Narrow victory: A divided Congress may force Biden to temper climate ambitions

The initial sense of relief the world felt over Donald Trump’s defeat needs to become much more tempered—in particular through the lens of climate and energy ambitions. Given the near 50/50 split in the Senate, essentially mirroring a starkly polarized electorate, with each passing day that Trump and many of his loyal Republican allies refuses to concede, the chances of bold reforms happening within Biden’s term narrow further. Though more Americans voted for Biden than in any other election, the Democrats have essentially been defeated in both houses of Congress, in so far as they gained neither control of the powerful Senate nor managed to hold, let alone increase, their previous majority in the House of Representatives. Though there are many tools he can still use, by no means will Biden be able to freely wield his power, including whatever climate mandate we wish he had won. L. Michael Buchsbaum discusses what a weakened Biden can still accomplish.

Biden’s climate ambitions are threatened by the results of the last two Senate seats. (CC BY-SA 2.0, Gage Skidmore)

Failing Democracy

Going back to 2000, it’s become clear that America’s “democracy” is dysfunctional. In the twenty years since the Supreme Court ultimately decided in favor of Republican George W. Bush, awarding him Florida’s electors and throwing him the election, many more democratic fundamentals, including the right to vote, have been further eroded. In 2013, the Supreme Court overturned the 1965 Voting Rights Act, gutting protections requiring certain states and localities with a history of discrimination against minority voters to get clearance from the federal government before voting conditions were changed. Hillary Clinton’s subsequent loss in the 2016 election proved to another generation of Americans that winning the popular vote doesn’t at all ensure that you would win the presidency. And in the four years since Trump came to power, the United States has largely been consumed by endless constitutional crises propelling further polarization.

It is not an overstatement that America today is at the brink of a second Civil War. Though Covid-19 cases are skyrocketing, bullets, not toilet paper are now in short supply. As of this writing, Trump is clearly in the act of play-couping: attempting to cast doubt on the veracity of the elections and refusing to either concede nor enable Biden to begin the transition process. Given that today, three of the lawyers who successfully argued for the Republicans that Florida shouldn’t count any more votes back in 2000 are now sitting as Supreme Court Justices, it’s not inevitable that Biden will prevail this time either.

Assuming Biden

While the world worries about worst-case scenarios, most readers of this blog, no doubt, are hoping to see a President Biden take office, particularly given his strong climate stance. In his first victory speech after the election, Biden referring to addressing the crisis as one of his top priorities, said Americans must marshal the ‘forces of science’ in the ‘battle to save our planet’. He continued vowing to eliminate carbon emissions from the electric sector by 2035 and spend $2tn on investments ranging from weatherizing homes to developing a nationwide network of charging stations for electric vehicles.

But politically, Biden’s massive investment plan stands a chance only if the Democrats win both Senate runoff races in Georgia in January. And if then, only barely.

Assuming Biden and the Democrats somehow prevail in Georgia, the Senate will be split 50-50—allowing Vice President Kamala Harris to cast the eventual winning vote. Anything less than that will enable Kentucky’s longest serving Senator, major leader Mitch McConnell, to lead a hard-right Trumpista body (52/48 is quite likely) meaning that Biden’s climate agenda will run into a legislative buzz saw. Even at 50/50, only a pale Green New Deal (which, in any case, Biden campaigned against) would have even a snowball’s chance in—say Death Valley—of squeaking through.

Worse, given the many other immediate problems plaguing the US, Biden may return to his historical moderate roots and further compromise his ambitions in a desperate search for middle ground. Faced with both increasing debt and the need to service it, Biden may not be able to stop fracking or slow down LNG exports—which of course, he never promised to ban anyway.

Bi-partisan Joe

One possibility for Biden is appealing to the existing bipartisan appetite for an infrastructure bill, which could include investments in electricity transmission lines, offshore wind farms, shoreline protections, and other climate adaptation measures. Biden may likely appeal to the private sector to foster climate action by renewing and expanding the Investment Tax Credit (ITC)– especially as it’s garnered bipartisan support in the past. Furthermore, he may choose to fund more carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) projects, especially since such initiatives have already been championed by legislators on both sides of the Congressional aisle.

Indicative of this, moments after claiming victory, Biden began signaling that he would likely stack his future cabinet with moderates, former members of Obama’s team as well as some Republicans. There are also media reports that Biden will appoint former Senator and presidential candidate, John Kerry, as his special envoy on climate change. But the “transition team apparent” has already stated that progressives like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both sitting Senators, can’t be nominated for fear the party could lose their seats in future elections to replace them.

Executive Action Could Save the Planet

But as the New York Times and other media suggest, Biden could still act without Congress by issuing Executive Orders on a range of actions. Through them Biden could initiate the process to rejoin the Paris Agreement; call for a global summit on climate change; begin reversing Trump’s rollbacks of energy and fuel regulations; make climate issues part of any future coronavirus relief or stimulus packages and a host of other possibilities.

Controversial but now relatively common, the Climate Deregulation Tracker at the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia Law School has logged 159 executive branch actions by the Trump Administration used to scrap climate-related regulations and policies since he was sworn almost four years ago. Subject to court review, they are “not necessarily the most durable form of policy” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. But “for sure it works.”

Biden could also push climate action by simply stepping out of the way and allowing states themselves to determine new energy policies and pollution limits such as California’s vehicle emissions standards (which Trump is now in court trying to block) as well as supporting new local limits on fracking or gas usage, such as San Francisco’s new ban on natural gas hookups.

As Vox suggests, if he is feeling particularly bold, it is within Biden’s powers to declare climate change a national security emergency, which would give him immense power to implement industrial policy directly, such as the production of electric vehicles and assorted charging infrastructure, new long-distance electricity transmission lines, solar panels, or other initiatives deemed necessary to address the emergency.

Meanwhile, there’s something else that will continue to shift the political dynamic: Climate change. 2020 is on track to be one of the hottest years on record, and that heat has helped fuel unprecedented wildfires, unrelenting hurricanes and floods. Even in the deeply polarized nation, two-thirds of Americans — including a majority of Republicans — say they want the government to do more on climate change.


L. Michael Buchsbaum is an energy and mining journalist and industrial photographer based in Germany. Since the mid-1990s, he has covered the social, environmental, economic and political impacts of the transition from fossil fuels towards renewables for dozens of industry magazines, journals, institutions and corporate clients. Born in the U.S., he emigrated to Germany and Europe to better document the Energiewende. He is also the host of The Global Energy Transition Podcast.

1 Comment

  1. James Wimberley says

    “… the Democrats have essentially been defeated in both houses of Congress, in so far as they gained neither control of the powerful Senate nor managed to hold, let alone increase, their previous majority in the House of Representatives.”
    The last assertion is quite wrong. The Democrats have (18/11) already won enough seats (219) to maintain control, the Republicans 206. There are a number of uncalled close races, likely to split roughly equally. It’s a narrow majority but Nancy Pelosi is an expert n counting votes.

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