What Do the 2020 U.S. Election Results Portend for Climate Change Policy?

In the November 3rd U.S. election, the Democratic team of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris defeated incumbent Republican President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, signaling a major change in the executive branch of the U.S. government.  At the same time, it now appears that Republicans are likely to maintain their majority control of the Senate, pending a pair of January 5th runoff elections for the two Georgia Senate seats.  If the Democrats take both seats, the Senate would be tied 50-50, with the Democratic Vice President (who serves as president of the Senate) breaking the tie, thereby turning Senate control over to Democrats.  In the House of Representatives, Republicans are likely to gain a relatively small number of seats, but Democrats will maintain their control of that body.  More important for the long term, Republicans managed to maintain or flip enough state legislatures to continue to dominate the once-a-decade redistricting process.

There will be numerous changes — many rather significant, and some quite dramatic — in U.S. climate change policy under the Biden administration. But in a variety of ways it will be an uphill battle, just to return to the pre-Trump status at the time President Obama departed the White House, let alone to move beyond that point. The details matter, so please read on.

Significant Changes in Policy Priorities and Norms of Conduct

            Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris will be inaugurated on January 20th, 2021, and will immediately face an unprecedented set of national challenges.  As the Biden-Harris transition website indicates, the greatest challenges – and presumably top policy priorities ­– are:  the pandemic, the economic recession, racial justice, and climate change (listed in that order).

            The failure of Mr. Trump to be re-elected to a second term brings a dramatic change in leadership at the very top.  For the first time in four years, honesty and civility will be hallmarks of behavior, as will fundamental trust in expertise, including in the realm of science.  The dozens of political and behavioral norms that have been abandoned by President Trump and his administration will be respected once again.  Democratic norms will be restored, racism denounced, and diplomatic relationships will be reestablished with allies.  There will be a turn away from xenophobia and hostility toward immigrants, and perhaps some movement toward free trade.

            Others have greater expertise than I do to comment on anticipated changes in norms, as well as broader legal and policy issues.  I focus in this essay on anticipated changes in public policies regarding climate change, both in the international and domestic domains.  Four years ago, it was rather straightforward for me to predict what the newly-elected Trump administration would bring in the climate change realm, as I discussed in the New York Timesand in this blog in November, 2016.  This time, however, it is a bit less obvious, because of the moving parts. 

            I caution readers to beware of advocates on either side making predictions at this very early date about the new administration’s future climate policy initiatives.  Predictions from those who advocate particular policies are likely to be infected with some degree of wishful thinking.  That may be true not only of professional environmental advocates, but also of academics, like myself, who would like to claim some degree of objectivity.  The best I can offer is that I have “no skin in the game,” and so I will try to offer what I hope is an objective assessment of what I honestly believe is most likely to emerge over the next two to four years.

International Dimensions of Climate Change Policy

            Readers of this blog probably do not need to be reminded that because climate change is a global commons problem, international cooperation is necessary in order constrain (if not suppress) free-rider incentives.  On January 20th (inauguration day) or shortly thereafter, Mr. Biden is likely to initiate the process of rejoining the Paris Agreement (from which Mr. Trump withdrew the United States on November 4th, the earliest date permitted by the Agreement).  Thirty days after the necessary paper work is filed with the United Nations, the United States will again be a Party to the Agreement.  That’s the easy part.  The hard part is coming up with a quantitative statement of how and how much U.S. emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) will be reduced over time. 

            This “Nationally Determined Contribution” (NDC) will need to be sufficiently ambitious to satisfy (at least to some degree) both domestic green groups and some of the key countries of the international community.  This essentially means that the NDC will need to be at least as ambitious as the Obama administration target of a 26-28 percent reduction in GHG emissions by 2025, compared with 2005.  And it will need to compare favorably with the targets now being announced by other major emitters.  For example, the European Union is coming close to enacting a new target to cut its emissions 55% below their 1990 level by 2030.  And China recently said it will achieve carbon neutrality (zero net emissions) by 2060.

            If significant ambition is one necessary condition for the new Biden NDC, the other necessary condition is that it be credible, that is, truly achievable given existing and reasonably anticipated policy actions.  The only way that both of these necessary conditions can be achieved is with aggressive new domestic climate legislation.

Of course, the Paris Agreement is not the only possible avenue for international action on climate change, and the administration’s participation in that key agreement may be complemented by bilateral agreements, as well as plurilateral efforts via the G7 or G20. 

