Only two previous incoming presidents have had as much to furrow their brows as Joe Biden will when he arrives to take the oath of office Jan. 20—Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt. Not only will Biden have to initiate extensive repairs to the political and psychological damage that Donald Trump has inflicted on the nation and the world in four years of wretched malgovernance and avarice, he must also work to remove several long-standing injustices and deal with several major ongoing crises. Police violence, health care, economic inequities, immigration policy, voting rights and election security all need immediate attention. The most difficult? The climate crisis.
Anybody who still thought that, at worst, climate change would only affect the children of people not yet born don’t have to look far these days to see that some of what was predicted to not happen until after the mid-century is already happening. Evidence is stacked high and wide. The latest includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Arctic Report Card, which, when boiled down, states: “The sustained transformation to a warmer, less frozen and biologically changed Arctic remains clear.” There is the New Energy Outlook 2020’s assessment of the energy situation in 2050, a year for which it forcecasts that renewables still won’t be 50% of energy production based on current trends. There’s the U.N.’s Production Gap Report 2020 and its Emissions Gap Report 2020, each showing us not enough progress is being made to meet the Paris pledges. Doomscrolling on your own will bring up plenty more examples.
Since the scientific alarm was first rung, decades have been squandered during which a transformation away from fossil fuels could by now have been well on its way to lessening the impacts of climate change. Instead, we’ve had a deluge of fossil fuel-funded lies, bought-off politicians, smeared and ridiculed scientists, mediocre and often counterproductive policies, and, sad to say, many well-intended but ill-informed people saying the desired transformation to green energy is impractical, uneconomic, impossible.
Thus, here we are well into the 21st century very, very far from where we need to be in this transformation to avoid catastrophe beyond whatever is already baked in. We can’t get where we need to be as soon as we need to be there without a government-spurred acceleration of the move away from fossil fuels. That acceleration has been stubbornly blocked by the ossified and greedy sectors of Congress.
Democrats had high hopes this situation might be altered with big election gains because of unity across the party coalition, polls hinting at possible tsunami-sized Republican losses, more Democratic candidates running than usual, and the hope that Trump’s brazenly crooked, recklessly incompetent, and clumsily autocratic behavior would drag the GOP down everywhere. It was not to be. Trump will thankfully be gone, but Trumpism and the extremist Republican agenda that’s been 50 years in the making will remain. And that means no retreat on the party’s opposition to serious climate action.
It’s a relief to now have a president-elect determined to ensure that every department in government includes climate as part of its assessment of everything it does to carry out its mission. Quite the shift from the Trump regime’s efforts to get even the words “climate change” expunged from government documents and discussions. However one feels about the specifics of Joe Biden’s proposals for addressing the climate crisis, he has put forth several that point us in the right direction and at least gives a nod to climate hawks though without completely embracing them.
What happens in Georgia in less than two weeks will obviously make a difference in how Biden governs. But even if Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win their Senate races in the Peach State and we wind up with a 50-50 Senate, getting anything substantial done on any issue will be exceedingly tough. Despite having a Democratic majority leader in place thanks to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris’ tie-breaking vote if those two men become senators, the filibuster will live. Half of Republican senators are outright science-deniers, and almost all of the rest want to stay on Sen. Mitch McConnell’s good side in case he becomes majority leader again in 2023. As of now there just aren’t enough “moderate” Republican votes to support anything close to the aggressive action desperately needed on climate.
Biden can continue the dueling executive orders approach that Trump undertook because he sought to overturn as much as he could of what President Obama had done in every policy arena. Almost immediately upon taking the oath of office, Biden could reverse more 100 rollbacks of environmental and energy regulations, end new oil and gas drilling on federal land, expand bans on offshore drilling, mandate stricter energy standards for federal buildings, mandate federal vehicle fleets be electrified, mandate the green conversion of military bases, establish an environmental justice division at the Department of Justice, restore the boundaries that President Obama established for the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante national monuments, and of course, rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. He should do all these things.
As David Roberts wrote at Vox on Dec. 1 in his excellent Joe Biden should do everything at once, since legislation will be difficult to pass even if we win those Georgia seats, the new president should go all in with what he can do, following Trump’s example of pouring it on:
The only thing Biden will have real control over is his administration and what it does. And his North Star, his organizing principle, should be doing as much good on as many fronts as fast as possible. Blitz.
By constantly blundering forward, Trump has helped chart which US institutions and norms provide real resistance and which don’t. The courts have tangibly restrained Trump; they have been the primary bulwark against him. But the chattering of the media and the political classes? Moral outrage? Precedent and tradition? Civil protest?
All of these have proven gossamer. Trump charged right through them like they were cotton candy. By constantly acting, being on the offensive, generating new stories and controversies, he simply overwhelmed the ability of the system to fasten on any one thing.
Biden should learn the lesson. All that matters is what gets done, put on paper and into law. The rest is vapor.
The blitz approach makes eminent good sense. But having one president issue executive orders only to have the next one rescind them in a policy see-saw can’t get us nearly where we need to be in reducing the negative impacts of climate change, nor in making communities more resilient to the floods, droughts, heat, extreme weather events, and other consequences of a planet literally on fire. We are way past the time for gradually tweaking what passes for our energy and climate policies and expect that to do what is necessary to get us out of the mess we humans have gotten ourselves and the planet into.
