What Our Climate Can Look Like Under Biden

16:51 minutes

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Credit: Gage Skidmore/flickr/CC BY-SA 2.0

The transition from a Trump presidency to a Biden administration will be a stark contrast for many sectors—perhaps most notably for climate change. While Trump spent his time in office rolling back environmental rules and regulations and setting the country’s climate progress back, president-elect Joe Biden has promised the most ambitious climate plan of any incoming American president in history. 

The plan is sprawling: investing $400 billion over ten years in clean energy, conserving 30 percent of America’s lands and waters by 2030, and prioritizing environmental justice are just the tip of the plan. Biden also promises to take executive action to reverse the harmful climate rollbacks made during the Trump administration. 

But is this plan realistic, or even possible if Republicans continue control of the Senate? Joining Ira to talk about the Biden plan is Emily Atkin, author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis, and Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones

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Segment Guests

Emily Atkin

Emily Atkin is author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington, D.C..

Rebecca Leber

Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate for Vox, in Washington, DC. Previously, she was Climate and Environment Reporter for Mother Jones.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. The transition from a Donald Trump presidency to a Joe Biden one is going to be dramatically different for a lot of reasons. And a big one– while President Trump spent his time in office rolling back important environmental protections, President-elect Biden has outlined an ambitious climate plan, he says will start on day one of his time in office. At face value, this is undoubtedly the most ambitious climate plan for an incoming American president ever.

There is a lot here. So joining me today to unpack what we know and what we can expect from a Biden presidency in terms of climate are my guests, Emily Atkin, author and founder of HEATED, a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington. And Rebecca Leber, climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones, also in Washington. Welcome back, both of you, to Science Friday.

EMILY ATKIN: Hi. Thanks for having us.

REBECCA LEBER: Great to be back on.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s get into the Biden plan, because as I say there’s a lot to digest here. Rebecca, give us an outline of what has been laid out.

REBECCA LEBER: As you said, it’s an ambitious plan for incoming president. He is tackling climate emissions from a number of sectors, including public plans, electricity, transportation, and infrastructure. So he has targets for eliminating climate emissions from the electricity sector by 2035, conserving 30% of lands by 2030, and a number of other very ambitious dates to basically move us forward in our climate ambitions at the same time that he restores the roughly 100 rules that President Trump has rolled back in his four years.

IRA FLATOW: Does any one part of the plan stick out to you?

REBECCA LEBER: I think a few things to watch in his plan is his emphasis on executive action. As we know, the makeup of Congress is still up in the air with two Senate seats in Georgia. We’re still waiting for the final results on that. And he will probably have to use the power of the White House and has already indicated 10 executive actions he will issue within his first days of office.

And I think the other things to watch here is how the Obama era influence carries through with a lot of the appointments that he has started to hint at or make on his transition team. That there is going to be a lot of voices that we’ve heard from in the Obama era and how that matches up or clashes with progressive activists who want Biden to go even further, like banning fracking, like aggressively targeting the oil industry. So I think those are two areas to watch, especially as we find out what I guess the makeup of the Senate is and his other challenges facing a conservative Supreme Court.

IRA FLATOW: Emily, same question to you what jumps out.

EMILY ATKIN: Well, I think at this point what I’m more interested in now that we’re in this transition era– what’s sticking out to me is not the plan itself, because a plan is not policy, but how Biden is starting to stack his administration to potentially implement this plan and how progressives, climate activists, climate scientists are having a bigger influence in that than ever.

At the same time, you’re also seeing pretty quickly a rhetorical mobilization from the right against efforts to tackle climate change, certainly some signals from the oil and gas industry. That’s what’s sticking out for me now is how we’re going to move forward with this plan.

IRA FLATOW: Emily, Biden says he specifically wants to hold polluters accountable. What do we know about what that could look like?

EMILY ATKIN: On that specific front, the only thing we really know is what’s in the plan. It definitely wasn’t something Biden talked a lot about on the campaign trail, because that means almost talking smack about the oil and gas industry in a campaign which could get you in trouble.

But if you look in the Biden plan, there’s actually pretty strong language about holding polluters accountable. There’s a part where he says he’s going to establish a Department of Climate Justice within the Department of Justice. And it notes that under Trump, the EPA has referred the fewest number of criminal anti-pollution cases to the Justice Department in 30 years.

