Joe Biden will be the 46th president of the United States. That much is clear to anyone not named Steve Bannon. But the odds are, during at least his first two years in office, he will need to deal with the same Senate Republicans who supported his predecessor’s full scale assault on science, common sense, and rational thought. Biden has suggested he will rejoin the Paris Climate Accords immediately upon taking office. He also has a $2 trillion plan to move the United States toward a reduced carbon future. Part of that plan calls for 100% renewable energy and a net zero economy by 2035. The president elect has forthrightly termed climate change as “the #1 issue facing humanity.”
Clearly, Biden’s path forward would be greatly simplified if Democrats controlled the Senate. Some of us have a secret fantasy of Vice President Kamala Harris presiding over an evenly divided Senate and telling Mitch McConnell to his face, “Winners make the rules. Losers go home.” As delightful as that would be, it’s not likely to happen. There will be two runoff Senate elections in Georgia in January and it is just too much to hope that Democrats will win both. Even winning one is a long shot. The only thing we can be sure of is those will be the most expensive Senate campaigns in history. Just don’t get your hopes up.
Writing in the New Yorker, Bill McKibben, who along with Dr. James Hansen and Michael Mann can claim to be a member in good standing of America’s pantheon of climate heroes, has a few suggestions for the next president about how he can accomplish his climate goals without the willing support of any Republicans in Congress. He suggests focusing “on the country’s cities and states, which are already driving the clean energy push. A Biden presidency should be able to protect California’s electric-vehicle mandate, for instance, and that should be enough to keep Detroit driving in the right direction.”
“It’s also worth remembering that Washington is just one power center in the United States,” McKibben says. “Wall Street is the other major one, and its biggest constituencies — people with money — live in the solidly blue corners of the country. A Biden Treasury Secretary or S.E.C. chair will make it easier to pressure the big banks and the asset managers to take the financial risks of fossil-fuel investment more seriously — but this is also a place for movements to focus. The StopTheMoneyPipeline coalition (which, full disclosure, I helped organize) put enough pressure on JPMorgan Chase over the past year that the bank — the world’s biggest fossil fuel lender — declared last month that it would become ‘Paris aligned.’ It’s not yet clear how much that means but continued pressure will force Chase and others to keep pushing the boundaries.”
McKibben points out that the failure to create a Blue Wave that swept aside all the impediments to climate action was a major setback for the country. Among other things, it allows other countries to soft-pedal their own climate action goals, knowing Uncle Sam has one hand tied behind his back by a recalcitrant opposition. Like many of us, he is puzzled why voters failed to expel some of the worst climate deniers from the national government, given that recent polls showed the majority of Americans favor policies that will promote clean energy. Even a Fox News poll showed 70% of Americans “support increasing government spending on green and renewable energy.”
Unfortunately, the will of the voters is not embraced by the leaders of the Republican Party, who are owned lock, stock, and 42 gallon barrel by Charles Koch and his dedicated group of climate assassins. (A barrel of crude oil contains 42 gallons of liquid death.) These are the fun folks who brought a clean coal presentation to an international climate conference in 2017. “We are where we are and we have to do all that we can,” McKibben says philosophically.
There is one other thing Joe Biden could do. He could make Bill McKibben the head of the Environmental Protection Agency. That would really set the cat among the pigeons.
Bloomberg Weighs In
In an email, Bloomberg takes a look at some of the clean energy and climate change voting trends that were in play during the election. “Pre-election polls showed broad support for climate friendly policies, and in a few cases voters got to weigh in directly. Voters in the the battleground state of Nevada passed a ballot question requiring utilities get half of their electricity from renewable sources by 2030. The measure won 57% support, making it more popular than either presidential candidate.” (Emphasis added.)
In September, researchers from Yale University and George Mason University worked with Climate Nexus on a poll of 2,000 registered voters. Asked if they would vote for a candidate who wanted “electric utility companies in the U.S. to generate 100% of their electricity from clean energy sources” by 2035, two thirds said they would.
Jon Krosnick is a Stanford University professor who has conducted polls on climate policies for more than two decades. He tells Bloomberg that Americans overwhelmingly favor government incentives to build more wind, solar, and hydroelectric capacity. More than 80% of those polled favored tax breaks for utilities that reduce greenhouse gas emissions — policies that could end up being blocked by Senate Republicans.
Public support extends beyond a cleaner electric grid. The Yale and George Mason survey found 71% of voters support legislation “eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the transportation, electricity, buildings, industry, and agricultural sectors in the United States by the year 2050,” a key aspect of the Biden climate plan. 71% favor stricter emission and efficiency standards for cars and appliances, a clear rebuke to the policies of the outgoing administration.
What doesn’t fly with voters is a carbon tax, perhaps because they have not been clearly informed how such a policy would return much of the money collected directly to them. According to Data for Progress, just one quarter of voters want to put a price on carbon dioxide emissions while 55% supported stronger standards and increased investment in clean energy. Taxes and fees on consumers, as opposed to measures that target businesses, received little support in polls.
Implementing Biden’s climate plans will be a daunting challenge. If, as frequently happens, the party in power loses seats in Congress in the midterm elections, it could become impossible. The challenge now is to prevent a resurgence of the know-nothing willful ignorance that was rampant in the current administration. As Kamala Harris said on Friday night, the struggle for Earth justice, social justice, and racial justice never ends. It is a constant, ongoing process. In a very real sense, the starting gun for the 2024 presidential election has already been fired.
As soon as Martin Luther King finished his heroic “I have a dream” speech, powerful forces began plotting how to blunt his message. As soon as same-sex marriage and equal rights for LGBTQ citizens became the law of the land, those same powerful forces began plotting how to invalidate them. As soon as FDR’s New Deal became law, powerful forces began to tear it down.
All victories are temporary. Joe Biden has a vision, one that CleanTechnica readers strongly agree with. Winning the election was the easy part. Now the hard work of governing begins.