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IDEAS

Biden has a climate mandate

The best time to cut carbon emissions was decades ago, but the second-best time is today. At least with a new administration, we can start tomorrow.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden addressed climate change and Western wildfires in a speech in September.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden addressed climate change and Western wildfires in a speech in September.Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

This election saw climate change rise to the top of the agenda like never before. Donations flooded into the Biden-Harris campaign from people concerned about the climate crisis. In poll after poll, climate change was the number one or two issue for Democratic voters. On election night, even Fox News shared polling that showed 70 percent of Americans want the government to spend more on clean energy.

Joe Biden made it clear that climate was one of his top issues, too. As he often pointed out, he presided over the implementation of the 2009 Recovery Act, which invested $90 billion in clean energy. And in the 1980s, he introduced the first climate bill in the Senate.

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On the campaign trail, Biden talked about the issue constantly. During his convention speech, he said climate change was one of the four big crises we face, alongside the pandemic, the economic crisis, and racial injustice. In September, he gave an entire speech on climate change — the first time any presidential candidate has done so. The campaign ran climate ads in Michigan and Arizona, key swing states. And right before the election, he put it in even starker terms, saying “climate change is the number one issue facing humanity.”

How did the public respond to all this talk about climate change? Although races were tight in many states, more people voted for Biden than any other candidate in American history. In exit polls, climate change was a top issue for voters. There is no doubt about it: The next administration will have a strong mandate to act on the climate crisis as an urgent priority.

Three principles should form the federal government’s approach to climate policy: standards, investments, and justice. Like a three-legged stool, each pillar is necessary to make a solid foundation.

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The Biden-Harris plan follows this formula, with proposals for 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035, $2 trillion in investments in climate action over the next four years, and a pledge that 40 percent of these investments will flow to disadvantaged communities.

We need our federal government to enact rules and set deadlines across the key sectors that create carbon pollution: electricity, transportation, buildings, and heavy industry. Progress can be made through executive action — under existing laws — and through new legislation in Congress, even if Republicans continue to control the Senate.

First off, there are numerous environmental laws that the Trump administration has ignored or rolled back. And that will end under Biden’s leadership. He can use the Clean Air Act to set standards for pollution from power plants, as President Obama did and Trump reversed. And that’s just the beginning: car standards, methane standards, appliance standards — piece by piece, standards can cut emissions across the economy.

Second, Congress could also set a standard for the electricity sector to be entirely carbon free by 2035. Deadlines like these give us clarity, allowing everyone to plan and begin the transition now. If we clean up our electricity system and use it to power low-carbon energy across the country, we could be 70 percent of the way toward fixing the climate mess.

Most states have passed clean energy standards. One in three Americans already lives in a place that’s aiming for 100 percent clean power.

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To ensure we hit our carbon reduction targets, we need to back these standards and goals with investments. The climate problem can be thought of as an issue of assets: We have a bunch of dirty fossil infrastructure that we need to retire, and a ton of new clean energy to build.

The federal government can help to refinance and write off coal plant debt, ensuring that workers and communities are given financial assistance during the transition. It can also invest in clean energy through grants or tax credits. Federal policy can ensure that anyone who wants to buy an electric vehicle or a heat pump can afford one.

Inevitably, Republicans will claim that we cannot afford to spend these federal dollars. But this is wrongheaded. These are investments in a thriving economy. If we put people to work in every county retrofitting homes with induction stoves and heat pumps, we will create work for millions of Americans. And that work can’t be taken overseas. These federal dollars will pay us back many times over.

Our outgoing president ensured that pandemic relief contained billions in handouts for fossil fuel companies. New leadership in Washington should make sure that we are investing instead in people and the future. No matter who controls the Senate, next year Congress is going to have to pass a few laws. That could include a budget bill, an economic recovery package, and infrastructure spending. All of these bills could include money to clean up our economy.

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And with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris running the executive branch, we can ensure that government spending is greened across the board. From procurement to the postal service, investments in our clean energy future can be made.

We must also remember that continuing to delay costs money — and American lives. The fires that raged up and down the West Coast and the hurricanes whose names have run into the Greek alphabet are a warning of what is to come. Climate disasters are already costing billions every year.

Of course, climate change isn’t the only problem we face. As the Biden-Harris campaign emphasized, we need to cut carbon emissions while also battling the pandemic and addressing income inequality and racial injustice. Millions of people are currently behind on their electricity bills because of the pandemic, and climate policy must not push the costs of the transition onto the poorest Americans.

There will be big challenges to implementing the Biden-Harris vision. The Senate has proven a consistent stumbling block for climate progress. With ongoing races in Alaska and Georgia, we don’t yet know which party will control that chamber.

But we cannot forget that the Biden victory is a big win for the planet. Even if we can’t get new climate legislation, our executive branch already has many tools to act.

The best time to cut emissions was decades ago; the second-best time is today. With a Biden administration, we can get started tomorrow.

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Leah C. Stokes, an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, is the author of Short Circuiting Policy,” a contributor to the essay collection “All We Can Save,” and co-host of the podcast “A Matter of Degrees.” Follow her on Twitter @leahstokes.