Incoming President Joe Biden campaigned by promising a “clean energy revolution” aimed at zero net carbon emissions from the U.S. economy by 2050. He’s getting started quickly, by naming former Secretary of State John Kerry to a new position he plans to create, essentially as climate czar.
Kerry will be Biden’s Special President Envoy for Climate, with a seat on the National Security Council. That would make Kerry the equivalent of a Cabinet secretary, the most senior position ever devoted to climate policy. The Environmental Protection Agency isn’t a Cabinet department, though the administrator of the agency is considered Cabinet rank. Kerry’s seat on the NSC is likely to be more muscular, with regular, direct access to the president and authority that stretches across many federal departments.
Climate experts expect Biden to go much further, making climate policy a top priority in every corner of government and enacting new regulations from his first day in office. “We’ve never been in a position before where a president-elect has campaigned on climate change this way and is prepared to take ambitious steps from day one,” says Christy Goldfuss of the Center for American Progress, who was a top climate advisor in the Obama administration. “It’s a big government, and there’s no reason you have to wait in line for one climate action after another to happen.”
A “climate 21” plan sponsored by the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy at Duke University contains detailed recommendations for government reforms to help slash carbon emissions that are the main cause of global warming. One is for the next president to sign an executive order creating a “National Climate Council” equivalent to the NSC and the National Economic Council. If Biden follows that recommendation, he could end up staffing the NCC with experts such as Ali Zaidi, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s top climate adviser, or retiring Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico.
Biden’s pick to run the EPA is likely to be Mary Nichols, currently the chair of the California Air Resources Board. Nichols is an environmental lawyer whose agency, known as CARB, sets the toughest vehicle pollution laws in the country. She has fearlessly fought auto and energy industry goliaths, along with President Trump’s efforts to slash environmental regulation. At least a dozen other states follow CARB’s vehicle pollution standards, making Nichols’ agency a kind of secondary federal regulator and one that’s often tougher than the feds.
Biden is likely to use executive authority quickly to roll back Trump’s softening of pollution rules, and in some cases enact new measures that go further than Obama. Goldfuss sees three things Biden can do fairly quickly. The first is undoing Trump’s weakening of fuel-economy rules and pushing them closer to California levels, to get to a single national standard that’s much higher than Trump’s levels. Auto giant General Motors (GM) may be anticipating this. On Nov. 23, GM said it was withdrawing its support for a Trump administration lawsuit meant to curtail California’s ability to set its own emissions rules, while also endorsing Biden’s efforts to cut carbon emissions. It’s a good bet other automakers that sided with the Trump lawsuit, including Toyota and FiatChrysler, will bail from that lawsuit as well, now that Trump’s on his way out.
Biden can also speed permits for offshore wind farms that Trump—who has mocked wind as an energy source—has essentially blocked. And Biden has pledged to ban new energy drilling on public lands, and promote renewable energy instead.
Bigger moves require legislation, which could be tough, whether Democrats take a one-seat advantage in the Senate, following the Jan. 5 runoff elections in Georgia, or Republicans maintain a narrow edge. There could be modest bipartisan deals on clean-energy infrastructure, research on new technology, nuclear energy and incentives for carbon capture, or the process of seizing carbon generated from power production and storing it before it enters the atmosphere. The Agriculture Department also has funds—which Trump tapped for farmer bailouts meant to compensate for lost exports under his trade wars—that could finance carbon capture and related programs on farms and ranches and in forests.
The outlook for new carbon taxes is probably bleaker, which is unfortunate because many economists think incrementally higher taxes on carbon energy production are one of the most efficient ways to incentivize private industry to cut emissions. Carbon taxes can raise costs for consumers, however, making the politically unpopular. Even without them, Biden has many tools for addressing climate change, and his early signals suggest he’ll use all of them.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Encrypted communication available. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.