President-Elect Biden's day one climate agenda could be transformative – even without the Senate

Thankfully, Joe Biden has won the presidency. But the Senate is in doubt. I asked climate policy experts what steps Biden could take for bold executive action.

We are in a climate emergency. And you were born at just the right moment to help change everything.

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Joe Biden, president-elect.

By the time you’re reading this, Biden may have already given his victory speech. Mail-in ballots are still being tallied in Arizona, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Nevada, and North Carolina. Fox News is reporting that Donald Trump will seek recounts in close states. As of Saturday morning, the Associated Press has called Pennsylvania, and the election, for Biden.

Still, this election turned out to be closer than what most of us had hoped for, and it’s looking less and less likely that Democrats will regain control of the Senate. If Mitch McConnell remains Senate Majority Leader, it puts a pretty big damper on the chances for democracy reform (abolishing the filibuster, packing the Supreme Court, admitting new states) and makes comprehensive climate legislation depressingly unlikely.

Choosing to look ahead, I went ahead and talked with a few climate policy experts to lay out the most important things a President Biden might be able to accomplish right away, even with a conservative Supreme Court and without control of the Senate.

Any of these actions on their own would not be enough to bring about the kind of transformative change the climate emergency demands right now. All of them together, though, could put the country back on path both to radical emissions reductions and prioritizing environmental justice. That kind of world won’t be a Green New Deal, and it won’t be fast enough, and it won’t happen without a lot of pressure from the climate movement, but it’ll be a big step towards preserving a habitable and thriving planet. If Joe Biden does all of what’s listed here, he’ll no doubt be remembered as the first climate president.


1. Declaring a climate emergency

Let me be as clear as possible: Joe Biden campaigned and won the presidency in large part because of his escalating rhetoric on the importance of bold climate action. Just days before the election, Biden said climate change was “the number one issue facing humanity, and it’s the number one issue for me.” Black, Latinx, and Native organizers in Atlanta, Phoenix, Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, and Minneapolis know that the intersection of structural racism and inequality are inseparable from environmental justice and Biden’s climate plan to devote 40% of a $2 trillion climate plan to frontline and fenceline communities is a sign he understands the true nature of this problem is systemic.

To enact generational-scale change, we need a fundamental shift in the American culture. We need to view the climate emergency as it really is, a deep crisis of justice – not just a wonky technocratic market failure that solar panels can solve. Young people of color, especially, are the bedrock of this new climate constituency. Broadening that climate constituency should be a top priority of the Biden administration, and will *definitely* be a top priority of the climate movement as long as he’s in power.

The day after the election, once it became clear that Trump’s chances of re-election had greatly dwindled, the Biden team launched a bare-bones-but-official transition team website, with a single short paragraph:

The American people will determine who will serve as the next President of the United States. Votes are still being counted in several states around the country. The crises facing the country are severe — from a pandemic to an economic recession, climate change to racial injustice — and the transition team will continue preparing at full speed so that the Biden-Harris Administration can hit the ground running on Day One.

The website’s address buildbackbetter.com, along with a clear shoutout to the intersectional nature of the climate emergency, gives me hope that Biden plans to follow through with what folks on climate twitter are already calling a climate mandate. As my election night livestream co-chair Emily Atkin writes today, “Joe Biden is inching toward the presidency with climate change on his mind.”

Biden has already shown he’s willing to listen to the already incredibly influential and growing power of the climate movement. And the climate movement will certainly hold him to the promises he’s made, and then some. Biden may not be the climate president we dreamed of, but he is the climate president we have. And that’s not nothing!! Rallying the country and the world around the urgency of this existential crisis will cement its importance in hearts and minds for a generation.


2. Lots of executive actions

I’m talking the kind of actions far, far beyond just re-joining the Paris climate accord, and reversing the dozens of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks. Biden’s already got dozens of executive actions lined up that could make a meaningful difference on climate change.

On Day 1, Biden could declare a national climate emergency and deliver an enormous blow to the fossil fuel industry, ordering agencies to deny all oil and gas infrastructure permits, halt oil and gas exports, stop all new fossil fuel mining and drilling leases, and institute stringent new pollution regulations on emissions. He could direct the Federal Reserve to manage climate risk and end fossil fuel subsidies through the Department of Energy. He could direct the EPA to cap greenhouse gas emissions nationwide, under the authority of the Clean Air Act. He could mobilize the military to rapidly construct renewable energy infrastructure nationwide. He could authorize loan guarantees to retrofit every building in America and put solar panels on the roof of every home. He could direct the Attorney General to prosecute fossil fuel executives for misleading the American public for decades about the true nature of the climate crisis and begin the process to provide reparations to marginalized communities bearing the brunt of the climate emergency.