There’s no dearth of ideas for what climate action should be undertaken. There is the Clean Energy for Biden: Building Back Better, The Biden Plan to Build a Modern, Sustainable Infrastructure and an Equitable Clean Energy Future, The Biden Plan to Secure Environmental Justice and Equitable Economic Opportunity, The Biden Plan for a Clean Energy Revolution and Environmental Justice. There’s the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis’ report, Solving the Climate Crisis: The Congressional Action Plan for a Clean Energy Economy and a Healthy, Resilient, and Just America. There is the environmental coalition’s The #ClimatePresident Action Plan: 10 Steps for the Next Administration’s First 10 Days. Plus the Legal Authority for President’s Climate Action Plan. There’s Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force Recommendations Combating the Climate Crisis and Pursuing Environmental Justice. And there is even Bloomberg’s 41 Things Biden Should Do First on Climate Change. All that’s just a taste.
Regardless of who wins in Georgia, however, despite all these ideas for big climate-related moves, what we will not see from a Biden-Harris administration without a vigorous grassroots push is trillions of dollars of public investment in green infrastructure or anything resembling a Green New Deal, mandated cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, a reduction of (and compensation for) the disproportionate environmental burden afflicting people of low income and people of color, massive expansion of green public transit, promotion of a transition in our fossil fuel-heavy agriculture industry, or an end to fossil fuel subsidies.
Republicans and their enablers among congressional Democrats aren’t swayed much by the usual environmental activists. This stubbornness is likely to worsen as more of those activists commit themselves to environmental justice. However, there are some people who, though perhaps not as charismatic as Greta Thunberg or the youths of the Sunrise Movement, have the potential for exerting the kind of political pressure those young activists cannot: 468 Climate Mayors and the 226 mayors who pledged to push policies that put their cities on a pathway to 100% clean energy by no later than 2050.
Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, newly appointed head of Climate Mayors, said on a panel last month that the incoming Biden-Harris administration provides a chance for local and federal officials to join in taking bold climate action. Miriam Wasser reported:
“The United States is in an economic crisis, we know that. Every single city and state is dealing with serious budget issues and it’s forced us to take a hard look at our priorities,” Walsh said. “The bottom line, though, is that we can’t afford not to invest in climate action. To scale back our efforts would be short-sighted … we need to fight the causes of climate change and prepare for its effects now, or we’ll be paying a lot more down the road.”
As mayors, “we see firsthand how climate change is already impacting people of our communities, and we see an enormous opportunity right now to create a much healthier, safer and more prosperous world through climate action,” Walsh said. “And anything that comes from Washington has to be carried out through cities anyway, so it’s going to be mayors that are going to do the work.”
Democrats are rightly wary of calls for bipartisanship since national Republican leaders have abandoned even a facsimile of that. But in Arizona the two parties managed to unite around a policy requiring the state’s utilities to reach carbon-free electricity by 2050. Interim targets of 50% carbon-free energy by 2032 and 75% by 2040 are also included in the plan. Such mandates need not be rare. Conservative Iowa has, since 1983, followed a policy that now has it generating 42% of its electricity with wind turbines. These may not offer the perfect models for national policy or for other states to imitate, but they do show that bipartisan energy policy isn’t impossible.
Given our political circumstances, to be successful at fulfilling their green pledges those mayors should add to their climate-related tasks the persuading of obstructionists who represent them in Congress to get with the program. By persuade, I mean verbally pound on them, reminding them at every opportunity of the harm caused to constituents by their inaction. The mayors (and city council members and other city leaders) should repeat that message in every public forum as often as an event’s subject matter can be stretched to include it. They should hammer on the tremendous social, environmental, health, and economic benefits of adopting zero-carbon, zero-pollution policies. They should tout the millions of jobs that clean energy and the rest of the green transformation is already slowly generating. They should write op-eds and conduct press conferences pointing out that these benefits can’t be fully attained without federal policy, cooperation, and funding. And they should do this relentlessly, every day.
Foes of climate action in the past and today use energy economics to denigrate any response to the crisis that includes the spread of renewable sources of energy. They say it’s too costly. But the economics of renewables aren’t what they were even a decade ago. In most places in the U.S. now, wind and solar are cheapest new electricity-generating to install. Battery efficiency has soared manyfold and costs have plunged more than 10-fold in a dozen years. As A Siegel recently wrote here, the world of renewables is very different than it was in 2009 when President Obama focused 10% of the economic stimulus used to help pry us out of the Great Recession on renewables and energy efficiency measures.
Biden should saturate his promotion of clean energy policies with references to these benefits: well-paying jobs, less pollution, fewer health problems, reduced climate impact. Not once or a couple of times, but at every opportunity, encouraging voters to hammer their representatives and senators and governors and state legislators and mayors to do what they can locally while pushing hard on Congress.
Regardless of the Georgia outcome, getting even a few of the relatively modest climate proposals of the Biden-Harris administration through Congress will be a herculean task if it can be accomplished at all. What activists know—especially those who see Biden’s climate and other environmental proposals as a start but not nearly comprehensive or speedy enough—is that another four years of congressional inaction on the climate crisis is intolerable. While cheering on Biden’s signing of a stack of climate-related executive orders, the Climate Mayors in alliance with other activists could give some of Biden’s legislative proposals on climate an improved chance of passing the Senate. Certainly their voices and arm-twisting can’t hurt.