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Will the 2020 Elections Offer the Opportunity for an Environmental Do-over?

image credit: First Earth Day 1970 New York City
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
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  • Oct 21, 2020

If, as it appears now, the environment will become a major issue in the 1972 race for the White House, there will be action all right as both Democrats and Republicans play to outdo each other at pollution politics, which in this case is the advantage of a two-party system. – Bill Downs, war correspondent ABC News


The scraping sound you may be hearing where you are is the sound of Republican candidates for Congress practicing a version of distancing in a time of contagion. Only in this case, it's political distancing from President Trump, and the contagion they're hoping to avoid is a Blue Wave.

The adage that never seems to grow old in Capital City is—if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog. It's as true for Republicans as it is for Democrats. Be that as it may, there will never be a better time in this election cycle to contact Republicans running for Congress and get them to commit to supporting aggressive policies to combat Earth's rising temperatures.

Come to think of it; there may never be a better time to get commitments from Democratic candidates. What makes this a good time to gain candidate buy-ins to combat climate change is desperation--their's—not yours.

Before you go accusing me of kicking folks when they're down, let me say that my mother raised me to be better than that. However, we are talking about politicians here. All of whom should by this time in cycle know how the game is played; and, many of whom have thought nothing of weaseling out of their words to you and other constituents.

What's that you say Senator Graham (R-SC)? We should use your words against you. You mean these words: If there's a Republican president in 2016 and a vacancy occurs in the last year of the first term, you can say Lindsey Graham said let's let the next president, whoever it might be, make that nomination. Two wrongs—of course—don't make a right, but, after all, fair's fair.

The way forward on climate legislation is steep—particularly at the federal level. As surely as Sherman burned his way through the confederacy, President Trump has left the nation's environmental protection framework in tatters. In addition to the over 100 environmental regulations the Trump administration has rolled back or is in the process of rolling back, federal agencies have been gutted of many of the most expert and dedicated career professionals. Say what you will about bureaucracies, civil servants are the ones who put politicians' words into practice.

Many of the regulatory rollbacks have been in force long enough that their rescission requires a new rulemaking. It's a process governed by the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) that can take between two and five years to complete—leaving precious little time for meeting milestones like zero greenhouse gas emissions from power plants by 2035.

Putting the nation squarely on the path to a low-carbon economy is not merely a matter of putting back in place what the Trump administration has ripped out with its rollback of climate-related regulations and its gutting of federal programs and agencies. Too much time has elapsed.

In terms of climate change, the US has stepped back while time and circumstances have inextricably moved on. Consequently, the distance between what the federal government should be doing and what it is doing has grown exponentially over the past four years.

There is a silver lining of sorts within the dark clouds that now hover over the nation. Borrowing Biden's campaign motto, we have the capacity to build back better government programs that leverage public and private resources and investments to combat climate change. As a nation, we lack what we've always lacked in terms of integrated energy and environmental policies and programs—the will to make it so.

Trump may rightly be called the worst president in history when it comes to protecting the environment and preparing the nation for the geopolitical changes that accompany Earth's warming. It is not to say, however, that other presidents have been particularly good at it.

The best of the presidential lot is Richard Millhous Nixon. The legislative foundation laid a full half-century ago has, however, weakened with the passage of time and more than a little help from Donald Trump.

Times and politicians were different when Nixon was president. The passage of major environmental Acts covering Clean Air[i] (CAA), Endangered Species (ESA), and National Environmental Policy (NEPA) rested on more than Nixon's shoulders.

As reported at the time by Bill Downs on ABC News, the 1970 amendments to the Clean Air Act:

The Democratic Congress voted, and the Republican administration concurred, that if that nation has the choice of its present gasoline-powered transportation or an atmosphere free from auto exhaust pollution, then the people must opt for clean air.

It's by far the most far-reaching environmental legislation ever enacted in the history of the US and will affect the lives of every American, the national economy, and even the appearance of the country as investors come up with new designs to meet the deadline for a virtually emission-free car by 1976.

Many historians mark Earth Day 1970 and the 1970 CAA amendments as critical turning points in the American public's consciousness about environmental problems.

Downs was much too optimistic about the impact of the legislation on the auto industry and Americans' lives. It would be more than two decades before a 5 to 4 decision of the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) established the right and obligation of the US Environmental Protection Agency to regulate carbon and other greenhouse gases. A decision that may well be reconsidered by a newly conservative high court as the multiple lawsuits by states against the Trump administration wends their way through federal courts.

The Biden administration cannot rebuild the nation's environmental framework by waving a wand over the weakened state of federal environmental regulations. Rules that range from power plant emissions to auto efficiency standards—and from exploration and extraction of fossil fuels to water quality—must be rewritten. There can be no consolation in the Trump administration's having lost over 90 percent of the time it's been required to defend its regulatory rollbacks in a court of law.

Just because a court strikes down a regulation like the Affordable Clean Energy (ACE) rule doesn't mean the old one, i.e., the Clean Power Plan, will finally be put into force. Days ago, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia heard oral arguments challenging President Trump's repeal of the Clean Power Plan.

