WASHINGTON – Joe Biden’s US$2 trillion (S$2.71 trillion) plan to fight global warming is the most ambitious climate policy proposed by a leading presidential candidate, a political lightning rod spotlighted Thursday night (Oct 22) when the Democratic nominee acknowledged during a debate that it would “transition” the country “from the oil industry”.
But no one knows better than Biden, a former vice president, that it almost surely will not be enacted, even if his party secures the White House and the Senate. Thirty-six years in the Senate and the searing experience of watching the Obama administration’s less ambitious climate plan die a decade ago have taught him the art of the possible.
Still, a President Biden could have real impact: solar panels and wind turbines spread across the country’s mountains and prairies, electric charging stations nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations and a gradual decrease in the nation’s planet-warming greenhouse pollution.
“The oil industry pollutes significantly,” Biden said at the final presidential debate, adding, “it has to be replaced by renewable energy over time”.
Biden’s advisers insist that climate change is not just a political slogan. And on Capitol Hill, his team is already strategising with Democratic leaders on how they can realistically turn at least some of those proposals into law.
“There are three things we have to do – climate, economic equality and democracy,” said Senator Chuck Schumer, who would become the majority leader if the Democrats win control of the Senate. “All three are vital, and climate is not going to be the caboose.”
If Biden wins, he will face a dilemma he knows well – so much to do, and so little time. As a newly inaugurated vice president, he and Barack Obama dove first into passing an economic recovery bill in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, then focused on the Affordable Care Act. By the time Congress moved to climate change, the White House’s political capital was exhausted.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi in 2010 forced the House to approve complicated legislation to cap carbon emissions, but that “cap and trade” bill never even came to a vote in the Senate. Its passage in the House helped sweep Democrats from power months later.
“The biggest factor in not getting climate change done in 2010 was health care,” said Phil Schiliro, who was Obama’s liaison to Congress at the time. “And this could happen again, with the other things that have to come first. The coronavirus is such an enormous wild card.”
If Biden wins the White House but Republicans hold Senate control, Biden’s loftiest climate pledges will certainly die.
In that scenario, “All Biden can try to do is cobble back together the Obama environmental agenda,” said Douglas Brinkley, a historian who focuses on presidents’ environmental legacies.
That would include, he said, rejoining the international Paris accords – the agreement between nations to fight climate change, which President Donald Trump is withdrawing from – and reinstating Obama-era climate regulations. And with a 6-3 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, even that could be thwarted.
But even a narrow Democratic majority in the Senate would leave a President Biden with options. And this time around, Biden wants to do it differently, not with a stand-alone climate bill but by tucking climate measures into broader, popular legislation to insulate them from partisan attack.
Democrats’ initial pass would most likely come in an economic recovery package. The US$787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act passed in 2009, which Biden was responsible for putting in effect, included about US$90 billion in clean energy infrastructure spending.
With Congress arguing over a coronavirus relief bill measured in trillions of dollars, that US$90 billion total is “going to look very small”, said Democratic Senator Edward Markey. “It’s going to be a big, big, big number that goes into that stimulus bill.”
An infrastructure bill, long promised by Trump, could follow and include language from Biden’s climate plan to promote construction of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations and build 1.5 million new energy-efficient homes. It is also expected that a Biden White House would push aggressively for provisions to promote trains and high-speed rail.
“I will fight for a big, bold climate package,” Schumer said, “and as leader, will be focused on assembling a climate package that meets the scale and the scope of the problem”.
If those spending measures cannot secure enough Republican support to beat a filibuster, Schumer plans to use a budgetary procedure, called reconciliation, to muscle through climate spending and tax policy. Trump and President George W. Bush used reconciliation to pass their huge tax cuts, and Obama passed part of the Affordable Care Act using the rule.
More than a year ago, Schumer tasked Democrats on the Senate committees responsible for climate policy to begin crafting climate-related tax legislation that could be bundled into a larger budget bill. Such policies could include extending tax credits for wind and solar power or increasing royalties for oil and gas drilling on public lands. They could possibly include a tax on carbon dioxide emissions, although passage of such a measure would violate Biden’s pledge not to raise taxes on families with income below US$400,000.
“Nothing is off the table,” Schumer said.
Many Republicans are expected to oppose those efforts, countering that they could harm the economy, but some gas-and-coal-state Democrats who balked at Obama’s cap-and-trade bill say they have shifted over the past decade as the politics and reality of climate change have grown more urgent.
“What’s changed is that it’s gotten worse,” said Sen Jon Tester, who said in 2010 that he worried that Obama’s bill would harm his state’s agriculture and coal industries.
“We’re supposed to get our first frost tonight – in October, a month late,” Tester said, speaking by telephone from his farm in Big Sandy, Montana. “You really have to have your head buried in the sand not to see we’ve got a problem.”
Other coal-state Democrats are not there. Sen Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who shot a copy of Obama’s climate bill in a campaign ad in 2010 and re-upped it in 2018, will play a key role in any climate debate, particularly if he becomes chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.
“I share Vice President Biden’s concern for tackling climate change,” Manchin wrote in an email, but added that major policy changes would not be accepted at face value. “The devil is in the details.”
With so much legislative experience, Biden knows what he would be up against, but few would count him out.
“Joe Biden has proved throughout his career that he can bring people together to pass consequential legislation,” said Matt Hill, a spokesman for Biden.
Michael McKenna, who served as a liaison to Congress for Trump, compared a potential Biden administration to Bill Clinton’s negotiating team.
“They’d say, ‘Here’s what we can do,’ and then you start looking for the Venn diagram of what you could do and what they wanted,” said McKenna, a veteran energy lobbyist. Biden, he added, “gets the racket”.
But beyond spending and taxation, real policy changes cannot pass through reconciliation under Senate rules. They will need 60 votes and Republican support. One policy target is a “clean energy standard” – a law mandating a fast transition to zero-carbon electricity generation from wind, solar, hydro and nuclear power. That would go a long way toward ensuring that Biden meets his campaign pledge of eliminating planet-warming pollution from the electricity sector by 2035.
It would also be a tough sell.
“Not going to happen,” McKenna predicted. “The progressives are going to be disappointed.” Other policy proposals that would need bipartisan support include the establishment of a new government research agency focused solely on solutions to climate change; a mandate for the federal government to purchase hybrid and electric vehicles; and a measure to promote the widespread use of farm equipment that captures planet-warming methane emissions from manure.
The rest of the world will be watching.
“If we have Biden as president, and he will announce very quickly that he will rejoin Paris and do pieces of regulation that he can control – if he can only muster that, we should remember that those will have an impact,” said Laurence Tubiana, who served as France’s chief climate ambassador during the 2015 Paris negotiations.
But, she said, spending money and reinstating rules will not be enough to meet the emission reductions needed from the world’s largest economy, nor will that secure the global influence the United States once had. For that, she said, “it will be essential to have a law”.