The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Energy 202: Biden stokes hope among climate scientists

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with Alexandra Ellerbeck

Climate scientists are dealing with a strange new feeling now that Joe Biden is president: optimism.

Gone are the days of outright hostility from the White House to climate science, as was the case during Donald Trump's presidency.

President Biden's early executive orders on climate change, say an array of chemists, biologists and social scientists, signal that this White House acknowledges their work toward understanding the causes and consequences of rising temperatures.

But they know it remains extraordinarily difficult to actually cut greenhouse gas emissions enough to stop dangerous warming, even with Biden as president.

“We're celebrating the opportunity to do a herculean task,” said Amir Jina, an environmental economist at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. But he added, “Being too optimistic is something I'm being cautious of."

For now, climate scientists hopeful but wary about Biden's presidency. 

Biden campaigned on the most aggressive climate plan ever put forward by a major-party candidate, calling for the elimination of greenhouse gas pollution from the power sector by 2035 and net-zero emissions from the rest of the U.S. economy by the middle of the century. The president unveiled sweeping executive actions Wednesday to kick-start that agenda. 

Jina, who is currently teaching a class on international climate policy, has already reorganized his syllabus in response to Biden's decision to rejoin the Paris climate accord. “It's an amazing time to be teaching this."

Katharine Hayhoe, an atmospheric scientist at Texas Tech University, compared the work now facing the United States to climbing Mount Everest. “When you get to base camp, you absolutely should stop and celebrate,” she said. “Right now, we're at base camp. We can see the peak of the mountain.”

That feels like a sea change from four years ago, when Trump was elected. His administration shut out climate scientists from decision-making and rolled back rules meant to cut emissions. 

“It's really overwhelming, to be honest,” said Leah Stokes, an assistant professor of environmental politics at the University of California at Santa Barbara. “It's transformative.”

The Biden administration officials want to reassure researchers, repeatedly saying they will “listen to" scientists.

To that end, Biden launched Wednesday a 120-day governmentwide review of scientific integrity policies, in part to find instances of “improper political interference" under Trump.

Even Barack Obama was slow to act on climate change compared to Biden, many climate scientists say. The Obama administration pushed for an ultimately unsuccessful cap-and-trade bill during his first term and waited until his second to make a significant effort to pass regulations on its own.  

“Climate change affects the poorest, most marginalized and vulnerable people,” Hayhoe said. The Biden administration, she added, "has listened to people from those communities in a much more profound way than the Obama administration did 12 years ago.”

Scientists themselves have become more certain of the urgency of the crisis. 

Scientific assessments from the United Nations, U.S. government and other bodies have become more dire between 2008 and 2020 — and climate scientists themselves have become better at communicating that to lawmakers, according to Stokes.

“The climate movement has gotten so much stronger,” Stokes said. “And the climate science has gotten so much clearer.”

And the impact of rising temperatures have become more obvious, too, with the spate of wildfires in the western United States and intense hurricanes along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts in recent years.

“That changes everything in terms of the will to act,” said Phillip Duffy, a physicist and president of the Woodwell Climate Research Center.

Feelings aside, the science of accumulating greenhouse gases remain unforgiving. 

"The climate cares about chemistry, not commitments," said Kate Marvel, a climate researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies and Columbia University. “While it’s great to see bold targets, ultimately the only thing that will prevent worst-case climate scenarios are large reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.”

In 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded the world needs to take “unprecedented” actions this decade to cut emissions and stop warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) over preindustrial levels.

William Moomaw, a Tufts University climate scientist, is afraid he and his colleagues have “failed to convince policymakers” of how quickly the climate can spin out of control. “I hate to sound apocalyptic because I'm actually an optimist,” he said.

Given the lack of progress not just from this country but from others, Duffy likewise said he is “increasingly uncomfortable” telling people we can stay under 1.5 degrees of warming. 

“Globally," he said, "we’re not in a great place.”

Power plays

General Motors says it will eliminate gasoline- and diesel-powered passenger cars and SUVs by 2035.

The carmaker plans to spend $27 billion on electric vehicles and associated products, with a target of becoming carbon neutral by 2040, our colleague Steven Mufson reports.

