After a major setback on a historic package of climate legislation, President Joe Biden and Democrats in Congress are scrambling to find other ways to slash US emissions. As they race to create a Plan B for an escalating climate crisis, they stand to learn a lot from the Obama era — a history that’s littered with similar setbacks and climate policies that never saw the light of day.
One of the most impactful climate policies that Congress has ever considered, the clean electricity payment program (CEPP), is on the chopping block. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) says he will not support a bill that penalizes coal and natural gas for the outsized role they play in US pollution. Democrats can’t pass their budget bill, the Build Back Better Act, without his support, and its size and scope has been shrinking.
Meanwhile, a key window for progress is closing: Top Democrats have promised to hammer out a domestic climate deal by the time Biden speaks at a pivotal United Nations climate conference in Glasgow, which begins October 31. If Congress fails to enshrine key climate policies as federal laws, Biden’s Plan B includes executive orders and major regulations from the Environmental Protection Agency, the New York Times reported.
The problem is that executive actions aren’t an ideal substitute for federal laws, and may last only as long as Biden’s presidency. EPA regulation also “tends to lag [behind] the technological realities,” meaning it may only modestly nudge the economy in a new direction, Jesse Jenkins, an environmental engineering professor at Princeton University, told Vox. It’s also vulnerable to intervention by the Supreme Court.
In some respects, Democrats have been here before. Under President Barack Obama, a similar political bind in Congress made his climate actions weaker and open to reversal. “I am not sure there are easy ways to avoid the pitfalls the Obama administration faced in taking regulatory action on climate change,” Matto Mildenberger, a University of California Santa Barbara political scientist who has written on the history of US climate policy, told Vox.
Democrats have options left. The $500 billion Democrats have promised for climate funding would represent historic congressional investment, and roughly a third of the funding in the possible Build Back Better plan. But it still would not make up for the policies that have been cut. If the past is any guide, their best chance is to throw the kitchen sink at the climate crisis, consistently and relentlessly, on every level of government.
To make sweeping and lasting progress, they’ll need to outdo the Democrats of the Obama era by pushing not only for executive and state action, but also funding for smaller climate policies that can fill what experts described as the “CEPP-sized hole” in the budget bill. If Democrats do that, Mildenberger still believes the US could manage to have a “world-leading” climate agenda.
Democrats run the risk of repeating mistakes they made in the Obama era
Obama’s strategy for tackling climate change counted on Congress passing a bipartisan bill, which would have capped climate pollution and created a market for trading credits. Success depended on the support of wary Democrats as well as some Republicans. By summer 2010, Obama appointees admitted they didn’t have the votes in the Senate. The bill quietly died that summer, and the path to passing a federal law closed when Tea Party-backed Republicans swept the midterm elections.
As the New Yorker reported at the time, “Obama said that he knew ‘the votes may not be there right now, but I intend to find them in the coming months.’ He never found them, and he didn’t appear to be looking very hard.”
The Obama administration didn’t charge ahead to find other ways to deliver pollution cuts, at least not right away. Climate activists spent the subsequent years accusing Obama of “climate silence,” according to the Washington Post. It wasn’t until his 2013 State of the Union that he made his lengthiest comments on climate change in years and promised: “If Congress won’t act soon … I will … with executive actions.”
By summer 2013, well into Obama’s second term, the administration was pushing forward with a new comprehensive strategy for tackling climate change, relying primarily on executive and regulatory action to clean up power and transportation emissions. For the first time, a president began to realign the executive branch, especially the EPA, to issue landmark standards for cleaner cars, power plants, and methane from gas operations.
But Obama was not able to replicate what Congress could have accomplished. As ambitious as his first-ever coal regulations seemed at the time, for example, they were halted by the Supreme Court before taking effect. Even without them, utilities ended up keeping pace with most targets on their own, showing how moderate the regulations were.
There are other reasons that a new wave of EPA action won’t be as powerful as federal climate legislation. Regulations still take time to draft and finalize and are frequently challenged in court. The Supreme Court swung to the right under former President Donald Trump and seems even more skeptical of the EPA’s powers.
