The biggest looming problem is the likelihood that Mr. Biden will face Republican resistance in Congress and a conservative Supreme Court inclined to block executive branch initiatives. Two decades ago, many Republicans acknowledged the threat of warming, while the fossil fuel industry funded campaigns to deny it. Now, even major oil companies say that climate change is a severe problem and favor a carbon tax to address it, but Republicans have made denying scientific expertise, and the science on global warming in particular, a matter of core identity. Still, there is room for hope.
Republicans have positioned themselves not only on the wrong side of the merits but also on the wrong side of public opinion. Exit polls showed that two-thirds of 2020 voters — including a massive chunk of Trump voters — think climate change is a serious problem. Many voters backed the president in spite of, not because of, his position on climate change. Meanwhile, educated suburban voters, once the keystone of the Republican coalition, recoiled from President Trump’s efforts to accelerate the GOP’s transformation into what then-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) termed “the stupid party.” Many Republican senators still represent these suburban constituencies. They should seek ways to show that they are more thoughtful than the president the suburbs just rejected.
They could do this by supporting a bipartisan climate plan that is neither the Green New Deal nor the do-nothing-ism that has so long prevailed. A proposal backed by senior Republican luminaries James A. Baker III and George P. Shultz, along with a massive swath of corporate America, would put a steadily rising fee on carbon emissions and rebate the proceeds back to Americans.
The path is narrow. If Republicans retain the Senate and it becomes clear that major legislation would go nowhere, Mr. Biden would be left with small-bore legislative options: boosting funds for environmental agencies; securing money to build out electricity transmission lines and public transit; advancing federal incentives for renewables. Mr. Biden could get some of these passed early on, in a covid-19 aid bill or a federal budget bill, and maintain pressure for larger climate legislation. But he should also prepare for the possibility that the bigger bill never comes.
The Clean Air Act delegates substantial authority to the president. The second he enters the Oval Office, Mr. Biden should reinstate and build on President Barack Obama’s legacy environmental regulations — rules on methane emissions, power plants and auto efficiency, to name a few — and integrate climate considerations into the exercise of every other executive authority he commands. He can also restart U.S. climate diplomacy by immediately reentering the Paris climate agreement.
In the past four years, the economics of clean energy have improved vastly, foreign countries have upped their game, and demand among businesses for federal action has shot up. If that still does not translate into passing a big climate bill, it may be that Mr. Biden can nevertheless cobble together enough smaller initiatives that, added together, lead to large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.