So Biden has specifically promised not only to pursue cases against polluting corporations to the fullest extent with this new office, but to potentially seek legislation to hold corporate polluters accountable and hold corporate executives personally accountable. I think one thing that hasn’t been talked about a lot is that in the plan it says, we’ll seek to hold corporate executives personally accountable, including jail time where merited. So Biden has actually had pretty strong language on this front.

IRA FLATOW: Very strong. Very strong. Rebecca, you wrote an article about what it will look like for the US to rejoin the Paris Climate Agreement. Can you walk us through why that might be a complicated venture?

REBECCA LEBER: Yeah. So rejoining the Paris Agreement is the easy part. All Biden has to do is sign back on. And after 30 days, the US is back in. But there’s a lot more here that makes this more complicated. And one is Biden would have to submit a new target, because the US is now off base with the Obama era target by 2025.

So if he follows the science, that would mean at least a 40% cut in carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, which is a really difficult goal to accomplish. He also has to get funding for the rest of the US’s commitments to help developing countries tackle climate change. Trump never delivered on the rest of the promises for a $3 billion commitment.

And probably the biggest challenges here is to restore trust and faith in the American commitment on climate change and that we wouldn’t just see a complete reversal and the US withdraw four years later if Republicans were to take over the presidency. So he has a lot to do on multiple fronts to restore that faith. And in the meantime, we’ve seen countries like China really take center stage in fostering those alliances while Trump has pursued this isolationist policy.

IRA FLATOW: Emily, of course, there’s also the problem of not having control of the Senate at this time, even though there is those two Senate seats still up for grabs in Georgia. That means I would imagine that President-elect Biden will have to handle it with some kind of executive orders.

EMILY ATKIN: Yeah. And there are a ton of executive orders that he can do. The Group Evergreen Action actually came out with this list of, I think, 49 executive climate orders that Biden can put through the first day he gets into office if he really wanted to. But at the same time, that’s not a substitute for legislation. You saw how far the Obama administration could go on climate change just using executive power and it wasn’t very far.

And we have the evidence of that just at the state of the climate that we’re in right now, the dire and urgent state that the science tells us that we’re in, and how little time we really have to keep us under that safe level of warming. So there are certainly things he can do. But it would be much easier if there were not a lot of people who are really antagonistic to the science of climate change in power in Congress.

IRA FLATOW: Are there stimulants for green energy development? I know one of the things that’s happening is some of the green energy tax incentives are slowly going away. Is there something in the Biden plan to restore those and to restore more incentives to develop green energy– solar, wind, things like that?

EMILY ATKIN: I mean, the entire Biden climate plan is basically a renewable energy stimulus plan. And I think he went to great lengths to frame it that way and frame it in almost less as a plan to solve this awful crisis that is in front of us, which it is, but you saw him politically frame it as a way to bring jobs and stimulate a green economy.

And I think it would be weird if we didn’t see a lot of action to that front, especially given the amount of money that clean energy, renewable energy donors gave to the Biden campaign. We saw renewable energy interests give at least $25 million to Biden over the course of the 2020 campaign, which is more than the industry has ever given. They had almost oil and gas-like private donor events for Biden. I would be very surprised not to see some sort of incentives for renewable energy.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s talk about the cleanup from the massive amount of Trump administration rollbacks of environmental rules, Emily. What do we know about how the Biden team plans to handle those?

EMILY ATKIN: Well, if Democrats were in control of Congress, it would be real easy. They could just wipe out the regulations pushed through– any regulation in the last 60 days of Trump’s term, because of the Congressional Review Act. Republicans used the Act at least to review and undo at least I think 14 of the Obama administration’s rules, which is kind of wild because before Trump that had only been used one time.

And Biden, he plans to roll back more than 100 Trump administration public health regulations. That will be a little harder if Republicans have the Senate. But there are other ways he can do that, too, including he can file litigation with the Department of Justice to stop some of the ongoing lawsuits against Obama administration rules. There’s a ton he could do.

IRA FLATOW: Rebecca, you touched on this a little earlier. During this election, progressives played a big role in securing the presidency for Biden. A lot of them wanted to do the Green New Deal. He said– he has the Biden sort of New Deal. How do you foresee progressives playing into Biden’s presidency when it comes to climate?