Domestic Climate Legislation

            With a Republican-controlled Senate – or even with a Democratic-controlled Senate with the one-vote margin, which is the best Democrats can hope for – meaningful and ambitious climate legislation will be difficult, if not impossible.  The “budget-reconciliation process,” whereby only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation, rather than the 60 votes required to cut off Senate debate, will be available only if every Democrat supports the given legislation.  On this, see my comments below regarding the fate of climate legislation in the Senate during the Obama administration when Democrats held 59 seats.

            Under these circumstances, it will be challenging, to say the least, for Democrats to enact President-Elect Biden’s climate plan, including its $2 trillion in spending over four years with the goal of making all U.S. electricity carbon free in 15 years.  Keep in mind that the Obama administration’s major climate legislation – the American Clean Energy and Security Act of 2009 (the so-called Waxman-Markey bill) – failed to receive a vote in the Senate, despite the fact that Democrats (and independents who caucused with Democrats) then held a total of 59 seats.  On the other hand, climate change is now taken more seriously by the public and receives considerably greater attention in political circles than it did twelve years ago.  That said, it is fair to say that the prospects over the next two to four years for comprehensive climate legislation – such as a truly meaningful carbon-pricing system – are not very good.

            But other legislation that would help reduce GHG emissions in the long term appears more possible.  That includes a post-COVID economic stimulus bill, which might have a green tinge, if not a fully green hue.  The Obama administration’s stimulus package enacted twelve years ago in response to the Great Recession included some $90 billion in clean energy investments and tax incentives.  Another candidate will be a future infrastructure bill, something both parties seem to recognize is important to upgrade aging U.S. infrastructure.  This could include funding for improvements in the national electricity grid, which will be necessary to facilitate greater reliance on renewable sources of electricity generation.

            Finally, there are possibilities for bipartisan climate legislation, although with stringency and scope much less than what Biden’s climate plan calls for.  The key approaches here might involve tax incentives, that is, nearly every politician’s favorite instrument – subsidies.  This may fit well with President-Elect Biden’s moderate approach to governing and his stated desire to work with both parties in Congress.  Specific bipartisan options could include policies targeting wind and solar power, carbon capture and storage/utilization, and technology initiatives, possibly via the government laboratories.

            But such modest, bipartisan initiatives are unlikely to satisfy either the demands of domestic climate policy advocates or international calls for action.  Because of this, the new administration – like the previous Obama administration – may have to opt for regulatory as opposed to statutory approaches.

Regulatory Approaches

            The new President, under existing authority, could “quickly” take actions through executive orders (Oval Office directives) in a number of areas to reverse many of Trump’s regulatory rollbacks.  For example, new oil and gas leasing on federal lands could again be prohibited, and the White House could attempt to block the Keystone XL pipeline from being completed.  More promising, the President could direct that the Social Cost of Carbon (SCC) be revised, presumably returning it the Obama administration’s use of global (not just domestic) damages and a 3% (rather than 7%) discount rate in the calculations, thereby increasing the SCC from about $1 to about $50 per ton, and directing federal agencies to use the revised SCC in their own decision making. 

            Presumably the new administration will move to reinstate and move beyond the Obama administration’s ambitious Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards.  In addition, EPA could reverse the Trump administration’s attempts to deny California its waiver under the Clean Air Act to put in place more stringent air-quality regulations than are required under federal law.

            Also, there is the possibility of using the authority of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to use financial regulation of publicly-traded companies to raise the cost of capital for fossil energy development, or to set standards for disclosure of climate-related corporate information.  Likewise, the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) has itself begun to explore options via its Market Risk Advisory Committee.  

            Regulatory approaches under existing statutory authority through rulemaking often appear to be an attractive approach, but using new regulations under existing legislation rather than enacting new laws raises another problem – the courts. Rulemaking entails lengthy notice and comment periods, extensive records, and inter-agency consultation, and the rules are subject to potential litigation.  The Obama administration promulgated its Clean Power Plan after the Senate failed to deliver on the administration’s comprehensive climate legislation.  Note that the Clean Power Plan was subject to a stay from the U.S. Supreme Court even before Trump entered office.  Then Trump arrived, and killed the regulation outright.

            The real challenge to the regulatory approach is that new regulations are much more likely to be successfully challenged in federal courts in 2021 than they were during the Obama years.  This is partly because there are now more than 200 Trump-appointed federal judges.  But more importantly, the Supreme Court now has a 6-3 conservative majority, which is very likely to favor literal reading of statutes, giving executive departments and agencies much less flexibility to go beyond the letter of the law or to interpret it in new “innovative ways.”  In particular, it is possible that the newly-constituted Supreme Court will move to modify or even overrule the critical Chevron Doctrine (1984), under which federal courts defer to administrative agencies when Congress was less than explicit in a statute on some issue (such as whether carbon dioxide can be regulated under particular sections of the Clean Air Act of 1970, as amended in 1990).

