- President-elect Joe Biden is prioritizing fighting climate change by way of his policy agenda and political appointments.
- But many climate advocates warn that his ideas can only fully be implemented if Democrats win a pair of Senate runoff elections in Georgia.
- Without that, the upper chamber would stay under GOP control and "we don't have the power of the purse in the same way," a progressive climate activist told Business Insider.
- Still, there are a number of rules, regulations, and policy changes that Biden can introduce or reinstate without buy-in from Congress.
- Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.
President-elect Joe Biden has made fighting climate change more of a priority in both his policy agenda and political appointments than any previous US president.
Biden has tapped former Secretary of State John Kerry as his climate "czar" with a seat on the National Security Council and is planning to name a domestic coordinator for climate policy in the White House. Over the summer, Biden worked with progressive champions of climate policy, including Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to develop an aggressive plan to address climate change.
The president-elect is calling for 100% clean electricity by 2035 and $2 trillion in spending over four years on renewable energy, retrofitting buildings, federal research, and EPA enforcement. He's cited Ocasio-Cortez's Green New Deal as a "crucial framework."
But many climate advocates are bracing themselves for a reality check if Democrats don't win both Senate runoff elections in Georgia in January, which would leave the chamber under Republican control. With a divided Congress, there's almost no chance the Biden administration can push through it's most aggressive climate proposals.
Julian Brave NoiseCat, a progressive climate activist who directs Green New Deal Strategy for the thinktank Data for Progress, said he's worried that without the Senate, Biden won't be able to implement the most popular facets of his climate proposal: investing in jobs and communities.
"It's the investment side of the climate policy toolkit that's most popular and most effective, especially right now," he told Business Insider. "If we don't control the upper chamber then we don't have the power of the purse in the same way."
NoiseCat said he's concerned that Republicans will characterize Biden's climate rules and regulations as anti-business and dismiss them as "job-killing, socialist regulations in the midst of a pandemic."
Creating policy without buy-in from Congress
But even without Democratic control of the Senate, Biden can unilaterally push some new climate policies and reverse many of President Donald Trump's efforts to undermine environmental protection.
There are a slew of rules, regulations, and policy changes Biden can make without help from Congress. The president-elect has already pledged to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement, which Trump withdrew the US from, on the first day of his presidency. That action will be relatively simple — Biden will write a letter to the United Nations and, one month later, the country will again be party to the global accord.
Biden has also promised to reinstate many of the more than 100 environmental regulations the Trump administration rolled back or is in the process of gutting. These rules concern greenhouse gas emissions, air and water pollution, wildlife protection, and the use of public and protected land and water for oil and gas development, among other issues.
But some of these regulations could take years to reinstate and could face legal challenges that a conservative majority on the Supreme Court may be open to. In order to protect against a future Republican administration simply reversing the environmental regulations again, Biden's administration will be tasked with writing new regulations that are harder to invalidate in the courts.
Jason Grumet, president of the Bipartisan Policy Center, predicted that Biden will rejoin the Paris Agreement "by 9:45 a.m." on his first day in the White House and sign a host of executive orders reinstating environmental regulations shortly thereafter. However, he expects it will take until the spring or early summer for the administration to initiate new regulatory action on issues like methane emissions and vehicle fuel economy standards.
But, Grumet said, Democrats will have to compromise on climate-related policy whether or not they win a narrow Senate majority.
"In a 50-50 Senate the actual substance of the legislation that you can pass is not going to be very different than if you had a 52-48 Republican Senate," he told Business Insider.
'A Republican-led Senate under Biden will mean that I'll never have another night's sleep'
Either way, Grumet expects Congress will pass another COVID-19 relief bill, an infrastructure package, and a farm bill over the next 12-24 months that will include a host of climate-related measures. These measures will likely include significant federal spending on green infrastructure, including electric vehicles and renewable energy, but won't go so far as requiring businesses to abide by a green energy standard.
Republican lawmakers have become increasingly willing to support incremental climate policy, particularly those that invest in agriculture and business. The House and Senate have quietly passed a series of bills, including measures that rewarded farmers for capturing carbon from the atmosphere, under the Trump administration and Democratic lawmakers expect to keep pushing these kinds of measures.
But climate advocates take little comfort in the prospect of four more years of half-measures on climate. Progressive advocates, particularly those who represent the most marginalized communities, are sounding alarms about what a Mitch McConnell-led Senate could mean for them.
"A Republican-led Senate under Biden will mean that I'll never have another night's sleep," Michele Roberts, co-coordinator of the Environmental Justice Health Alliance, which the Biden campaign sought feedback from on climate policy, told Business Insider.
She added: "I'll have to be working all the time with our communities to really make sure that we can advance the protections that they need because we have a morally bankrupt political system."
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