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Biden has big climate change plans. But can he get it done?

President-elect Joe Biden has put the climate crisis at the top of his incoming administration’s agenda with ambitious goals ranging from rejoining the Paris Agreement to a $2 trillion plan to transition to clean energy. To pass these laws, he will have to deal with a possibly GOP-controlled Senate and multilateral cooperation with America’s allies. Christopher Booker reports.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The day after last week's election, the United States formally left the Paris Agreement, the nearly five-year-old global pact to curb greenhouse gas emissions and prevent the most catastrophic effects of climate change.

    President-elect Joe Biden has pledged that on day one of his administration the U.S. will rejoin the Paris Accords. It's part of a set of ambitious climate pledges Biden made during the campaign. But as the dust settles on the election, and control of the Senate remains up-in-the air, how much can the Biden administration really get done on climate?

    NewsHour Weekend's Christopher Booker has more.

    This segment is part of our ongoing series 'Peril and Promise: The Challenge of Climate Change.'

  • Christopher Booker:

    When President-elect Joe Biden took the stage in Wilmington last weekend, he listed several 'battles' he's committed to fighting, including COVID, and rooting out systemic racism. But he also highlighted a key issue mentioned frequently throughout his campaign.

  • President-elect Joe Biden:

    And the battle to save our planet by getting climate under control.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Biden campaigned on an ambitious plan to combat climate change, including a $2 trillion proposal to spur the transition to clean energy, aiming to remove greenhouse gas emissions from the power sector by 2035 and the entire economy by 2050. As the Biden-Harris administration begins it's transition, climate change is listed as a core priority that will be addressed on day one.

  • Jason Bordoff:

    It's a reflection of how dramatically the landscape has shifted, how much time we've wasted through inaction, and how much the sense of urgency has increased.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Jason Bordoff is the Founding Director of the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University. He also served in the Obama administration as an advisor on energy and climate change.

  • Jason Bordoff:

    The Obama administration came in also in a similar situation with an economy that was reeling and focused on investments in economic recovery and stimulus and a major focus on clean energy.

    I suspect this time will be even larger. The cost of borrowing the U.S. government is incredibly low and we have a lot of unemployment and people looking for work in this country. So now is the time to make investments today that pay dividends in the long term.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Bordoff says a stimulus to help the economy recover from COVID-19 could include massive investments for research into clean energy innovations, as well as green infrastructure like electric vehicle charging networks and transmission upgrades to deploy more renewable energy.

    But action on a stimulus, and much of Biden's climate change agenda, is dependent on working with Congress, the partisan make-up of which won't be determined until January's two Senate runoff elections in Georgia. The incoming Biden-Harris administration may very well have to contend with a Republican-controlled Senate.

  • Jason Bordoff:

    A Biden-Harris administration, even with a Republican Senate, still has existing regulatory authority to use through the Environmental Protection Agency, the Clean Air Act to regulate emissions from power plants and cars and trucks. There's still a great deal of executive branch authority that comes in the conduct of foreign policy.

  • Christopher Booker:

    That includes rejoining the Paris Agreement, the 2015 global pact to limit global temperature rise to less than 2 degrees Celsius.

    In 2017, President Trump withdrew the United States, a process that formally finished last week. President-elect Biden says he will rejoin the pact on day one of his administration.

  • Nat Keohane:

    Rejoining the agreement is, that's just table stakes, right? It's actually quite easy to do mechanically. The big thing is, in order to be a party to the Paris Agreement, countries have to have a target in place.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Nat Keohane is Senior Vice President for climate at the Environmental Defence Fund and also, is an Obama administration alum.

  • Nat Keohane:

    That target has to put us on a path to 100 percent clean economy, net-zero emissions by 2050 at the latest, that's the overall target. And that means by 2030, we need to be 45 to 50 percent below 2005 levels of pollution across the economy. So that's a big lift. To be credible, The Biden administration needs to show it is working on all fronts, including with Congress, to get the policy changes that we need.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Both Keohane and Bordoff say given the political headwinds, the incoming Biden administration will need to think strategically about how to incorporate climate into all aspects of the executive branch.

    Both were on the Steering Committee of the Climate 21 Project, a blueprint released this week laying out actionable advice for a government-wide climate response coordinated by the White House.

  • Jason Bordoff:

    The Climate 21 plan was really thinking deeply about how to move quickly and elevate climate change within the priority and staffing structure of the federal agencies, but not only the ones you would expect, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Energy, but really to say this requires a whole of government approach.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Nat Keohane helped draft the section on the State Department and argues climate is a topic where the US can reassert its leadership after four years of the Trump administration pulling away from multilateral diplomacy.

  • Nat Keohane:

    I think there's an opportunity for the State Department to really mobilize the entire machinery of US foreign policy.

    Every multilateral forum that we engage in, the G7, the G20, APEC, all of those forums, climate should be on the agenda. It is a central issue for our allies. it's a top issue for them, it needs to be a top issue for the United States. And I think when we do that, we'll find that is the best way to reestablish American leadership and standing in the world.

  • Christopher Booker:

    Biden's climate diplomacy has already started. He discussed tackling climate change with every world leader he's spoken to this week, according to read-outs of the calls from the Biden-Harris transition.

    While greenhouse gas emissions, particularly in the energy sector, have fallen in the United States since 2005, the reduction is not enough to hit the benchmarks established by the Paris Agreement.

    After four years of climate inaction from President Trump, both Jason Bordoff and Nat Keohane argue that the incoming Biden Administration can't reach these targets on its own.

    It seems really difficult to see the Biden Harris administration reaching these markers if the government is split.

  • Jason Bordoff:

    I don't want to be Pollyannaish about it. It would most likely, it would surely be easier to move with aggressive legislative action if you had Democrats in control of the Senate and the House. We don't exactly know how Leader McConnell will approach cooperation with the Biden administration, but his approach to the Obama administration is not encouraging.

    I think there are areas where Democrats and Republicans can work together on things like energy, innovation, and technology. Those are not sufficient to be clear. I mean, we need comprehensive economy-wide climate legislation to be durable, and that's going to be harder to achieve.

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