            There is also talk of a “whole of government” approach to climate change, in which the White House pushes virtually all departments and agencies to put in place changes that are supportive of decarbonizing the economy.  This would be beyond or instead of the focused statutory and regulatory policies described above.  Of course, the critical question is what such an approach could actually produce in terms of short-term emissions reductions and/or long-term decarbonizing of the economy.

Sub-National Climate Policy

            Even if less than what is hoped for can be accomplished with climate policies at the Federal level over the next two to four years, surely the new administration will not be hostile to states and municipalities taking more aggressive action.  Indeed, as I have written about previously in this blog and elsewhere, climate policies at the state level (California) and regional level (the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative in the northeast) have become increasingly important, particularly during the four years of the Trump administration.  Bottom-up evolution of national climate policy may continue to evolve from the Democratic-leaning states in the recent election – the Northeast, Middle Atlantic, Upper Midwest, Southwest, and West Coast (and possibly Georgia!) – which together represent more than half of the U.S. population and an even larger share of economic activity and GHG emissions.

The Path Ahead

            The new administration may find creative ways to break the logjam that has so far prevented ambitious national climate change policies from being enacted (or, if enacted, sustainable).  My greatest source of optimism is that the Biden-Harris team, in sharp contrast with the Trump-Pence administration, gives every indication that it will embrace scientific and other expertise across the board – whether that means the best epidemiologists and infectious disease experts designing an effective strategy for COVID-19, or the best scientists and economists designing sound climate policies that are also politically feasible.

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Anticipated Impacts of 2020 U.S. Election on Climate Policy

There is little time left until the U.S. presidential and congressional elections on November 3rd, an election which people on all sides of the many issues, whether they’re Republicans or Democrats, characterize as an exceptionally important election.  Among the important policy areas that will be affected by the election is the area on which I focus in this blog, namely environmental and energy policy, including of course, climate change policy.

As readers of this blog know, my monthly podcast – “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program – provides a venue for me to chat about policy and practice with knowledgeable people working at the interface of economics, energy, and the environment, whether from academia, NGOs, business, or government.  With the election coming up, it was clear to me that it would be a real service to our listeners, both in the United States and around the world, to talk with knowledgeable people about the election’s implications, both before the election and afterward.  And I realized that for this purpose, rather than talking with someone from academia, government, NGOs, or industry, I should talk with people who make it their business to examine key climate policy questions in a real-world political context on a daily basis, indeed often on an hourly basis.

I’m referring, of course, to practicing journalists.  So, I went to two people who are leaders in the realm of environmental reporting in a meaningful political context, two people whom I greatly respect and with whom I’ve had the pleasure of working – from my perch in academia – for many years.  Specifically, my post-election discussion, which will be in a few weeks, will be with Coral Davenport of the New York Times.  And for our before-election discussion, I’m delighted to say that I was joined by Lisa Friedman, reporter on the climate desk, also at the New York Times.  You can hear our complete discussion here.

Lisa Friedman, who joined the New York Times in 2017, after spending 12 years at Climatewire and E&E News, expressed  her delight with the attention that climate change policy is receiving in this election year, saying that it is “undeniably bigger and more substantive than it has ever been before,” noting, for example, the seven hours of climate change Town Hall discussions hosted by CNN.

“In every election that I have covered, both presidential and midterms, since I’ve been focused on climate change for about 10 or 12 years now, we always ask, ‘is this the election when climate change matters?’ And it does seem that this is the election when climate change matters.”

Friedman points out that the news coverage during this election cycle has demonstrated that the two presidential candidates represent very different views on climate policy.

“The fact that one candidate who calls climate change a hoax, and has been openly antagonistic to climate science, and has moved to roll back climate regulations, is pitted against a candidate who calls climate change an existential threat, makes this a more salient issue to cover,” she says.

If President Trump is re-elected, Friedman explains, Americans can expect more of the same policy positions that he espoused during his first term.

“President Trump has rolled back virtually every regulation that had existed to draw down emissions from power plants, from automobile tailpipe emissions, from the oil and gas sector,” she says. “One of the things that this administration has done that hasn’t gotten as much attention is they have worked to not just roll back regulations, but to roll back the ability to create new regulations. And I think that is something that we’ll see a lot more of.”

Friedman notes that if Vice-President Biden is elected on November 3rd, he will push the country toward more aggressive climate policies, although Congressional support would not be guaranteed.

