Many environmentalists hoped that Joe Biden would become the FDR of climate change.
But if, as seems likely, Biden emerges as the winner of a deeply divisive presidential election, in which the Republican Party retains control of the Senate, it is more likely he will need the skills of an LBJ. And climate policy, in a Biden era, could end up looking more like President Lyndon Baines Johnson's hard-fought civil rights legislation than President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's sweeping New Deal, say veterans of Washington's energy policy battles.
When Biden campaigned on a $2 trillion climate plan, the most ambitious ever proposed by a major party candidate, the Democrats were aiming to pick up the three Senate seats they needed for a majority that would support Biden's plan. And although that is still a distant possibility, the results from Tuesday's election so far show Republicans have held onto contested seats in Maine, Montana, Iowa and South Carolina, and remain ahead in Alaska and North Carolina.
Now the Democrats' best chance to gain full control of Congress is to win both of the two Senate runoff races set for January in Georgia, a state that has not elected a Democratic senator since 1997. If Republicans maintain Senate control, any Biden climate legislation would have to get past Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a skilled legislative blockader and a longtime Kentucky ally of the coal industry.
But industry and environmental advocates alike say that Biden, who spent more than 40 years in the Senate, is uniquely suited to the challenge of dealing with McConnell—and with former colleagues of both parties. They are anticipating that Biden will be able to do more in the face of a hostile Congress than did President Barack Obama, who relied on a series of executive actions on climate that President Donald Trump has spent the past four years overturning.
Climate policy watchers expect Biden to engage Capitol Hill on green stimulus and Covid relief, including measures that already enjoy bipartisan support like infrastructure, farm aid and support for renewable energy and carbon capture and storage. And perhaps, packaged with the right incentives, that might even include economy-wide legislation that puts a price on carbon. At least one Capitol Hill veteran argues that partisan disadvantage may be an advantage in the long run, for the stability of climate policy.
When one party controls both the White House and Congress, "there's a tendency to want to run it down the left-hand side of the field," said Bob Inglis, a former Republican Congressman from South Carolina and the executive director of RepublicEn, a conservative climate action group. "And then when the pendulum swings, it can be undone. A divided government situation may give rise to the best opportunity for a durable climate solution."
Opportunities for Progress
Although extended post-election legal wrangling looms, thanks to Trump's legal challenges to the vote counts in states where he is foundering, climate action advocates already are looking ahead to what policy options would be open to Biden if his narrow electoral advantage holds.
"We have to make sure that political victories turn into climate, climate justice and racial justice policies," said Gene Karpinski, president of the League of Conservation Voters, which spent more than $100 million in an effort to defeat Trump and elect pro-environmental candidates all down the ballot.
"Obviously, if McConnell still runs the Senate, that's a huge challenge. Let's be honest about that," Karpinski said in a briefing with reporters. But, he added, he is heartened by knowing that there are "some Republicans who understand this issue" on Capitol Hill.
"It won't be as ambitious, no two ways about it," Karpinski said. "But we think there are opportunities to make progress."
The best shot at making early progress on investment in a clean energy transition is likely to be the economic stimulus/Covid-19 relief package that almost certainly would be Biden's top priority upon taking office. One of the largest federal investments ever made in clean energy was the $90 billion included in Obama's 2009 economic recovery act, a bill that passed with the support of three Republican senators thanks to lobbying by Biden.
Investments in measures like energy efficiency upgrades and weatherization could cut carbon emissions while creating jobs. Green job retraining programs for the thousands of fossil fuel industry workers who have lost their jobs over the past decade also could have broad support.
Of course, Congress already has spent more than $3 trillion in stimulus funds and Republicans who showed little concern over the growing deficit during the Trump administration may balk at new spending to advance Biden's agenda. Moreover, a green-oriented stimulus plan would require a change of course for a Congress that allowed some of the earlier relief money to go toward shoring up the fossil fuel industry.
But Biden's experience as a lawmaker may mean that negotiations between his White House and Capitol Hill will look far different than the endless clashes that marked Obama's eight years in office. Among Biden's bipartisan policy achievements are the Violence Against Women Act and the assault weapons ban that was part of the 1994 crime bill.
"We will never have elected a president with this much practical experience with the U.S. Senate," said Scott Segal, of the lobbying and law firm Bracewell, which represents electric utilities, natural gas and other energy industry clients. "We would describe Biden as an institutionalist—somebody who believes the Senate, if properly motivated, can work."