Whatever the three judges decide, the case is likely to get to the Supreme Court (SCOTUS). A court that will undoubtedly include Judge Amy Coney Barrett sitting where Justice Ginsburg once sat.

As Lisa Friedman writes:

Even if Mr. Trump loses next month, the arguments by the Environmental Protection Agency laid the groundwork for a protracted legal war over future administrations' ability to cut the pollution responsible for climate change from the power sector, the country's second largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. (emphasis added)

Should Trump's legal arguments be supported by SCOTUS, the Biden administration's ability to move administratively to fill the regulatory voids will be significantly curtailed.  As I've written before, Trump's lingering environmental legacy will be secured by re-fashioning federal courts with over 200 judges and three justices.

There is only one way to avoid the problems of protracted legal wars and narrow court decisions—Congressional action—which brings me back to the two weeks between now and the national elections.

Republicans worried they'll be tarred with a Trumpian brush must be asked loudly and publicly whether they believe in science-based climate policies and are committed to working with Democrats on fashioning an aggressive and doable federal climate defense plan. Their answers are to be taken down and turned into political ads.

The federal government remains the most prominent hold-out in a time when the negative impacts of climate change are already being experienced.  Large swaths of the private sector are ready, willing, and acting to slow the rise in Earth's temperatures by shrinking their carbon footprints and investing in clean energy sources.

If those running for election don't believe the science, do what Donald Trump does--point to the stock market. The only energy stocks surviving the contagion-induced recession are wind, solar, and their supply chains. Overall, land-based wind and utility-scale solar remain the lowest-cost sources of new electricity generation across the country, even accounting for incentives. Over the next decade, these sources are expected to account for 80 percent of all power generation.

Democrats seeking support should not be ignored. Intra-party conflicts between moderates and progressives cannot be allowed to rage unabated. Yes, there are compromises to be made. There's no getting around it.

However, none of this is to say that comfort zones shouldn't be challenged or that the full-Monty of aggressive and just climate plans like Biden's and the Green New Deal's should be abandoned. Amid viral contagion and partisanship, an opportunity lurks to rebuild the post-pandemic economy on a stable and sustainable environmental foundation.

It's not often that we get do-overs in this world. Let's all understand the nature of the opportunity before us and commit ourselves to work together to make it happen.


[i] Clean Air Act amendments of 1970


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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2020

That opening quote is pretty stunning to see given today's landscape-- I could either take it optimistically that maybe we'll get back there or pessimistically to see how far we've come away from the shared and agreed upon principles of environmental protection for current and future generations. 

Either way, though, I agree with this:

Republicans worried they'll be tarred with a Trumpian brush must be asked loudly and publicly whether they believe in science-based climate policies and are committed to working with Democrats on fashioning an aggressive and doable federal climate defense plan. Their answers are to be taken down and turned into political ads.

When we're seeing headlines bluntly read "Trump attacked Biden by saying his opponent would 'listen to the scientists' in dealing with COVID-19", you know it's time for the more rational Republican candidates down ballot to recognize they may be at a moment of reckoning. Listening to scientists shouldn't be an attack line, and the party should strive to get back to that opening quote ideal-- where candidates are jockeying to be the ones who MOST listen to science and who MOST represent the necessary ideals for the environment, the climate, and the future.

Joel Stronberg's picture
Joel Stronberg on Oct 21, 2020

Matt, I too was stunned by the words of Bill Downs. To quote Yogi Berra ""It's déjà vu all over again."

I came upon the Downs articles by accident. They took me back to a time close to when I started in the energy/environment field and reminded me of how bipartisan Congress and the executive branch really were "back in the day."

My first job in the field was as the special assistant to the assistant administrator (secretary) of environment at the Energy Research and Development Administration. It was the energy agency between the Atomic Energy Commission and  the Department of Energy. I did a lot of his political work.

I was routinely welcomed in the offices of both Republicans and Democrats. Although they didn't always agree with me on things, they never accused me of devil worship. It's not to say that the political world of the 1970s and 1980s was a veritable Mr. Rogers neighborhood.

Although a lot of very goods things have happened over the years that I've been at it, e.g., the rise of reliable and competitive clean energy technologies, the sad fact is the nation is basically in the same place it was 50 years ago in terms of federal policies.

I attribute this to the stop-and-go nature of today's partisan politics. If all that a Biden administration can do is to repeal the Trump adminstrations repeal of Obama era regulations, then we're in deep trouble as a nation. This is the cycle that needs to be broken if were ever going to make the needed move to a low-carbon economy.

Maybe the extremes of today's politics will trigger a herd immunity to hyperpartisanship. We can and must always hope and work towards a better tomorrow.


Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Oct 21, 2020

Thanks for the background-- very informative as to how we got to today.

I attribute this to the stop-and-go nature of today's partisan politics. If all that a Biden administration can do is to repeal the Trump adminstrations repeal of Obama era regulations, then we're in deep trouble as a nation. This is the cycle that needs to be broken if were ever going to make the needed move to a low-carbon economy.

Couldn't agree more with this. One Administration won't change things, but hopefully one Administration can start the trend...

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