Election 2020

What Are Biden’s Climate Options if the Senate Stays Republican?

A split government would make it harder, but there are many things a president can do.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Wind turbines at a wind farm in Colorado City, Texas on Jan. 21, 2016.
Wind turbines at a wind farm in Colorado City, Texas on Jan. 21, 2016. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

With a President Joe Biden and a Republican-controlled U.S. Senate—the current scenario pending final vote counts and two runoff elections in Georgia—ambitious legislative action on energy and climate change will be significantly more challenging. Nonetheless, there will still be many options for meaningful climate action under a Biden administration.

First, there are several existing laws a president can work with without congressional approval. The most significant is the Clean Air Act, which gives the executive branch the authority to regulate emissions from sources such as power plants, cars, and trucks, as well as methane emissions from the oil and gas sector. A judiciary dominated by Republican appointees, however, raises risks that regulatory action under this authority may not withstand legal challenge. A Biden administration can also use its authority over public lands and waters to expand leasing for renewable energy projects such as offshore wind farms; use the procurement power of the federal government and military to drive deployment of clean technologies; curb agricultural and forestry emissions by rewarding carbon sequestration by farmers, ranchers, and landowners; and appoint a majority of commissioners at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which sets market rules for the electricity sector and can use them to favor low-carbon energy sources. As president, Biden could also support policies by U.S. states, for example by reinstating a waiver revoked by the Trump administration that allowed California to set its own vehicle emission standards.

Second, the executive branch has significant authority over foreign policy. Since 85 percent of global emissions are produced by other countries, putting climate change at the center of foreign policy is crucial. Rejoining the Paris agreement is necessary but far from sufficient. There is much else that a Biden administration could pursue, such as promoting collaboration on clean energy trade and innovation; spearheading a multilateral agreement to curb methane emissions and finalizing another to phase down hydrofluorocarbons; pursuing agreements covering carbon-intensive industries such as steel and cement; and working with allies to redouble efforts to phase out emissions from existing coal plants.

Of course, Washington’s international leverage would be enhanced by stronger climate action at home. A proposed global phasedown of coal use would thus have more credibility if domestic regulations limiting power sector emissions drive down coal use in the United States—enabled by cheap renewable energy and natural gas.

Finally, it may be wrong to assume no congressional action is possible with a Republican Senate. An increasing number of moderate Republicans—not to mention business groups that often support congressional candidates—have expressed interest in climate proposals such as a carbon tax, which could sharply reduce emissions in the power sector. Many Republicans also support subsidies for low-carbon energy sources such as solar, wind, and nuclear power, carbon capture, and investments in energy technology innovation, which could yield enormous economic dividends. A President Biden could aim to launch a National Energy Innovation Mission in concert with a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers.

Policies commensurate with the staggering scale of the climate challenge require ambitious legislative action, which will no doubt be more difficult with Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell as Senate majority leader. Yet using existing regulatory authority, pressing ahead in foreign policy, and seeking bipartisan agreement in narrower areas, a Biden administration can still make meaningful climate progress.

Jason Bordoff, a former senior director on the staff of the U.S. National Security Council and special assistant to President Barack Obama, is a professor of professional practice in international and public affairs and the founding director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.

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