What a Biden presidency means for climate change

Mike Bebernes
·Editor

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

President-elect Joe Biden’s policy agenda represents a major shift from the Trump administration on just about every issue. The most drastic difference between them may be on the topic of climate change.

Trump, who has regularly questioned the science of climate change, has rolled back more than 100 environmental regulations and is working to eliminate dozens more before leaving office. Biden, on the other hand, has called climate change the “No. 1 issue facing humanity.” Though he opposes the progressives’ Green New Deal, his environmental policy agenda is more ambitious than any president’s in American history.

Biden’s expansive climate plan includes massive investment in green technologies with the goal of moving the U.S. to 100 percent clean energy by 2035 and reaching net-zero emissions by 2050. His “Build Back Better” economic agenda relies heavily on creating millions of new jobs in green infrastructure. To carry out this vision, Biden has named a climate team of veteran lawmakers who share his progressive environmental vision.

The past year has provided a sharp reminder of the impacts of climate change. A record-setting fire season saw more than 4 million acres burn in California. There was also a record number of major storms in the Atlantic. This year will finish in a virtual tie for the hottest year on record, continuing a trend of unprecedented global warming during the past decade.

Why there’s debate

Many environmentalists see reason to hope that major elements of Biden’s climate agenda will be successful. Trump relied heavily on executive action to roll back environmental rules, meaning Biden can quickly reverse some of Trump’s more significant moves — such as rejoining the Paris climate accord. The most ambitious elements of Biden’s plan will have to go through Congress, but Republicans are less united in opposition to environmental policy than they are on other issues, political analysts say.

Others are skeptical that even modest environmental reforms will make it through Congress, given the continued power of fossil fuel interests. Though support for addressing climate change has grown among GOP lawmakers, most prefer an approach that allows private industry — not the government — to lead the way. Republicans will hold onto the Senate unless Democrats win both Georgia runoffs next week — and even if Democrats do win the chamber, they’d have only the slimmest of majorities. And the new 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court may also limit the Biden administration's ability to enforce environmental rules, legal experts say.

Biden’s plan has also been criticized by some progressives, who believe it doesn’t go far enough to create the monumental changes needed to limit the dire outcomes of rising global temperatures.

What’s next

Biden has promised to sign a series of environmental executive orders reversing Trump policies on day one of his presidency. The prospects of his legislative agenda may hinge on which party controls the Senate after the runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5.

Perspectives

Optimists

Republicans may help pass some of Biden’s policies

“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.” — Adam Edelman, NBC News

Biden will make America a global leader on climate

“None of this will magically save the day for Planet Earth. … But making the world’s leading superpower once more part of the solution, instead of part of the problem, is a necessary step — a prerequisite for effective global action. Humanity, and the fragile ecosystem we call home, will have a fighting chance.” — Eugene Robinson, Washington Post

Biden’s team will keep climate change at the center of his administration’s actions

“Headed by this new White House team, the mandate to reduce emissions is likely to be authentic, sustained, and delivered within a framework that moves beyond pledges into action.” — Alissa Walker, Curbed

Simply believing in climate change is a major step forward

“The Biden White House understands that climate change is a monumental threat and one that we must deal with appropriately for the sake of our children and grandchildren and the future of the planet. That is no longer hyperbole.” — Ann McFeatters, Tribune News Service

Biden’s agenda isn’t the progressive dream, but it’s enough to make a major difference

“Even though Biden’s plan may not be as ambitious as the Green New Deal, it is in line with climate scientists’ priorities. If enacted fully, it would result in transformational change.” — David Hastings, South Florida Sun-Sentinel

There is much Biden can do even without Congress

“Now that Joe Biden is the president-elect of the United States, the prospects of staving off total climate disaster look a little less dire. The Senate will likely constrain him … but there are still plenty of ways he can use his power to fight climate change.” — Sigal Samuel, Vox

Under Biden, science will guide environmental policy

“To be honest, I’m most excited that science will once again be the guide to policy across the entire federal landscape, given that climate and energy policy touches so many aspects of our lives and our economy. In particular, I’m eager to see the speedy removal of a number of leaders in key positions who are openly hostile to climate science.” — Paleoclimatologist Kim Cobb to Scientific American

There has never been a better time to push a bold climate agenda

“Climate action has broadened in the four years that Trump spent burbling nonsense about wind power and showerheads. … Climate politics now has the momentum, and that will drive Biden's presidency at home and abroad.” — Stephen Collison, CNN

Skeptics

Biden doesn’t account for the massive expense of building green infrastructure

“Saving the planet is going to cost money, and no one is sure where it will come from.” — Anthony Rowley, South China Morning Post

Some changes will be easy, while others may be impossible

“Many items on Biden’s long climate to-do list are low-hanging fruit for his new team. … But the truly transformational part of his agenda, greening the grid by 2035, would require an almost fantastical acceleration of the rollout of wind and solar farms across the nation with buy-in from Congress and the states.” — Vince Bielski, Real Clear Investigations

Biden grossly exaggerates the dangers of climate changes

“He doesn’t want to get us thinking about climate change, but rather to suspend all rational thought about the issue — especially about the downsides of costly measures to crimp the U.S. economy in the name of saving the planet. In short, he needs a crisis atmosphere, the facts and science be damned.” — Rich Lowry, National Review

Private industry, not the government, should lead the way

“If you imagine politicians and climate activists are the ones mitigating the long-term risks of CO2 output, whatever those risks are, think again. … Don’t go to work for the Biden administration if you care about climate change. Become a technologist and entrepreneur who contributes to the long-run socioeconomic progress that represents the world’s real bet for restraining future emissions.” — Holman W. Jenkins Jr., Wall Street Journal

Biden’s agenda doesn’t go far enough

“Biden shows promise, but there can be no backsliding and/or watering down. In fact, the ambition needs to grow. Now is the time for truly bold vision, leadership and action. … He can and must do better.” — Steve Trent, Revelator

The Supreme Court may prevent Biden from enforcing environmental rules

“The Trump administration’s true environmental legacy will not be its regulatory rollbacks or inaction on climate change, but a 6–3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, which could block any significant new environmental policy and undercut some long-standing protections.” — Nathan Richardson, Resources

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