Biden faces competing strategies on climate
WASHINGTON - When Joe Biden takes office next month he will face a larger coalition seeking action on climate change than any president before him, a diverse group that ranges from young activists picketing Congress to the CEOs of America’s largest corporations.
After four years of President Donald Trump’s climate skepticism, there is plenty of enthusiasm. But in spite of wide agreement on the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the new administration is caught between disparate and often contradictory strategies on how to do it.
Last week, the CEOs of 42 major American corporations, including JP Morgan Chase, Walmart, Dow and the U.S. subsidiaries of Royal Dutch Shell and BP, called on the Biden administration to find bipartisan, market-based solutions to address climate change that could survive the next Republican administration.
What they’re looking for is a carbon pricing system that would provide economic incentives to polluters to cut emissions and force investment in clean energy, a modern power grid and carbon capture and storage systems. For the time being, it would allow the economy to still run on oil and other fossil fuels.
“You have to go economy wide,” said Thad Hill, CEO of the Houston power company Calpine, “and if you’re going to do it nationally you need to go through Congress.”
Economists of all stripes have long pushed carbon pricing mechanisms as the most efficient way to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while not doing catastrophic harm to the U.S. economy.
But progressive members of the Democrat Party are increasingly distrustful of such an approach.
Market mechanisms such as a carbon tax nudge but don't require companies to stop emitting greenhouse gases. Many activists fear that companies won’t move fast enough to avoid climate catastrophe and simply pay to pollute, particularly in poor and marginalized communities that have borne the brunt of industrial pollution for more than a century.
Ahead of the presidential election last month, environmental groups including Greenpeace, 350.org and Friends of the Earth signed a statement calling on the next administration to pursue lawsuits against fossil fuel companies for their contribution to climate change and veto “false solutions” such as carbon taxes and cap-and-trade markets that reward companies with low emissions and cost companies with high emissions.
“If the world is to have any reasonable chance of avoiding the worst impacts of climate change,” they said, “the next president of the United States must immediately launch a rapid and just transition off of fossil fuels economy-wide.”
Their vision was institutionalized last year when Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, D-N.Y., and other progressives put forward their Green New Deal, calling for strict limits on emissions and a federal investment in clean energy over the next decade and spending comparable to that of Franklin D. Roosevelt during the Great Depression.
Biden embraced that approach, to a degree, during the campaign, calling for $2 trillion in climate change spending over the next four years and net-zero greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035. But he also called for investment in technologies rejected by environmentalists, such as carbon capture and storage, advanced nuclear reactors and hydroelectric dams.
“When it comes to climate change, the division (in a Biden administration) is between Green pragmatists and activists,” said Kevin Book, managing director of the consulting firm Clearview Energy Partners. “They’re limited by the constraints of a divided Congress, a divided country and a divided party.”
On Capitol Hill, the new administration will likely face a Republican-controlled Senate that has shown little support for any climate policy beyond increased research funding and tax credits for clean energy technology.
Hugh Welsh, president of the North American arm of the Dutch chemical firm DSM, which has a growing solar and energy business, said some Republicans are amenable to a carbon tax, but the groundswell of corporate support needed to pass such a tax has yet to materialize.
“All companies big and small have political capital,” he said. “But when I spend time on (Capitol) Hill with congressmen and senators, they always say, ‘I hear you, but I don’t hear from other companies about the importance of climate change. They’re here talking about tax policy.”
Further complicating matters is the coronavirus pandemic, which for the time being is expected to take up most of the new administration’s attention.
But that has not quashed the enthusiasm of climate advocates of all stripes, seeking to get the administration’s ear on everything from an extension on the tax credit for capturing and storing carbon underground to a ban on oil and gas leasing on federal lands and in federal waters.
“It’s easy to think about the challenges, but there’s a big opportunity here,” said Erin Burns, a senior policy advisor at the Third Way, a non-profit advocating for carbon capture, renewables and nuclear energy to reduce emissions.
In Washington, expectations are that Biden will seek to reduce emissions not through negotiations with Republicans in Congress but rather through executive power. Incoming administration officials are likely to consider changing financial regulations to raise borrowing costs on fossil fuels, as well as putting trade restraints to favor imports with lower carbon footprints, Book said.
“They don’t have the political support from Congress to make law, so they’re going to come at this with bank shots,” he said. “It’s not what the progressives want, but it’s probably the best they’re going to get.”
Since Biden campaigned on dramatic climate action, some activists have declared that as president he has a mandate to enact sweeping policies — even though Democrats lost seats in House and likely failed to win control of Senate campaigning on a similar message
After the election, the League of Conservation Voters surveyed voters from both parties, asking how they viewed Biden’s climate stance in light of the result.
“Almost two-thirds of those who voted, no matter who they voted for, said Biden has a mandate to combat climate change,” said Jill Normington, a Democratic pollster.
But despite decades of advocacy on the issue, Congress appears little closer to creating national climate policy. Some veteran activists sense that in the end, it will be corporations, not slogans, that convince Republicans to act.
Bob Perciasepe, a former deputy EPA administrator and president of the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions, a Washington think tank, has worked on climate action inside and outside of government for four decades. He said he’s come to realize that “there is no more credible messenger than the business community.”
“You can talk about polar bears and increased hurricanes, but what it really comes down to is the future of our economy,” he said. “Their voices are going to be much more important than mine in convincing thoughtful legislators.”