Its statement, however, left wiggle room to use carbon offsets and credits “if absolutely necessary” to reach that target. Some critics are still skeptical of commitments from the company, which embraced Trump’s relaxation of fuel efficiency standards and still has not publicly joined four other automakers in agreeing to comply with California’s fuel efficiency standards, which are more stringent than the federal government's.

Others said that the move could set the tone for U.S. manufacturing.

“When America’s most iconic manufacturer commits to carbon neutrality, that’s a huge signal to the rest of the economy,” said Paul Bledsoe, a former climate adviser in the Clinton White House who is now at the Progressive Policy Institute. “At the same time, it’s clear GM is trying to burnish its reputation from past practices and justify new tax incentives.”

Moving the Bureau of Land Management to Colorado prompted 287 employees to retire or find other jobs.

The Trump administration’s decision to relocate most of the agency's headquarters from Washington to Grand Junction, Colo., prompted many employees to leave. More than 87 percent of the 328 employees who saw their jobs relocated to Colorado left their positions. 

Those who left included a disproportionate share of Black employees, potentially harming diversity efforts within the agency, according to one BLM veteran, ” our colleague Juliet Eilperin writes.

The Trump administration argued that it made sense to move the headquarters out west, since most of the areas the agency manages are located there. Some congressional Republicans and Democrats are lobbying to keep the headquarters in Colorado.

“But several experts, including former high-ranking Interior officials, said the shake-up has deprived the agency of needed expertise and disrupted its operations. The bureau oversees all oil and gas drilling on federal lands, which has emerged as a flash point in the early days of the Biden administration,” Eilperin writes.

Regulators put a hold on a rule aimed at forcing banks to serve oil companies.

The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has paused a Trump-era rule that made it illegal for banks to reject a customer for reasons other than financial risk, the Hill reports.

The rule, finalized during Trump's last days in office, appeared to be aimed at banks who refused to fund oil and gas drilling projects or serve firearm companies out of concern for their reputations. Major U.S. banks have all said that they will not finance oil and gas exploration in the Arctic.

The OCC, an independent agency in the Treasury Department, said that it would pause publication of the rule in the Federal Register until it could be reviewed by a full-time comptroller. Biden has not yet picked his nominee.

A federal judge ruled against Trump’s “secret science” rule.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Montana ruled that the Trump administration failed to justify its decision to fast-track a rule that would limit the scientific research that the Environmental Protection Agency can use when determining regulations, Bloomberg News reports.

The so-called “secret science” rule restricted the EPA’s ability to write regulations based on scientific studies that did not make their underlying data public. Critics argued that many studies cannot legally or ethically publish their data because of privacy concerns.

The decision means that it will not be effective until Feb. 6, a month after its Jan. 6 publication in the Federal Register. This delay “could give the Biden administration a chance to sideline the regulation,” Bloomberg writes.

Mitch McConnell slammed Biden’s energy and environment policies.

The top Senate Republican weighed in on Biden’s decision to rescind a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, calling it a “massive setback for energy security in North America.” 

McConnell also criticized Biden’s move to block new oil and gas leases on federal lands, claiming that the decision would destroy jobs.

McConnell’s comments on the Senate floor are part of a broad backlash to Biden’s energy policies from Republicans defending the fossil fuel sector, as we’ve previously reported.

Extra mileage

Weatherizing your home can save money and help the planet.

Homeowners who seal up their homes to avoid wasting energy on heating or cooling lost to the outside world may find that it makes their house more comfortable and saves them money, our colleague Sarah Kaplan writes. Plus, the government might even help pay for it.

“Weatherization comes in many forms, but the easiest is closing up the cracks around windows and doors. You can first identify leakage points by turning on your kitchen and bathroom exhaust fans, creating a slight pressure differential between indoors and outdoors, then holding up a lit incense stick to potential problem areas,” Kaplan writes.

The installation of blinds or drapes, or upgraded glazed windows, can also help cut down on the 25 to 30 percent of household heating or cooling that is lost through windows, and homeowners can seal up crawl spaces or add thick carpets to trap heat. Many upgrades will pay for themselves within a decade, but the government also has programs to help people pay for weatherization.