“Vice President Biden has pledged two trillion [dollars] over four years to boost clean energy, electric automobiles, energy efficient buildings. He has called for eliminating fossil fuel emissions from the power sector by 2035,” she says. “That is going to be a difficult sell to get through the Senate in any configuration.”

Friedman also predicts that a President-elect Biden will likely announce very early that the United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement, from which Trump withdrew U.S. support early in his administration.

“I think you can expect some messaging very early on to the international community to remind them that throughout his campaign, he has pledged at getting back into the Paris Agreement will be a day one promise,” she says. “And then comes the question of thinking … about what US reentry into the Paris Agreement looks like.  Because…getting back into Paris is the easy part.”

The more challenging part, of course, will be specifying a new Nationally Determined Contribution within the Paris Agreement framework.

All of this and more is found in the latest episode of “Environmental Insights: Discussions on Policy and Practice from the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.” Listen to this latest discussion here.  You can find a complete transcript of our conversation at the website of the Harvard Environmental Economics Program.

Friedman’s interview is the 16th episode in the Environmental Insights series, with future episodes scheduled to drop each month. The next episode will feature another New York Times climate desk reporter, Coral Davenport, who will provide a post-election analysis.

My conversation with Lisa Friedman is the sixteenth episode in the Environmental Insights series.  Previous episodes have featured conversations with:

“Environmental Insights” is hosted on SoundCloud, and is also available on iTunes, Pocket Casts, Spotify, and Stitcher.

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Four Years Have Passed, and It’s Been Even Worse than I Anticipated

About four years ago, on October 9, 2016, one month prior to the U.S. Presidential election, I published a heart-felt and in some ways painful essay at this blog in which after 30 years of political privacy in my professional life — including, importantly, my teaching — I found it necessary to come out of the closet of political neutrality to condemn in no uncertain terms the threat which I believed one of the candidates, Donald Trump, posed to the United States and the world if he were elected President.

Sadly, four years later, all of my concerns have been validated, plus one threat that I had not thought about, namely that the Trump administration would damage American democracy in ways big and small, and that as the November 2020 election approached, President Trump himself would pose the greatest threat imaginable to the sanctity of the electoral process and thereby to the credibility and even the existence of our democratic form of government.

Of course, within the realm of environmental policy, the damages done to U.S. policy over the past four years are legendary, but not really a surprise. Indeed, see my essay at this blog from one week after the 2016 election (“What Does the Trump Victory Mean for Climate Change Policy?”, November 10, 2016), as well as dozens of essays I’ve posted since then.

So, rather than review the dismal record of the Trump administration over the past four years, I thought it might be more interesting for you — as it has been for me — to offer my essay of warning from four years ago.

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This is Not a Time for Political Neutrality

October 9, 2016

I have been writing essays at this blog for over seven years, and throughout that time, through perhaps 100 more-or-less-monthly essays, I have tried very hard to keep politics at bay, and to view each and every issue I discussed from a politically neutral, yet analytical economic perspective.  But I find it difficult to remain neutral in the current U.S. Presidential election cycle.

Since before the summer, I had resolved to write today’s essay, but I decided to wait until one month before the November U.S. election to post it, simply because I thought this was the point in time when people would be paying most attention to the upcoming election but would not yet have completely made up their minds.  In particular, I want to address this message to people who – like me – are political independents.

Background

I have been teaching at Harvard for close to 30 years, and every year I take pride in the fact that at the conclusion of my 13-week course in environmental economics and policy, my students cannot say – on the basis of what I have said in lectures or what they have read in the assigned readings – whether I am a tree-hugging environmental advocate from the political left, or an industry apologist from the political right (actually, I am neither, although hostile voices in the blogosphere have sometimes wanted to peg me as being on the opposite of whatever extreme they occupy).

Likewise, I have remained bipartisan in politics, ever since I directed Project 88 more than 25 years ago for the bipartisan coalition of former Democratic Senator Timothy Wirth and the late Republican Senator John Heinz.  Starting with the White House of President George H. W. Bush, and continuing with every administration – of both political parties – since then, I have worked on substantive matters of environmental and energy policy, in some cases closely and intensively, and in some cases indirectly and on the periphery.

Such professional bipartisanship and political neutrality have been important to me, and have been consistent with my voter registration, as I am officially registered as an independent (in Massachusetts, this goes by the designation of “unenrolled”).

So, over the years, I have voted for Democrats and I have voted for Republicans, for various offices ranging from the Mayor of my town to the President of my country.  And in each and every one of those elections, although I preferred one of the two principal candidates (sometimes very strongly), in no case did I fear for the future of my community, my state, or my country if my candidate lost and the other candidate won.

