Biden climate team’s foes: Time, politics and bureaucracy

A planet even warmer than it was four years ago, spawning evermore devastating hurricanes and wildfires, awaits

Demonstrators in support of government intervention to prevent catastrophic climate change gather in New York in 2019.  (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Demonstrators in support of government intervention to prevent catastrophic climate change gather in New York in 2019. (Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Posted December 21, 2020 at 6:00am

The effects of climate change were already apparent in 2016 when Donald Trump, then president-elect, introduced his team of nominees to lead energy and environmental policies and help "unleash" American fossil energy industries.

Now, four years and more than a hundred rollbacks of energy, transportation and environmental rules later, an even warmer planet spawning evermore devastating hurricanes and record-setting wildfires awaits President-elect Joe Biden's team.

Biden finalized what he called his "climate team" last week: Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., for Interior secretary, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm for Energy secretary, North Carolina environmental regulator Michael Regan for EPA administrator and Brenda Mallory to chair the Council on Environmental Quality, a White House agency.

The group, joined by international climate adviser John Kerry and domestic aides Gina McCarthy and Ali Zaidi, who both worked in the Obama administration, faces the daunting task of reining in heat-trapping greenhouse gas emissions, re-engaging foreign leaders on environmental issues, restoring and revising climate-related regulations eliminated or weakened by the Trump administration, nudging along climate legislation in Congress and doing it all in the midst of an economic crisis triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It showed it’s a high priority for the administration to engage around the different corners of climate, whether it’s at Interior or inside the White House or in the Cabinet,” Heather Reams, executive director of Citizens for Responsible Energy Solutions, a right-leaning clean energy group, said of the rollout. “This is clustered together in a way to tell a story.”

The incoming administration's objectives will surely be harder to achieve if Republicans maintain their Senate majority, a fate that hangs in the balance until runoff elections in Georgia early next month.

Even if Democrats take control of the Senate, the chamber’s rules and regional differences within the party have proved obstacles to high-impact climate legislation. In 2010, when Democrats controlled the White House and both congressional chambers, they could not get a carbon tax into law.

Senate control would allow Democrats to set an agenda and use procedural maneuvers to press their causes. But big legislation would likely require overcoming the filibuster, Reams said, making centrist Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., a power broker, to the irritation of progressive Democrats.

“The place where the drama is going to play out is on the left,” Reams said. She said environmental legislation could pass if Democrats compromise on an approach that does not shut out all fossil fuels. “Can progressives live with that?"

Transportation

While the hubbub in climate circles last week buzzed around Interior, Energy and EPA, Biden — who set a goal to have “a carbon pollution-free power sector” by 2035 — announced his Transportation secretary pick, too — former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg.

The timing linked the departments.

“You’d expect them to talk about DOT with maybe Commerce and Labor or something in the typical way we consider transportation to be only about economic development, not about climate and equity,” said Beth Osborne, director of Transportation for America, an advocacy organization that aims to create more interconnected infrastructure. “That was interesting. But I don’t know what it means yet.”

But Buttigieg, a moderate former small-city mayor, is considered less progressive than Haaland or Regan, a fact that separates him from the other nominees. “This is someone they (Republicans) can work with,” said Adie Tomer, the head of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative at the Brookings Institution, a moderate think tank.

They’ll have an opportunity to do so almost immediately. Congress did not reach an agreement to reauthorize the highway bill in time for the Oct. 1 deadline, opting to extend the current law through most of 2021.

The House version of that bill linked climate change and transportation throughout. The Senate bill, which passed the committee unanimously in July 2019, was more modest. It included a climate change section but was considered a continuation of the status quo, said Jeff Davis, a senior fellow with the Eno Center for Transportation.

Still, said Davis, that bill reflects a truth about the Senate: It rarely embraces the sort of transformational change Biden seeks.

“It doesn't matter if the Senate is 50-50 or McConnell is the leader,” he said. “The whole Senate ethos is to do a bipartisan bill. And a bipartisan bill means incremental change, not wholescale sweeping change.”

Osborne said while infrastructure is often listed as a political priority by both parties, they typically overlook it in favor of emergencies. Biden enters office during a pandemic and an economic crisis. It’ll be hard to tackle infrastructure, she said, in the midst of such pressing issues.

“There are ways to promote economic recovery that are going to resonate across the political spectrum, and be totally consistent with the direction we need to move on climate,” said Greg Wetstone, CEO of the American Council on Renewable Energy. “There's a lot of red-state renewable development. We see an opportunity for the renewables sector to drive economic recovery in this country.”

The Biden team faces another hurdle: time.

The impacts of climate change “are already here,” said Tomer, who hopes Republicans will be less resistant to climate efforts than they’ve been before, in part because of corporate demands to deal with the problem. “The rhetoric on the right doesn't match the business class’ interest,” he said.

[Biden’s EPA pick has experience lifting a discouraged agency]

As he departs office, President Donald Trump and his Cabinet leave behind a trail of environmental and energy deregulation. The Trump administration has weakened at least 95 environmental rules since 2017, according to the Environmental Integrity Project, a watchdog group, with many of the biggest rollbacks coming at EPA, and just this month DOE has issued a flurry of new rollbacks of federal rules.

Bill Lee, senior vice president for government relations at The Trust for Public Land, said one challenge the Biden team will face is fixing all that was broken during the past four years.

He said the Biden climate team will have to balance environmental protection with the need for environmental justice. It will have to “thread the needle” and not allow climate solutions to perpetuate existing injustices, such as the prevalence of industrial sites looming over Black and brown communities, he said.

The Biden administration could find areas of agreement with Republicans in using nature to tackle climate change — planting more trees, changing agricultural processes and improving wildfire management, Lee said.

Yet another barrier will be convincing people that strong environmental actions are compatible with bolstering the economy. Addressing climate change can help create jobs through new wind and solar energy projects, retrofitting houses and other avenues, but the new administration will have to make that case, he said.

“If the economy stays in the bad shape it’s in, people will use that as a reason not to do anything,” Lee said.

Bureaucratic tectonics

Then there’s the bureaucracy, coupled with the all-but-certain onslaught of industry lawsuits yet to be filed in opposition to the Biden administration’s environmental, energy and transportation agendas.

The planetary clock may be ticking but the wheels of federal rule-making can move slowly. Climate advocates may want new leadership at the Interior Department to protect public lands from oil and gas development, but that kind of change isn’t possible immediately.

David Doniger, a veteran environmental attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicted Republican leaders in Congress will resist sweeping climate legislation.

But he said there will be pressure driving Biden’s agenda because climate-linked natural disasters in recent years — floods, hurricanes and wildfires — raised the profile of climate change in the public eye.

Plus, potential solutions are becoming more attractive as people interact with them, from renewable energy to electric vehicles, he said.

“It’s not going to be a piece of cake but there’s a lot of opportunity,” Doniger said.

Doniger said the figurative clock to address climate is running perilously short — “We are way into overtime” — and humanity should have sharply moved to tackle global heating and toward low-carbon energy decades ago.

Still, steps now can influence how devastating climate change will be.

“Even if it takes us a whole term to get rules written, through the court challenges and to begin to implement them, we’ll be better off than if we just give up,” Doniger said.