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Initial Thoughts on the Impact of the 2020 Federal Elections on National Climate Policy

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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
  • 242 items added with 526,997 views
  • Nov 5, 2020

It's the morning after the day before, and the only sure thing is the election bodes badly for Mother Earth and the Democrats. Make no mistake—climate change was front and center in the 2020 elections. President Trump and a majority of Congressional Republicans are unlikely to feel any special urge to do much about Earth’s warming or to enact science-based policies.

Even should Biden win the White House, Senate Republicans will have outsized control over what gets passed by Congress. Majority Leader McConnell will leverage his stopping powers whether approving Biden's cabinet and judicial nominees or appropriating the funds needed to put his policies in play. Depending on the final vote tallies, some 2020 elections will be better than others. How you view them will rest on whether you're a half-full or half-empty kinda person. Under any circumstance, the 2020 federal election is a setback to the nation's transition to a low-carbon economy compared to what it could have been had the polls been right.

Let's consider the possible outcomes of the election as of a late November afternoon. Joe Biden appears to be six or so electoral votes away from becoming the 46th president of the United States. It is also apparent Trump's lawyers are looking to have the election decide by the courts rather than voters. A siren song he wailed as the reason for rushing Justice Amy Coney Barrett onto the US Supreme Court just weeks before the election. Officially, no one will be declared the next president until the electoral college declares it so on December 12, 2020. Should Biden lose the election it will be the second time in four years that the leading popular vote-getter will not take up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania.

The Democrats' hold on the House of Representatives is will not be changing. However, they will have given up between five and a dozen seats—much to the shock of pollsters and party leadership who had predicted substantial wins.

Let’s consider some of the possibilities.

  • Should Trump be re-elected and the Senate maintain or expand its Republican majority[i].

The President is going to consider himself unshackled and with a mandate from “the people” to do as he pleases. He will continue rolling back as many of the environmental regulations that survived his first term as possible. Environmental regulations won't be the only ones he looks to cancel.

Trump will immediately begin to purge his administration of anyone who has shown an unwillingness to bend to his reality. The list includes the good doctors Fauci and Birx, FBI Director Wray, CIA Director Haspel and, Defense Secretary Esper. There will—of course—be others.

Who he fires may be of less consequence than who will replace them. Before the election, the White House sent out to federal agencies teams of true Trumplican believers. Their mission was to take down the names and numbers of any personnel within them they believe have failed to tow the Trumplican line. It is a line having little to do with scientific rigor or, for that matter, reality.

Typical of what to expect in a Trump 2.0 is a recent personnel action at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to the New York Times, the agency's acting chief scientist, Craig McLean, was just shown the door.

What was McLean's treasonous act? As reported by the Times, he sent an email to some of the new appointees requesting their acknowledgment of the agency's rules on scientific integrity, which 'prohibits manipulating research or presenting ideologically driven findings.' Something Erik Noble, the White House's political officer, found unacceptable.

McClean's replacement was Ryan Maue, a research meteorologist who according to the Times has criticized climate scientists for what he has called unnecessarily dire predictions. The scenario is similar to Trump's finding the recommendations of Dr. Scott Atlas on herd immunity more to his liking than those of Drs. Fauci and Birx. Both Drs. Fauci and Birx have warned that the worst is yet to come—a warning Trump refuses to heed.

With Trump in the White House and a Republican majority in the Senate, look to what has been to anticipate what will be—only more so. The administration will continue to fill the federal benches with conservative judges and empty federal agencies of respected mainstream scientists.

Climate-related legislation will, for the most part, be dead on arrival in the Senate once the 117th Congress is gaveled to order. Some agreement between the parties might be found on infrastructure legislation should that continue to be discussed. With deficits over $3 trillion, Senate Republicans will likely balk at large expenditures not related to getting the economy through the pandemic-induced recession. Even then, they will keep the dollar amounts well below Democratic levels. Trump has long held that projects can be funded through corporate tax incentives—something tax specialists seriously doubt.

Other programs that might gain bipartisan support include:

  • A build-out of electric vehicle charging stations in anticipation of the coming wave of EVs. Driving the possibility is the decision of US auto manufacturers, e.g., Ford, to move towards electrification.
  • A build-out of hydrogen fueling infrastructure for large vehicles, e.g., buses and long-haul trucks.
  • A trillion trees initiative to serve as carbon sinks—as proposed by Representative Westerman (R-AK).
  • The continued development and demonstration of carbon capture and sequestration technologies and designs.

