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Democratic reforms will determine how successful the US administration can be on climate

The new US president has already shown he is serious about climate. But roadblocks in Congress – and emerging threats to democracy – mean the way forward will not be easy.

Peter Erickson / Published on 19 January 2021
Photo of the Capitol Building and the Field of Flags before Biden inauguration

The U.S. Capitol Building is prepared for the inauguration ceremonies for President-elect Joe Biden as the “Field of Flags” are placed on the ground on the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo: Joe Raedle / Getty Images

On 20 January, Joe Biden, the former Vice President to Barack Obama, takes office as the 46th President of the United States. He does so in the wake of Republican Trump supporters violently storming the US Capitol, and as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage across the country.

Despite these circumstances, many remain hopeful that after four years of obstruction, the US can get back to work on one of the most serious security and health issues facing the country and the world: climate change.

President Biden has long held climate as a top priority, and steps taken since his election in November – from naming former Secretary of State John Kerry as international climate envoy, to building out a top-notch domestic climate policy team – show how seriously he takes the issue.

Still, the way forward will not be easy. Even though most Americans view climate change as a major threat, Democrats hold the thinnest possible margin in the Senate, and may have a difficult time convincing some of their own that a big, societal transformation is needed.

With that in mind, here are four climate policy developments to keep an eye on in 2021, an update to an article I originally wrote in November. Since then, I have added a bonus fourth issue – strengthening democracy. Because without a stronger democracy, the US is going to have a difficult time implementing policies, including climate policies, that are otherwise in line with the needs and preferences of most of the country.

1. Economic recovery investment to help build out a low-carbon economy

This year, the first steps for domestic climate action will look more like economic recovery than climate policy. That is out of necessity. The US has had far more deaths from COVID-19 than any other country, and the infection rate – and economic fallout – will take months and months to improve, even with vaccines now being administered. Economic recovery efforts can – as they did in the early days of President Obama’s term in 2009 – push hard on building out the low-carbon economy. US energy and transportation infrastructure is out of date, and the country has not yet made a big leap into low-carbon manufacturing. All of this low-carbon investment could mean jobs – lots and lots of jobs – that would mean not only dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, but also would help build a durable political constituency for further low-carbon action. (Strategies like this to break carbon lock-in are the subject of one of SEI’s flagship initiatives).

Even if big, sweeping, Green New Deal legislation will have trouble getting enough votes, there will still be opportunities in budget negotiations to pursue job creation in infrastructure investment, in clean energy tax credits, and in research and development efforts, all of which could find support from more conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans.

2. Greater international engagement, including on a transition away from fossil fuels

It is all but assured that the country will rejoin the Paris Agreement, with Biden planning to sign an executive order on day one to re-enter the agreement. The bigger question is: what kind of leadership role will the US take?

International momentum has leaped forward in recent months, with China, Japan, and Korea making net-zero emissions pledges. What can the US now offer? A net-zero pledge for the US should, of course, be on the table, and should be set for well before 2060, the target date for China’s pledge. The rub is accomplishing such domestic action with such a slim majority in Congress: the power of the President and the executive branch alone are fairly limited (more on that below).

Incoming Vice President Kamala Harris could also make good on her proposal to seek an international agreement to manage the decline of fossil fuel production. The existing Paris Agreement is completely silent on fossil fuels, so new ideas like this – especially coming from the country that is now the world’s largest oil and gas producer – could find a newly receptive audience. (How to address fossil fuel production in a global climate regime is a longstanding area of SEI’s work).

Biden and Harris also have the opportunity to up the ambition on US support for other countries. Biden’s own climate plan during the campaign contained little more than a return to the bare minimum of international support, such as renewing contributions to the Green Climate Fund, plus some ideas about technology transfer that were, frankly, outdated, given the rapid advances in low-carbon technologies by other countries. An effective and equitable global decarbonization will demand more from the US than that. For starters, it would be good to see more serious commitment to financially supporting low-income countries in their clean energy transitions – coupled, of course, with a savvy political strategy to remind Americans of the enduring value of strong international cooperation and assistance.

Ambitious goals and commitments like these, while core to the diplomatic effort, will also need to be matched with the numerous, day-to-day activities of the US government. Personnel and activities of the State Department, US Agency for International Development, and diplomatic missions can all push towards climate solutions, while encouraging a spirit of experimentation and cooperation with those on the ground throughout the world.

Read about SEI’s Carbon Lock-In Initiative, which seeks to uncover and address the interwoven social, political, and technical barriers that uphold the high-carbon economy.

3. Strengthened standards, regulatory support, and executive action

Third, serious action in the U.S. will also have to happen without the help of Congress.

This is where immediate executive action can help, coupled with actions from federal agencies and states. Biden himself can issue executive orders to slow or reverse some of Trump’s damage. Then, once Biden builds back up leadership at federal agencies, such as the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, and the Department of the Interior, these agencies can begin setting or improving standards for everything from power generation, to cars and trucks, to factories and industry, to the pollution from (and potentially levels of) fossil fuel production (such as on federal lands). A Biden administration can also be friendlier toward – and help smooth the way for – leading states like California going even further and faster with their own standards.

4. Democratic reform: a necessity for durable, positive policy change

One need look no further than the Republican-incited violence at the US Capitol, seeking to overturn an election, to see that democracy in the US is under threat. Not only are there substantial, structural impediments to letting the majority make policy (any policy) in the US, but trust in government institutions is remarkably low. If the US is going to be able to advance policies, including climate policies, that benefit the vast majority of people, it will probably have to buckle down and strengthen its democratic process, while showing people tangible benefits – soon. This may mean: new, larger economic stimulus payments; electoral reform so that the composition of Congress more accurately represents the people; the removal of one or more of the many roadblocks that allow minority interests to block legislation that would benefit the large majority; and probably also the enforcement of the rule of law against anti-democratic forces.

These actions, while not climate policy themselves, create the conditions necessary for putting durable climate policies in place. After all, the next Congressional elections are just two years away.

Written by

Peter Erickson

SEI Affiliated Researcher


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