The Weekly Planet: How to Think About President Biden’s Big Climate Plans

Democrats have learned not to peg their hopes to a single major climate bill.

A house is seen near the massive Gavin Power Plant on September 11, 2019 in Cheshire, Ohio.
Biden’s EPA must decide whether to reduce emissions first from cars and trucks or coal power plants. (Stephanie Keith / Getty)

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Tomorrow, pending calamity or misfortune, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become president of the United States. In that moment, the United States’ approach to climate change will invert. Not least because Biden may finish his speech, walk inside the Capitol, and sign a letter committing the U.S. to rejoining the Paris Agreement.

Yet even if that “day one” promise isn’t kept until January 21, Biden’s inauguration will end an ugly period. Starting tomorrow, the highest levels of the federal government will stop intentionally, gleefully trying to make climate change worse. The Trump administration has progressed from enabling construction of fossil-fuel infrastructure to openly trying to make climate change worse. It has smuggled nonsensical math into law with the consequence of making Americans pay more at the pump; its supposedly marquee climate policy may have actually increased carbon pollution. In the dozen or so weeks since the election, it has undertaken a final debauchery of environmental rollbacks, finalizing more than a dozen new rules. One measure, borrowed from the playbook of Big Tobacco, restricts the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to consider medical studies in its rulemaking.

The Biden administration’s arrival will not, to be sure, resolve every fight over the proper ambition or intensity of climate policy. But Biden will not wantonly defile the air or curdle the ocean, as Trump has. This is a break with the past four years all by itself.

Beyond that schism, the inauguration looms as a sort of news equivalent of an event horizon. So I thought today it would make sense to lay out an intellectual primer for watching the Biden administration’s first 100 days. These are not predictions, but a sort of mental framework, a set of key ideas for understanding what leaders in the new administration might say and do.

A big climate bill is the wrong approach.

As I wrote last week, Democrats have held the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives twice since the emergence of climate change as a political issue, and twice, the new president has tried to pass a major piece of energy legislation. Twice, the bill imposed a new kind of tax on energy; twice, lawmakers balked at increasing energy prices amid a recession; twice, fossil-fuel companies pilloried the proposal; twice, the unpopular legislation failed.

This will be the third time that the party takes the reins of federal power, and its leaders hope they’ve found the right tack: They will tuck a little bit of climate policy into everything. So Congress will not pass anything that explicitly calls itself a climate bill, at least at first. (To acquaint yourself with the frustrations of the omnibus-bill approach, read Ryan Lizza’s account of how Barack Obama’s 2010 climate bill died.)

Instead, Biden will sign an economic-recovery and infrastructure package that devotes tens of billions to fighting climate change. He will expand crucial federal agencies through budget legislation and nominate climate-minded officials to lead them. And he will task each department with making climate policy in its own way.

You might say that Democrats are set to treat climate policy like many recipes treat the onion: hopeful that, if well concealed, the public will finally eat it up. And it never hurts to coat it in cheese.

Democrats are going to spend a lot of money.

In retrospect, one of Obama’s greatest climate accomplishments was the passage of the 2009 Recovery Act, which accelerated the deployment of solar and wind energy nationwide. It spent about $27 billion on climate-related policies—renewable-energy tax credits, energy-efficiency upgrades, loan guarantees for certain solar and wind projects, and more.

Biden wants to spend more than $1 trillion, and devote a large share of it to decarbonization—and there is an appetite for it. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, the pivotal member of the Democratic caucus, has said the U.S. could spend as much as $4 trillion over 10 years on a broader infrastructure package. With spending of that scale, the government will not need a complicated policy to nudge the economy toward decarbonization: It will be able to directly subsidize a lot of energy infrastructure itself.

This represents a break with the past two Democratic administrations, and it flips the issue’s polarity: Climate policy will become no longer about dampening prosperity and chastening growth, but giving people stuff and expanding the economy.

Whether such an effort will be as economically effective as a carbon tax remains to be seen. But for now, at least, it seems more politically palatable.

The White House will not stand in the way of climate policy.

Immediately after the election, I wrote that Biden’s climate policy would be governed less by whom he chooses to lead major agencies, such as the EPA, than by whom he surrounds himself with in the White House—in particular, his economic advisers.

Since then, Biden has responded to this concern more directly than I anticipated. He has hired Brian Deese, who led federal climate policy in Obama’s White House, to direct the National Economic Council. Essentially, Biden named a climate person one of his top economic advisers.

Deese has a singular résumé: He is probably the only alumnus of BlackRock, one of the world’s largest financial-asset managers, who can win the endorsement of Bill McKibben, the godfather of American climate activism. (Deese led BlackRock’s sustainable-investing unit.)

Nor will Deese be the only “climate person” at 1600 Pennsylvania. Biden has appointed Gina McCarthy, one of Obama’s former EPA administrators, to lead domestic climate policy, and John Kerry, the former secretary of state, to serve as a global climate envoy.