This time is different.  In all honesty, I fear for the United States and I fear for the world if Donald Trump is elected President.  The time for my professional bipartisanship and political neutrality has ended – at least temporarily.  And so I apologize to my readers for using this platform – An Economic View of the Environment – to express my broader, personal views on the upcoming election.  This is a departure that I hope never again will be necessary.

I am not part of a campaign, and I am not recommending a candidate.  Rather, I am recommending that everyone vote!  Of course, today’s essay, like all my posts at this blog, expresses only my personal views, and is not written on behalf of my employer, nor in my capacity as a faculty member of the Harvard Kennedy School.

What Drives My Fear of a Trump Presidency?  His Views on the Environment?

My fear of the consequences of a Trump victory in the Presidential election is not simply because of Mr. Trump’s misleading, (consistently) inconsistent, and fundamentally incorrect statements in the realm of environmental and energy policy.

Let me be clear.  I do find Mrs. Clinton’s policy positions in my area of expertise – environmental and energy economics and policy – to be superior to Mr. Trump’s positions.  I will not repeat here my views of Trump’s environmental and energy positions, because I have frequently been quoted in the press as critical of his pronouncements and positions in this realm (Climate Central, E&E News, Scientific American, New York Times, Washington Post, The Verge, New York Times, The Week, Law Street, Climate Central, New York Times, The Hill, Newsmax, Climate Central, Grist, and National Public Radio).  And a few times I have been quoted as criticizing Hillary Clinton’s policy prescriptions in the environmental and energy realm (New York Times, Denver Post, and High Country News).  (For that matter, I have been quoted perhaps hundreds of times over the past seven and a half years as sometimes supportive and sometimes critical of Obama administration environmental and energy policies.)

So, yes, I believe that the world would be worse off with what I anticipate would be a Trump administration’s environmental and energy policies.  But that is not what really frightens me.

What Really Does Scare me about a Trump Presidency?

What frightens me is much broader and more profound.  I worry about what a Trump presidency would mean for my country and for the world in realms ranging from economic progress to national security to personal liberty.  This comes not from any analysis of policy proposals, but from Trump’s own words in a campaign in which he has substituted impulse and pandering for thoughtful politics.  From the first day – his June 16, 2015 announcement of his Presidential bid (in which he described Mexican immigrants as drug smugglers, criminals, and rapists, and promised to “build a great wall”) – until today, Mr. Trump has built his populist campaign on false allegations about others, personal insults of anyone who disagrees with him, and displays of breathtaking xenophobia, veiled racism, and unapologetic sexism.

As disturbing as Trump’s stated positions are in economic policy, national security, and personal liberties, possibly even worse is the reality that Donald Trump, if elected President, would – intentionally or unintentionally – provide cover and support for the ignorant, racist, and xenophobic tendencies that sadly inhabit a substantial fraction of the U.S. population.  In many ways, Trump represents not the best that my country has to offer, but rather the worst excesses of American culture.

Trump is clearly a politician who seeks support by appealing to popular desires and prejudices rather than by using rational argument.  That is the definition – word for word – of a demagogue.

The Bottom Line

If you are an independent, like me, please do not sit on the sidelines of the upcoming election, condemning both candidates for their failings.

It has been said many times by many people that Hillary Clinton is not an ideal candidate for President.  I do not disagree with that sentiment.  Nor can I dispute the fact that her primary campaign against Senator Bernie Sanders pushed her to adopt positions of the left, including her unfortunate reversal regarding the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement.

But Mrs. Clinton would bring significant, positive experience to the presidency from four decades of public life, including as a member of the U.S. Senate and as Secretary of State.  In contrast with Mr. Trump, she has surrounded herself with legions of smart and experienced advisers in dozens of key policy realms.  Her campaign has produced detailed proposals on the most important challenges facing the country (although I do question some of her environmental positions).  But she is, if anything, a realist – not an ideologue, and certainly not a demagogue, which is precisely how I would characterize Mr. Trump.

I recognize that many people harbor very negative feelings about Mrs. Clinton.  The low approval ratings (of both candidates) validate that.  I respect those voters who have serious concerns about a Clinton presidency.

My core argument is that there are great differences between the two major candidates.  I disagree strongly with those of my fellow political independents (and others) who say that because both candidates are flawed, they will not vote.

In my view, that would be a mistake.  The fate of the United States and the fate of the world are really in our hands.  If you are an independent, please do not sit out this election.  It is much too important.

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