Much of the world was holding its breath for the last week as the chance of living with an equitable climate in the long-term literally depends on whether the new US administration works for, or against, climate change.
The stakes are high and — not for nothing — there was a global sigh of relief when Joe Biden was declared the winner, as his stated plans for tackling climate change show considerable ambition.
He pledged to re-join the Paris agreement ‘on day one’ of his presidency and to invest more than $2tn in stimulating a green economy funded by reversing Donald Trump’s tax cuts for corporates. He also aims to put in place domestically enforceable decarbonization targets, which require legislative and regulatory changes, including ‘green trade’ through border carbon adjustment taxes.
However, the euphoria does need to be tempered by the reality that Biden’s hands may be tied, as control of the 100-seat Senate may end up in favour of the Republicans if they win the vital run-off elections in Georgia for the two remaining seats on 5 January.
This means congressional approval could be difficult on the more ambitious and radical aspects of his pledges, especially as Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell said of green policies that ‘if I’m still the majority leader in the Senate think of me as the Grim Reaper…None of that stuff is going to pass’.
As both Obama and Trump have showed, Biden can bypass Congress by use of executive orders, but the ease with which Trump overturned Obama’s orders shows this is not a long-term solution, and climate action desperately needs a consistently ambitious US. The fact Obama could not get the Republican-controlled Senate to ratify the Paris Agreement meant Trump could withdraw from it without congressional approval.
But the short-termism of presidential executive orders does work in Biden’s favour. The House of Representatives, having been Democrat-controlled for the last two years, forced Trump’s regressive rollback of environmental regulations to be reliant on his executive order, so the yo-yoing will continue when Biden overturns Trump.
But the extent to which he will drive change via executive orders is unclear. Biden has pledged to reduce methane from the oil and gas industry, but has not gone as far as many environmental campaigners would have liked by openly condemning fracking.
The most difficult is to secure the federal tax reforms necessary to fund Biden’s ambitious $2tn of green investment, and a Republican Senate could severely limit this pledge. But Biden could squeeze more Green Deal-type federal spending into the coronavirus relief bill, which will likely be the litmus test of how far McConnell will go in shutting down the president-elect’s climate ambitions.
There are more tools in the presidential toolbox than just executive orders. Making climate-leaning appointments to the heads of the federal agencies combined with using existing laws such as the Clean Air Act could help tighten regulations and standards in areas such as transport emission standards.
This could support the efforts of many states which maintained admirable momentum in opposition to Trump’s pro-fossil fuel policies, such as California. However, a Republican Senate coupled with a 6-3 conservative-leaning Supreme Court means there are plenty of routes by which action can be stymied.
Without an easy route to congressional approval, the most important casualties of the new administration’s green ambition could be the domestic legislative and enforceable targets towards a net-zero economy, and a national carbon tax, along with any consistency of US climate diplomacy if a less climate-ambitious president is elected in 2024.
But if the Democrats flip the incumbent Republicans in Georgia, the Senate becomes tied and the vice-president has the casting vote, thereby widening Biden’s options with nominal control of Congress, and creating the possibility of the US comprehensively tackling its emissions-bloated economy.
Without control of the Senate, the ride is much bumpier with more legal action meaning domestic ambition will likely fall away and the longevity of policies put into question. However, not only are Trump’s executive orders supporting fossil fuels low-hanging fruit for the new president, other mechanisms are also open to significantly progressive climate policies, while climate policy on the international stage is predominately the reserve of the executive.
The urgency of the global climate emergency really requires a US president able to enact the most radical and ambitious climate policies possible, preferably protected by congressional ratification. For that, the hope is the president-elect has a ticket to ride on the midnight train to Georgia ahead of the crucial January vote.