Winning the election may be the easiest task Joe Biden and the Democratic Party have to accomplish over the next several years. Governing, however, is another matter. In both cases, climate policy has a prominent role to play. Will a President Biden be able to do what Obama didn’t—put the nation on a path to sustainability?
It’s hardly a revelation to say that the outcome of the 2020 elections—for the presidency and Congress—are of historical importance in the nation’s fight against Earth’s warming and the transition to a sustainable economy.
The election of Donald Trump has been an unmitigated disaster for the environment. If his administration’s assault on 100 environmental regulations were not bad enough, there is the time lost in moving to slow the rate of Earth’s temperature rise and helping cities and farm communities adapt to the changes wrought by it.
Climate-related issues in previous presidential election years would rank high on voter priority lists at the beginning of each cycle only to be overshadowed by issues or circumstances thought more pressing. IT WAS THE ECONOMY STUPID—for the last three election cycles.
If it wasn’t the economy, then it could have been healthcare or terrorism or almost anything but the environment. In 2016, the environment barely earned a mention by either candidate during the campaign.
A Gallup poll early in the 2016 cycle found that 62 percent of voters thought the federal government was doing too little to protect the environment. A later survey by the Center for Local, State, and Urban Policy, found that a record number of Americans believed the climate was changing and that humans bore some responsibility for it.
Despite these numbers, the environment ended up near the bottom of the voter priority lists in 2016. (Figure 1) But that wasn’t the worst of it—not by a long shot.
According to the Environmental Voter Project, over ten million registered environmental voters never showed up at their polling places. According to other data, fewer than 80 percent of Sanders’s primary voters cast their ballots for Clinton, while 12 percent actually voted for Trump. In an election that was determined by 100,000 votes spread across three swing states, those numbers mattered.
Prior to the pandemic, primary voters from Iowa to South Carolina—at least the Democrats—had climate at or very near the top of their priority lists. Were this year’s election cycle like those that came before it, it could be expected that climate would once again be elbowed down towards the bottom of voter and candidate priority lists.
This year’s national election cycle is not like those that came before, and climate remains a priority of voters and candidates alike and is in little danger of being ignored. I can say this with a very high degree of confidence and for good reasons.
First, there has been a seismic shift in the minds of Americans—Republicans and Democrats—about climate change and its impact on their communities. Better yet, the Pew Research Center just released the results of a recent survey indicating that the COVID-19 contagion has done nothing to dampen climate concerns and the need for substantive government action.
The May 5th poll of nearly 11,000 US adults found that 60 percent consider climate change a major threat to the well-being of the nation—the highest percentage found by any Pew survey dating back to 2009. (Figure 2)
Digging deeper into the findings, one discovers that two-thirds (65 percent) of Americans say the federal government is doing too little to reduce the effects of climate change – a view that’s about as widely held today as it was last fall. Consistent with these numbers, 79 percent of Americans say the priority for the country’s energy supply should be developing alternative sources, such as wind and solar; only 20 percent place any priority on expanding the production of oil, coal, and natural gas.
Those surveyed (58 percent) also believe that to effectuate a consumer shift towards renew-ables will require government regulation. Far fewer (39 percent) felt that the private sector could do this on its own.
Although climate remains a highly-charged partisan issue, Republicans have been showing a greater willingness to accept what the scientists are saying about the causes and consequences of Earth’s warming. Rising climate concerns in the minds of young Republicans have become so well-documented that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has been pressuring his caucus to stop denying climate science and start proposing some of their own solutions to the problem.
Although Republican and Democratic climate-related proposals differ dramatically, bipartisan support for some things can be found. According to Pew’s May survey, initiatives like tree planting and taxing carbon make the list of actions on which partisans can agree. (Figure 3)
What’s different about this year than election cycles gone by is how climate change has become a part of the dialogue about most of the issues that ail society today. Whether the discussion is about a post-pandemic economic recovery plan or systemic racism—climate is there. In debates about mutual security between NATO allies—climate is there.
In Trump’s speeches and tweets warning America of Democratic totalitarianism and the eco-fascism of a progressive squad of Congressional women of color—climate change is there in the guise of the Green New Deal. Even if the Democrats wanted to leave climate change and the need to transition the nation to a low-carbon economy out of political debates, Mr. Trump wouldn’t let them.
