy, including rejoining the 2015 agreement brokered by President Barack Obama, is one of the easiest ones to fulfill. The day after Election Day, Biden suggested on Twitter that reversing the withdrawal may be among his first actions in office. 

During the campaign, the former vice president made the case that he could use his negotiating skills, honed during nearly four decades in the Senate, to cajole China, India and other countries into further cutting emissions under the agreement — and to pressure Brazil into preserving the Amazon, which serves as the lungs of the Earth by absorbing carbon dioxide.

He could also capitalize on Republican senators’ support for slashing the use of hydrofluorocarbons, chemicals widely used in air conditioners and refrigeration that are warming the planet and that are supposed to be phased out under a separate international climate agreement.

2. Staff the government with people committed to making climate a priority.

Some activists are pressing for the creation of a White House interagency group, similar to the National Security Council and National Economic Council, that could steer decisions across the federal government. 

Even without such a body, Biden’s advisers have said that they plan to elevate climate change as a priority in departments that have not always treated it as one, including the Transportation, State and Treasury departments. It will influence key appointments, affecting everything from overseas banking and military bases to domestic roads and farms. 

Possible contenders for coordinating climate policy at the White House include several Obama administration veterans, including Ali Zaidi, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s (D) top climate adviser; Biden’s former national security adviser Jake Sullivan; and Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, a former deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the National Economic Council. 

Although former secretary of state John F. Kerry may get involved with climate policy, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, it is less likely that he will join the White House staff and could seek a different spot in the Cabinet.

And Biden’s campaign has been eyeing a range of candidates for top environmental posts, including two New Mexico Democrats — retiring senator Tom Udall and Rep. Deb Haaland — for interior secretary. Mary Nichols, who has implemented many of the nation’s most liberal climate policies for more than a dozen years as chair of the California Air Resources Board, is a leading contender to head the EPA.

Yet at least a few Senate Republicans, should the party keep the chamber, will have to consent to any Cabinet-level official Biden wants to install. That may limit Biden to more moderate options.

3. Restore dozens of environmental rules and issue several new ones.

Biden’s team already has plans on how it will ratchet up federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs, block pipelines that transport fossil fuels, put new limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells and require public companies to disclose the risks they face from rising temperatures.

His deputies will also seek to undo many of the Trump administration’s more than 125 rollbacks of policies protecting the nation’s air, water and land. That may end up including a new version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to cut greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.

Democrats are also eager to take sweeping acts to conserve public lands and waters, many of which have been opened up to drilling, logging and fishing under President Trump. Biden has vowed to block permits for the Keystone XL pipeline and the proposed Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and protect vast swaths of the landscape that Trump has opened up to mining and logging.

He is also likely to soon restore the original boundaries of national monuments Trump has shrunk, including Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, and already has signed onto a pledge to protect 30 percent of America’s land and waters by 2030.

But some of Biden’s most ambitious environmental pledges will be difficult to fulfill. His climate plan calls for “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” something no administration has ever done on a permanent basis.