If President Biden wins a second term, his climate policies would take aim at steel and cement plants, factories, and oil refineries — heavily polluting industries that have never before had to rein in their heat-trapping greenhouse gases.
New controls on industrial facilities, which his advisers have begun to map out and described in recent interviews, could combine with actions taken on power plants and vehicles during his first term to help meet the president’s goal of eliminating fossil fuel pollution by 2050, analysts said. Industrialized nations must hit that target if the world has any hope to avoid the most catastrophic impacts from climate change, according to scientists.
“If people look at what this administration has done on climate and say, ‘This is enough,’ this country is not going to get to our goals,” said John Larsen, a partner at Rhodium Group, a nonpartisan energy research firm whose analyses are regularly consulted by the White House.
But talking about more regulations at the start of what promises to be a bruising election cycle is perilous, strategists said. In particular, the prospect of new mandates from Washington regarding steel and cement — the bedrock materials of US construction — could sour the swing-state union workers courted by Biden.
“If you are seen as imposing debilitating regulations on heavy industry that employs large numbers of people, you’re not only going to get a backlash from manufacturing, but labor as well,” said David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist who ran former president Barack Obama’s campaigns. “How to do that without looking like you are stabbing these industries in the back, or in the front, for that matter, is a real political challenge.”
Still, the urgency of global warming requires action, Larsen said. “Most other problems in America aren’t going to be 10 times worse in 10 years if we don’t do something right now,” he said. “Climate’s not like that. If this year has shown us anything, with the extreme weather and fires, it’s that it won’t just stay at this level; it’s going to break all the records we’ve just broken.”
Republicans are eager to seize on the suggestion of additional regulations at a time when many Americans think the economy is in a downturn.
“Apparently, skyrocketing gas and energy prices weren’t enough for Biden; he wants to raise the prices on building and infrastructure costs and put hardworking Americans further into debt,” said Emma Vaughn, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “Biden will not be elected to a second term. American families can’t afford it.”
But Collin O’Mara, chief executive of the National Wildlife Federation, and others believe that after Americans have sweltered through a summer of the hottest temperatures in recorded history, watched the nation’s deadliest wildfire in over a century decimate a Hawaiian island, inhaled wildfire smoke from Detroit to Atlanta, and experienced hot-tub ocean temperatures off the Florida coast, at least some voters will be ready to embrace more climate action.
A second-term Biden climate agenda would come after the president has already delivered transformative policies to reduce greenhouse gases generated by the United States, the country that has pumped the most carbon dioxide into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution.
Last year, Biden signed into law the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark climate law, which will provide at least $370 billion over the next decade for incentives to ramp up sales of electric vehicles and expand wind, solar, and other renewable energy. Under Biden, the Environmental Protection Agency has proposed regulations, expected to be finalized next year, designed to compel the phaseout of gasoline-powered cars and coal-fired power plants.
Together, those policies could help cut the nation’s emissions nearly in half over the next decade, analysts say.
And yet, it’s not enough.
The United States and nearly 200 other countries agreed in 2015 to try to limit the rise in average global temperatures to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100, compared with preindustrial levels. Beyond that point, scientists say, the effects of deadly heat waves, flooding, drought, crop failures, and species extinction would become significantly harder for humanity to handle. But the planet has already warmed by an average of about 1.2 degrees Celsius, and the United States and other nations are far from meeting their goals.
As emissions in the United States decline from energy and transportation — the country’s two biggest sources of greenhouse gases — industry would become the most polluting sector of the economy. That makes businesses such as steel and cement manufacturing — among the most difficult to clean up — the obvious target for the next round of climate regulation.
At the White House, Biden’s climate team has already envisioned a multistep plan to cut industrial pollution if he wins reelection.
The first step would use carrots, steering incentives from the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act toward nascent technologies to help factories reduce their carbon footprint.
For example, green hydrogen, a fuel produced by using wind and solar power, is muscular enough to run a steel mill but emits only water vapor as a byproduct. And cement production involves heating limestone and releasing large amounts of carbon dioxide, but several companies have been developing cement that does not emit carbon and may even absorb it.
The second step would be to try to compel global competitors to clean up their operations through a “carbon tariff” — a fee added to imported goods such as steel, cement, and aluminum based on their carbon emissions.
Recent surveys show that Americans are concerned about climate change and think the government and large corporations should do more to fight it, but opinions are mixed when it comes to specific policies.
In surveys by the Pew Research Center this year, 66 percent of adults said the government should encourage wind and solar energy, while just 31 percent want the country to phase out fossil fuels. Respondents were divided on the question of whether the government should encourage the use of electric vehicles, with 43 percent saying it should, 14 percent saying it should not, and 43 percent saying it should neither encourage nor discourage.
Although 54 percent of adults polled by Pew said climate change was a major threat to the country’s well-being, respondents ranked it 17th out of 21 national issues in a January survey. “Even for Democrats, who say it’s important, it’s not the top issue,” said Alec Tyson, a researcher who helped conduct the survey.