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With Biden, environmental groups see ‘tremendous opportunity’ to address climate change

Legislation to cut carbon emissions will be difficult to pass given the divisions in Congress.
Legislation to cut carbon emissions will be difficult to pass given the divisions in Congress.NYT

For years, President Trump has called climate change a hoax, eviscerated environmental regulations, and sought to discredit the primary international effort to reduce global carbon emissions.

Now, with President-elect Joe Biden poised to take power in January, environmental groups are expecting a sea change in the way the United States confronts what the former vice president has called the “number one issue facing humanity.”

Hopes for far-reaching legislation that would overhaul how the nation responds to climate change and other environmental threats dimmed when Republicans denied Democrats a clear majority in the Senate. If Democrats win two runoff elections in January in Georgia, the Senate would be equally split, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote.

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But even with a divided Congress, environmental advocates are hopeful that consequential change remains possible through executive orders, regulation, tax credits, and other incentives.

“There’s an enormous amount of positive things a president can do without Congress,” said Ken Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge. “There’s a tremendous opportunity for progress.”

Biden has said that his first order of business on climate change, which won’t require congressional approval, is to rejoin the Paris climate accord, the key global effort to slow emissions which Trump abandoned. He has also committed to holding a summit with other high-polluting countries, in an effort to seek more-ambitious pledges to reduce emissions.

Earlier this week, Biden signaled the importance of climate change in his agenda by naming former secretary of state John Kerry as presidential envoy focused on climate change. Kerry will sit on the National Security Council, indicating Biden sees the issue in global terms.

“You’ve put forward a bold, transformative climate plan, but you’ve also underscored that no country alone can solve this challenge,” Kerry, who is a former senator from Massachusetts, said of Biden. “To end this crisis, the whole world must come together.”

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Biden’s team has already started drafting executive orders to reduce carbon emissions and is seeking nominees who will make addressing climate change a priority. The president-elect has spoken about climate issues in calls with a range of foreign leaders, including Pope Francis.

Had Democrats won more seats in the Senate, they would have been able to pursue a more ambitious agenda, such as establishing mandatory emissions-reduction targets toward Biden’s goal of producing 100 percent clean electricity by 2035 and net-zero emissions by 2050. They may have sought to adopt new standards that would require utilities to increase the amount of renewable energy they use.

But even in an era of partisan gridlock, some climate bills may win support from moderate Republicans, such as an economic stimulus bill to finance solar, wind, and other renewable energy projects, new power transmission lines, and charging stations to promote the transition from gas to electric vehicles.

There is also a lot Biden could do on his own, through executive orders and regulatory steps. They could include stricter fuel economy standards, requirements that gas and oil companies substantially reduce methane emissions, and a phasing out of sales of new gas-powered vehicles, as California plans to do in 15 years. Biden could also require federal agencies to buy electric vehicles and take other actions as a way of leading by example.

Biden could also direct the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Justice to step up pollution enforcement, restore more than 100 environmental regulations rolled back by the Trump administration, protect more public lands and waters, and promote efforts to reduce health disparities in low-income areas often subject to greater levels of pollution.

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“There is no time to wait,” said Mindy Lubber, president of CERES, a Boston-based environmental group that promotes climate action in the corporate world. “As the second-largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, the US will need to cut emissions nearly in half by 2030 and reach net-zero by 2040, at least a decade sooner than our original goals, in order to make up for the lack of federal climate action by the Trump administration.”

In a sign of the shifting political terrain, General Motors on Monday dropped its support of the Trump administration’s legal fight to nullify California’s fuel economy rules. The reversal showed that the company, and perhaps other corporate stalwarts, are ready to start working with the incoming president on environmental issues.

But finding common ground in the Senate may be difficult, even if Democrats win both seats in Georgia. They would have to win over moderates in their party, such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, a coal-heavy state whose voters went heavily for Trump.

Last year, Manchin was one of three Democratic senators, as well as Maine independent Angus King, who voted against the Green New Deal, a sweeping, if still amorphous, set of proposals to address climate change. In a recent interview with Fox News, Manchin noted his power to influence votes in a closely divided Senate and vowed the Green New Deal and “all that socialism” was “not who we are as a Democratic Party.”

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Over the past year, a few Republicans have offered at least one bipartisan climate bill, called the Growing Climate Solutions Act, which would pay farmers to capture carbon. Others have offered bills that would expand tax credits for carbon-capture technology and increase funding for research and development.

Jonathan Lesser, an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, called the Green New Deal “fantasy” and said one area of potential compromise could be nuclear power, which doesn’t produce carbon emissions.

“I conclude that the entire [Green New Deal] effort primarily will be an exercise to benefit the well-connected with subsidies, at the expense of the less fortunate,” he said.

But those leading efforts to advance more aggressive climate legislation said the stakes were too high for half-measures.

“We won’t stop fighting in the Senate for aggressive and innovative climate solutions,” said Senator Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, a cosponsor of the Green New Deal, in a statement. “It’s not about pushing to the left; it’s about pushing for what’s right.”

He called for new emissions standards and public investment in renewable energy and urged his colleagues to craft measures that were “emboldened, ambitious, and — should Mitch McConnell hold the Senate — resourceful.”

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He also urged them to act on broader environmental measures by “supercharging” existing laws, such as the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act.

“We need stronger protections on the books,” Markey said.

With global temperatures continuing to rise (the past decade was the hottest on record) and storms becoming more powerful (there has been a record number of major storms this year) there will be sustained pressure on the Biden administration to live up to its promises to address climate change.

Michael Mann, a climate scientist who directs the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University, said he remains hopeful Congress will muster the will to put a price on carbon and subsidize major investments in clean energy.

“Given an even modestly favorable shift in political winds, one could envision [a bold bill] passing the House and moving on to the Senate with a half-dozen or more moderate conservatives crossing the aisle, joining with Senate Democrats to pass the bill within the next year or two,” he said.

Naomi Oreskes, a professor of the history of science at Harvard University, is also holding out hope for bipartisan compromise, noting that Republicans represent some of the states most vulnerable to climate change, such as those along the Gulf Coast, which has been battered by increasingly powerful storms, and Florida, which may be the most vulnerable to rising sea levels.

“We know that most Republicans know that climate change is real, but they have unfortunately backed themselves into a corner,” she said, by publicly raising doubts about the science. “We can only hope that at least a few of them see this as an opportunity.”

Whatever the composition of Congress, environmental advocates said they would demand that the Biden administration live up to his promises.

“It’s crucial for this agenda to pass,” said Jeanette Gronemeyer, an organizer with the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led climate advocacy group.


David Abel can be reached at david.abel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.