Biden’s team already has plans on how it will restrict oil and gas drilling on public lands and waters; ratchet up federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs; block pipelines that transport fossil fuels across the country; provide federal incentives to develop renewable power; and mobilize other nations to make deeper cuts in their own carbon emissions.
In a victory speech Saturday night, Biden identified climate change as one of his top priorities as president, saying Americans must marshal the “forces of science” in the “battle to save our planet.”
“Joe Biden ran on climate. How great is this?” said Gina McCarthy, who headed the Environmental Protection Agency during President Barack Obama’s second term and now helms the Natural Resources Defense Council. “It’ll be time for the White House to finally get back to leading the charge against the central environmental crisis of our time.”
Biden has vowed to eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 and spend $2 trillion on investments ranging from weatherizing homes to developing a nationwide network of charging stations for electric vehicles. That massive investment plan stands a chance only if his party wins two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January; otherwise, he would have to rely on a combination of executive actions and more-modest congressional deals to advance his agenda.
Still, a number of factors make it easier to enact more-ambitious climate policies than even four years ago. Roughly 10 percent of the globe has warmed by 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit), a temperature rise the world has pledged to avoid. The price of solar and wind power has dropped, the coal industry has shrunk, and Americans increasingly connect the disasters they’re experiencing in real time — including more-intense wildfires, hurricanes and droughts — with global warming. Biden has made the argument that curbing carbon will produce high-paying jobs while protecting the planet.
Biden’s advisers are well aware of the potential and pitfalls of relying on executive authority to act on climate. Obama used it to advance major climate policies in his second term, including limits on tailpipe emissions from cars and light trucks and the 2015 Paris climate agreement. Trump has overturned them, along with 125 others.
League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski pointed to California — which has already adopted a low-carbon fuels standard and requirement that half its electricity come from carbon-free sources within five years — as a model. “You look at where California is now going, the federal government needs to get there."
Some of the new administration’s rules could be challenged in federal court, which have a number of Trump appointees on the bench. But even some conservative activists said that Biden could enact enduring policies.
Myron Ebell, who directs the Center for Energy and the Environment at the libertarian Competitive Enterprise Institute, said that if Biden faces a GOP-controlled Senate, “it means that all of the nuttiest and most radical ideas on the left are dead on arrival in the Congress. And that means he is much more likely to be successful because he can just tell his left-wing supporters, ‘Hey, we just can’t do this.’ ”
McKie Campbell, managing partner of the bipartisan energy consulting firm BlueWater Strategies and a former top aide to Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), said he hopes divided government “means we may have a return of people working with each other to work out some solutions. The question is, in the middle, do you have compromise, or do you have stalemate, and nothing happens.”
The new administration may be able to broker compromises with key industries that have experienced regulatory whiplash in the past decade, including the auto industry and power sector, while offering tax breaks for renewable energy that remain popular with both parties. And Biden can rebuild diplomatic alliances that will spur foreign countries to pursue more-ambitious carbon reductions.
Some activists are pressing for the creation of a White House interagency group, similar to the National Security Council and National Economic Council, that could steer decisions across the federal government. Even without such a body, Biden’s advisers have said that they plan to elevate climate change as a priority in departments that have not always treated it as one, including the Transportation, State and Treasury departments. It will influence key appointments, affecting everything from overseas banking and military bases to domestic roads and farms.
“It’s really important to remember that personnel is policy,” said Tom Steyer, a billionaire environmentalist who ran against Biden during the primary but who then raised money for him. “And every Cabinet position has to be staffed by somebody who has an awareness about climate.”
Mustafa Santiago Ali, vice president of environmental justice, climate, and community revitalization at the National Wildlife Federation, said these policies will also be shaped by how they affect communities of color.
“When we talk about new jobs being created in the renewable energy sector, just because they’re being created doesn’t mean they are going to the communities that have been ignored in the past,” said Ali, who left his post at the EPA early in Trump’s term. “This administration is going to have a diverse set of voices on the outside and inside who are connected to what’s going on on the ground. We can’t just have voices from people who went to Ivy League schools that come from a place of privilege.”