In hindsight, the Obama administration arguably miscalculated the odds that its climate policy would outlast his presidency. The office of Sen. Tina Smith (D-MN), who sponsored the clean electricity plan, told Vox that politicians can’t take for granted that all climate policies will last. Smith’s staff said that Biden’s Plan B must find other ways to cut emissions, even as Manchin insists on cuts and the bill’s price tag keeps shrinking.
Obama-era Democrats left other climate policies in a precarious place: For example, key tax breaks for wind and solar energy repeatedly expired throughout the 2000s and were only renewed after the fact, slowing gains in the two renewable energy sectors. Even when Democrats controlled Congress during Obama’s presidency, these credits received short-term extensions. And by waiting until Obama’s second term to roll out key climate regulations for the power sector and transportation, the administration took a risk that some wouldn’t be finalized before the next administration, making it that much easier for the incoming Trump to halt.
Trump easily blocked methane rules for existing oil and gas facilities because they were still being drafted. “There are tiers of executive actions, each of which have different relative permanency,” CNN explained in 2016. And finalized rules take longer for an incoming president to reverse than rulemaking that’s still underway.
The Biden White House’s climate strategy in 2021 may end up not so different from the course of the Obama administration. Obama, facing the reality of a gridlocked Congress, relied on executive action to push the country forward on climate. And when Trump reversed course on climate policy, some states tried to continue their own shifts toward clean energy.
Still, Democrats can learn from this history and take action in three important ways: 1) pushing the executive branch to quickly finalize regulations of the biggest emitters, such as coal-fired power plants and oil and gas producers; 2) writing climate standards into their subsidies for other polluting sectors, like industry, transportation, and buildings; and 3) updating the Build Back Better budget bill so that it funds every possible incremental way to close the gap in emissions.
They also have to remember what has changed: The political movement urging climate action is far bigger than it was a decade ago. The problem is, the warnings in climate science of inaction are also more dire. The Biden administration will have to outdo the Obama administration in the pace and the scale of its ambitions.
Biden’s goals are bigger than Obama’s, but he has less margin for error
A decade of inaction by Congress has now cost the world precious time to avoid the most severe consequences of climate change. A global goal of limiting warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius, enshrined in the 2015 Paris agreement, could slip through our fingers in a matter of years, according to the World Meteorological Organization and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Every fraction of a degree of warming can claim lives and livelihoods as it ripples through ecosystems, water supplies, agriculture, and more.
The US is making progress, but not quickly enough. Domestic climate pollution has fallen by less than 22 percent between 2005 and 2020. After rejoining the Paris climate agreement this year, Biden announced a new target: cutting US climate pollution by at least 50 percent by 2030.
The best way of ensuring the US reaches this target, climate experts told Vox, would be ambitious congressional action. Federal laws could transition the electricity sector off fossil fuels and replace gas-guzzling cars with electric vehicles.
Now that the Senate appears to have sunk its best single weapon against climate change, the clean electricity payment program, the White House is falling back on a “three-pronged approach” to meet its goal.
One prong still depends on Congress passing historic clean energy funding as part of the Build Back Better Act (albeit a smaller package than the White House wanted). The second relies on the White House preparing ambitious regulations of electricity, transportation, a natural gas production. And the third prong depends on states — especially the 25 that are already committed to climate action — ramping up energy efficiency, fuel standards, and clean energy to match the most ambitious regions in the nation.
This Plan B will be difficult to pull off, and is less ambitious than climate activists had hoped for. A clean electricity policy would have accounted for roughly 25 percent of the package’s pollution cuts, according to a Princeton Zero Lab analysis from Jenkins and his colleagues. Democrats may also scrap their second major climate proposal, a plan to fine oil and gas producers for methane pollution, from the Build Back Better Act. Methane is a potent greenhouse gas that, over the short term, warms the planet even more than carbon dioxide.
Other powerful levers in the fight against climate change, like a carbon tax or specific penalties on fossil fuels, are just as unlikely to make it into the final plan. So the final infrastructure package and budget bill likely won’t make as big of a dent in climate pollution as many Democrats once hoped.
