The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Here's what Biden can get done on climate change even without the Senate


with Alexandra Ellerbeck

President-elect Joe Biden won the White House after making climate change a major plank of his campaign. Soon it will be time for him to see what he can actually get done once he is in office.

Many of the most ambitious parts of his sweeping $2 trillion plan for tackling climate change face an enormous uphill battle in Congress. His massive investment plan only stands a chance if his party wins two Senate runoff races in Georgia in January. If that happens, Democrats would have control of both chambers since the incoming vice president, Kamala D. Harris, would be able to break the 50-50 Senate tie. 

The stakes could not be higher. As Biden’s term soon begins, the world faces ever more dangerous and irreversible levels of warming because of the continued buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere from not just the United States but countries around the world.

But as Juliet Eilperin, Darryl Fears and I report, there is plenty his administration can still get done through a combination of executive actions.

Here is what Biden could get done even if Republicans retain control of the Senate: 

1. Rejoin the Paris climate accord.

Biden’s vow to reinvigorate climate diplomacy, including rejoining the 2015 agreement brokered by President Barack Obama, is one of the easiest ones to fulfill. The day after Election Day, Biden suggested on Twitter that reversing the withdrawal may be among his first actions in office. 

During the campaign, the former vice president made the case that he could use his negotiating skills, honed during nearly four decades in the Senate, to cajole China, India and other countries into further cutting emissions under the agreement — and to pressure Brazil into preserving the Amazon, which serves as the lungs of the Earth by absorbing carbon dioxide.

He could also capitalize on Republican senators’ support for slashing the use of hydrofluorocarbons, 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.

2. Staff the government with people committed to making climate a priority. 

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. 

Possible contenders for coordinating climate policy at the White House 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. 

Although 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.

And 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.

Yet at least a few Senate Republicans, should the party keep the chamber, will have to consent to any Cabinet-level official Biden wants to install. That may limit Biden to more moderate options.

3. Restore dozens of environmental rules and issue several new ones.

Biden’s team already has plans on how it will ratchet up federal mileage standards for cars and SUVs, block pipelines that transport fossil fuels, put new limits on methane emissions from oil and gas wells and require public companies to disclose the risks they face from rising temperatures.

His deputies will also seek to undo many of the Trump administration’s more than 125 rollbacks of policies protecting the nation’s air, water and land. That may end up including a new version of Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which sought to cut greenhouse gases from coal-fired power plants.

Democrats are also eager to take sweeping acts to conserve public lands and waters, many of which have been opened up to drilling, logging and fishing under President Trump. Biden has 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.

He is also likely to soon restore the original boundaries of national monuments Trump has shrunk, including Utah’s Grand Staircase-Escalante and Bears Ears, and already has signed onto a pledge to protect 30 percent of America’s land and waters by 2030.

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.

Read more here:

A Biden victory positions America for a 180-degree turn on climate change (Juliet Eilperin, Dino Grandoni and Darryl Fears)

Climate diplomacy

The international community expressed hope for climate change cooperation in messages of congratulations to Biden.

“Almost as soon as a winner was declared, the world began lining up to work with the incoming US president on climate change,” Quartz reports. “As the tweets rolled in from New Zealand, Austria, Iceland, and elsewhere, it was clear Biden would have a coalition behind him on Day 1 of his presidency for a restored and unprecedented global effort to deal with the climate crisis.”

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for working closely on shared priorities, including climate change:

In Fiji, which is already suffering from rising seas, Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama tweeted: “Together, we have a planet to save from a #ClimateEmergency.” 

Greece’s President Katerina Sakellaropoulou said she looked forward to welcoming the United States to the Paris climate agreement.

Rich countries are not on track to meet a $100 billion climate financing target.

“Rich countries risk missing their goal to provide $100 billion a year by 2020 to help poorer nations combat climate change, after funding slowed in the year since President Donald Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of the global Paris deal,” Bloomberg News reports.

An OECD study published on Friday found that although climate donations increased between 2017 and 2018, the rate of growth had declined compared to the previous year. The total funding of $78.9 billion in 2018 fell far short of international targets. 

“Efforts have also been derailed by Trump’s decision to halt $2 billion of payments to the United Nations’ Green Climate Fund, the world’s largest international finance effort dedicated to addressing climate change. The U.S. had previously been one of the biggest climate donors before Trump took office,” Bloomberg writes.

Power plays

FERC Chair Neil Chatterjee hit back in colorful terms after his demotion.

After Trump ousted Chatterjee as head of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission last week, the energy commissioner responded on Facebook.

“My entire family has sacrificed a great deal so that I could have the opportunity to serve my country. I don’t give a [expletive] what people think of me. I will be judged by my grandchildren. And as of this moment I am confident that I will be able to look them in the eyes when they ask me where I stood on the most significant issues of this time and be proud. This is not the last you will hear from me. Not even close. Onward,” Chatterjee wrote in a post on Saturday.

The announcement of Chatterjee’s removal as agency head comes just weeks after FERC signaled its support for state and regional power operators to put a price on carbon emissions. Chatterjee, who previously worked as an aide to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), also told The Post that he thought the demotion could be due the workplace diversity trainings he ran, the kind that Trump had restricted through an executive order in September.


Companies are falling short of investor demands on climate.

“Despite the rise in ‘net zero’ announcements from businesses across the world, few public companies are likely to meet the targets of the Paris agreement to tackle climate change, according to the research from J Safra Sarasin, the Swiss bank,” the Financial Times reports

The research analyzed emissions from 6,000 groups and found that businesses are on pace to contribute to an average 4 degrees Celsius rise in temperature, far exceeding the Paris climate agreement's goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The study suggests that corporations are continuing to contribute to unsustainable levels of pollution, despite demands from major shareholders that they do more to cut emissions.

Coronavirus and wildlife

Covid-19 infections in animals prompt concern among public health researchers and conservationists.

“The decision this week by the Danish government to kill millions of mink because of coronavirus concerns, effectively wiping out a major national industry, has put the spotlight on simmering worries among scientists and conservationists about the vulnerability of animals to the pandemic virus, and what infections among animals could mean for humans,” the New York Times reports.

The order came after a discovery of coronavirus mutations that spread to humans after circulating in mink farms. Dogs, cats, tigers, hamsters, monkeys and ferrets have all been infected with the coronavirus. Minks, however, are so far the only animal known to transmit the virus to humans, aside from the initial spillover event from an unknown species.

“Public health experts worry, however, that any species capable of infection could become a reservoir that allowed the virus to re-emerge at any time and infect people. The virus would likely mutate in other animal species, as it has been shown to do in mink. Although most mutations are likely to be harmless, SARS-CoV-2 conceivably could recombine with another coronavirus and become more dangerous,” the New York Times reports. “Conservation experts also worry about the effect on animal species that are already in trouble.”

A deadly outbreak of a human common cold virus, for instance, devastated chimpanzee populations at the Kibale Chimpanzee Project in Uganda in 2013. Conservationists and animal caretakers at wildlife sanctuaries and zoos have responded to the coronavirus by limiting interactions between people and primates.