By Gernot Wagner
Welcome to the wondrous world of climate politics.
On Friday morning, votes were still being counted, leaving Democratic candidate Joe Biden on the brink of claiming victory over President Donald Trump. Control over the U.S. Senate—through which much of Biden’s $2 trillion climate agenda would need to pass—looks likely to hang in the balance of two runoff elections in Georgia. Biden in the White House with Democratic allies in total control of Congress could clearly do much more to rein in carbon-dioxide emissions than a president working alone.
Still, there’s a lot a climate president could do. Even the simple step of returning to science-based policymaking would be an enormous improvement and an important first step. A task force put together during the campaign and led by former Secretary of State John Kerry and Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, identified 56 policy moves on climate and energy that don’t need help from Congress.
To help sort through some of the possibilities, I checked in with energy economist and lawyer Danny Cullenward and political scientist David Victor, authors of the timely new book Making Climate Policy Work. They both emphasized the reality of polarization that will hold true regardless of what happens in Georgia.
“The Senate balanced on a knife-edge will mean that putting through new legislation will require a careful effort to bring along many different interests,” Victor says. “Climate policy by itself won’t carry the day—it must be linked to broader agendas of social justice, addressing inequality, and first and foremost economic recovery.”
The first test will likely be any kind of economic stimulus package. That’s not a certainty with a Republican-controlled Senate, which didn’t vote on a second stimulus bill before the election. But there’s at least some hope, whereas the chance of climate legislation is close to zero. That makes it particularly important for a Biden administration to use a climate lens for any measures aimed at stimulating the economy, since other spending measures will likely be limited.
Republicans’ sudden, newfound love for fiscal austerity may well rekindle interest in a (modest) carbon tax. Expect lots of talk of “budget reconciliation,” a parliamentary process by which budgetary measures can be passed without needing to overcome any filibuster in the Senate.
Senate cooperation might also limit who can be put into any posts requiring Senate confirmation, unless Biden follows President Trump’s lead and bypasses Senate confirmation by appointing people to “acting” posts.
Without the Senate, a Biden presidency could refocus the spotlight on climate policies controlled by the executive branch. Rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement is important, although largely symbolic alone. The key question there is how credible and durable administrative action will be.
Opening a climate office in the White House, which could coordinate executive orders and regulatory actions and, for example, government procurement, would mark a big change. That places the emphasis on agencies and regulatory tools that can set the tone for years to come—think clean infrastructure investments and government building retrofits, rather than reversible short-term action.
These actions would go well beyond regulatory authority under the Clean Air Act, which could help accelerate the move toward cleaner cars and electricity. Cullenward pointed to an important, oft-overlooked agency: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which sets important guidelines around policy support for zero-carbon energy sources. It “operates under a totally different legal paradigm—economic regulation, rather than pollution control or natural resource management,” Cullenward says.
The Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission could also prove crucial. The SEC is essential to setting standards around disclosure of climate-related corporate information. Similarly, the CFTC’s Market Risk Advisory Committee just recently released a major climate report led by Bob Litterman (with whom I have co-authored a recent carbon pricing study). The report’s first recommendation is to “establish a price on carbon,” something neither CFTC itself or anyone in the White House can do alone beyond individual sectors like power generation. But there are dozens of concrete actions financial regulators can take, the report noted, from including climate risk explicitly as part of its mandate “to monitor and identify emerging threats to financial stability.”
Cullenward emphasizes the enormous potential for climate action from a White House “that understands the distinct areas of legal and policy expertise required to navigate a coordinated push in energy regulation, financial regulation, and tax policy.” None of this will come easy, especially not in a deeply divided country. But policy action towards climate is the way the trends now point.
Drowned out by U.S. election news, China this week followed its net carbon-neutrality commitment by 2060 with a pledge to phase out non-hybrid internal combustion engines by 2035. The EU, Japan, South Korea and others have now embraced 2050 targets for zeroing out emissions. A Biden administration’s task of speeding up progress toward a low-carbon, high-efficiency future will be easier than trying to stand in the way of fundamental market trends and apart from the rest of the world. The future always bats next.