Biden’s climate plans can cut emissions and also be good politics
After a campaign in which climate change played a more prominent role than ever before, expectations for president-elect Joe Biden are nearly as daunting as the climate problem itself. Years of inaction — and Donald Trump’s scorched-earth policies — mean that U.S. and global emissions must come down rapidly over the next decade to avoid more devastating climate impacts at home and the very real possibility of runaway warming and climate destabilization.
Fortunately, Biden has already laid the groundwork for three major climate-related opportunities: investing in a clean energy economic recovery; protecting public safety from climate impacts; and reasserting America’s international climate leadership. If he acts forcefully in each area, Biden can turn climate change from a perennial Washington hornet’s nest into a winning political issue, garnering greater support from voters and from Congress for more effective policy over the long-term.
First, Biden hopes to put millions of unemployed Americans back to work through clean energy tax incentives and green investments that can create good-paying jobs while also cutting emissions. If Democrats regain the Senate by winning two special elections in Georgia in January, Biden can accomplish this early in 2021 by using “budget reconciliation” legislation that uniquely requires a simple majority in the U.S. Senate for passage.
In the more likely event Republicans retain Senate control, important parts of Biden’s ambitious $2 trillion clean energy infrastructure agenda can also be funded by working with Senate Republican moderates and emphasizing the huge economic benefits to red, purple and blue states alike. Democrats may also negotiate many key clean energy provisions in economic stimulus legislation. Should Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stymie bipartisan legislation to help America’s economic competitiveness through infrastructure, Biden should make it clear he will make the issue a centerpiece of the 2022 elections where more Senate Republicans are vulnerable.
In any event, Biden intends to take regulatory actions on auto fuel economy, power plant emissions, reducing methane and other areas that can also drive down U.S. emissions, sending a powerful signal at home and abroad that America is serious about climate change. In general, Biden will legislate where he can and regulate as much as he needs to, working closely with industry, labor and climate advocates at each step.
Biden’s second opportunity involves protecting public safety and American lives, homes and livelihoods now under siege from more severe storms, floods, wildfires, heat waves, crop losses, and other disasters. These climate-fueled calamities are already costing U.S. taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars a year, and are certain to become worse without concerted action.
Biden should take a grassroots approach, convening bipartisan meetings of the nation’s governors, mayors, small business and community leaders regarding climate change protection and adaptation. The Biden team has indicated priorities would include improvements in environmental justice, land and coastal management policies that increase natural resiliency, and more effective forest management to better prevent and contain wildfires.
To improve government responsiveness, Biden should consider reforming the emergency appropriations process which now hides hundreds of billions in costs “off budget” yet requires status quo replacements rather than new infrastructure upgrades and protections. Climate destruction is often hitting hardest in traditionally red states like Florida, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arizona. Improving public safety in conservative states can help change minds on climate, building public support. Polls already show conservative voters are now far more supportive of federal action on climate change than the Republican officeholders they routinely elect, suggesting pressure can be brought to bear in Congress.
The third opportunity Biden has outlined involves a far more robust American foreign policy agenda to help the rest of the world to act on climate even as America does. Rejoining the Paris climate agreement is just the beginning, as Biden’s newly named Presidential Climate Envoy John Kerry said this week, Biden “recognize(s) that Paris alone is not enough.”
Hugely consequential international issues have been entirely neglected under Trump. Biden will consider reanimating joint zero-carbon technology development programs with allies — with the goal of reaching net zero global emissions by 2050 to stabilize global temperatures. Biden’s plan calls for trade policies that don’t allow “other nations, including China, to game the system by becoming destination economies for polluters.” Debt swaps for climate action by impoverished nations who have large climate mitigation potential in areas like forestation should also be encouraged.
As Biden has often noted, the U.S. emits only 15 percent of global emissions, so America must compel other nations to cut the remaining 85 percent for domestic actions to be effective.
Emphasis should be placed on strategies to limit near-term temperature increases, as these are most crucial in preventing worsening impacts and runaway warming. Here mitigation of super pollutants like methane, HFCs, and black carbon soot are crucial, since curtailing them reduces global temperatures more quickly than carbon dioxide cuts. Biden’s appointment this week of John Kerry as climate envoy and Kerry’s inclusion on the National Security Council shows that the president-elect sees climate as the ultimate security issue. It is also crucial because Kerry strongly supports a focus on both carbon mitigation and super pollutant reductions, reflected in Kerry advocacy of the Kigali agreement to phase down HFCs as Secretary of State.
Perhaps most importantly, Biden, Kerry and their teams must reengage public belief in U.S. exceptionalism, convincing Americans of the truth — that we are the nation capable of leading a global response to prevent climate catastrophe. “We’re going to lead the world on climate and save this planet,” Biden said during a national address Wednesday. Direct appeals to patriotism can create a once in a generation, shared national purpose on climate that has been lacking since the end of the Cold War, creating a unifying new source of American pride.
None of these efforts will be easy or perfect, and many other approaches are possible. But Biden has started well, correctly judging climate change as an “existential threat to humanity” and proposing serious policies during his campaign. Now the question is: Will he and his team have the political skills and courage needed to rally America — and the world — to meet the threat.
Paul Bledsoe is president of Bledsoe & Associates, a policy and communications consultancy, a lecturer at American University’s Center for Environmental Policy and a strategic advisor at the Progressive Policy Institute. He served as staff member in the U.S. House, Senate Finance Committee, Interior Department and on President Bill Clinton’s White House climate change task force. He also served on the executive council of Clean Energy for Biden, a group of more than 5,000 clean energy experts and professionals who supported Joe Biden for president.
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