What Biden will and won’t be able to achieve on climate change

Restoring—or ending legal challenges against—regulations like the Clean Air Act, the Clean Power Plan, and the ability of states like California to set their own vehicle emissions standards could prevent the release of billions of tons of greenhouse gases, according to previous estimates of the impact of Trump’s policies.

Executive actions are “not necessarily the most durable form of policy, as we learned under the Trump administration,” says Kelly Sims Gallagher, a professor of energy and environmental policy at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. “But for sure it works.”

A Biden administration would also be likely to quickly remove the roster of climate deniers, fossil-fuel lobbyists, and oil executives that Trump placed in positions of power throughout federal agencies; end the suppression of scientific reports; and restore the federal government’s reliance on scientists and other experts to make critical decisions on climate change (and other crucial issues like the covid-19 pandemic).

But there could still be opportunities to make some longer-lasting progress on climate by passing new laws, observers say.

Notably, there’s broad support for an economic stimulus package amid the pandemic-driven downturn. Such a bill could include significant research and development funding for areas like next-generation nuclear power and carbon capture, removal, and storage technologies, says Josh Freed, who leads the climate and energy program at Third Way, a center-left think tank in Washington, DC. It could also include job training programs for renewables and other clean energy sectors. The Obama administration used economic stimulus in the wake of the 2008-09 recession to direct some $90 billion of federal investment into green industries.

There’s also bipartisan appetite for an infrastructure bill, which could include investments in electricity transmission lines, offshore wind farms, shoreline protections, and other climate adaptation measures.

But Freed says just how much climate-related spending can be packed into these measures will depend on the level of cooperation from Mitch McConnell, the Kentucky Republican senator who won his reelection bid on Tuesday and who will likely remain majority leader. There’s also pressure to enact at least a first round of stimulus before the end of the year, under Trump, which would be unlikely to include significant climate funding.

Finally, on the international front, Biden committed to rejoining the Paris climate agreement, which the US officially exited on Wednesday. Stepping back into the international fold wouldn’t in itself create any new domestic climate policy. But it would require the US to submit a new set of commitments to cut emissions before the next UN Climate Change Conference in 2021, as well as a plan for slashing climate pollution by midcentury, Gallagher says.

Just as importantly, the US’s return to the Paris accord would strengthen the global alliance around climate issues and put more pressure on other nations to keep to or step up their commitments. But after Trump’s “America First” reign, during which he routinely upended critical trade and military alliances, it also may simply take time to restore some of the nation’s credibility.

“It may be that the US will need to play less of an agenda-setting role than it has in the past until it’s accumulated enough trust,” Gallagher says.