Some of these actions might take years to bear fruit. But in a single week, Biden would have done more on climate than every other US president combined.

Of all these actions, economist Mark Paul says it might be the Federal Reserve that could make the biggest impact. “Without Congress, the Fed is the main lifeline [to bold climate action],” Paul told me, an action that could effectively institute an economy-wide price on carbon without legislation. “[Biden] needs to go all out, knowing he may lose the battle, but he'll definitely lose the war if he doesn't fully commit. I think we often undervalue leadership and desperately need him to lead on the issue at this moment.”

For Narayan Subramanian, a lawyer focused on climate policy who works with the think tank Data for Progress, the most important steps would be to strengthen Obama’s power plant emissions standards (a “Clean Power Plan 2.0 basically”) and to strengthen automobile fuel efficiency standards.

Not all of these would ultimately be defensible in the Supreme Court – but some would. And those that stick would could then be built on by future presidents.


3. Centrist climate legislation

The national context for climate legislation is vastly different than it was 12 years ago, during the start of Obama’s first term. Public opinion, technology, and the severity of the climate crisis have all shifted in favor of bolder action. To underscore this, election day featured a whole host of down-ballot victories on climate in red states. (Leading climate wonk Leah Stokes has two great threads (1, 2) today on this.) The coal industry is dying, and the oil and gas industry isn’t far behind. There is no meaningful popular constituency left for fossil fuels.

It’s possible that Biden can still follow through with his campaign promises to end fossil fuel subsidies and ensure the US is on path to 100% carbon-free energy by 2035 through executive action, but those goals would be greatly strengthened with new climate legislation.

It’s clear that, despite Trump’s perpetual infrastructure week, a buildout of renewable energy, modernization of the electric grid, expansion of passenger rail, and trillions of dollars of funding to support it could get bipartisan support in the middle of an economic recession in need of stimulus spending. Any legislation that gets through the Senate would be far more technocratic in approach than what’s necessary, but it would still be legislation.

Also on election day, voters in Puerto Rico approved a historic referendum in favor of statehood. Admitting Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico as states might be something that Senate Republicans agree to, since Puerto Ricans at home tend to vote Republican. Also, the 2022 Senate map looks favorable for Democrats to pick up one or two more seats.

And there’s still a chance that Democrats could get control of the Senate in 2021 without admitting new states.

At last check, it looks like both Georgia Senate seats will be going to a run-off on January 5th, and will be the highest of high stakes races since winning both would give Democrats a 50-50 split. (If you’re able to, donate to organizers in Georgia like the New Georgia Project!)

With a 50-50 Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris would preside over any ties, although there are a few swing votes on both sides of the aisle (Mitt Romney, Susan Collins, Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema) that would still make centrist climate policy the most likely outcome. Still, I’d *much* rather have Joe Manchin hold the Senate hostage than Mitch McConnell.

Biden understands the Senate, and his practical negotiating style might allow a few big bills to get past McConnell. But on its own, it’s not going to be the structural, fundamental change that we need.


4. A core focus on justice

So far, Biden seems to intuitively understand that climate action is about much, much more than carbon emissions.

Organizations like the Climate Justice Alliance have put together a 14-point plan for a regenerative economy that prioritizes a people’s bailout and a just transition, articulated by frontline and marginalized communities across the country. Issues like tribal sovereignty, protecting Black lives, and immigrant justice can cut across all of Biden’s climate actions if he chooses them to. Demos has another list of 13 executive actions in-line with climate justice, on everything from fixing the pipes in places like Flint to directing HUD to establish clear standards for equitable pre-disaster mitigation in housing nationwide.

White supremacy is much deeper than Trump, and it can easily persist into a Biden administration, especially if the default policy proposal in an era of Congressional gridlock is to uphold the status quo. Ideas like the Green New Deal are generational shifts that the Biden administration can advance without alienating allies that are needed for legislation that can provide short-term relief and repair. More than 90% of renewable energy generation happens in Republican-leaning counties, and there’s a way to broker broad coalitions in support of climate justice without caving on policies that jeopardize human rights.

What’s non-negotiable is rapid action to decarbonize the entire economy while upholding the inherent worth of every single person on the planet.

Above all, climate action is about justice. These actions aren’t aspirational. They’re a bedrock for planetary survival in the middle of a planetary emergency. Biden can make them happen, but only if we demand them.

This post has been updated after Decision Desk HQ called the election for Biden.

What do you think? What would make a bold climate agenda possible under a Biden administration – even without the Senate? Leave a comment below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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