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Climate Policy in the Biden Era: Déjà vu All Over Again?

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Joel Stronberg's picture
President The JBS Group

Stronberg is a senior executive and attorney with over 40 years of experience in federal and state energy, environmental and sustainability issues. He is the founder and principal of The JBS...

  • Member since 2018
  • 239 items added with 525,959 views
  • Dec 2, 2020


The 2020 elections are almost history. What’s left are the Georgia Senate runoff elections in January, and President Trump running out of brows to beat, and judges willing to indulge his unsubstantiated claims.

Biden’s election means a presidential assault on the nation’s environmental protection framework is coming to an end. The President-Elect has vowed to build it back better than before. To do that, he will need to convince a conflicted government to cooperate with him. It may prove a more daunting task than winning the presidency.

Climate activists thought that 2020 would be the year when voters finally provided clear and unambiguous support for an encompassing climate defense plan and the lawmakers who would put it into action. It was a year in which politics and science both took center stage.

The spread of COVID-19 has provided daily news reminders, in the form of infection rates and body counts, of the consequences of ignoring sound scientific advice. Contagion-borne illnesses we know are made worse by pollution—especially for the elderly and those with compromised immune systems.

If deaths from the contagion weren’t enough, there’s the loss of life and trillions of dollars in damage from weather-related events like the record 30 named Atlantic storms or the millions of acres lost to forest fires. They are all events that climate scientists have predicted as a consequence of Earth’s rising temperatures.

Then too, there are the climate strikes by young people concerned about their future and the planet’s wellbeing. Neither should we forget the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that have highlighted the health and economic impacts of fossil fuels on communities of color and low-incomes.

The post-election reality is such that President-Elect Biden is going to have a tough time doing more than reversing Trump’s executive orders and rebuilding the federal agencies tasked with the requisite responsibilities. In other words, only accomplishing what he can do using the powers inherent to the president’s office—and, therein, lies the problem.

Without new legislation, the nation’s path to a just, equitable, and sustainable future is blocked.

The situation the President-Elect finds himself in is the direct result of the Democrat’s failure to capture the Senate and at least maintain their 34 vote majority in the House. Should the Democrats win both of the Georgia Senate runoff races and end up controlling the Senate, things will be better—but only somewhat, as I’ll explain in a moment.

A detailed discussion on why the Democrats failed I’ll leave to another day. However, the consequence of the failure shows up in the Harvard/Harris Poll survey discussed below—divided government. In a hyper-partisan world, a divided government means only one thing—gridlock.

Readers should note that this is the second article in an occasional series on climate policy in the Biden era—starting with the transition.

A Matter of Percentages

Biden and Trump received the most votes ever cast in a presidential election—as a winner, a loser, and in total. The 2020 election clearly mattered to voters as the turnout rate of 66.5 percent was the greatest in the last 120 years.

Biden has beaten Trump by nearly the same number of electoral votes that Trump beat Clinton. The most apparent and troubling message sent by voters in the recent elections is that the nation is as divided today as ever. The overall evenness of the divide, i.e., the split between Republicans and Democrats, has played out in the 2020 elections and looks to keep the nation’s lawmakers in gridlock.

  • Less than four percent of the total popular vote separates Biden and Trump. 
  • The split between Democrats and Republicans in the House will go from 232 Democrats/197[i] Republicans to an estimated 222 Democrats/208 Republicans, with 218 votes needed for a majority.
  • Control of the Senate remains in the hands of the Republicans, pending the outcome of the two runoff Senate races in Georgia. Should the Democrats win both contests, the Senate’s split will be 50/50, with ties broken by Vice-President-Elect Harris.

As I will detail in a moment, there is evidence to suggest voters want a divided government.

Notwithstanding a president-elect who has put forward the most progressive and comprehensive climate defense plan in US history, these results bode badly for national climate policy.

