Congress is key to sustainable environmental action

Congress is key to sustainable environmental action
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In his first few weeks in office, President BidenJoe BidenLawmakers, activists remember civil rights icons to mark 'Bloody Sunday' Fauci predicts high schoolers will receive coronavirus vaccinations this fall Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE aggressively used his executive powers to advance his environmental agenda. From blocking the Keystone XL pipeline to rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, Biden has won a number of temporary victories. Yet, if his goal is lasting environmental progress, Biden will need to set unitary action aside and embrace a more collaborative approach.

With Democrats controlling both the House and Senate, Biden can afford to take action — executive and legislative — without the support of Republicans or the nearly 75 million Americans who didn’t vote for him. But if he hopes to leave a legacy of true leadership on the environment rather than having his actions quickly overturned by a successor, he should work with Congress to enact durable, bipartisan solutions. 

In the 116th Congress, the environment brought legislators together in a way even COVID-19 relief couldn’t. The Great American Outdoors Act, the most significant conservation legislation in a generation, saw sweeping bipartisan support, with more than 70 Senators voting in favor. The Energy Act of 2020, widely regarded as the most important piece of climate legislation in a decade, passed in the final hours of the 116th Congress on a bipartisan basis. If Biden wants to achieve unity and real environmental progress, he should work with leaders on both sides of the aisle in Congress.   


To be clear, this is no small task. Climate change, and environmental protection more generally, has been an incredibly polarizing issue in this country — not only in the halls of Congress. Yet, the fact is that the science is clear: global temperatures are rising and human activity has an impact. We can agree on that. Increasingly, members of Congress do too. Many Republicans and Democrats alike campaigned last year on environmental issues. 

Part of this historical challenge with addressing climate change is that for many, it feels too big and too far-off. Yet, Americans everywhere see environmental degradation right in their own backyards. According to a poll from Pew Research Center, a majority of Americans believe that climate change is affecting their community “at least some.” As we tackle environmental challenges, even ones as large as climate change, our solutions should be bottom-up, rather than top-down. 

Instead of signing executive orders, Biden should work with members of Congress, who each have a unique understanding of their community’s environmental challenges and assets. The problems that affect Miami — such as sea level rise —  are very different than the environmental concerns of farmers in Iowa or coal miners in West Virginia. These differing perspectives are essential to address climate change and other environmental challenges in a robust way. By becoming champions for specific environmental issues, members of Congress can then band together to pass effective, targeted legislation that will yield tangible results for communities around the country. Long-term solutions require all stakeholders at the table. 

These solutions must also be durable. Biden is quickly discovering how easily executive orders are overturned — he has already reversed many of President TrumpDonald TrumpUS, South Korea reach agreement on cost-sharing for troops Graham: Trump can make GOP bigger, stronger, or he 'could destroy it' Biden nominates female generals whose promotions were reportedly delayed under Trump MORE’s environmental decisions. Even before his first term is up, however, he may face a Republican-controlled House or Senate. For his environmental policies to last, he will have to work with Congress to legislate rather than rely on executive fiat. 

In this new session, it’s imperative that we use the momentum from the Great American Outdoors Act and Energy Act of 2020 to continue to prioritize our environment. That won’t happen through stubborn partisanship or unilateral governing, but through putting our communities at the center of environmental protection.\

As a former senator himself, Biden understands the difference between short-lived executive action and lasting legislative policy. If he truly wants to set the United States on a path toward a more sustainable future, Biden must do more than use the bully-pulpit of the Oval Office, and work with Congress to create lasting environmental solutions. 

Quill Robinson is the vice president of Government Affairs at the American Conservation Coalition (ACC).