When Democratic President-elect Joe Biden steps into the White House in January, he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be taking over from a Republican administration that for the past four years has denied evidence of climate change and dismantled environmental protections.
The road back won’t be easy. Biden, who made the environment a cornerstone of his campaign, will have difficulty making major legislative changes. Democrats have only a small advantage in the House, and the balance in the Senate will be decided by a January runoff for two seats from Georgia, the results of which will leave the winning party with the only barest of majorities.
Still, Harvard experts in climate and the environment say much can be done, but the question is: How much? They do expect the incoming administration will be able to set some measures in place to establish and reestablish key pillars in the fight against a warming Earth, a good deal of which can be done unilaterally through executive orders and federal agency regulations. The White House will also clearly have it within its power to reassert U.S. international leadership on the issue and take meaningful action toward global decarbonization.
“The Trump administration rescinded or weakened every climate rule and many environmental rules from the Obama administration, and the Biden administration will replace those rules and strengthen them. Trump called climate change a ‘hoax,’ whereas Biden has called it a crisis and existential threat. Trump has sought to prop up the coal industry, while Biden has pledged to accelerate a clean-energy transition,” said Jody Freeman, the Archibald Cox Professor of Law and director of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law Program.
Biden ran on the most ambitious climate plan of any major party nominee. His campaign proposed a $2 trillion plan and sets goals of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. These goals fall in line with long-term goals of other major economies such as China or across Europe.
“It’s a big goal,” Freeman said. “But climate change is proceeding more rapidly and posing greater risks than scientists originally anticipated, and small steps will not be enough to stave off the worst consequences.”
First steps of the new administration will almost certainly include rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement, investing more in green energy and infrastructure, and directing the Environmental Protection Agency and others to restore rules the Trump administration rescinded, like those protecting federal lands from drilling or ones on motor vehicle standards. On Monday, Biden named former secretary of state and U.S. senator John Kerry a climate envoy, in the newly created post based on the National Security Council.