REBECCA LEBER: Right. Progressives really propelled climate as a campaign issue. I think we wouldn’t have seen Biden come out with such comprehensive policy coming into office if groups like Sunrise Movement weren’t pushing him so hard during the primary. But what Biden did during the campaign was– especially after he secured the nomination– was to bring these activists and to bring Alexandria Ocasio Cortez into the fold of this campaign as advisors on climate.

And I think that went a long way to assure activists that he would be serious on climate. Now, I think that as he comes into office, we’re going to see those tensions flare up again. You’re already seeing that as Sunrise has criticized some early appointments on his transition team for some ties to the oil industry.

And I think a lot of it’s going to depend on his personnel. If he is appointing all familiar names from the Obama administration, that might anger activists a bit more than if he brings fresher voices into the fold, especially people who prioritize environmental justice. I think his appointments is really an area that activists are seriously watching. Because as Emily said earlier, plans are not policy, but personnel typically is.

IRA FLATOW: Do you think perhaps there might be a case being made that as he brings Obama-era appointees to posts that will probably touch climate change, that you can make the argument that the Obama-era climate people have grown also and become a little bit more radicalized over the years?

REBECCA LEBER: Right. I think that’s definitely true. I think the economy is in a completely different place than where it was during the Obama administration. That was a time we were still hearing Democrats talk about gas as a bridge fuel and talking about transitioning from coal. Now coal is shrinking. And we know that for a fact that clean energy is out-competing the coal industry.

And I think Democrats have moved on from thinking of gas as a bridge fuel. There is still some tension points, especially when it comes to what to do about existing fracking. There still will be some areas that Democrats do disagree on, but you’re completely right that we are in a different place from the Obama administration. And I think the experts that Biden is bringing in also recognize that.

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow. And this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios, talking about rolling back some of President Trump’s environmental regulations–

EMILY ATKIN: I was just going to– I was just going to jump in.

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead.

EMILY ATKIN: I would even go one step further than what Rebecca is saying, because I have explicitly talked to former Obama-era officials in the EPA and across his administration who worked in climate posts who have told me that they regret their time in office working on climate just because they wished that they had done more. That they did not act with the urgency that they know that they should have.

Very specifically– I even have this on the record in an article I wrote in 2019 for the New Republic– Judith Enck, the EPA Region 2 Administrator, said to me that she knows that they could have done more and that they should have done more. And that they look back on the climate actions that they did and wish that they had done more.

So I think that, again, that’s just rhetoric, but that also doesn’t necessarily mean that these are the same people with the same understanding as they were eight years ago. And that is probably just because of personal things, but also because the state of the climate is different than it was eight years ago. The situation has changed. The urgency has gotten eight years more urgent.

And at a certain point, I think you actually do want some people with experience in administration, in how to work in the government, to be able to push some of these more aggressive climate actions through. You need that. You can’t have people who don’t know– who have never served in government before– if you really want to get this stuff fast-tracked. So I have potentially a little more hope than the average person that some of these officials have changed their tones a bit.

IRA FLATOW: Emily, one last question to you. Right now the administration is rushing to auction off drilling rights to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Could Trump continue to leave even more of a mess for Biden administration to clean up?

EMILY ATKIN: Absolutely. And first of all, I’d be naive not to think he was going to just push through a bunch of stuff in this lame duck era. But second of all, it’s been pretty explicit that that’s exactly what he’s going to do. There are, I think, over 20 outstanding actions at the EPA right now that are under review.

And most analysts and observers have told me that they expect the EPA to speed up their long-term priorities that could– it’s not just opening the Arctic to drilling. There are some policies they’re trying to push through that could really fundamentally change how future regulations are drafted. There’s one plan to restrict the use of scientific research at the EPA that they plan to push through. There’s one to impose cost-benefit forecasting requirements for new air rules.

There is just so much stuff that analysts and experts are bracing for in the coming weeks. And we’ll see how well it works. I think one thing if you’re worried about that is that the Trump administration’s bureaucracy so far has not actually been that great at their legal justifications for undoing a lot of these rules. Their legal justifications have been pretty flimsy, so it might be a little easier than we might think to get some of those reversed.

IRA FLATOW: That’s about all the time we have for today. Great discussion. I’d like to thank both of you. Emily Atkin, author and founder of HEATED. That’s a daily newsletter about the climate crisis. She’s based in Washington. Also based in Washington is Rebecca Leber. Climate and environment reporter for Mother Jones. Thank you both for joining us today.

EMILY ATKIN: Thanks for having us.


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