Although Trump views climate change as just another Democratic hoax and wind energy systems as a cause of cancer, most Americans understand that Earth’s warming is a problem. One that needs to be addressed and that the solutions can and should be an integral part of a post-pandemic economy. To solve the climate problem is to contribute to the solutions of multiple other issues.
Climate solutions are in the mix, whether reducing the health risks of at-risk communities of color, creating new jobs for workers in the fossil fuel sector whose jobs are lost to the greater competitiveness of solar and wind or adapting communities to the realities of rising ocean levels. Contributing to voter understanding of the cost and benefits of defending the nation against the ravages of climate change is the shift towards sustainability going on within the private sector.
Should Biden win the election, he will be the first president in US history to have been swept into office—at least in part—on a green wave. Yes, but can he govern green?
Why does there always have to be a “but”?
Things can always change, but as of today, it appears that Trump will be “land-slid” out of office in November. A Biden landslide could carry with it Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate.
Once sworn into office, President Biden can be expected to act within hours to counterman all of Trump’s anti-climate executive orders and directives. But—any regulation considered final could only be rescinded or revised by going through another rulemaking, which could take up to several years. That is assuming no legal challenges from red states and impacted industries and companies—a big assumption at best. Of the 100 climate-related regulations targeted by the Trump administration’s 66 have been completed with 34 pending.
To have any chance of slowing the rate of Earth’s warming and adapting communities to the changes already underway, a sweeping integrated environment, energy, and economic plan is required. But--it need not be the exact plan proposed by Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) in 2018.
Within recent months and weeks, Democrats in the House have put forward several legislative proposals that certainly meet many of the requirements of a climate-wise and just economy. The proposed plans include the CLEAN Futures Act, the Invest in America Act, and the roadmap of the House Select Committee on the Climate Crisis.
In addition to the works of Congressional Democrats, multiple Democratic, progressive, community, and labor groups all have climate plans or plan criteria that can be turned into sweeping legislation. Among the groups are Climate Power 2020, Evergreen Action, the climate policy task force of the Biden and Sanders campaigns, Data for Progress, the BlueGreen Alliance, and the NAACP.
The Democratic capture of the White House and Congress could greatly improve the chances of a broad-based climate plan being enacted within the two-year term of the 117th Congress. But—the last time the Democrats controlled the White House and both chambers of Congress the American Clean Energy and Security Act, the most comprehensive legislation in decades, never made it to President Obama’s desk for signature. In fact, the proposed law, popularly referred to as the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill, never made it onto the Senate floor. Although passing the House under the leadership of Speaker Pelosi, it was stopped in its tracks by Senate Majority Leader Reid (D-NV).
Things are different now. Climate remains a top-tier voter issue, even surviving the onslaught of a global pandemic and the tweetered taunting of President Trump. Many Republicans—both those in the establishment and on college campuses—support policies like those in Waxman-Marky. Recent Democratic proposals allow for carbon taxation, as well as other popular bi-partisan measures like trillions of trees and stricter fuel efficiency standards. All that, and more is true.
But—should Biden be elected and the Democrats capture Congress they will owe a debt to a very diverse set of voters including Democrats and independents of every political color and persuasion--along with many traditional moderate and conservative Republicans who just couldn’t take Mr. Trump and perhaps Senators McConnell (R-KY), Lindsey (R-SC), Collins (R-ME)and Ernst (R-IA) anymore.
What’s the likelihood that all of those to whom Mr. Biden will be beholden could possibly get along with each other within a coalition government? After the 2018 midterm elections and well into the current primary season, Democrats had trouble enough getting along with themselves.
With raging contagions and culture wars, our country is a much more conflicted place than in 2016 or 2018. Is primal dislike of the chaos wrought by the Trump presidency and growing recognition that climate change is real and government needs to step-up enough to foster the compromise that will be required to pass legislation as complicated as an integrated energy, environment, and economic plan? It has never been done in US history.
Is Biden the man for the time or just the fortunate beneficiary of it? I wish I knew.
But--what I do know is that in America anything is possible.
Lead image: Thanks to Morning Brew and Unsplash
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.