But that doesn’t mean all hope is lost for US climate action. “Even with what some would view as moderate congressional action, there is still a pathway to meeting the target,” John Larsen, climate director of the energy research firm Rhodium Group, told Vox. “It’s just going to mean that there needs to be sustained effort by other parts of the federal system and state level to really follow through.”
How Democrats can still make lasting progress on climate policy
In a Monday speech in New Jersey, Biden projected optimism that his Build Back Better agenda is “going to address the root cause of ever-increasing extreme weather and destruction.”
For him to follow through on this promise, he’ll have to avoid the pitfalls that Obama faced. The past decade highlights how critical it is for a Build Back Better plan that closes the gaping holes likely left without the clean electricity payment program and methane fees — and for Democrats to maintain a sense of urgency and chip away at the climate crisis at every level.
- The first, most important lesson from the Obama era is that there is no time to waste. Regulations take years to draft and finalize, so the earlier in Biden’s term that his administration creates them, the better shot they’ll have at outlasting his presidency.
Biden has seemed to appreciate this lesson. His EPA has been busy preparing and finalizing upgrades for Obama-era climate regulations for the power sector, transportation, and oil and gas production. “If you don’t have the methane fee, then the methane regulations that EPA is cooking up are going to be that much more important,” Larsen pointed out.
- It’s still possible to meet Biden’s goals even without the CEPP and methane fees, according to a Rhodium Group analysis that Larsen coauthored last week. Rhodium estimated the impact of extremely aggressive action, including almost a dozen core executive actions the Biden administration would need to take. Some of these would have to build on what Obama originally planned, but at a far more ambitious scale, like far-reaching new climate standards for the power sector. Larsen also suggested that Biden would have to test the Clean Air Act in new ways; for example, by issuing the first-ever climate regulation for industrial pollution, and requiring that every new natural gas terminal and chemical plant is equipped with carbon capture technology.
- Congress still needs to pass as many climate priorities as possible in the infrastructure deal and Build Back Better plan. Democrats still have a shot at funding clean energy tax breaks, improving electricity transmission to connect renewables to new areas of the country, and expanding access to electric vehicles.
“My view on climate policy is you just keep accelerating things as much as you can, wherever you can,” Jenkins said. Some Democratic senators hope to redirect the CEPP’s $150 billion price tag to other programs.
“Carbon pollution is all throughout the American economy,” making it possible to pull levers that “together create something that would fill the CEPP-sized hole,” said Mildenberger, the USC political scientist. Those cuts could come from energy efficiency in industrial manufacturing, building electrification, or preventing nuclear plants from retiring.
Democrats could tweak requirements for projects that receive funding from new infrastructure spending. For example, Congress can require that federally funded building projects meet higher energy efficiency standards.
What are the other climate policies could benefit from an infusion of cash? Sen. Smith’s office suggested funding for renewable energy and transmission — though Manchin, as chair of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, might still have influence over that.
The Atlantic’s Robinson Meyer also pointed to long-distance electricity transmission:
The U.S. must triple its transmission infrastructure in order to decarbonize by 2050, according to a landmark Princeton study. As Steve Cicala, an economics professor at Tufts University, recently told me, solar and wind are now the cheapest forms of electricity generation in some parts of the country. But those cost declines only matter if the largest power markets are connected—via new transmission!—to those areas.”
The group We ACT for Environmental Justice suggested the funding should be used to clean up highway pollution that disproportionately affects communities of color — for example, by increasing funding for clean cars and zero-emissions heavy-duty trucks.
Meanwhile, Mildenberger suggested, funding for nuclear power would ensure that the US doesn’t lose the 20 percent of its carbon-free energy that currently comes from nuclear. Otherwise, that electricity could be replaced with gas and coal.
Biden will need to multitask to make his Plan B work, Larsen said. “If any one component were not to take place in the timeframe that we’re talking about, then something else is going to have to happen,” he said. “That could be additional regulations, it could be new states that are leading; it could be future congressional action. But you would need to see other actions somewhere else to make up the difference.”