A Biden Presidency Means a New Day in the Fight for Climate Action

November 7, 2020 | 12:08 pm
Photo: Oleksii Sidorov/Shutterstock
Rachel Cleetus
Policy Director

You know that feeling when you awake from a long nightmare and see the sun shining outside? Yes, that’s what it feels like today. The US presidential election results have been confirmed in favor of President-elect Joe Biden, soon to be our 46th president, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be the first African American and South Asian American woman in that role.

Today marks a new day in the fight for bold, just, and equitable climate policy, and even the most jaded of us are filled with a measure of relief and hope.

What we’re watching for on climate

Climate change figured prominently in the election campaign and in the Biden-Harris platform. It was an important issue for voters, including those in battleground states. Here’s what we’ll be watching for over the coming weeks and months:

  • An ambitious and bold climate agenda that is guided by science, centers justice and equity, and helps the country recover from the current economic crisis
  • A policymaking process that prioritizes the interests of people, not polluters
  • Reenergized commitment to international climate action, including through the Paris Agreement

A nation reeling from a barrage of crises

The colliding crises currently facing our nation were clearly on the minds of voters. The COVID-19 pandemic, the economic crisis, and the crisis of systemic racism loom large in our nation’s consciousness. And we are simultaneously reeling from a relentless barrage of wildfires, hurricanes, heat waves, and floods this year that have taken a devastating toll on people around the nation. Communities of color and low-income communities are bearing a disproportionately harsh burden of all of these compounding crises.

As of October 7, the nation has experienced 16 extreme weather and climate-related disasters this year that have each cost more than $1 billion. Earlier this week, Hurricane Eta became the 28th named storm of the 2020 Atlantic hurricane season, tying a record for the most named storms for a single year set in 2005. Nearly 625,000 acres have burned in Colorado since May, with the Cameron Peak fire setting a record for the largest on record for the state at 208,663 acres. In California, an astonishing 2020 wildfire season has burned nearly 4.2 million acres, with the August Complex fire alone scorching more than one million acres.

Those challenges remain daunting today. But now we have a president who has said he will actually work to address these problems, instead of one who lies relentlessly about their very existence, while actively making them worse. Now we have a president who will actually listen to scientists instead of sidelining and silencing them.

I don’t want to gloss over how difficult it will be to solve these problems, especially if Congress fails to step up and do its part. It will take deep commitment over a long time, well beyond the term of any one administration or congressperson. And we’re starting from a place of grievous harm wrought by the Trump administration, which seemed to take perverse pleasure in overturning or weakening as many climate-related policies as it could—including the Clean Power Plan, vehicle efficiency standards, and methane standards for oil and gas operations. Not to mention censoring scientists at government agencies, interfering with scientific reports, and slashing budgets and staffing for anything related to climate science. And exiting the Paris Agreement.

But as we head down a new path pointed in the right direction, we now, finally, have the opportunity to be ambitious.

What President Biden should do on climate

President-elect Biden should send a clear, strong, and early signal that he is committed to using his full powers to advance climate action.

Here are some of the most important actions on climate that he should take, many of which could be done within the first hundred days:

  • Set science-informed climate goals and commit the US to reaching net-zero carbon emissions economywide no later than 2050—including absolute domestic emission reductions of at least 90 percent below 2005 levels as well as enhanced carbon storage in soils, forests, and wetlands—and to be well on that path by 2030.
  • Direct all federal agencies to incorporate climate science into their actions and develop climate action plans. The administration should work with Congress to provide the funding and staffing needed to rebuild agency capacity to fulfill this directive.
  • Move forward administrative and regulatory actions to curtail heat-trapping emissions and advance climate resilience.
  • Rejoin the Paris Agreement, with an enhanced and ambitious commitment to cut heat-trapping emissions and provide climate funding for developing countries, in line with the US fair share contribution to global climate goals.
  • Reverse the Trump administration’s egregious executive orders that have halted, undermined, or reversed climate action, including orders calling for a rollback of the Clean Power Plan, artificially lowering the federal government’s estimate for the social cost of carbon, rescinding the federal flood risk management standard, promoting fossil fuel extraction on federal lands, and removing environmental safeguards for fossil fuel infrastructure projects. (Examples of some of these EOs are here, here, here and here. And don’t be fooled by their Orwellian doublespeak titles.)
  • Appoint well-qualified and ethical individuals, with the necessary skills, experience, and commitment to scientific integrity, to cabinet positions and as heads of federal agencies.
  • Establish a White House Office to address Environmental and Climate Justice across the government to ensure an all-of-government approach to these crucial issues, with clear metrics of accountability and direct engagement with EJ community stakeholders.
  • Create a new White House Office of Economic Transition to coordinate efforts across federal agencies and oversee a fair transition plan for coal workers and communities facing economic pain as we transition away from coal, including direct engagement with affected communities.

What President-elect Biden will need to work with Congress to accomplish

There are important things that can and must be done via presidential executive orders and federal agency actions. But it’s important to recognize that securing robust, comprehensive, and durable climate and clean energy policy that will survive subsequent administrations will require legislation from Congress. President-elect Biden’s long experience as a senator and vice president will hopefully serve him well on this front, especially given the challenges of working with a closely divided new Congress.

President Biden should immediately begin work with the new Congress to advance a suite of policies that ramp up clean energy and drive down carbon emissions, while also addressing long-standing environmental injustices that have disproportionately affected low-income communities and communities of color. Policies should also provide for a fair transition for communities facing economic harm due to the nation’s ongoing shift away from coal.