Among Democrats, there has been growing support for the idea of eliminating the filibuster—and with it the requirement for 60 votes to pass major legislation—if they gained control of the Senate. But with McConnell and the GOP in charge, the filibuster is sure to remain in place.
"So the ability to actually jawbone in the Senate and create a middle path for passage of legislation is more important," said Segal. "And I'm not trying to lionize Joe Biden here, but there are few people who would fit that bill as he would."
Michael Brune, executive director of the Sierra Club, agreed. "We will have someone in the White House who has made a career of bringing people together, particularly across the aisle," he said. "So I wouldn't underestimate the ability of this administration to identify legislation that will achieve multiple goals and meet the needs of some of the Republican senators."
Paul Bledsoe, a strategist for the Progressive Policy Institute, who was an adviser on climate policy in President Bill Clinton's White House, said he believes that an infrastructure bill, support for farmers and support for renewable energy are three of the items on which Biden is likely to find bipartisan support.
"While he may have to compromise on some of the greener elements, the overall package will have benefits to the emissions and the energy efficiency of the United States," Bledsoe said.
Some bipartisan climate measures that already have been introduced might move higher on the agenda with Biden in the White House, such as industry-supported legislation to cut HFCs—highly potent gasses used in refrigeration—and the Growing Climate Solutions Act, introduced by Sen. Michael Braun (R-Ind.) and Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.). The latter piece of legislation would help farmers and forest owners to be compensated for practices that sequester carbon.
Of course, progressives, who already were disappointed that Biden did not endorse a fracking ban or a quicker move away from fossil fuels, are sure to push back if they believe he is making too big a compromise, or failing to commit to deep cuts in carbon emissions.
'We're Literally in This Together'
But climate policy experts and advocates don't expect Biden to rely entirely on Congress. He would probably move to reverse some of the more than 100 rollbacks of environmental regulations carried out under the Trump administration. Among those most likely to be reinstated are regulations to curb the leakage of the potent greenhouse gas methane from oil and gas operations, rules that most of the large industry companies supported.
Bledsoe said Biden might be moved to do more through executive authority if his legislative agenda on climate falters. "There's an interplay between the regulatory and the legislative," said Bledsoe. "He may think there are deeper emissions cuts he can get legislatively than people think, and perhaps he won't pursue as aggressive a regulatory agenda. However, if he's given the back of the hand on things like infrastructure, he might decide to pursue a more aggressive regulatory agenda."
Biden also could try to restore regulations to curb emissions from the electric power sector to replace Obama's signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, which was repealed by Trump. But one stumbling block could be the Supreme Court and other federal courts, where Trump has installed judges who may be skeptical of any such plan. Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh, for instance, has indicated that he believes the authority for climate policy should be explicitly spelled out by Congress. (The Obama administration argued that the Clean Air Act gave it the flexibility to regulate carbon emissions as it did other airborne pollutants.)
That's why many climate advocates believe that Biden may try to advance broad economy-wide legislation to cut carbon emissions, even though the conventional wisdom is that Congress would balk at anything that included a pricing mechanism like a fee or a carbon tax. At the start of the Obama administration, the House passed a pricing mechanism known as "cap-and-trade," but it died in the Senate. Advocacy groups like the Citizens Climate Lobby have been working for years to promote the idea of a carbon fee, with revenue returned to households in the form of dividends to help offset the increased cost of energy. CCL has citizen lobbyists from every Congressional district who meet regularly with House members, both Republican and Democrat, to make that pitch: their next lobbying day (a virtual one) is in December.
"We have always believed that a carbon fee and dividend is the most politically viable option," said Ben Pendergrass, senior director of government affairs for Citizens Climate Lobby. "It just ticks so many boxes. It protects households and takes a big chunk out of emissions and is economy-wide. We've been working to build out support and there's still work to be done."
Inglis, who advocates a similar approach—a carbon fee in conjunction with elimination of the payroll tax—said he sees Biden as someone who can be "a nice LBJ—someone who cajoles more than threatens," and could actually get such legislation passed. Inglis is convinced that there are Republicans in the Senate who are concerned about climate change and would be receptive to a pitch for comprehensive legislation, but not if it was accompanied by high-pressure tactics. As an example, he pointed to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's recent "deadline" for negotiation of a stimulus package.
"There has to be some humility in the outreach," said Inglis. "You say, 'Listen, we're literally in this together. We know that your children and grandchildren are saying the same things to you that ours are saying to us. Let's sit down and fix it, and do it in a durable way.'"