A divided Congress means the onus of federal environmental action is on the president acting largely through executive orders. Over the past two decades, both the regulation and deregulation of the environment have primarily played out through countervailing presidential edicts.

Although having the status of law while remaining on the books, uncertainty is abhorred by financial markets.

Trump’s 74 million votes should not be ignored, any more than Biden’s 80 plus million should be pointed to as a mandate. Vote totals can be deceiving.

The 2020 presidential election and the 2016 election were not as different as one might assume from the national totals. In 2016, the difference between Trump and Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin was respectively 10,704, 46,765, and 22,177 votes. The total of the three wins was 79,646 gave Trump 46 electoral votes and the election.

In this November’s election, the states of Arizona, Georgia, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania were all considered key battlegrounds. Biden won the four by a total of 111,862[ii] votes earning him 57 electoral votes. Had Biden lost the four, Trump would have won 289 electoral votes—19 above the required 270.

A voter survey conducted by the Harvard Center for American Political Studies following the election suggests voters actually desire a divided government. (Graph 1).

Graph 1

In a separate question, voters told the surveyors which party they voted for in the Congressional election. (Graph 2)

There are theories on why voters might actually prefer a divided government. After 20 years of virtual gridlock, the nation has become used to a nearly do-nothing federal government. It’s as if voters have so little confidence in their political leaders that no action is better than some action. Two decades of Capital City gridlock can have that effect people.

I found the most concerning and menacing response on the survey was the 73 percent of Trump voters who don’t believe the election was fair. Turning the percentage into people, that’s over 55 million who have critical doubts about their government. Democracy is fragile, and when so many lack confidence, the bond between democratic governments and their citizens can get broken.

It always pays to be at least a little suspicious of poll numbers—especially these days when the outcome of two presidential elections was so out of sorts with what the pollster-pundits had to say prior to any votes being cast.

The Harvard/Harris Poll substantiates anecdotal observations about voters splitting their ballots more this election than in the past. Having little faith in politicians and a “getting used” to gridlock are consequences rather than reasons.

Post-election studies will perhaps reveal the reasons why no political message has yet been able to bridge the gaping divide between Republicans and Democrats. Two possibilities are muddled messaging and the character of the candidates.

Biden should take some solace in the fact that voters thought if there was any chance of national unity, it might come about from his moderating policies. (Graph 3) By the same token, the President-Elect has to be very concerned late at night that voters failed to give him one of the tools he needs most to implement those policies—Democratic control of the Senate.

Democratic control of both the House and Senate would be no guarantee of support for the more aggressive elements of Biden’s climate plan; it’s a cinch, however, that Republican control of the Senate will turn to hardened opposition. With Senate Majority Leader McConnell controlling what does and doesn’t get voted on in the Senate, anything approximating the needed federal climate policy will never make it onto the Senate floor for a vote. McConnell has vowed to kill what he labels as socialist legislation, including the Green New Deal advocated by Representative Ocasio-Cortez and nutcases running around the fringe. In his own words—

If I’m still the majority leader of the Senate, think of me as the Grim Reaper. None of that stuff is going to pass. None of it. (emphasis added)

Whatever happened to civil discourse?

It seems nearly everything in today’s America has become partisan—science included; and there’s hardly a question that America is a divided nation—i.e., and almost evenly divided at that. But, are differences of opinion the problem? According to David Moss:

It is the growing tendency among politicians to pursue victory above all else—to treat politics as war—which runs counter to basic democratic values and may be crippling Washington’s ability to reach solutions that capture the smartest thinking of both camps.

The warlike tendencies of politicians have been passed to the populace, as evidenced by armed protestors outside of polling places and social media sites overrun with hate speech.

Look anywhere in the nation, and you can pretty well tell who voted for the President and who the President-Elect. The tell is whether they’re wearing a facemask.

President Trump continues to throw shade on the election contending the election was stolen from him. It is doubtful that Donald John Trump will go quietly into that dark night. Rumors abound that he will continue to lob outrageous claims on any and every subject that comes into his head and out his mouth. Whether he’ll be doing it as a set-up for a 2024 run or just for the helluva it is known only to him.

