Note: This interview was conducted on Thursday, November 5.
Depending on what happens with the two Senate races in Georgia, it looks like Republicans will likely maintain control of the Senate, with a slim majority. In terms of climate change, Joe Biden campaigned on creating a carbon free economy by 2050.
To understand what a President Joe Biden could do on climate, The Allegheny Front’s Julie Grant spoke with Lesley Clark, energy and environment reporter at E&E News. Her recent article is Why a President Biden could fail on clean energy.
LISTEN to their conversation
(This interview has been edited for clarity.)
Julie Grant: If Joe Biden takes the presidency, what do the Senate results mean for these plans?
Lesley Clark: I saw in a newsletter today, they called it a thin blue Senate. If Biden wins and the Senate goes the way it’s appearing to go, that’s what he’ll have, which does make it incredibly difficult to pass anything big. Any big climate change bill would be exceedingly difficult.
Biden has a two trillion dollar green energy infrastructure plan that would have been incredibly difficult, even with a huge blue wave, because it’s so hard to get legislation passed through the Senate with the supermajority 60 votes that’s required.
Grant: What might Biden be able to do?
Clark: It’s a joke here in Washington when people talk about infrastructure because the Trump administration promised it for so long, and it just never happened. Infrastructure is incredibly popular among lawmakers because they love to spend money in their own districts so they can say that, you know, ‘we brought home this bridge or this road.’
A lot of conservatives were hoping that Trump was reelected not so much that he could do new things, but he could further enshrine what he had done in law.
What I’m hearing is that the legislation that could work would be something that sort of marries the two together, that you have economic development with some climate or green energy goals towards it, and infrastructure bills that speak to a greener economy. And that possibility could work. But it’s going to be very difficult to get anything that’s just simply climate change passed through Congress.
Grant: A survey by the Pew Research Center this summer found that a majority of voters said climate change was an important issue to them, either very important or somewhat. You don’t think findings like that could help move the needle on action, even with a majority Republican Senate?
Clark: I don’t. I mean, there’s been incredible gridlock in Washington in recent years, and I don’t really see that changing. That said, Joe Biden probably brings more experience than any president in our recent history in working the halls of the Senate. He’s very good. When he was vice president, Barack Obama would be butting heads with Republicans, and he’d send Biden over, and Biden would meet with Mitch McConnell and hammer out compromises and get things done.
Joe Biden probably brings more experience than any president in our recent history in working the halls of the Senate.
So if there is anything to be done working with legislation, he’s probably one of the best people to do it. He knows how the institution works. He’s also a big institutionalist, so he has a lot of respect for the Senate. So I think if things were to happen that way, he is definitely a good person to do it.
Grant: Beyond legislation, what could Joe Biden do to address environment and climate issues if he does win the presidency?
Clark: Well, he will obviously have the opportunity to select his own members of the cabinet. I hate to say it again, that will be a little constrained by the fact that he won’t have a Democratic Senate.
So the Republicans, in any of the cabinet positions that require Senate confirmation, and we’re already seeing names being scratched out, because they would not probably get through a confirmation fight with Mitch McConnell, like people who are, you know, further on the left. However, Biden himself has very much always been a centrist, so he has a long list of people that he’s looking at for the EPA, the Department of Energy.
Grant: Scientists, researchers have been sidelined on many of the science panels within EPA, for example. What might you expect to see happen there?
Clark: There is a huge hunger among a lot of scientists, and a lot of Democrats who worked in Obama’s administration and were just beginning to work on a lot of the climate issues and green energy issues. They are hungering to get back into the administration. So, I would expect to see a huge increase, and also just this sort of newfound respect for science.
We’re already seeing names being scratched [off a list of cabinet positions] because they would not probably get through a confirmation fight with Mitch McConnell.
I’ve talked to people in various agencies, career folks who’d work for years in one division and asked to move out of it because they were being asked to sort of erase everything that they had done. I’m imagining that they will be pushing to get back into their areas without somebody who has questioned the science.
Grant: Under the Trump administration, we’ve seen over 100 rollbacks of environmental rules and regulations. Would you think a Biden administration is going to spend a lot of time trying to reverse those things? A lot of those rollbacks are in court right now being challenged by environmental groups and others.
Clark: The Trump administration was super aggressive in going after all these environmental rollbacks, but one of the criticisms from conservatives on those rollbacks are that they did it so fast, and did so many that the paperwork and the legal arguments are kind of sloppy. A lot of conservatives were hoping that Trump was reelected not so much that he could do new things, but he could further enshrine what he had done in law, and then basically put it in concrete rather than just having it on paper.
I think a lot of what Biden [would] be able to do is in the executive branch, in terms of executive orders and rolling back the rollbacks, if you will, that would be sort of the stuff that he can do as president.