My concern, at this point, is no longer that the Biden administration tries to do too little on climate, but that Biden’s many climate advisers will crash into one another on their way into the Oval Office.

The EPA will have a crucial decision to make.

In this all-in climate strategy, the EPA will still spearhead a fair amount of the effort. But its leaders will quickly face an important choice: Should it first try to regulate power plants, or cars and trucks? The answer will set the tone for the rest of the administration.

The most powerful bazooka in the federal government’s arsenal, the Clean Air Act, allows the EPA to directly regulate carbon-dioxide emissions. The EPA is the only federal agency with such clear authority to address the root cause of climate change.

But the Clean Air Act is not an easy weapon to wield. The law sorts every type of air polluter into two categories: fixed sources,” which do not move (these are factories and power plants), and “mobile sources,” which do (cars and trucks). A landmark piece of Clean Air Act regulation demands the full attention of the agency’s air regulators and takes about one presidential term to study, write, and implement, according to Michael Wara, a legal scholar at Stanford University. So the agency’s new administrator, Michael Regan, will have to decide which category to focus on.

There is something to be said for both approaches. The transportation sector emits more carbon pollution than any other part of the U.S. economy; private passenger vehicles alone account for about one-fifth of the country’s emissions. New types of electric vehicles are coming online, and a sweeping EPA rule could accelerate the transition from gasoline to electric cars. But it could also provoke the ire of the oil companies and make electric vehicles more controversial than they would otherwise be.

The power sector, meanwhile, is the second-most carbon-intensive sector—though it is set to fall to the No. 3 position this year. Yet it is where regulation could be most effective: Shutting down just one of the coal plants operating nationwide is like removing hundreds of cars from the road. Obama’s landmark climate rule, the Clean Power Plan, was supposed to affect the power sector, but Trump’s administration revoked it soon after he took office.

So again, the Biden administration will not rely on one big move, or one agency, to do its work. The Department of Transportation could encourage less carbon-intensive forms of rail or air travel. The Department of Energy could turn into an R&D powerhouse, or help spin up and support the nascent climate-tech industry in the same way the Department of Defense helped start the computing industry.

One important agency is the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, or FERC, which regulates the electricity market (among other things). Because wind and solar are now price-competitive with fossil fuels, FERC may be able to fight carbon pollution by aggressively opening up power markets and forcing some aging coal plants to compete with renewables on price. If FERC were to take on the power sector, the EPA could focus more on cars and trucks.

The administration has another avenue, too: Financial regulators have started to grow concerned about the risk of climate change. In December, the Federal Reserve joined the Network for Greening the Financial System, an international alliance of central banks that aims to scale up green finance and devise pro-climate monetary policy. The Fed is the last major central bank to join the network; that it signed on so quickly after the election reveals (1) how much climate policy will happen simply because Biden won, and (2) that Jerome Powell, a Trump appointee who will be the Fed’s leader until 2022, did not think the network’s goals were controversial. (Indeed, in the same press release, the Fed disclosed that it had started informally working with the network more than a year earlier.)

This development matters, and not only because it signals markets to keep investing in renewable energy. If the Fed were to define some basic instruments of climate investing—specifying what, for instance, a “green bond” is—then it could create a market that would continue to drive investment beyond any spending by the government.

The Senate majority matters in small but important ways.

Because Kamala Harris will cast the tie-breaking vote, Democrats have only a slight edge in the Senate. But Democrats will still be able to exert pro-climate pressure on many fronts. For instance, Senator Amy Klobuchar, who will soon lead the Senate’s antitrust committee, has said that the country’s freight-railroad industry is too concentrated. “Ninety percent of freight rail traffic is with four railroads,” she told Politico. “That’s the same number as on the Monopoly board.”

What do railroads have to do with climate change? As I reported in 2019, those four companies have “have sat at the center of the climate-denial movement nearly since it began.” They have opposed climate policy for more than three decades. Because climate action is such a major Democratic interest, scrutiny of one part of an industry—say, its tendency toward concentration—tends to provoke favorable action in another.

Four years from now, Joe Biden may not be able to point to a titanic climate accomplishment, a singular bill titled “The Green New Deal” or similar, in the same way Obama was able to point to the Affordable Care Act. Yet Biden’s climate legacy could well be larger than Obama’s health-care legacy. By applying the weight of the congressional budget and the authority of the administrative state to the American economy, Biden could ensure its irreversible decarbonization.

And yet, I wonder: Where do regular Americans fit into this approach? The tools of congressional budget negotiation and the scholastic wrangling of administrative lawyers are not exactly compelling; they don’t enlist the public in solving the problem. The Green New Deal rose to prominence in part because it gave climate-concerned activists something to demand. Biden’s reconstruction of the administrative state (“Build Back Better”) does not have the same zing. He could do more to fight climate change than any president before him—but will anyone notice?

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