In pursuing historic climate change agenda, Biden may find surprising ally

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Adam Edelman
·7 min read
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President-elect Joe Biden has made no secret that tackling climate change will be one of his top priorities. But to enact his platform to reduce global warming he may find an unexpected ally: Republicans.

Biden campaigned on the most ambitious climate agenda in history: It included plans for pioneering green energy and infrastructure projects and proposals to address environmental racism. Large chunks of his "Build Back Better" economic agenda are explicitly tied to climate-related policies.

Biden has said he will re-enter the U.S. in the Paris climate accord on his first day in office and will prioritize undoing dozens of environmental regulatory rollbacks put into place by President Donald Trump — all via executive action.

But what comes after that will be the hard part: trying to implement his climate agenda through legislation.

That's where he may find a partnership with Republicans on Capitol Hill.

While some in the GOP remain in steadfast denial that human-caused climate change even exists, dozens of Republican lawmakers have acknowledged that the time has come to address the crisis and have put forward policies that have gained some degree of bipartisan traction.

None, however, have approached the level of reform Biden has proposed. As a result, his administration will have to deftly maneuver balancing the major progressive climate actions he's promised with his desire to reach bipartisan solutions and promote political unity — something he's also promised.

Interviews with lawmakers from both parties and climate advocacy organizations on both ends of the political spectrum suggest the appetite in both parties for climate change policy is robust, making the topic a likely, even if unexpected, area for bipartisan cooperation under the new president.

Much of how Biden might navigate the issue remains tied up in two closely watched Senate runoff elections in Georgia next month. If Democrats win both, they win control of the chamber and with it leadership posts of pivotal climate-oriented committees, which would give Biden a leg up in setting the rules of the road on the issue. But if Democrats fall short, Republicans will maintain Senate control and with it the ability to advance their own climate bills.

Either way, whatever majority exists will be a narrow one, making bipartisan compromise, desired or not, the only way forward on legislation.

"We see a huge opportunity going into this administration," said Quillian Robinson, a spokesperson for the American Conservation Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for conservative solutions to climate change. "Divided government may look like it eliminates opportunity, but, really, it's a chance for durable climate solutions, instead of just flip-flopping from one administration's executive orders to another's."

Opportunities for compromise

Biden has promised to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, to sign executive orders that limit oil and gas drilling on public lands and in public waters, increase gas mileage standards for vehicles and block the construction of specific fossil fuel pipelines. He can do all of that through executive action.

Biden has also promised to pursue a 100 percent clean electricity standard by 2035 (a proposal that could mean the shuttering or total renovation of all coal-fired and gas-fired power plants in the U.S.) and has called for getting the U.S. to net-zero emissions by 2050, at the latest. He's also proposed a $2 trillion investment in renewable energy projects, with 40 percent of the funds benefiting communities of color that have been harmed by pollutants. He might not find a ton of Republican support on those ideas.

Biden has made it clear, especially through his personnel choices, that he sees the topic as one that merits an all-of-government approach that uses Cabinet agencies like the Transportation and Interior departments to help build new green infrastructure and incentivize developing green energy sources, as well as tasking the State Department with corralling other international powers to similarly focus on climate policy and carbon emissions.

It's in these areas — especially as it pertains to the investment in and development of green energy sources, green technologies and green infrastructure — where he could end up finding common ground.

The Growing Climate Solutions Act, sponsored by Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich.; Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.; and Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., focuses on carbon-capture technologies in the agricultural sector, while Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, and Whitehouse have put together another bipartisan bill focused on increasing carbon-capture methods that occur naturally within ocean and coastal ecosystems.

Earlier this year, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., began pushing a new conservative climate policy effort along with seven of his Republican colleagues — meant to rival the progressive Green New Deal — including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who introduced legislation, titled the New Energy Frontier, focused on developing carbon-capture technologies.

"This all needs to start with technological innovation," Crenshaw said in an interview. While Crenshaw said he strongly opposes re-entering the U.S. in the Paris agreement and largely disagrees with large chunks of Biden's environmental plans, he is willing to work with the administration on the proposals that are part of his bill.

"I think we could be able to agree on the policies I've put forward," he said.

Meanwhile, Reps. David McKinley, R-W.Va., and Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., have proposed a 10-year public and private partnership to invest in clean energy and infrastructure and subsequent new regulations.

Some on the left have bashed those proposals as being too narrow — many emphasize the contradiction between promoting technologies that sequester carbon from carbon-emitting plants and phasing out such carbon-emitting plants — but there appears to be ample space for compromise among Democrats, too.

Whitehouse, who has lent his name to several compromise bills in the Senate, said there’s a great need for Democrats to essentially try anything, and everything, that might combat climate change.

Asked by NBC News whether the Biden administration and its allies in Congress should prioritize the president-elect's agenda or bipartisan compromise, Whitehouse replied, "Both."

"The best outcome will be if we're aggressive and bipartisan at the same time,” Whitehouse, who has both pressed for progressive climate change policies and also co-sponsored more modest bipartisan legislation, wrote in an email to NBC News.

"The Biden plan is broad enough to encompass both, and we should pursue both. But to succeed, the administration must first set the conditions for victory," Whitehouse wrote.

"Real bipartisanship is best achieved from a position of strength," he added.

In a statement, the Biden transition reiterated that the president-elect had prioritized climate change and would implement his policies with "both legislative and executive action."

The strength that Whitehouse referenced could be achieved by kicking off the administration with a flurry of executive actions on climate change, as Biden has promised. But with a thin majority in the House and the Senate close to an even split, regardless of who wins the Georgia runoffs, Biden will almost certainly have to make good on another set of campaign promises he's made frequently: bipartisan cooperation.

Groups on both sides are ready for it.

"Yes, there will be obstruction from some Republicans, but I really do believe there will still be so many chances for bipartisanship on combating climate change," said Michael Brune, the Sierra Club's executive director.

Brune pointed to clean energy standards, accelerating the development of new energy technologies, growing American jobs in the green sector and saving consumers money on their energy bills as solid areas for consensus.

Conservative environmental groups have struck the same tone, even praising some of Biden’s more ambitious proposals.

Robinson, of the conservative American Conservation Coalition, said "incentives are really lining up both politically and economically," making significant investment in green technologies and infrastructure more possible than ever before.

Tom Steyer, the billionaire climate activist and Democrat who ran for president emphasizing an ambitious environmental justice platform, agreed, too, telling NBC News that "the country has moved on the issue."

"I think the business community has very clearly moved; I think Republicans have moved," said Steyer, who helped lead the conversation among 2020 Democrats on climate change but who is not currently working with the administration on the issue.

"This is not a partisan issue anymore,” he said.

But he also made clear that Biden, having won the presidency after making climate change such a big part of his campaign, should get to set the terms of the conversation.

"We won the argument," he said. "Now the moment is here. It's time to bring it home."