 I would be remiss not to mention President Trump's protectionist tendencies and their impact on US solar and wind manufacturers and project developers. Previous tariffs on steel and his recent efforts to close the loophole for two-sided photovoltaic panels are evidence of his continued belief that solar and wind are the hobbies of mean, snooty liberals wanting to cast fossil industry workers onto the streets. As with so many other provable things, Trump gives no credence to the numbers that solar and wind are the primary sources of new electric generation in the US.

  • Should Biden win the presidency and Republicans maintain their Senate majority.

As of the stroke of midnight on November 5th, Biden appears on the path to the presidency with between 243 and 253 electoral votes depending on whose numbers are being used—17 to 27 shy of the needed majority. A final decision is unlikely to be made for days and possibly weeks. There are hundreds of thousands of ballots still to be counted.

Should Biden win and have to live with a Republican Senate for the next two to four years, he’ll undoubtedly feel a sense of déjà vu as it will resemble what he and President Obama faced between 2011 and 2017. For all but their first two years in office, they had to contend with a Republican Senate.

A sign of those times was the difficulties Obama encountered getting his judicial nominees acted upon by the Senate despite the Democratic majority between 2009 and 2011. It was then, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) thought to invoke the nuclear option of allowing a simple majority to close debate on executive branch and judicial nominations.[ii]  Before the rule change, a super-majority of 60 votes was required. The rule change made it possible for President Trump and Republican Senate majority to nominate and confirm over 200 federal judges and three justices of the Supreme Court.

There is only so much that President Biden can do with a Republican Senate standing between him and the Democratic majority in the House. On day one of his presidency, Biden will exercise his executive prerogative of rescinding President Trump's multiple climate-related orders. Undoing any final regulations that have been spawned by them is another matter. One likely to take between 18 months and four or more years—depending upon legal challenges.

To put his orders into force, Biden will rely upon his nominees who will be required to come before the Senate for confirmation—a time-consuming process and one Senate Majority McConnell may wish to draw out. How much time depends upon the willingness of the Republicans to cooperate. To this point, the election has done very little to narrow the divide between Trump Republicans and Biden Democrats.  

It is hard to imagine McConnell and the Republican Senate caucus being more accommodative to a Democratic president's climate policies than they have in the past. Many Senate Republicans are likely to view their victories divorced from an environmental agenda—particularly one they believe is the leading edge socialism in America. After all, Republicans traded all through the election cycle accusing Biden of being a shill for socialists like Senator Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) who have Senator Kamal Harris under their thumbs.

One need only to look across the sea of Trump supporters who went without a mask as a badge of courage and liberty to realize how little pressure will be put on Congressional Republicans to enact science-based climate policies.

Some exceptions could lead to cooperation between the parties. Certainly, any that would be acceptable under Trump 2.0 like reforestation would be acceptable within a Biden scenario. Similarly support for research on carbon capture and sequestration would also be found. What other agreements might take place will take a bit more time to identify. At the moment, the partisan divide seems to wide to bridge.

Once Biden's nominees are in place, they will need time to put his climate defense strategy into force. Something that could take a majority of the next four years—followed possibly by additional time to defend them in court. Consider t it took most of Trump's term to rescind Obama's signature legacy of the Clean Power Plan (CPP). Although replaced by the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule, arguments in the case(s) are still being heard by federal courts. It's been over five years since the Draft CPP was first published in the Federal Register.

Sam Ricketts, co-founder of the liberal group Evergreen Action a group led Jay Inslee’s former presidential campaign aides has said it best:

“[W]hile a Biden White House can do a lot with existing authorities, that vision in full will require legislation, too

  • Should Biden win the presidency, he may have his own party with which to contend.

To say that anything less than a Democratic sweep was a surprise is a model of under-statement. The 2020 election in the midst of the contagion and a pandemic triggered recession was never destined to be run-of-the mill.

Had anyone suggested Joe Biden would become the unanimous choice of Democrats and moderate and progressive independents at the beginning of the year, they would have been flooded with offers to sell them the Brooklyn bridge at a discounted price. It is not to say that Biden wasn’t and isn’t the president the nation needs at this juncture.

Establishment Democrats cannot blame their losses on an unliked candidate and reticent followers of progressives like Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Voter turnout—whether in person or by mail—was historic. The amounts of money raised far exceeded anyone’s imagination. There was nary a whisper of dissent out of youth climate groups like the Sunrise Movement.