Trump is likely to spend some portion of the next four years continuing his efforts to have the 2020 presidential election results declared unconstitutional and himself still the president. Trump, unconstrained by the dignity of the office, is hard to imagine.

What’s not difficult to imagine is he’ll continue his efforts to divorce his supporters from scientific reality. He’s gained a huge amount of traction with his claims that the Green New Deal is a Trojan horse full of radical socialists and should be expected to continue spewing that storyline. He may no longer be president after January 20, 2021, but he’ll continue to try and dictate the conversation.

Because of his reach, there’s a strong likelihood that any Republicans thinking of running for president or another high office will be just as slow to call Trump’s hand as they’ve been to avoid declaring the President-Elect the winner of the 2020 election.

The Democrats failed to rebut Republican claims of socialism in 2020. Had they been succeeded in doing so, control of the 117th Congress would soon be in their hands. If they expect to avoid the loss of the House in 2022 and retake the Senate, they’ll need a much clearer message—about science and their democratic intentions—than the ones they’ve used in the election just passed.


[i] Actual breakdown is Democrats 232, Republicans 197, Libertarian 1, and 5 vacancies.

[ii] This number is as of 27 November and subject to change, as there are still counts and recounts underway.

David Rogers's picture
David Rogers on Dec 2, 2020

Interesting perspective but in my humble opinion presumes a sudden shift in environmental policy is unquestionably a good thing. The split between President and down ballot races going Left or Right tells me that America wants balance: address climate but don't expect government to do it alone. Demonizing a sector that produces the cleanest oil & gas in the world and esssentially eliminated coal via fracking plays into the narrative of the "New Fourth Estate".

Media and FANG companies gets paid more (via eyeballs) for more fighting and less collaboration. The transition in Energy Transition is just that: reducing the climate impact of economy sustaining hydrocarbons as we develop better options. Private innovation gave us West Texas wind and solar with an assist from ITC/PTC. We traded oil exports for tax extensions. Big Oil is funding Carbon Capture and Green Hydrogen. I'm hopeful this demonstrates possibilities verses gridlock.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Dec 2, 2020


I don't disagree about sudden shifts being good in their own right. Not all legislation is good--even if the intention is. I also agree with the value of the ITC/PTC.

Moderate is, if at all, is what any legislation that gets passed during the Biden era is likely to be. I would hope, however, that it goes beyond what a number of the coal-state Senators and Representatives are proposing, e.g., research on carbon capture and how to turn coal into something that's enviromentally acceptable. We have to go beyond that.

My opinion is that Biden has a chance to make his biggest mark on getting government and industry to work together--in fact to work together so well that it won't make any difference in the future whether Ds or Rs are in charge.

PS, I don't get paid by the click, so I can afford to be a bit more moderate.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Dec 2, 2020

The split between President and down ballot races going Left or Right tells me that America wants balance: address climate but don't expect government to do it alone

This is an interesting topic-- I live in Florida where it was starkly positioned with over 60% voting to raise the statewide minimum wage (a policy keen with the left and not necessarily the right) while Trump still took the state. While you can get quite granular in specific races, the explanation broadly I saw coming out of trends like these was that people wanted certain more policies that would impact them positively in a direct way on the state/local scale, while on a federal scale they were more free to vote via broad platitudes and ideals since they won't trickle down to them. From an environmental perspective, what does that mean? I think it aligns well with coastal communities being more likely to vote for climate-positive candidates and fossil fuel dependent communities (West Virginia coal country, PA gas communities, etc) trying to wade off renewables at all cost. 

How should a Biden Administration take the will of the voters? That's going to be interesting to see how it plays out with all the clean energy promises (though those promises certainly stopped well short of a Green New Deal or the equivalent), but obviously state and local legislation will continue to be critical and tap into these feelings of voters. 

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