So in that spirit, here are five ways I am thinking about climate change in a Biden presidency:
1. There is plenty that Biden can do. So much, in fact, that I’m hesitant to list any of it here. He’s already committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement on his first day, a symbolic move but an important one globally.
But what’s more consequential is that Biden will take the reins of an administrative state whose lead policy makers are desperate to do something about climate change. In the past year, a handful of economic regulators—such as the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, which regulates complex financial products—have proposed policies that would fight global warming and hasten the energy transition. Of course, Trump didn’t touch them. But Biden could.
2. Which is all to say: The Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy are not the sole agencies that matter. The staff at the Department of Commerce, the Federal Reserve, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and a Chef Boyardee’s worth of financial regulators have flirted with climate policy under Trump. Under a Biden administration, those agencies will be unleashed.
3. Look to see who works in Biden’s White House.
There’s already a lot of focus on whom Biden will pick to lead some of the energy and environment agencies. (Mary Nichols, the chief air-pollution regulator in California, is reportedly a leading candidate to run the EPA.) But it matters less whom Biden picks to advise the agencies than whom Biden seeks out for advice. In the Obama administration, the obstacles to climate action did not arise, in large part, from appointed energy or environmental officials. They came instead from Barack Obama’s political advisers, economic experts, and internal White House office directors.
Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, was so skeptical of climate change as a winning issue that he once chastised Obama’s energy secretary for discussing rising sea levels with the press. Emanuel also cut big-ticket green items from the 2009 stimulus bill because he was skeptical they could be sold to the public.
And it was the economist Larry Summers who, as head of Obama’s National Economic Council, shot down a national power grid and opposed spending more than a tenth of the 2009 stimulus on renewable energy.
4. So much depends on the Senate.
Right now, Democrats hold only 48 seats in the Senate. Their only apparent chance to take over the upper chamber before 2022 will come on January 5, when Georgia will hold runoff elections for its two Senate seats.
If Democrats take the Senate that day, then Biden will have the best chance to fight climate change of any American leader in a decade. Many of his climate proposals, such as his $2 trillion recovery package, will be politically feasible only with a Democratic Senate. Controlling the Senate is also his only path to appointing Supreme Court justices.