None of this will be easy. It will require a skillful approach to building coalitions among policymakers, and a deep understanding of how climate change intersects with the daily life concerns of their different constituencies. Throughout it all, it will be important to engage directly with the stakeholders most affected by these policies and center their perspectives in developing solutions that work best for them.

Many of these policy priorities have been highlighted in the extensive Biden-Harris campaign platform. Now it’s time for the incoming administration to work with Congress to pass legislation that addresses critical priorities, including:

  • COVID-19 relief and economic stimulus/recovery. Pass a well-funded COVID-19 relief package that includes funding for the public health priorities and economic relief desperately needed from the national to the state and local level. A robust economic recovery package (more likely, more than one package) is also needed to jumpstart and foster a just and equitable economic recovery, with job creation driven by investments in clean energy and climate resilient infrastructure, and with 40 percent of these investments directly benefitting communities that have been historically marginalized.
  • Clean energy, emissions reduction, and carbon sequestration. Pass a legislative package to drive down economy-wide heat-trapping emissions in line with what the science shows is necessary to help limit some of the worst impacts of climate change. This package should focus on readily available solutions like renewable energy; energy efficiency; electrification of energy end-uses in the transportation, industrial and buildings sectors; and investments in transmission and grid modernization, energy storage, and R&D for clean energy technologies. Congress should also invest in safeguarding and enhancing soils, forests, vegetation, and coastal wetlands that store carbon, while advancing research and development of technologies that remove and sequester carbon dioxide from the air while meeting strong social and environmental safeguards. And finally Congress must provide international climate finance to help developing countries make a low-carbon transition and cope with the impacts of climate change already underway.
  • Climate resilience. Invest in a proactive and equitable national adaptation strategy to help prepare and protect communities from worsening heat waves, sea level rise, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, flooding, and other climate impacts that are already here and will worsen even if we make deep cuts in global heat-trapping emissions.
  • Fair transition for workers and communities. Pass a comprehensive, well-funded, and sustained transition package for coal workers and communities whose livelihoods and economies are being hurt by the nation’s ongoing transition away from coal. (See the BlueGreen Alliance Solidarity for Climate Action platform and the National Economic Transition platform for more)
  • Environmental justice. Invest in enhancing and enforcing public health safeguards and cleaning up the cumulative and toxic burden of pollution in fenceline and frontline communities, which are disproportionately low-income communities and communities of color. (See the Equitable and Just National Climate platform for more)
  • Preservation of communities’ right of access to the courts as growing numbers of cities, counties, and states seek to hold fossil fuel polluters accountable for climate damages and fraud.

A bright day—and a lot of work ahead

The new president and his administration must meet some (appropriately) high expectations on multiple fronts (COVID-19 pandemic response, health care, economic recovery,  immigration reform, civil rights, and addressing systemic racism, just to name a few) and it will be crucial to keep reminding him of the urgent need to act on climate as part of that high priority list. President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Harris ran on an ambitious climate and clean energy platform, and we will need to hold them to those commitments as much as possible, while also putting pressure on Congress to step up and do its part.

The political realities in Congress remain sobering. We have yet to see a strong bipartisan commitment to climate action. (Frankly, it’s been a while since we’ve seen bipartisan commitment to much of anything.) The outcome of the Senate election (which is still not final) indicates that right now there isn’t a straightforward pathway to getting the 60 votes needed in the Senate to pass a sufficiently ambitious climate bill.

And that’s no accident, in large part because powerful fossil fuel interests continue to stymie progress on climate action while enriching themselves. Some fossil fuel companies are now seeking to reinvent their strategies, making empty climate promises while trying to evade accountability and keep us locked into an energy system they knew half a century ago would destroy the climate. All the while exploiting bankruptcy proceedings to shirk their responsibility to provide retirement and medical benefits to the workers whose labor made them rich and to clean up the legacy environmental damage from the extraction and burning of fossil fuels.

This is all a reminder that the outside game—movement building—remains as important, if not more important, than the inside game in Washington. Policymakers rarely act boldly unless their constituents demand it. Our voices, from towns, cities, states and regions around the country, are vital in the fight ahead. We have to push the envelope of what is considered “politically feasible.” We have to change the politics, not just the policies.

Our climate movement is now the broadest, most diverse, and most powerful it’s ever been, encompassing youth, EJ leaders, labor leaders, community activists, faith groups, businesses, environmental groups, and people of all political stripes. We may not agree on every policy detail, but we all see the urgent need for bold action, guided by science and fairness. We see the disproportionate toll the climate crisis and pollution from fossil fuels is taking on communities of color and low-income communities who have contributed the least to these problems. We see the need to look out for coal workers and coal communities who have kept the lights on for decades and are now being left behind. We see the need for acting in cooperation with other nations, big and small, for the global good.

The months and years ahead won’t be easy. Winning big victories often comes through lots of small fights for what’s important. I hope the spirit of what unifies our movement remains strong and bright, guiding us through those moments when our opponents will seek to divide us.

This election is a win for science

Despite the challenges ahead, there are a lot of reasons to be optimistic today. What I keep coming back to is that finally, once again, we will have a president who will be guided by science—whether it’s for  mounting an effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic or responding to the climate crisis. We will also have a president who has pledged to actually prioritize the needs of ordinary people.

So now let’s make sure he hears us loud and clear. And don’t forget to also contact your senator and representative to let them know you expect them, too, to act on climate. Climate change should not be a partisan issue.

President-elect Biden, we’re counting on your leadership. We’re living in a climate emergency and it’s well past time we acted like it.