Getting around anti-Democratic obstacles to addressing climate change

Getting around anti-Democratic obstacles to addressing climate change
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Joe BidenJoe BidenMacro grid will keep the lights on Pelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown MORE ran on what has been called “the most ambitious presidential platform on climate change in history.” Among Biden’s priorities as president will be rejoining the Paris climate accord, rebuilding the climate regulatory structure that Trump dismantled, and then moving toward carbon neutrality by 2050. However, climate legislation still faces considerable opposition in the Senate, from not only Republicans, but also perhaps some Democrats, notably West Virginia’s Joe ManchinJoe ManchinPelosi suggests filibuster supporters 'dishonor' MLK's legacy on voting rights Sanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Martin Luther King III: Biden, senators need to use same energy to pass voting rights as they did for infrastructure MORE. Such opposition reflects a fundamental problem in our system, namely that both the Senate majority and the president are elected state-by-state rather than via national majorities. These anti-democratic institutions make it difficult to translate growing national concern about climate change into actual legislation.

Polls show increasing majorities in the U.S. recognize climate change as a serious threat needing action, and this year, climate change finally got significant attention in the presidential debates. The benefits of decarbonizing our economy and cutting carbon dioxide and methane emissions are enormous. However, these benefits are spread across the entire population, and the positive impacts of climate action will take decades to become apparent.

By contrast, for the fossil fuel industry, the costs of climate regulation are concentrated and immediate and of great concern to fossil fuel producing states like Texas, Pennsylvania, Wyoming, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Alaska, and Louisiana. Elected officials from these states will likely oppose Biden’s climate agenda.


In a truly democratic system, majority support for climate action might overwhelm sectional interests. However, America’s political institutions make this exceedingly difficult: the Senate and the Electoral College give disproportionate influence to less populated states and conservative, rural White voters, many of whom are employed in resource extraction and tend to oppose environmental regulation. In 2010, the last time Congress seriously considered major climate legislation, it passed the House of Representatives, but died in the Senate, partly because of Senators from both parties concerned about their states’ fossil fuel industries.

Meanwhile, the Electoral College gives outsized power to a few swing states, among them Pennsylvania, a major producer of natural gas and coal. During the final presidential debate, Biden said, “I would transition from the oil industry.” In fact, the entire fossil fuel industry must become virtually obsolete if we are to really tackle the climate emergency. Donald TrumpDonald TrumpSanders calls out Manchin, Sinema ahead of filibuster showdown Laura Ingraham 'not saying' if she'd support Trump in 2024 The Hill's 12:30 Report: Djokovic may not compete in French Open over vaccine requirement MORE seized on Biden’s comment, and his past statements on fossil fuels, to try and sway voters in Pennsylvania. Biden then walked back his debate remarks: “We're getting rid of the subsidies for fossil fuels, but we're not getting rid of fossil fuels for a long time.” Though Biden lost neither Pennsylvania nor the general election, the entire dust-up underscores how — because of the Electoral College — one industry in one state can constrain national discourse and political movement on climate change.

How do we overcome these anti-democratic barriers to climate action? Constitutional amendments to eliminate the Electoral College or changes to the composition of the Senate are extremely unlikely. Also unlikely is eliminating the Senate filibuster (the filibuster further magnifies the influence of individual states). Granting statehood to the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico and diluting the power of fossil fuel states is similarly improbable.

Biden must therefore rely heavily on executive action, but, as Trump demonstrated, this can be reversed by the next administration. Biden should focus on two additional approaches. First, as Aimee Barnes argues, he should mobilize state and local governments. In the absence of sufficient federal leadership, states and localities have already taken the initiative on climate change. The Biden administration should provide additional resources to states and localities to develop even more ambitious climate plans, and Biden should also end Trump’s assault on California’s climate regulations.

Second, Biden and the Democrats must take the climate battle to the very states where resistance is greatest. The fossil fuel industry, already in decline, has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, even as renewable energy has continued to grow. And, despite Trump’s promises to save it, the U.S. coal industry has continued to contract. The pandemic may offer an opportunity for Biden to sell a clean energy and green jobs transition to communities long reliant on fossil fuel production. Such a campaign could enable an end-run around the fossil fuel industry and put political pressure on Senators from those states.

The deep institutional hurdles facing Biden’s climate agenda are not going away. In the end, his best approach may be to expand the playing field to the states and localities and also take the fight to where the opposition seems greatest.

Peter F. Cannavò is professor of government at Hamilton College. He is the author of “The Working Landscape: Founding, Preservation, and the Politics of Place” (The MIT Press, 2007); co-editor, with Joseph H. Lane, Jr., of “Engaging Nature: Environmentalism and the Political Theory Canon,” and the author of a number of scholarly articles on environmental politics and political theory. He is currently writing, “To the Thousandth Generation: The Green Civic Republican Tradition in America,” under advance contract with The MIT Press. Follow him on Twitter @pcannavo2