Having presided over several losing election cycles establishment leaders in and out of Congress are likely to be challenged. Sanders and the Squad, of which Ocasio-Cortez is a member, are going to point to the lack of fire in the bellies of Democrats as the problem. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm—just ask Trump’s base.

Someone is going to take the fall for the 2020 results. I don’t know the exact form the challenges to party leaders will take. I’m confident they will be levied.

They could come as demands for leadership positions on House standing committees like Energy and Commerce and Appropriations. They could come as challenges to Party leadership—a leadership that was slow to acknowledge climate as a key concern of rank and file Democrats. Fingers will likely be levelled at House Speaker Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Schumer. Will the challenges be justified? That’s a question for a later time.

Pressures will not solely becoming from the left, however. The Hill reports that  two moderate House Democrats say they and other centrists are privately discussing a plan that was unthinkable just 24 hours earlier: throwing their support behind a challenger to Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Political watchers should also look to the conflicts that will continue between progressives and moderates. What happens going forward is likely to be both a generational and sea change.

None of this is to say that a Biden presidency will not be a net good for Mother Earth. Trump will go down in history as the worst environmental president in modern history—steeling that honor from George W. Bush. Simply undoing some of the damage done to the nation’s environmental framework will be giant steps forward. They just won’t be big enough or timely enough to meet the targets agreed that were less agreed to by Biden’s campaign advisors, e.g., net-zero carbon emissions from the power sector by 2015.

Biden’s record will far exceed putting things back the way Trump found them. Populating executive agencies with accomplished leaders and managers will rebuild the needed bureaucracy to implement climate-related legislation and policies hopefully enacted beyond Biden’s presidency.

As important, President Biden will help to restore the nation’s leadership on the world stage—at the least, he will make us more welcomed.


[i] The Democrats have almost path to a Senate majority.

[ii] The option is not available for Supreme Court nominees.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 5, 2020

Even if margins bounce in the right direction to have climate-positive candidates take office in the end, one of the big takeaways is certainly how not at all close these elections were. While it was not the #1 issue for most voters, this was the election cycle that undoubtedly featured climate as a topic more than any other before it. And that message clearly isn't hitting home for the bulk of the electorate

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Nov 5, 2020

As usual other things got in the way, just as it has in years gone by. The difference this year was the prominence of climate on the lips of the candidates. There was no hiding it. 2020 has called into question survey research not just on who the likely winners will bebut about what people are concerned with enough to act on it.

I've long had difficulty with opinion surveys on environmental issues. Who is against saving the world or is going to say something should be done about all that flooding. It's like asking do you like pie--figuratively. Who really says "no" to these things? The problem is what it has always been--do people care enough to do something about it.

Democratic primary voters cared enough to cast their ballots with an eye on climate. Then the pandemic struck.

I think younger voters care enough to act on it. Perhaps with generational change things will be different in the future. Inevitably action will be taken when things get bad enough and its too late to do much about it.

The belief in science has become tribal. The Red Tribe seems unwilling to deal in reality so they make the issue into preserving their rights to do as they please. They feel put upon by science-based rules.

The Blue tribe is much more willing to acknowledge and act on science and feels put upon by the Red Tribe because their not wearing a mask puts Blue Tribe members in jeoprady.

What we should worry about is the clear tensions growing between the tribes. We've begun to see this play out in the 2020 elections. At some point it could all blow into physical battles. Trump seems to have normalized these kinds of tensions but the other side is not without responsibility.

When I'm very old and grey I'm going to look back on the 2020 elections and remember the ones that stood around poling places with their automatic weapons and a chip on their shoulder. It makes me cringe--it is so contrary to democracy.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 5, 2020

What we should worry about is the clear tensions growing between the tribes. We've begun to see this play out in the 2020 elections. At some point it could all blow into physical battles. Trump seems to have normalized these kinds of tensions but the other side is not without responsibility.

This is my biggest fear as well-- the vilification of the 'other' and the unwillingness to admit fault, wrong, or change your mind. I'm hoping that the post-Trump years (whenever those come) will be an opportunity to see bipartisanship, cooperation, and calm leadership from elected officials take center stage. I think the example needs to be set by those with the most visibility, as it appears the example to the contrary from the Trump administration has highly contributed to the opposite being more commonly the case today. 

Joel Stronberg's picture
Thank Joel for the Post!
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