Biden’s campaign has been eyeing a range of candidates for top environmental posts, including two New Mexico Democrats — retiring senator Tom Udall and Rep. Deb Haaland — for interior secretary. Mary Nichols, who has implemented many of the nation’s most liberal climate policies for more than a dozen years as chair of the California Air Resources Board — is a leading contender to head the EPA.
It is unclear who might coordinate climate policy at the White House. Possible contenders include several Obama administration veterans, including Ali Zaidi, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s (D) top climate adviser; Biden’s former national security adviser Jake Sullivan; and Adewale “Wally” Adeyemo, a former deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the National Economic Council. While former secretary of state John F. Kerry may get involved with climate policy, according to two individuals familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations, it is less likely that he will join the White House staff and could seek a different spot in the Cabinet.
Biden’s vow to reinvigorate climate diplomacy, including rejoining the Paris accord, is one of the easiest ones to fulfill. He could also capitalize on Republican senators’ support for slashing the use of hydrofluorcarbons, chemicals widely used in air conditioners and refrigeration that are warming the planet and that are supposed to be phased out under a separate international climate agreement.
“Joe Biden’s win ratifies what’s been clear all along: despite Trump’s best efforts, the American people have remained committed to the Paris agreement. Business, investors, cities, and states redoubled their efforts to solve the climate crisis, proving that the path to a sustainable economy is inevitable,” said former vice president Al Gore in a statement Saturday.
While Biden has said he would “transition” away from using oil, and target fossil fuel subsidies, steps like that would be much harder under a Republican-controlled Senate. Unless Democrats take over, the seats of two senators from coal states — John Barrasso (Wyo.) and Shelley Moore Capito (WVa.) — are slated to helm the Energy and Natural Resources and Environment and Public Works Committee, respectively. Those committees also have say over whom Biden puts in top-level positions at the EPA and other agencies.
Democrats are eager to take sweeping acts to conserve public lands and waters, many of which have been opened up to drilling, logging and fishing under Trump. He’s vowed to block permits for the Keystone XL pipeline and the proposed Pebble Mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay, and protect vast swaths of the landscape that Trump has opened up to mining and logging.
Udall said in a recent interview that Biden is poised to sign an executive order on the “30 by 30” pledge early on and that it will serve as “an organizing principle” for environmental policy decisions. “We don’t have any other options when it comes to facing down the climate crisis, and the nature crisis."
But some of Biden’s most ambitious environmental pledges will be difficult to fulfill. His climate plan calls for “banning new oil and gas permitting on public lands and waters,” something no administration has ever done on a permanent basis.
And Republican attorneys general like West Virginia’s Patrick Morrisey are ready for battle. In an interview Thursday, Morrisey — who successfully challenged Obama’s Clean Power Plan — said before the race was called for Biden that he backs the president and sees “a pathway” for him to win reelection.
But, he added, “If Biden were to somehow prevail, we would fight to prevent the administration from advancing the same kind of unlawful approaches they pursued under the Obama administration.”
Biden’s pledge to achieve a carbon-free U.S. power sector within 15 years would mean the closing or revamping of nearly every coal- and gas-fired power plant around the country, and the construction of an unprecedented number of new wind turbines and solar farms. On top of that, engineers still need to devise a better way of storing energy when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.
“If I were advising Biden on energy, my first three priorities would be storage, storage and storage,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who worked in the alternative energy businesses before running for office.
Industry representatives are more wary of a Biden presidency but hold out hope they can persuade him that the commodities they produce are necessary for a healthy economy.
Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer, whose Pittsburgh-based group represents companies that drill horizontally for natural gas, said that their product helps warm homes, produce steel for windmills and solar panels, and make plastics that businesses need. “We wrap ourselves in plastic every time we get in a car or a bus or a plane."
Still, climate activists who pushed Biden during the campaign don’t intend to let up on the pressure. “We’re seeing that Joe Biden has a climate mandate,” said Varshini Prakash, head of the youth-led Sunrise Movement, “and we expect him to do everything in his power to act on climate change.”
Sarah Kaplan contributed to this report.